Friday, 25 December 2015

‘God is the distilled essence of love made absolute.’

Reflection for Christmas Eve Midnight Communion Service,
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 2015.

Sometimes, and I recognise that this may be an occupational hazard,
            I find myself pondering the nature of God.

And late at night, as the world turns beneath
                        and the stars wheel above,
            the veil between my frail understanding
                        and the infinite beyond
            can sometimes begin to lift,
                        and the ineffable other can seem intangibly close.

And so we arrive at my thought for tonight,
            as the day of Christ's coming dawns imperceptibly upon us.

And my thought, this night, is this:

God is the distilled essence of love made absolute.

We use many ways to describe God,
            many ways to try and put human finite words
            around the infinite other,
with the Bible itself offering us many options,
            and Christian history, tradition, and theology
            adding further to our list…

God is father, God is mother, God is Spirit,
            God is justice, righteousness, and peace.
God is our rock and our redeemer,
            God is our ever present help in times of trouble.

God is… God is… God is…

But tonight, as we await the coming of God into the world:
            God is love.

Not love as we might ordinarily understand it,
            not love as between two people,
but the distilled essence of love;
            love that is strong enough to transcend time,
            love that is tender enough to surpass mortality.

God is love.

But this is no unearthly abstraction of love,
            this isn’t just some ethereal force of love
            that permeates the fabric of the universe
            and with which we can intertwine our lives.

This is love made flesh,
            this is love made absolute.

In the baby of Christmas morning
            we meet the God who is all love
            becoming real in human time and earthly place.

In the baby Jesus we meet the God
            who is the distilled essence of love, made absolute.

This is where the otherworldly meets the world,
            this is where blood and water and flesh
            become infinitely more than the sum of their parts.

In that one moment of the birth of the baby to Mary,
            each moment, of each human life, throughout all of human history
                        is transformed by love;
            because this birth is the absolute moment.

If it happens once, it happens eternally.
            If God is made flesh in Jesus Christ,
            then God is made flesh.

And so we gather to greet the Christ-child,
            and we gather to share bread, and wine;
                        we gather to remember broken bodies, and shed blood;
            and we gather to bring our own frail bodies
                        into the presence of the divine.

Our bodies break, they grow old, they fail us and betray us.
            And yet God becomes flesh.

In Christ, the God of love is made absolute,
            and the distilled essence of love
            takes each moment, of each frail human life,
                        from cradle to grave,
            and encompasses it in love that never fails,
                        love that never passes,
                        love that never fades.

So as we come to meet the newborn Christ,
            we bring our own frailty to the manger,
            as we bring our own bodies to the communion table.

And as we share bread and wine, we meet with Christ,

            and we are made whole in love.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

A prayer for the longest night

Loving God of the dawn and the sunset,
            we come before you this day,
            when night is longest and day is shortest,
to offer our prayers
            for those whose experience of life
            is more of darkness than it is of light.

We stand with those who live under a long shadow,
            and we join ourselves to those who struggle to see daylight.

And as we pray for others,
            we recognise that we too carry in our souls the burden of darkness.

We know that it can be true for us, as it is for others,
            that the days of brightness imperceptibly shorten
            while the nights of obscurity inexorably lengthen.

And so we pray for those who are bereaved,
            for those who have lost loved ones this year.
We feel within us the shapes of those who have gone from us,
            and we mourn their passing from our lives.

In quiet hope offered in the face of despair,
            we offer to your loving embrace all those whom we can no longer touch.
And we ask that you will give comfort
            where long nights of mourning seem never to come to an end.

Loving God of the dawn and the sunset,
            may darkness not overwhelm us.

We pray for those who are lonely
            for those who long for touch, for conversation, for friendship, for intimacy.
And we recognise in ourselves the desperate drive for companionship
            that haunts our relationships and stifles our friendships.

We ask that you will draw near to those who draw away,
            and that you will hold all who are alone in your loving embrace.

Loving God of the dawn and the sunset,
            may darkness not overwhelm us.

We pray for those who are far from home
            for those who have lost country and security
            through war, famine, or the effects of climate change.

We pray for refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants,
            and all who greet the new day
            in a country that they do not recognise as home.

May they know that you are the God of the exiles and enslaved
            and that your welcome knows no boundaries.

Loving God of the dawn and the sunset,
            may darkness not overwhelm us.

