Christmas Day, St Mary the Virgin, Fordingbridge, 2017.

A ‘Thought for the Day’ by Craig Philbrick, Ordinand.

Good morning.  My name is Craig and I’m a 2nd year trainee vicar at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

Now.  Has anyone opened a present this morning?

I haven’t but I’m hoping you can help me unwrap my presents.

(Unwrap present 1)

That’s just what I was hoping for.  I really wanted a box of chocolates and I was really hoping someone would get it for me.

In our readings today both Hebrews and John announce good news of great joy that will be for all people.

I also think that they are telling us three things about this new-born baby.

  1. Firstly, in a similar way that I had been longing for some chocolate, they had been hoping for a saviour.

Do you know that when the angel told the shepherds that this new baby was the Christ, the messiah – this was what everyone had been hoping for?

For God’s people they had been waiting for a time when God would send his special king, his messiah who would come and bring God’s true kingdom.

When the angels said: he is the messiah – all the years of longing and waiting were centred on that baby.

Isn’t it great when on Christmas day we open that present that is exactly what we’ve been waiting and hoping for.  Jesus is just like that.

  1. Secondly, the angels told the shepherds that the baby was more than they were expecting.

Now let’s open up my second present.

(Unwrap present 2)

It’s a card, it’s just a card but it is from my auntie Monica and I haven’t seen her in ages.

She must know me so well – I love receiving cards with cute bears on them and soppy poems!

But there’s something else in the envelope – a £20 note. I wasn’t expecting that – as I said I haven’t spoken to Auntie Monica for ages.  That’s so much more than I thought I’d get!

When the angels told the shepherds that Jesus was the Lord – the shepherds realised this was much bigger news than they expected.

Whilst everyone was longing for the special king, the messiah, they hadn’t realised he was going to be God’s son.

But by proclaiming him as Lord, the angels proclaimed that Jesus was God, the master of all, Yahweh, the Lord God.

Jesus isn’t just a special king but he’s God.

Isn’t it great when on Christmas day you open a present, it’s a surprise and it’s much more than we thought it might be.  Jesus is just like that.

  1. The third thing the angel told the shepherds was that the baby was just what they needed.

Let’s open my third present, it looks exciting, I must have saved the best until last.

(Unwrap present 3)

Oh….it’s some socks.

That might seem lame but that is exactly what I need.

I’m always getting holes in my socks and I’ve been left with a load of single socks that make up odd pairs.

When the angels told the shepherds that Jesus was the saviour the shepherds realised that Jesus was exactly what everyone needed.

Lots of people thought that they needed someone to save them so they could be friends with God again.

We couldn’t save ourselves.  God’s people knew that they had gone their own way, they had rebelled against God and done things wrong but they knew they couldn’t save themselves.

They needed a saviour who could make them right with God again and Jesus is that saviour.

Does anyone know what the name ‘Jesus’ means?

Yes, when the angel spoke to Joseph they said you are to call him Jesus, which means the Lord saves, because he will save his people from their sins.

And the saviour that the angel announced to the shepherds is for each of us as well.  It’s exactly what we need to be made right with God.

This is good news of great joy that will be for all people.

It’s great when we get those presents that are just what we need and Jesus is exactly that.

So why you and why now?  We’re going to get some great presents today I’m sure.

But God has already given us the best present we could ever get because he gave us his Son, the baby Jesus who grew up to be

–    the one we were hoping for – the messiah and God’s special king.

–    the one better than we expected – the Lord, this baby is God.

–    the one who’s exactly what we need – the saviour, who would save us from our ourselves so that we could be friends with God.

So on this Christmas morning, may you be transformed by the truth that God sees you.  May you know that you are seen.

Our readings today remind us that the business of God is about turning our brokenness back into beauty — into peace and into joy.  He’s done it for me and he will do it for you too.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

AMEN.

THE SHEPHERDS AND THE ANGELS – Christmas Midnight Service

A Sermon preached on Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2017, at the Church of the Holy Ascension at Hyde, by Canon Gary Philbrick, Rector.

I don’t know how it is for you, but for me the run-up to Christmas can be quite challenging.

