ADVENT REFLECTIONS

WHY HEROD DISTURBS A MINISTER...

Herod_the_Great

"When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi." (Matthew 2:16)

 

Does the Herod episode disturb you? It disturbs me. Why was Herod disturbed with the news of the Messiah’s birth? This is the long awaited one, fulfilment of all those prophecies. 

These stargazers have arrived from the east to herald it in. Instead of celebration, Herod is spooked and Matthew says, “all of Jerusalem with him.” 

Herod gathered all the religious leaders and they opened the Scripture to find the meaning of all these nativity stories. They looked into Micah’s prophecy and there it was, 

 

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

though you are small among the clans of Judah,

out of you will come for me

    one who will be ruler over Israel,” (Matthew 2:6)

 

When the Magi don’t return, as Herod had asked them to, the dam of his anger bursts. Like some Game Of Thrones scene you can see him check the scroll again, then swipe the table clean, cups and bowls smashing and splintering and the sacred papyrus rip, like the veil in the temple later would. 

Herod summoned his troops who thunder out of Jerusalem to go and kill all the babies under two in the Bethlehem area. 

It is a challenge for those of us who have the truth, who look it up, lick our fingers and turn the pages of the Holy Word. 

Herod’s problem was not that he didn’t have the truth. Herod had too much truth. He knew that this baby was going to change everything. It was going to demand changes personally, materially and politically and he wasn’t up for the truth to have its way.

And what of us? Are there places in our lives where we have the truth but refuse to welcome it into our lives. No, we don’t kill Jesus but do we kill his revolution? John Stott said that the greatest evangelical heresy of the Twentieth Century was our lack of social justice. 

I remember it being labelled a “social gospel” like it was the heresy. Was that a misunderstanding of the Scriptures or just that the cost of getting involved in God’s Kingdom coming and his will being done on earth would impinge too much on our comfortable lives?


DO NOT BE AFRAID

Do not be afraid

There is a lot of fear around in these Coronavirus times. Fear was no stranger in the nativity scenes. It is all around. Christmas understands fear.

 

“Do not be afraid Zechariah…” (Luke 1:13)

“Do not be afraid Mary…” (Luke 1:30)

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10)

 

Do not be afraid

Even when you are struck dumb by God

Even when an angel sits down beside you

Even when you are told you will have a child without ever being with a man

Even when the pitch black night is ripped to shreds by blinding light

Do not be afraid

 

Do not be afraid

When you pass through the waters

When you walk through the fire

Though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,

Though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

Do not be afraid

 

Do not be afraid

When God throws you into the deep end

When God takes you places you have never been before

When God asks you to do what seems impossible

Do not be afraid

 

Do not be afraid

Because you have found favour with God

Because you are precious and honoured in His sight

Because God is our refuge and strength

Because God will always be with you

Do not be afraid.

 

There are a lot of reasons to be afraid if you find yourself in the birth stories of Jesus. Zechariah, Mary and the shepherds. I mean I always imagine that for Zechariah and Mary it was as quiet a visitation of an angel as is possible. Frightened but altogether private at least. 

That hillside on there other hand. I have always wondered how absolutely terrified the shepherds must have been on a quiet dark evening when the sky was lit up with an angel choir! “Do not be afraid” - yeh sure thing! Note sure it would have settled my quaking! Such moments were often read, in those days, as apocalyptic; judgement has arrived. You can understand them needing the angel’s reassurance!

Apparently, “do not be afraid”, is the most often used command in the Scriptures. Every time I ponder these four words, I wonder if I should hear them more often. Is my life too safe and comfortable?

The opening chapters of Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels seem to suggest that connecting with God and getting involved in his story of redemption should crack open our comfort zones and throw us off kilter into new kingdom bringing adventures.  

Perhaps if we are not needing to hear a “Do not be afraid” from God we are not living in the dangerous and risky places where his subversive revolutionary Kingdom comes. Where might we move in God’s Spirit that we will need to hear these words in the year that lies ahead?