We pray for those who are lost in memories,
            for those who are trapped in the past
            and unable to engage the present.
We pray also for those whose memories have faded,
            and whose experience of dementia has diminished their capacity to live the day.

For all those who dream of the past,
            we ask for healing of past hurts.
And we offer all that we are
            to your eternal remembering.

Loving God of the dawn and the sunset,
            may darkness not overwhelm us.

We pray for all that is broken in life,
            for people, for relationships, for bodies, for objects.

And in the face of brokenness
            we pray for healing and wholeness.

May that which is broken find its completeness in you,
            as you bring all things to good
            and redeem all that is damaged.

Loving God of the dawn and the sunset,
            may darkness not overwhelm us.

And finally we pray into the darkness,
            and we offer the hope of our voices and our hearts
            that however long the night may be, there is a new day dawning.

And we know that as the days have shortened to get us to this place,
            so they will lengthen again to take us somewhere new.

Loving God of the dawn and the sunset,
            may darkness not overwhelm us.


Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Nativity According to Gabriel

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Nativity Service, 12 December 2021
Call to Worship
With Angels, and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven,
we praise and magnify your glorious name;
evermore praising you, and saying:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts,
heaven and earth are full of your glory:
Glory be to you ,O Lord most High. Amen.
          Hark! The herald-angels sing,
          'Glory to the new-born King;
          peace on earth, and mercy mild,
          God and sinners reconciled!'
          Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
          join the triumph of the skies;
          with the angelic host proclaim,
          'Christ is born in Bethlehem!'
          Hark! the herald angels sing,
          'Glory to the new-born King.'