There is always a lot to do – wrapping presents, sending out cards, getting to see family and friends to deliver things, making sure there is enough food and drink in for all the guests who might turn up; and for clergy there are Services and Sermons to prepare, and lots of things to arrange.  In the past week I’ve been to around 15 Carol Services or Carol Singings, all of which have been delightful, and really worthwhile, and I wouldn’t have missed any of them.  But they do mean that the week has been fairly full.

And then, this afternoon, two Christingle Services, in Fordingbridge and Sandleheath, hundreds of children and adults, hundreds of lighted candles, and a great deal of excitement all around.

But now, leaving all of the busyness of Christmas behind, we’ve come to this quiet corner of the Forest, to this lovely Church which has stood here for over 150 years, to hear again the Christmas Story, to sing carols, to pray in whatever way we can or want to, and to open ourselves to the deeper meanings of Christmas, behind all of the tinsel, turkey, presents, and trimmings – important as they are to our celebrations, and all of which I love.

It could be in just such a quiet country spot as this, somewhere of which it would be difficult to say that it was the centre of the universe, that the shepherds, as we’ve just heard from Luke’s Gospel, were ‘Living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night’ [Lk 1:8].

Who were they, these shepherds, living in the fields?  Ordinary working men – and they probably were all men.  Simple but skilled village folk, brave enough to face the cold nights and the dangers of wild animals, to stay with the flocks wherever they roamed, and to protect them from all that might harm them.  Sometimes they would be the owner of the sheep; sometimes they would be hired hands.  As Jesus pointed out [Jn 10:11-13], sometimes they were good shepherds, and sometimes they didn’t care all that much about the flocks in their charge.

In contrast to Jesus’ generally favourable opinion of shepherds, though, by the

First Century [AD], it seems, shepherds – specifically, hireling shepherds – had a rather unsavory reputation… Rabbinic sources [suggest] that ‘most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their [flocks] onto other people’s land and pilfered the produce of the land’.  Because they were often months at a time without supervision, they were often accused of stealing some of the increase of the flock.  Consequently, the pious were warned not to buy wool, milk, or kids from shepherds on the assumption that it was stolen property.  Shepherds were not allowed to fulfil a judicial office or be admitted in court as witnesses… Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher of Alexandria [25 BC – 45 AD], [living about this time], wrote about looking after sheep and goats, ‘Such pursuits are held mean and inglorious’

[http://www.jesuswalk.com/lessons/2_8-20.htm].

These then, these ordinary working people, of a generally unfavourable reputation, these chaps minding the flocks and minding their own business in the fields outside Bethlehem, in quiet countryside such as we have here in Hyde – these were the ones who were suddenly confronted by ‘an angel of the Lord [who] stood before them, and the glory of the Lord [which] shone around them’.  And no wonder ‘They were terrified’ [Lk 1:9].  And no wonder the angel’s first words were ‘Do not be afraid’ [Lk 1:10].

In the midst of their ordinary working lives, their routine daily existence, God’s ‘good news of great joy’ [Lk 1:10] suddenly came upon them, they heard the angels’ words, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ [Lk 1:14], and they rushed up to Bethlehem to worship the child who had been born that night.

If it can happen to them, it can happen to us, as we gather here this evening, and open ourselves again to the message of the angels, about which we’ve already sung twice, and will sing about three times more in this Service: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ [Lk 1:14].

An anonymous poet imagines the shepherds telling their story to Mary, when they arrive in the stable – ‘Mary’ here described as ‘Lady’, as in ‘Ladybird’ or ‘Lady Chapel’

We stood on the hills, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Watching the frosted meadows
That winter had won.

The evening was calm, Lady,
The air so still,
Silence more lovely than music
Folded the hill.

There was a star, Lady,
Shone in the night,
Larger than Venus it was
And bright, so bright.

Oh, a voice from the sky, Lady,
It seemed to us then
Telling of God being born
In the world of men.

And so we have come, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Our love, our hopes, ourselves,
We give to your son.

We, the ordinary people of this place, have come to listen for the message of the angels, to be assured again of God’s plan for each of us and for the whole world which he loves, and to have the opportunity to reflect on our lives in the light of the Christmas Message.

