Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas Day 2016

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

I was pondering the nature of God this week.
          I think it's my job, so I let my mind run with it.

And I found myself asking:
          Can God be known in the midst of human life?
          Who is this God of whom we speak?

What does it mean to confess faith in God,
          in the face of our experience of what it means to be human?

From Berlin to Aleppo,
          to the many and hidden sufferings and sorrows of our own lives;
where and who is this God of whom we speak?

The stories of Christmas Day are not always a helpful thing to us here.
          Improbable stories of divinely ordained parthenogenesis,
          inherited traditions of god-babies, wise men, and shepherds.
          Medieval mysticism and Victorian sentimentality.

And yet, maybe, somewhere in the midst of all this;
          maybe, indeed, through all this,
we catch a glimpse of something deeply profound.

Where is God? Who is God?

God is there, in the manger, blinking unseeing through baby eyes.
          A tiny, helpless, hopeless scrap of life,
                   which nonetheless speaks uniquely
                   of the commitment of God to human frailty.

Part of the problem with speaking of belief in God,
          is that there are so many definitions of God
                   that we are invited to believe in.

          God who intervenes directly in human affairs,
          God who judges the unrighteousness,
          God who punishes the wicked.

And the problem with these invitations to belief
          is that they are, for some of us at least,
                   unsustainable in the light of our knowledge of science,
                   or our experience of the depth of human suffering,
                   or our beliefs about mercy and love.

And I am, so to speak, atheist with regard to some of these Gods,
          and agnostic about others.

So where, then, might we seek a God in whom we may have faith?
          Where do we find a God who faces unflinchingly the darkness of the world;
          a God of love and mercy as well as justice?

Well, today, we are invited to seek God in the baby.

This is God whose intervention in human history
          is very far from the offering of easy solutions
                   to the petty or pressing problems of our lives.
This is God found in human form, from baby to adult;
          God immersed in humanity to transform it from the inside out,
                   not from the outside-in.

This is God vulnerable, God impoverished, God-forsaken.
          This is God in the manger.

Bad things happen to good people,
          and good things happen to bad people;
this last I know to be true because good things happen to me.

And this is where we find God.
          In the midst of life.

The miracle of Christmas is not that an absent and distant God
          miraculously intervenes in human history.

Rather, it is in an invitation to us all
          to experience the miraculous moment of recognition
                    that God is found in human form, from birth to death.

'God is here and God is now', to quote the hymn we sometimes sing.

God is love, God is life,
          God is hope, God is peace,
God is here.

Immanuel, God with us.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

A poem for 21 December

Long night ahead?
Nah, just a short day.

It's not the hours of darkness
that bother me,
but the passing of the day:

'Life's little day',
ebbing swiftly to its close.
Too soon, too soon.

The light of new life
in a baby's eyes.
Then years flicker past,
and light dims to dark.

But the baby, ah, the baby.
The eternal baby.
Every year crucified,
every year reborn.

New life in the cycle of life,
death undone
and robbed.

Longest night.
shortest day.

And from today, 
light returns.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Keeping the Rumour of God Alive

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
11 December 2016

Isaiah 2.1-5  
Matthew 5.14-16   
Today’s service is structured around a series of stories of hope,
          and our hope is that, as we draw nearer to Christmas,
                   these stories will speak to us and through us
                   of the hope that comes into the world in Jesus,
          and which shines through us to lighten the darkness
                   of a world that so often seems bleak and depressing.

When I was a child, I remember being told the little rhyme:
          ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’.

And whilst I think we all know what it’s trying to say,
          to children facing teasing and verbal bullying,
I also think it seriously underestimates the power of words.

The writer of the Psalms knows something of the capacity of words to hurt a person:
          and says in Psalm 42:10
          ‘As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me’.

And words continue to have a power to destroy and break down,
          which we experience in many ways in our own lives.
From the devastation of ‘I don’t love you anymore’,
          to the heartbreak brought by the bearer of tragic news,
words have an enduring capacity to change the world for the worse.

In one memorable scene in a Dr Who Christmas episode a few years ago,
          the Doctor is speaking to the Prime Minister,
                   played by the wonderful Penelope Wilton,
          and he tells her that he can bring her down with just six words.

She dares him to do his worst,
          so he leans in to one of her aides, and whispers in his ear:
          ‘Don't you think she looks tired?’

By the end of the episode, the previously strong Prime Minister
          is seen to be battling rumours of ill-health,
          and is facing a vote of no confidence in the House.

The similarities with some of the personal attacks launched at Hillary Clinton
          in the recent US presidential election are striking.