          Christ, by highest heaven adored;
          Christ, the everlasting Lord!
          Late in time behold him come,
          offspring of a virgin's womb.
          Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
          hail th'incarnate Deity,
          pleased with us as flesh to dwell,
          Jesus, our Emmanuel.
          Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
          Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
          Light and life to all he brings,
          risen with healing in his wings.
          Mild he lays his glory by,
          born that we no more may die,
          born to raise each child of earth,
          born to give us second birth.
                Charles Wesley (1707-1788) and George Whitfield (1714-1770) #165
Opening Prayer
Loving Jesus, who comes to us each day,
            we ask that you will come to us this day
            and meet us through the story of your coming to the earth.
As we hear and experience the story of your birth to Mary and Joseph,
            we ask that you will be born in us by the power of your Holy Spirit.
As we hear and experience the story the shepherds
            we ask that you will draw us to worship you.
As we hear and experience the story of the wise men,
            we ask that you will reveal yourself to us in the daily stuff of our lives,
             through our work and study and play.
As we hear and experience the story of the angels
            we ask that you will fill us with the mystery of your presence,
            and that you will help us to learn to not be afraid.
Loving Jesus, who comes to us each day, we offer you this day. Amen.
Lord’s prayer
Loving God in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come,
your will be done on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours
Now and forever. Amen.
Welcome & Notices
Prayer to dedicate our giving to God and the church
The Nativity According to Gabriel
It was a busy year for Gabriel and the other angels.
Luke 1.26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,
 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.
 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you."
 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.
 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.
 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.
 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
 34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"
 35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.
 37 For nothing will be impossible with God."
 38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
It all started one afternoon in Nazareth,
            when Gabriel was sent to bring a message to Mary.
But how to introduce oneself, Gabriel wondered…?
            ‘Hello’ seems rather informal.
How about ‘Greetings, favoured one’?
            Nope, that just left the young woman confused, and looking terrified.
Trying again, Gabriel said ‘Do not be afraid, you have found favour with God’.
But then the kicker, as they say,
            ‘You’re going to have a child, and I’d like you to call him Jesus.
            He’s going to be great – trust me on this.’
Well, she looked a bit less scared, but no less confused.
            ‘How…???’ she stuttered.
‘Um’, Gabriel replied,
            ‘let’s just say the Holy Spirit will take care of things’.
And Mary, not having had any kind of answer, really, just said ‘yes’.
          The Angel Gabriel from heaven came,
          his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
          'All hail', said he, 'thou lowly maiden Mary,
          most highly favoured lady.' Gloria!
          'For known a blessèd mother thou shalt be,
          all generations laud and honour thee,
          thy son shall be Immanuel, by seers foretold;
          most highly favoured lady.' Gloria!
          Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,
          'To me be as it pleaseth God', she said,
          'My soul shall laud and magnify your holy name':
          most highly favoured lady. Gloria!
                Basque Carol, adapted Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) #177
Matthew 1.18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
 23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."
 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,
 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
 (Matt. 1:18-25 NRS)
Gabriel thought his job was over having got a ‘yes’ from Mary,
            but then mission number two came his way,
            and this time he had an angry and fired up man to deal with.
Joseph, Mary’s fiancé,
            apparently wasn’t taking her happy news very well at all.
He was planning to break things off.
If they’d had messaging apps in those days, he’d have done it straight away,
            but the Angel got in there first.
‘Um,’ he began, about to launch straight in
            but then he remembered the scared look on Mary’s face,
            ‘don’t be afraid!’ he said, trying to begin a bit more gently.
‘Joseph, I’d like you to take Mary as your wife,
            take on her child, and call him Jesus.
He’s going to be great – trust me on this.’
Joseph, being a man of few words who also knew what was good for him,
            woke up from his dream, took his courage in both hands,
            and did as the angel had commanded him.
          God it was who said to Joseph,
          'Down your tools and take your wife.'
          God it was who said to Mary,
          'In your womb, I'll start my life!'
          Carpenter and country maiden
          leaving town and trade and skills-
          this is how we find God's people,
          moved by what their Maker wills.
                John L Bell (born 1949) & Graham Maule (born 1958)
                Tune: Jesus calls us here to meet him #12
Luke 2.1-7
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
 3 All went to their own towns to be registered.
 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.
 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
By this point, Gabriel decided that he was due a day off,
            so he let the Holy Spirit take the lead in the next part of the story.
Joseph and Mary had to make a journey
            to the town of Bethlehem to be registered for the big census,
            and arrived there just in time for Mary to have her baby.
It all seemed like something of a mess,
            what with there being no room at the inn and ending up in a stable.
But thankfully the innkeeper had an ear open
            to the creative stirring of the clever Spirit,
and sometimes there’s more to life’s chaos than meets the eye,
            and so the Baby who’s going to be great
            was born in the same town as the great king David of old,
and the Holy Spirit went home dusting her hands
            with satisfaction at a job well done.
          O little town of Bethlehem,
          how still we see thee lie!
          Above thy deep and dreamless sleep,
          the silent stars go by:
          Yet in thy dark streets shineth
          the everlasting light;
          the hopes and fears of all the years
          are met in thee to-night.
          O morning stars, together
          proclaim the holy birth,
          and praises sing to God the King,
          and peace to all the earth.
          For Christ is born of Mary;
          and, gathered all above,
          while mortals sleep, the angels keep
          their watch of wondering love.
                Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)
Luke 2.8-19
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:
 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."
 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
 14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."
 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;
 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
And now it was the turn of the cynical shepherds,
            out in the fields looking after their sheep,
and Gabriel set off once again,
            this time to try and to convince them
that there was something special going on in a stable in town,
            and that they really shouldn’t miss it!
By now he knew how to begin,
            ‘Do not be afraid’ he said,
as they cowered in terror
            at the sight of one of God’s messengers hovering in the sky in front of them.
‘I’m serious’, said Gabriel, ‘you won’t want to miss this one
            – there’s a baby just been born, and he’s going to be great.
            You really should go and take a look’.
But the Shepherds decided they weren’t going anywhere,
            so Gabriel decided it was time for some reinforcements.
One angel might have done for a young woman, or an angry man,
            but shepherds needed overkill.
Anyway, one heavenly multitude later,
            the skies still ringing with the deafening chorus of the angelic host,
and the shepherds were off the hillside
            as fast as their legs could carry them,
            making their way to the stable, to see the little baby.
 And they all agreed the he was going to be great.
          Infant Holy, infant lowly,
          For his bed a cattle stall;
          Oxen lowing, little knowing,
          Christ the babe is Lord of all.
          Swift are winging, angels singing,
          Nowells ringing, tidings bringing.
          Christ the babe is Lord of all
          Christ the babe is Lord of all.
          Flocks were sleeping, shepherds keeping
          Vigil till the morning new,
          Saw the glory, heard the story,
          Tidings of a gospel true.
          Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow,
          Praises voicing, greet the morrow
          Christ the babe is born for you!
          Christ the babe is born for you!
                W zlobie lezy, Anonymous Polish translated by Edith M G Reed (1885-1933)
Wise Men
Matthew 2.1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,
 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."
 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;
 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
 6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."
 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Well, thought Gabriel, I’ve taken care of the Mother,
            and the Father, and the Shepherds,
            and the Holy Spirit did the whole Stable in Bethlehem thing.
What’s next on the angelic to-do list?
            Ah, yes, the wise men.
They might not listen to angels – far to mystical –
            but being wise men, I bet they’d listen to science and reason.
So Gabriel popped back to the beginning of the universe
            to have a word with the lord of the cosmos,
and between them they arranged for a conjunction of planets,
            or was it some kind of star, or maybe a comet,
            who knows how these things happen…?
Anyway, it was enough for the wise men,
            who followed their wisdom and their science
            all the way to where the baby lay.
And they said to his mother, ‘we think he’s going to be great’,
            and they gave him gifts of gold, and spices, and precious oils,
and were about to go back to visit King Herod and wreck the whole thing
            when Gabriel, panic stricken
                        that it was all going to go wrong at the last minute,
            decided that it was time for one last angelic visitation.
And the wise men who followed the signs
            were confronted with the angel after all.
‘Don’t go back to Herod’, said Gabriel,
            ‘he wants to kill the baby who’s going to be great.
            Go home by another route.’
And to Gabriel’s huge surprise, the wise men said ‘yes’,
            and everything turned out OK, at least for now.
          The first Nowell the angel did say
          Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay:
          In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
          On a cold winter's night that was so deep:
          Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
          Born is the King of Israel.
          They looked up and saw a star,
          Shining in the east, beyond them far,
          And to the earth it gave great light,
          And so it continued both day and night:
          And by the light of that same star,
          Three wise men came from country far;
          To seek for a king was their intent,
          And to follow the star wherever it went:
          Then let us all with one accord
          Sing praises to our heavenly Lord,
          That hath made heaven and earth of naught,
          And with his blood mankind hath bought:
Prayers of Intercession
          Angels, from the realms of glory,
          Wing your flight through all the earth;
          Heralds of creation's story,
          Now proclaim Messiah's birth:
                      Come and worship Christ, the new-born king;
                      come and worship, worship Christ the new-born king.
          Shepherds in the fields abiding,
          Watching by your flocks by night,
          God with us is now residing,
          Yonder shines the infant Light:
          Wise men, leave your contemplations;
          Brighter visions shine afar;
          Seek in him the hope of nations,
          You have seen his rising star
          Though an infant now we view him,
          he will share the eternal throne,
          gather all the nations to him;
          every knee shall then bow down:
          All creation, join in praising
          God: Creator, Spirit, Son,
          evermore your voices raising
          to the eternal Three in One.
                James Montgomery (1771-1854) #155
May the blessing of the Christ who comes to us,
            the Spirit who stirs and inspires us to action,
            and the God who enfolds us in love,
be with us today and always. Amen.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Bethlehem in a War Zone