JOSEPH - WHERE DOES HE FIT IN?

Joseph

It can’t have been easy. You are the humble, quiet village carpenter, respected for your work and life and your fiancée tells you that she is pregnant. She then tries to tell you that she has not been unfaithful but that God has caused the pregnancy! 

Then you have a dream that assures you that it is all, honest from God, true! Any holy man would struggle to come to terms with such an eventuality but you, Joseph! 

Joseph has often been over looked in the Christmas story. Not for him the adulation that Mary receives. Even my daughter Jasmine, when she was about five or six, said to me, “Dad I get Mary... and God... but where does Joseph fit in!”

I am delighted that The Killers, with the help of Sir Elton John and Neil Tennant from The Pet Shop Boys (making it the only Pet Shop Boys related song I own!), give Joseph his due and more than that issue a challenge and inspiration to us all. 

The song asks Joseph, who is given an understandably shell shocked demeanour throughout (Well your eyes just haven’t been the same), if it is tough dealing with the rumours, change of life plan and the fame. 

The Killers’ front man Brandon Flowers, who has a committed Mormon faith, concludes that it’s “better you then me, Joseph” recognising the strength of faith and character that Joseph needed to play his role in the changing of history.

The chorus is a challenge to living out that faith:

 

“From the temple walls to the New York night 

Our decisions rest on a child 

When she took her stand 

Did she hold your hand 

Will your faith stand still or run away 

Run away.”

 

The song then moves from the objective story to the subjective challenge of Flowers’ own faith:

 

“From the temple walls to the New York night 

Our decisions rest on a man 

When I take the stand 

When I take the stand 

Will he hold my hand 

Will my faith stand still or run away.”

 

The song at this point moves from a carrier of story to a call to commitment type song. Joseph becomes the example of a human being asked to do big things for the salvation of the world. His faith stood still. 

Like Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down he didn’t, in the face of all kinds of abuse and fear and terror, back down. And so, what about us?


SAM FENDER - WINTER SONG

Sam-fender-tour

A friend tipped me off to the fresh Christmas song. Sam Fender caught my attention in recent years. A modern young rocking songwriter writing with some social critique and transformational intention in his work.

As we wait for the follow up to his more than promising debut Hypersonic Missiles he has sneaked this song out.

He recorded it for Elton John’s Aids Charity event on World Aids Day. 

It is written by Alan Hull, the main songwriter with early 70s folk rock band Lindisfarne. You can see why Fender would be drawn to it. Lindisfarne were from the same north east of England from where Fender hails and Winter Song has that biting message in the craft of a very fine song.

The song sets the scene. It is bleak mid winter type poetry. 

 

When the wind is singing strangely

Blowing music through your head

And your rain splattered windows

Make you decide to stay in bed

Do you spare a thought for the homeless tramp who wishes he was dead?

Or do you pull the bed-clothes higher

Dream of summertime instead?

When winter...

Comes howling in

 

Hull then throws in the Jesus of Christmas. That is not so common in the modern Christmas song. You can listen through Robbie Williams and Jamie Cullum’s recent albums of original songs and find little mention of the Christ part of the season.

To hear Fender sing about Jesus and a Jesus kind of Jesus is powerfully effective.

 

When the turkey's in the oven

And the Christmas presents are bought

And Santa's in his module

He's an American astronaut

Do you spare one thought for Jesus, who had nothing but his thoughts?

Who got busted just for talking

And befriending the wrong sorts?

When winter...

Comes howling in

 

Now, I have said it a few times in my blog, this is the kind of Jesus that I decided to commit myself to as a teenager. I don’t think that it is anything like self righteous, dull and irrelevant one that the world rejects. 