I came across this poem recently, written by Esther Curtis in 2010 – Esther, I’ve recently discovered, lives locally, and has links with Hyde Church.  It sums up for me the continuing significance of the Christmas narrative for our day-to-day lives.

THE FIRST CHRISTMAS

We try to imagine the first Christmas Day –

The Shepherds, the Angels, the Babe in the hay,

Young Mary and Joseph, the beautiful star,

The Wise Men who journeyed, from country afar;

The Innkeeper surly, his wife who was kind,

No room at the inn, and no shelter to find,

The oxen, the donkey, the stable, the snow –

For this is the picture of Christmas we know.

 

A story so simple, we read in God’s Word –

By ordinary people the message was heard;

God chose a young maiden as part of his plan –

Salvation was promised before time began.

The Shepherds saw Angels, a star led Wise Men,

A few people worshipped – there in Bethlehem.

Emmanuel came just as God had arranged,

For this was the night on which everything changed.

 

Yes, everything changed with the birth of this boy –

To a world of great darkness he brought light and joy;

For God intervened in earth’s history –

Jesus was born, to set us all free.

So look past the parties, the lights and the fun,

Say ‘Thank You’ to God for the gift of his Son,

Who came here among us, and for our sins died,

That life everlasting, he might provide.

Esther Curtis, December 2010

 

A Sermon preached on Sunday 24/Monday 25th December 2017, Fordingbridge & Hale – Christmas Day! The Reverend Rachel Noël

Christmas Midnight FB, Hale Xmas morning 2017

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our rock and our redeemer.”

Amen

The Nativity – Gari Melcher

Christmas day… Christmas day… what is there left to say today… many of you will have been to various carol services or nativities in recent weeks, perhaps the Christingle service earlier. As we prepare for today… we have read and sung about the very special birth of a very special child 2000 years ago.

Christmas day… Christmas day… So many hopes, so many expectations… I don’t know about you, but for me, for a long time, I have found Christmas day a really difficult day…

We got married young, and expected that a family might follow… each year went by, and there was no child… at christmas time we began to feel more and more outside what was going on… the John Lewis ads, the Oxo ads… sell us this image of the perfect christmas… that version of ‘real love’… that’s very cosy & beautiful, very acquisitive, … that’s all about spending christmas with your children, eating huge amounts of food and large, generous presents…

where did that leave us, without children,

or what if you were single, or gay, if you were on your own at christmas, or if you’d lost a loved one, or if your family were spread across the globe, if you weren’t able to afford to buy into this picture…

It’s easy for us to desire this image of a perfect christmas, it’s very comforting, and can be aspirational…

and sometimes in church, it is easy for us to collude with this too… our images of the nativity can be equally cosy – the mum, the dad, the baby… the immaculate shepherds & kings… the clean, fluffy sheep. Our services and celebrations can easily focus on children & families, reinforcing this ‘ideal’… can we end up promoting a Mariah Carey christmas, of saccharine & sweet comfort?

14 years ago, I was forced to confront this… after many years, I was pregnant, and so excited… but 14 years ago, we had a miscarriage on christmas day…  on a day when all are focused on the birth of a child, we were mourning the loss of our child… the unfulfilled hope and dreams that we had.

Part of me wanted to turn away from the christmas story, to reject it… I was so angry… how could this happen on christmas day.. of all days… I felt even more on the outside…

and yet, the more I read the christmas accounts in the gospels, I began to realise how radical, subversive and utterly generous are their accounts of the good news of the incarnation.

 

The picture I have given you on the front of your order of service is ‘The Nativity’ by American artist Gari Melchers.

I’ve chosen this picture, showing an exhausted Mary, having given birth to Jesus. Laying on the floor, resting, leaning against a weary Joseph. Crouched over, in this borrowed space. The pair are looking at their son, this child, wrapped in borrowed cloths in a manger.

This echoes the reading that I’ve given you, to take home and reflect on – the Mary of your Christmas cards… are we willing to see the real Mary in the stories… or do we want to turn her into a perfect, saintly, virginal Mary, with the perfect child who doesn’t cry.

The nativity story, that seems so safe, in the beautiful christmas card images we all have hanging at home… is a powerful, uncomfortable story.