Bloomsbury Carol Celebration
18 December 2015

You can watch me give part of this talk here
Sadly, the video only started recording part of the way through.

Bethlehem, famous throughout the world as Royal David's City,
            the little still town of silent stars and bleak midwinters,
or at least that's the way a thousand nativity scenes would have us picture it.

However, the reality of this border town,
            trapped in a conflict about territory
            that stretches back to long before the time of Jesus,
is very different from the Victorian fantasy
            of a  peaceful stable surrounded by lowing oxen and reverent shepherds.

One of our church members, Jean,
            who gave our Bible reading for us just now,
                        has been there recently,
            and has seen the present day reality of Bethlehem in a war zone.

The pictures showing behind me were taken by her over the last few weeks
            and speak more than words could
                        about the situation facing those
                        who live in the militarised zone around the wall.

But there is still hope in the war zone.

The Christmas tree is up in manger square,
            and both locals and visitors continue to bear witness
                        to the hope for peace and reconciliation
                        that lies at the heart of the Christmas story.

Just as Jesus brought the hope of God to Bethlehem of old,
            so there are followers of Jesus today
                        who still seek to being the hope of God
                        to a world that is often dark and bleak and cold.

And so people like Jean,
                        together with Christians from many different traditions,
            go to Bethlehem, and other occupied territories,
                        to offer an international human rights presence
                        to help people step away from violence and war,
                        and move towards peace and reconciliation and justice.

And of course it's not just in Bethlehem,
            and it's not only overseas.

Our own great city has its fair share of dark corners,
            and London too needs the 'everlasting light'
                        to shine a beacon of hope to those lost or trapped
                        in the streets and slums of our own part of the world.