Words can indeed destroy worlds.
          But they can also create them.

The power of words can construct hope in the face of hopelessness,
          they can bring comfort where there is distress,
          and faith where there is doubt.

It’s one of the reasons I still stand up here on Sundays
          to present my words for the congregation…
Hoping that in some way the dreams, ideas, and faith that underlies them
          will come into being in the lives of those who hear them.

One of the former ministers of this church, Brian Haymes,
          speaks of the role of the minister
          as being that of ‘keeping the rumour of God alive’.

And I want to offer this idea to all of us this morning.
          Because maybe this is not just the mission of the minister, or the preacher.
Maybe the task before each of us
          is that of ‘keeping the rumour of God alive’.

Here, the power of words is used to keep alive the story of faith,
          to keep telling the tales of grace,
          to keep spinning narratives of hope into being.

This was certainly the understanding of Isaiah,
          in the story of a new world
          found near the beginning of the book that bears his name.

The setting of these words, spoken to the ancient Israelites,
          was one of impending disaster.
The Babylonians were soon to march into the land,
          destroy the temple, and carry the people of God into exile.

Their understanding of themselves as God’s chosen and loved people
          was about to be tested to the limits,
          as they faced war and deportation

And with them into the darkness of the decades to come,
          they took, preserved, and treasured,
the oracle of Isaiah,
          that one day, one day…, things would be different.

Isaiah’s vision offered people hope, that a time was coming
          when the law of the Lord would be pre-eminent,
                   over the laws of all other lordships.

And whilst these verses are developed,
                   within the Jewish and Christian tradition,
          to become a hope for a distant future, or an afterlife,
                   where wrongs will be righted, and sins forgiven,
in Isaiah’s own time and context
          it is likely that what he meant when he spoke of ‘the days to come’
                   was not some distant future,
          but a particular time of the year,
                   probably one of the festivals linked to harvest-time,
          when people could celebrate the annual move from a time of patient waiting
                             to a time of fruitfulness and harvest,
          before the world turned again
                   and the season moved inexorably to winter.

In Isaiah’s context,
          the security of the Temple and the Land
                   was about to be disrupted by a season of bitterness and displacement
                   at the hands of the Babylonians,
          and he offered those facing the darkness of the future
                   a vision of hope that one day, as surely as the seasons turn,
                   so their future would also turn once again to hope.

As we hear the words of Isaiah’s vision in the run-up to Christmas,
          our own annual festival of hope in the depth of cold and darkness,
                   when we remember the coming of Jesus into this world of sin,
          we can hear this story of hope
                   inviting us too to resist the stories of defeat, darkness, and despair,
          and instead to live and breathe into life
                   our own stories of hope, faith, and love.

Words, you see, don’t just describe the world,
          they have the capacity to create the world.

Have you ever noticed that in the Genesis creation story,
          God speaks the world into being.

The truth of this story is that words create worlds,
          and can do so for good or for evil.

We all love to hear stories, and we all tell stories;
          with our voices we tell them,
                   but also by our lives,
                   the things we say and the things we do.

And I wonder, this morning,
          what kind of a story are we telling with our lives?
          What kind of a story am I telling?

We hear stories in the news,
          stories of war, pessimism, hurt, pain, and despair.
And sometimes it can seem too much to bear.
          Sometimes I just have to turn it off
          because I can’t bear to hear those stories any more.

But then these stories of darkness enter into us, and shape us,
          and not always in helpful ways.
We end up repeating in our own lives the despair we have heard,
          and if we are not careful we magnify them,
          and glorify in the retelling of them.

And whilst certainly I would not want to advocate a Pollyanna approach to life,
          where we close our ears to stories of tragedy,
          and adopt a forced optimism,
neither should we aim for a Chicken Licken approach,
          forever retelling the story that the sky is falling.

Rather, Isaiah invites us to rewrite the story of our lives,
          according to God’s perspective.

Just as he encouraged the ancient Jews
          to take a realistic approach to the disaster that lay before them,
          but also to not lose their hope in the future,
so we should not seek to minimize bad news,
          but also we should learn to not let go of the story of hope
          that our faith in a God of love revealed in Christ Jesus gives us.

Despite what Peter our train-driver-deacon may like to tell us sometimes,
          the light at the end of the tunnel is not always a train coming towards you.

It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said
          that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it tends towards justice’.

And the prophet Isaiah tell us that
In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.  5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

This is our story of hope,
          and if we tell it faithfully, we create a world in which it becomes true.

So let’s commit ourselves again, today,

          to keeping the rumour of God alive.