It’s a story of light coming into the darkness.

Jesus was born, a real human baby, to real human parents, that loved him and cared for him in difficult situations – and although we like to portray an idyllic stable… it’s perhaps more like the picture on the front, an abandoned space. Making use of a corner somewhere, on the hard floor… to give birth to this child.

There is a massive contrast between the greatness of Jesus, as we understand it now… and the wretched circumstances of his birth.

The more you read the Christmas accounts, the more you realise that it is a story of outsiders…

Mary, unmarried Mary… having a child… would she be suspected of adultery?

Joseph… would they think his wife was tainted?… did he really want to go through with this?

If Mary & Joseph knocked on your door, would you welcome them in? would I let them in?

And then the visitors at the stable… the shepherds… Luke tells us they lived in the fields… I know we like to picture them with their nice, clean, white cloths on their heads… but there’s every chance that they were smelly & dirty… they’d been sleeping rough, in the fields… these were the first visitors on that first christmas… is that who you would want to celebrate the birth of your child with? … is that who you would like to have in your home for christmas?

And then, as we’ll get to at epiphany… we have the magi… would we have let in these strangers from the east? illegal immigrants? foreigners? they’d been following the stars? speaking a different language? are these the visitors you would choose at christmas?

 

So if you’ve bought into the perfect christmas picture, and are feeling slightly dissatisfied… or disappointed… or concerned that this year, it might not be the ‘perfect christmas’… think back to those outsiders at that first christmas…

And then remember the people you will see this christmas…

Will you welcome the people you encounter this christmas season? Will you extend your love to them?

How about that smelly relative that you’d quite like to park in the corner (or give a good bath)…  you don’t really want them there… but somehow it was ‘your turn’ this year…

may they remind you of the shepherds …. smelly & rough in the stable

and that relative that witters on, and you’re not quite sure what they’re talking about… or that one that gives you a really strange present that you’re not quite sure what to do with….

may they remind you of the magi, from foreign lands… and bearing strange gifts

 

you see, there is no such thing as a perfect christmas… the Jesus we worship here tonight wasn’t born into a conventional, cosy family.

Jesus was born into mess. He was born into confusion, and uncomfortable surroundings.

If we want to begin to understand something of the truth of Emmanuel; God with us, then we need to get out of our Christmas comfort zone.

 

God’s gift to the world of Jesus…. of God in human form, is the most incredible gift to the world, showing us that we too can discover God within us too.

Somehow, over the centuries, we’ve turned this radical gift into a moralistic religion… we’ve started to judge each other and ourselves… we want to fit in, we want to be OK… we think that somehow if we’re good enough, God will love us… that somehow we can earn that worthiness…

We lie to ourselves… we try and live up to our own image of ourselves… we try and be the person that we’d like to be….

(I know it’s not just me… )

But just as there’s no perfect christmas… none of us ever live up to our own perfect ideals for ourselves… we all fall short, we all mess up… we’ve all got bits of ourselves that we’d rather no-one else saw…

and our families don’t live up to our ideals for them either… there is no such thing as a perfect husband or wife, there’s no perfect child or perfect parent either…

 

And when we hear Jesus teaching, that all we need to do is to love God, to love our neighbour, and to love ourselves… if we’re really honest with ourselves – often the hardest thing of all is to actually love ourselves as we are, right now.

How many of us live in the past… we’re angry, we’re upset,…. if only this thing hadn’t happened to me… then I’d be OK…. if only so & so hadn’t said or done x, y, z…. then I’d be OK… if only… if only…

Or perhaps you live in the future… I’ll be OK… once I’ve got a bit more money,… or once I’ve won the lottery… or once we’ve had a perfect Christmas dinner with everyone… or once this health problem has gone away… then I’ll be OK… next year… it will all be OK… if only… if only…

But Jesus didn’t come for who you might be if only…

The only place we can encounter God is always now… it’s always here and now within our life experience as it really is. Paula D’arcy says – “God comes to you disguised as your life.”

Frederick Buechner says – “Listen to your life.”

The angels message is for us too… Do not be afraid… Fear not… Do not be afraid, for I am with you.