And this, in a nutshell, is what this church is about.

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church is a place
            where the homeless and vulnerable find shelter,
            we are a community where the excluded find welcome,
                        and where people can experience transformation in the name of Jesus.

We believe that following the path and example of Jesus
            means that we cannot ignore the needs of our world,
                        whether they are on our doorstep,
                        or on the other side of the world.

For nearly 170 years, this building has stood as a beacon of hope,
            and those who come here, whether  as worshippers on a Sunday
                        or as volunteers with us in other ways,
            find it to be a place of transformation and hope.

I'd like to invite everyone here tonight to get to know us a bit better
            - details of how to find us online are on your order of service.

I've often said that no-one comes to Bloomsbury by accident,
            so if you're here tonight,
            maybe it could be the start of something new.

And my prayer is that this Christmas
            we all will know the peace of Christ,
            both in our own lives, and in our world.

As a symbolic act of prayer, I'm going to light this candle,
                        which Jean brought back for us
                        from The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem,
            and place it on our Peace flag.

As it burns through the rest of the service,
            I'd like to invite us all to take a moment to pray for peace.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Waiting with Mary

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
6th December 2015

Luke 1:26-38  
Luke 1:46-55  
1 Samuel 2:1-10

From religious icons to school nativity plays,
         the image of Mary is familiar to people of all generations
         throughout the world.

At the heart of many Christian beliefs
         and with a major role in Islam,
she is arguably the most famous,
         and certainly the most revered,
         woman ever to have lived.

So, who is this woman?
         Star of a million Christmas Cards…

·      Holy Mary, Mother of Jesus
·      The Madonna
·      The theotikos
·      composer of the magnificat

The number of ways you will hear Mary described is almost endless,
         and in the midst of all these notable titles
we can so easily lose the reality of the situation:

·      Mary the poverty-stricken,
·      Mary the unmarried mother
·      Mary the refugee
·      Mary the child bride

Mary was an ordinary Jewish girl
         not born into a high family
         and with no special privileges that we know of.

As far as we are aware,
         she had nothing about her
         which marked her out as different from anyone else.

In many cultures,
         the one who is to be the mother of the King
         is prepared from early childhood to take up that role.

But when God chose to send his son to earth
         to be born as a human being
he chose an ordinary, run of the mill, uneducated young girl,
         to be the mother of the saviour of the world.

Mary was quietly getting on with her life,
         fulfilling society’s expectations and requirements;
         she was engaged to Joseph
         and waiting to start her married life with him.

When all of a sudden
         it all starts to go wrong…

The way Luke tells the story, the angel Gabriel appeared to her
         telling her that God had other plans for her life.

Now, I don’t propose to get into a great discussion this morning,
         surrounding the historicity of the events in Luke’s story;
and I’m certainly not proposing to hit tomorrow’s headlines
         with bold assertions from the pulpit concerning doubts about the virgin birth.

But I will simply note in passing,
         that Luke’s story enters the Jesus tradition quite late in its development,
and that both Paul and other earlier Christian texts
         have a strong tradition of asserting Joseph’s paternity.

But for now, let’s meet Mary as Luke offers her to us,
         and what a meeting it turns out to be.

And what a calling that turned out to be!!!

One minute her life was ticking along,
         suitably subject to the social expectations and mores of her culture,
and the next minute it had been turned upside down!

The angel may have told her not to be afraid,
         but she certainly had plenty of reasons
                  to be, at the very least, seriously concerned!

Have you ever had that feeling
         when all the negative possibilities mount up
                  one on top of another
         until you convince yourself
that it is all going to go pear shaped!?

I don’t know if Mary did that kind of thing
         but if she did, she would have had plenty to worry about

First off, she was pregnant – enough of a worry in itself;
even in today’s modern medical world
                  pregnancy is far from risk-free,
                  and back then many mothers and children
                           died in childbirth.

And not only was she pregnant, but she wasn’t yet married
         … and she was going to have to explain to people
                  that her fiancé wasn’t the father…

But before that, how was she going to tell him?
         How would Joseph react?
How would her parents react?
         Who on earth is going to believe her!?!?

What if Joseph called off the wedding?
         she’d be a single mother!
a far worse social stigma back then than it is these days,
         and there were no social services to provide any income.
So, how would she feed herself and the child?

And even if Joseph could be persuaded to go ahead with the wedding
         they were going to have no money at all!