This baby was born, to show us that God loves us right now, as we are… we have nothing to fear. God loves you, right now, exactly as you are. Whoever you are, whatever has happened in the past… whatever you’ve done…

This baby, born in the messy stable… came to share with us God’s love for who we actually are.

Are we willing to live in this moment now… and to accept the reality of who we are… to open ourselves up, to love ourselves as we really are… not just who we’d like to be… if only… can we accept that God really does love us as we are…?

 

In those moments when we can let go of that control… when we can surrender, and be just as we are, right now… it’s in those moments that we can encounter glimpses of God too…

When we allow that perfect, idealised version of ourselves to be broken… when we let ourselves live with our own cracks… that’s where the light gets in… the humanity!

On the back of your order of service you’ve got a picture of a pottery bowl… a bowl that has been broken and then been repaired with gold, in the Japanese tradition. Their understanding is that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

I think that is a good metaphor for our faith too… when we let go of who we think we might be… when we live with who we actually are… when we accept our own brokenness… and start to actually love ourselves… to let God in, and let that love happen… it’s a beautiful thing.

Many of you will know Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem.

“Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”

(Hale Only:

Today, we’ve blessed our new altar frontal here… and we’ve remembered the story… the design from 8 years ago… the aspirations of how it might be… the time living with the unfinishedness… the courage to look at the pieces, to let them be broken and re-formed… and the beautiful finished piece that we have here today… the wholeness that has come through the brokenness… just like the japanese pottery, repaired with gold…

Are we willing to let our lives be transformed too?)

 

As we gather round the table for communion shortly… it’s this same paradox of brokenness and wholeness.

This baby Jesus, born in a mess… grew up, lived and died to share that love with us. Through his own brokenness on the cross, he showed us that we could be whole.

As we receive the bread and the wine, we face our own reality… these gifts shared freely with us, with the broken, real people that we actually are…

This love of God accepts us as we are right now, here tonight…

But just like the broken bowl… God doesn’t leave us where we are now… the gift to us, through the baby Jesus… is the call to keep choosing life… the broken bowl is transformed with gold… and we too are continually called to transformation… God meets us where we are, he loves us as we are… and he calls us to love ourselves, and be transformed through this universal gift of love. That love transforms the broken bits of our life, the bits we wish were different, the bits we’d like to hide… God’s love weaves them together with golden light… to encounter the beauty within the brokenness.

So tonight, I invite you to encounter Jesus… to encounter your true selves… to encounter this love… through the mystery, the paradox, the wonder… of God with us… shared through bread and wine.

 

I pray that this year you will have a beautiful, messy, broken, wholly imperfect, wonderful Christmas.

Amen

 

A Sermon preached on Sunday 26th November, 2017 , the Feast of Christ the King at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge by the Reverend Dr John Towler.

I found this is piece of news in the Observer Newspaper last week:

“It was in May 2015 that Ladislav Lamza, a Croatian Social Worker replaced the sign outside a Mental Health Asylum, replacing ‘Home for the Insane’ with ‘Centre for People like us’. She says, ‘We express many things in that small sentence because what we have done for two centuries is the opposite. We’ve said ‘You are not like us, you are ugly and madman I’m not like you’.”

This morning I want to look at Mathew’s cartoon in a somewhat opposite way by suggesting that we are all hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and in prison; the church and the world all belong to ‘A Centre for People like us’. Might these be instructive for us if we self examine ourselves and ask to what extent am I hungry, am I thirsty, am I a stranger, am I naked, am I sick and I am I imprisoned in some way? I am suggesting that these might represent spiritual states which tell us something of how we live out our lives in the light of the gospel.

What I do not want to do is to suggest that these are purely spiritual states because we are a unity of body, mind and spirit-so the whole of us is affected in some way.

Hunger and thirst are intrinsic to our human desire and need for food and drink: it is at the very root of our being. It is the same spiritually. A writer Dave Butts eloquently makes the point that when we lose our appetite for seeking God we often turn to junk-food which can dull the appetite even further. Last week we were thinking about the parable of the talents and how important it is that consider the way in which we make money is as important as maximising the resources we have been given. Likewise, looking for happiness and fulfilment is thwarted through a quest for power, money or escape to all sorts of pleasures.