Then there was the census coming up
         when she was going to have to travel to Bethlehem,
         whilst heavily pregnant.

And then, on top of all the practical worries,
         there were the prophecies…
                  indications from the start that her son would die an early death
                  and that her own life would be tinged with sadness…

The Mary we meet in Luke’s gospel
         is a young woman who certainly has good cause
         to have a few sleepless nights
         trying to get her head round all this lot.

But we’re also told that the call of God on her life was strong;
         and that although, yes, this all has the tinge of the possibility of disaster,
         it also has the potential for so much promise of good

After all,
         she’d been visited by an angel,
                  hardly a common occurrence, even in those days;
         and the angel had told her in no uncertain terms
                  that the traumatic time ahead of her
                  was in some mysterious way part of God’s working in the world.

She had an inner conviction that her child was no ordinary baby,
         and this was something that went far beyond proud parent syndrome.
In some way, she came to believe that she was carrying a child born of God,
         one who would bring salvation to his people.

And when the doubts came, she had the physical evidence
         of her own pregnancy
to remind her that the angel’s promises hadn’t just been a dream.

And when she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth,
                  in the part of the story we skipped over this morning
         her status as one chosen by God was once again confirmed
                  as Elizabeth prophesied about Mary’s unborn child

For Mary, this teenage mother
         the call of God on her life was far from straightforward!

The signs of promise were there
         but they were coupled with the potential for disaster.

And this is so often the way when God calls us to follow him:
         It’s never as straightforward as we would like it to be.

Just because you have been miraculously called
         and chosen by God

         doesn’t mean that you won’t give birth in a stable,
                  and end up on the run from a brutal dictator;
         and it doesn’t mean
                  that you won’t live to see your child die early.

You see, there are no guarantees when we’re chosen by God
         that things will go the way we want them to.

I had someone ask me this week if I believed
         that God heals people if they have enough faith.
And whether I believed that God brought release
         to those who were tormented by evil and doubt.

And I had to answer honestly;
         yes I believe God brings healing and wholeness,
         yes I believe God brings release from sin and oppression,
but I also see good Christians get sick and die,
         and I see faithful followers of Christ become ensnared by the traps of sin.

There are no guarantees when we’re chosen by God
         that things will go the way we want them to.

However, and this is where Mary’s story speaks to us down the centuries;
         if we have been chosen by God
                  if we have been called by God to be part of his people,
then this means that we cannot help but play our part
         in God’s plan for the salvation of the world

Think about the example of Mary

         she never chose to be the mother of Jesus
         But when God called her
                  in spite of the potential problems
         she responded in faithful acceptance:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord:
let it be with me according to your word”

And so it is that God similarly calls each one of us
         in different ways to be part of his people,
         to be his children,

And this is God’s initiative
         it is not our doing!

The good news of this for us
         is that our part in God’s plan is not down to us being successful
                  it is not down to us doing well
                  and achieving things for God

We, with Mary, can only respond to God by making ourselves available,
         and trusting our lives to God’s care.

I guess what I am saying
         is that the Christian life is often a big waiting game.
Which is no bad lesson to hear in Advent.

Mary, you see, was called by God;
         she came to believe that she had been chosen
         to play her part in the salvation of the world

But then she had to wait

She had to wait for her child to be born

She had to wait for him to grow up

She had to wait while she saw him die

She had to wait while he was buried in the ground

A lifetime of waiting, before she saw the truth
         of what had been promised to her
         by an angel in her teenage years.

A lifetime of pain and uncertainty…

And so we wait…

We wait with Mary for the fulfilment of God’s call on our lives
         and sometimes we wait for months
                  sometimes we wait for years
                           sometimes we wait for a lifetime

Advent is often described as the time of waiting
         the period of preparation
         for Jesus’ coming into the world

And  in a very real sense,
         our whole lives are also a time waiting and longing

we sense that God has his hand on us

         We know that he has chosen us
         called us to be his people
         called us to have a part in his plan for the world

But then so often we have to wait

And sometimes we try and fill the waiting with our own activism

         We fill the silence of waiting
         with our own strenuous efforts

But ultimately it’s always going to be God who acts – not me, not you

Mary’s miraculous pregnancy speaks of this

It’s not what humans do,
         but what God does,
         that means Jesus comes to us.

Jesus wasn’t born out of human efforts
- he was born because God intervened into our situation

Jesus came into the world at God’s initiative.
         This is the message of the story of the virgin birth.