As a church we can allow our appetite for God to be dulled by junk-food and snacks: a pursuit of endless activities, and projects-we can be busy, get tired and exhausted but forget that our search for God is the end and the beginning of our earthly pilgrimage. The scriptures are full of allusions to our hunger and thirst for God:

  • “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).
  • “. . . whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
  • “Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
  •  “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).

I am also reminded of the famous Heineken Beer Advert: ‘Refreshes the parts that others beers do not’

How hungry and thirsty are you for God or have you lost your appetite? Who do you allow to nourish you? Do you allow anyone to nourish you or are you like many of us stubbornly independent? What kind of food and drink nourishes you?

I was privileged this week with some friends to be part of an evening at Sarum College. It was called ‘Waiting’. The evening provided a diet of wonderful imaginative poetry read by the theologian and poet, Malcolm Guite and by an imaginative exploration of the biblical characters by Paula Gooder. We drank wine, laughed and were deeply moved by what? Was it God in disguise who warmed our hearts and touched our souls? Was it the wine? Was it the company of people gathered in that place? My imagining it was all of those things which evoked from me a response of ‘yes’, God is in this place. It provided a space in which I could re-connect with God through and with others.

I am sure you will have had similar experiences. As the season of Advent begins next Sunday how might you seek ways of satiating your hunger and thirst for God? What is required of us is that we remain open to the possibilities of receiving God’s grace in our lives in so many ways: people, the Scriptures, meditation and prayer, listening, waiting and not rushing about unnecessarily, filling every moment but leaving spaces for God to meet and connect with you.

May be the feelings of being a stranger or we say estranged in our relationships can alert us to a disconnection with God. Maybe we feel exposed, naked, vulnerable , or ashamed which can alert us to a need to reach out for a connection, to acknowledge our need of another particularly when we have to make challenging decisions, or when we feel lonely, when we feel sad or disorientated. We may feel at times depressed, out of sorts, at variance with the world and in need of care but are too proud to ask for help. We may carry feelings of feeling imprisoned by illness, an addiction, questions relating to our sexual orientation or gender or our care of others in that regard. What are we enslaved by? Does our religion get in the way sometimes, by making too many demands, too much of our time? Dare we meet Christ us? For:

“As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me.”

Above all, this Advent, allow yourself to feel deeply whatever it is-emptiness, frustration, exposed, imprisoned, hungry and thirsty or indeed joyful and peaceful. We have received the promise that light emerges out of the darkness. That is the message of Christmas.

Today is the feast of Christ the King. We are reminded on such a day of how God calls each one of us to be participators of a kingdom of compassion, vulnerability, forgiveness and justice. The journey will be rocky, uncertain at times, empty. I am reminded that Mother Theresa of Calcutta lived in a kind of spiritual vacuum in her last days when she her sense of God’s presence eluded her.

‘Be still and know that I am God’ is a useful mantra to use in those spaces in which we cease our business and intentionally reflect upon the meaning of our lives and where God fits into this.

I finish with a profound and beautiful piece of writing by a Rumanian, Petru Dumitriu, in a book entitled “Incognito”. Having experienced the brutality and cruelty of war and Communist concentration camps he arrives at an understanding of what has been happening to him on his journey which leads him to an understanding of the nature of God and the meaning of the universe. He writes:

“That was it: the sense and meaning of the universe was love; that was where all the turns of my life had been leading me. Why had I expected the world to justify itself to me and prove its meaning? It was for me to justify the world by loving it and forgiving it, to discover its meaning through love, to reveal it through forgiveness.”

Being part of ‘A Centre for People like us’, is a sobering reflection for Advent. We all belong to God. May your journey be enriched this Advent by your relationship with the mystery of the living and loving God.

We have become satisfied with mere church, mere religious exertion, mere numbers and buildings—the things we can do. There is nothing wrong with these things, but they are no more than foam left by the surf on the ocean of God’s glory and goodness.” [Ben Patterson, Deepening Your Conversation With God, 171.]

TESTIFY TO THE LIGHT

A sermon for Advent 3, preached at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge, 17/XII/17, by Canon Gary Philbrick.

Is 61:1-4,8-11, Jn 1:6-8,19-28

Advent is the season of imperatives!  Watch!  Pray!  Rejoice!  Come, Lord Jesus!  Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding!  Be alert!  Be on your guard!  Wake up, the time is near!  And so on.

It’s a season of weighty themes – the Four Last Things – Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgement.  In the Reading from Isaiah we heard the announcement of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom on earth, as the Good News is preached, the blind see, the deaf hear and the lame walk – words which Jesus used of himself when preaching in the Synagogue in Caperneum at the start of his public ministry [Is 61:1 & Lk 4:18-19].  And from the beginning of John’s Gospel we heard of John’s preaching in the wilderness, and of his testifying to the light which is coming into the world [Jn 1:6-8].

Advent is a season of imperatives, of weighty themes, and a time for action and reflection.  It’s a time of expectancy and hope – that God will in Christ return to save his people, and that somehow, the Kingdom of God is breaking into this world even now – combining thoughts of Jesus’ first coming, being born in the stable at Bethlehem, with thoughts of his second coming in glory at the end of all time.

It’s an exciting and expectant time, a time for thought, reflection and action.

And this morning, in the midst of what is for lots of people a rather hectic time, I thought we’d spend a few moments at the reflective end of the spectrum.  For many people there is no shortage of action at this time of the year – too much to do, in fact.  But we find it more difficult to find time for reflection and prayer.

First, a short poem by James Hart, simply called ‘John The Baptist’, in the form of a ‘Wanted’ poster, reflecting on John’s character and calling.  What must he have been like when he appeared in the wilderness?

Wanted: John the Baptist

Clothing: Camel’s hair and leather Girdle
Food: Locusts and Wild Honey
Home: In the wilderness
Family: Connections with Jesus
Job: Greatest of prophets
Message: Repent and believe

If found: Follow or decapitate; Take your pick…

[https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/john-the-baptist-3/]

It is in John’s Gospel that we are told that John ‘Came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him’ [Jn 1:7].

He came to ‘testify to the light’.  You should have had a copy of an image by Jan Richardson called, ‘Testify to the light’, which you might like to look at now.

Image: Testify to the Light  © Jan Richardson

Jan is an American painter and writer, who collaborated very closely with her husband, the singer/songwriter, Garrison Doles, known as Gary, until his early death in 2013.

Alongside the image, she writes:

In Belfast there is a woman who lights candles for Gary and me.  She has a gift for finding thin places: an eleventh-century stone sanctuary; a whitewashed church in the mountains of Wales; a chapel crypt on the Yorkshire moors that holds the bones of Saint Cedd.  In those places, on an altar or in the chink of a wall, Jenny lights a candle, and she prays—not merely in memory of what was, but in hope and in blessing for love that endures and life that persists on both sides of the veil.

Here on my brokenhearted side of the veil, the light comes as solace and unexpected grace.  In this dark time, when there is no one who can walk this road for me or lessen what has been lost with Gary’s death, the light comes as a vivid reminder that we have, at the least, the power to help illuminate the path for each other.

It matters that we hold the light for one another.  It matters that we bear witness to the Light that holds us all, that we testify to this Light that shines its infinite love and mercy on us across oceans, across borders, across time.

Who holds the light for you?  In this season, who might need you to hold the light for them in acts of love and grace?

And she follows those words with this poem, which I heard this week, and which led me to her image and her story:

Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light

Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
who testify
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
in shadow
and grief.

Blessed are you
in whom
the light lives,
in whom
the brightness blazes—
your heart
a chapel,
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith
in stubborn hope
in love that illumines
every broken thing
it finds.

 [http://adventdoor.com/2014/12/12/advent-3-testify-to-the-light/]

Finally, a poem by Christine Sine, called:

Breathing in Advent

In this season of waiting,
breathe in life.
Life of the One
who created all things,
whose image we bear.

In this season of waiting,
breathe in love.
Love of the One
who gave a precious Son
to live as one of us.

In this season of waiting,
breathe in peace.
Peace of the One
who calmed the sea
and quiets the tumult of our souls.

In this season of waiting,
breathe in hope.
Hope that the One
for whom we wait
Is indeed making all things whole.

[www.godspacelight.com.]