And yet we spend so much of our time
         trying to do things to make Jesus come

We sing our songs
         quietly / loudly / old-style / new-style / whatever!
we invite our friends along to church, or we try to…
         and we work so hard
         at this, that, and the other

All good stuff, I’m sure

But how much time do we spend waiting for God to act?

I worry sometimes that we think of Jesus as being a bit like Tinkerbell
         who, if you remember the story of Peter Pan
                  is in danger of fading away
         unless all the children clap really hard.

And sometimes I think we do the equivalent of clapping really hard
         because we think it’ll make Jesus more real to us.
So we fill our lives with spiritual activism
         worship, prayer, services, Bible-reading, social action,
         political engagement, caring for the homeless and the vulnerable,
         and so on, and so on, and so on…

As if by our actions we can make Jesus more real

And yet, what it boils down to in the end, I think,
         is how much we trust that Jesus is God become human flesh!

Do we trust that it is Jesus who saves us
         that it is him who chooses us
         that it is him who lifts us from the pit of our sinfulness?

Are we prepared to wait on the Lord,
         trusting that he is who he says he is?
         and will do what he says he will do?

Or will we spend so much time and energy
         trying to do all these things for ourselves
         through our strenuous efforts?

In our culture the emphasis is very much on us achieving things
         We are constantly told that if we work hard,
                  we will be successful.

And we come to believe that this applies
         regardless of whatever goals we set ourselves.

So, if we want lots of money
         – we are told that we won’t achieve it without hard work
If we want power and status – hard work is going to be the key

If we want a successful marriage
         we are always told that this is hard work

My cousin lived in America for a while
         and one of the phrases he learned over there
         was a habit of paying someone a compliment
         by saying that they are “a hard worker”

It’s as if our value in life comes from what we put in.

And the same lessons get transplanted into our churches.

I’m sure you have heard it said “you get out what you put in”
         in terms of how much people get out
                  of the church they belong to…
         I’ve said it myself, on many occasions.

We come to believe that if we want to have a church which is growing
         because people are coming to know Jesus Christ
then logic dictates that we have got to get out there
         and tell them about him!

We come to believe that if we want to have
         a successful and intimate relationship with God
we aren’t going to have this
         without spending time working at that relationship

And there is an element of truth in all of these things

But in the midst of all our doing,
it is easy to miss what God does

God calls us – he chooses us to be his people

He chooses us to have a part in the salvation of the world

But this is his doing
         it doesn’t stand or fall by our efforts

You see, the problem with the activist mindset
         is that if it’s down to us to do all these things
                  if the salvation of others totally depends on us
                  and our efforts to bring them into the Kingdom
then when we fail – and we do fail!, all the time!
         it becomes our fault

If everything hinges on us and what we do
         then when we do something wrong
                  we can convince ourselves that we have stuffed up
                  God’s great plan for our lives
         and we then weigh ourselves down with guilt
                  and a sense of failure
                  that we have failed God

Let me say this:
         This view of God is too small.

God chooses US – as weak, fallen, sinful people

         He calls us to have a part in his plan for salvation of the world

This is GOD we are talking about here
         he is not going to expect us to do everything
         we aren’t called to carry the burden for the entire world

         we don’t have to pray, every day, for everything and everybody
         we don’t have to take responsibility for every non-Christian.

It is God who carries the burden of the world on his shoulders,
         it is God who came to this world, who died for the salvation of the world,
         and who lives by his Spirit in the body of his people,
         drawing the world to God in love.

All of which means, we don’t have to!

And, like Mary,
         once God has called us
         we are already part of God’s plan for bringing all things to good,
         and our lives already have value, because of his choosing of us.

We don’t need to spend all our energy
         desperately trying to justify our existence
                  trying to prove our worth
                  trying to earn our place in God’s kingdom

Because we, like Mary, have been chosen by God.

So, here in the midst of Advent
         let us join with Mary, waiting for God.
And here, in the midst of Advent,
         let us join our voices with that of Mary,
who sang of a world turned upside down,
         not through her own efforts
         but by the activity of God through her.

Let us join with Mary in singing of the downfall of the haughty
                  and the rich and the powerful,
         let us sing of the raising up of the meek
                  and the poor and humble,

Mary sang the new world into being,
         offering her praise to the God who comes to us,
         rather than requiring us to come to him.

And so we wait with Mary,
         for the coming of the messiah.