I get quite frustrated and a little depressed at the kind of PR that the Church have given Jesus. It is the one that Alun Hull wrote about and Sam Fender sings about that I want to shout about. Unchained from the institutionalising, catechising and hymnalising this Jesus is someone I want to listen to, to be around and to follow. Thank you Sam Fender for sharing…


MARY - BLESSED AMONG WOMEN

Mary 4

A few years ago I, a Presbyterian minister, found myself in Stormont, the seat of Northern Ireland Government, with an Icon of Mary!

We were actually there to pray for all of our MLAs. They had just been elected that very week and it was a very moving experience to name them all, one by one, and ask the Holy Spirit to work in and through each one of them.

Protestants and Catholics do have differences in how we see Mary. When I was given the privilege of sharing from Scriptures I thought it would be good to be honest with those differences. 

The veneration of Mary has been probably what has made me most uneasy in my many times in Catholic Churches. I admitted that during the Clonard Novenas I simply change the word Mary to Jesus. 

However, if we Protestants are uneasy at how our Catholic brothers and sisters venerate Mary we must be careful how little attention we pay to her. 

Indeed we might need to confess that we have been disparaging of her, maybe even scorned her. 

In the bad old days Northern Ireland’s soccer fans were known to sing very vulgar things about the Pope and Mary. 

Whatever way we look at Mary we need to see that she was the mother of Jesus. That should cause us to treat her, first of all, with the deepest respect and, secondly, to learn from her obedience to God. 

At Stormont because it was the eve of Pentecost I thought it very poignant to read Luke 1: 41-42:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!

There is the Holy Spirit right there and then that phrase that Protestants have not been too eager to use “blessed are you among women”. 

Whatever way we honour Mary across our divisions let us look at what she did for God. For 400 years very little had happened amongst the people of God. Then, once again, God interrupted time and space. 

Luke chapter 1 tells us that an angel appears, first to a man named Zechariah, and then to a teenage girl called Mary. The angel uses a phrase that repeats itself throughout the Gospels - “Do not be afraid!” Really! Easier said that done! 

For Mary the appearing of an angel is not the most frightening bit. The angel tells her that she is going to become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the son of God; the Messiah! 

During an Advent service in Fitzroy, a few years back, Janet Morris led us in a reflection on these Scriptures. During that event, I turned over in my head, soul and heart these verses about Mary pregnant with God’s Son and how she then visits her cousin Elizabeth also miraculously with child. 

In the intentionality of my listening, as I meditated on the words of an angel, a pregnant teenage and a supportive cousin, I found myself unsettled on the fault line between earth’s expectations and the strange and mysterious ways of heaven. 

Mary lived the rest of her life being misunderstood. The neighbourhood’s most loved girl became the biggest scandal and disappointment. Pregnancy outside marriage was not the respectable way but, in adding to a million mysteries, that is the way God chose. 

Mary responded to God with a huge life changing “yes”. She gave herself back to God. She took the rumour and gossip and carried the defamation of her character; in the name of God and for our salvation. Elizabeth’s words jump out, transcending the human cost to Mary with her heavenly accolade; “Blessed are you among women.”


O COME O COME EMMANUEL - BUT ARE WE READY?

O Adonai

image: Robyn Sand Anderson, II. O Adonai, 2016

 

Maybe one of the very best Christmas Carols is O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Emmanuel is one of my very favourite words. It means “God with us”. It is perhaps the word of ultimate consolation. Warmth for the soul.

We will blog that word later. For now I want to concentrate on a more uncomfortable ask. When we pray for God to come at Christmas do we know what we are asking for? 

Pleading with God to come among us, needs a great deal of consideration. Jesus did warn us to cut the cost of the building before committing.

For a most authentic slant on the subversive hope of the O Come O Come Emmanuel prayer listen Willard Grant Conspiracy’s version. Robert Fisher’s deep souled voice, that often times leads us into ballads of murder and judgement, draws every scary note from this Kingdom crashing hymn. Are we ready?!

I guess it depends where you are. If you are a mother with a small child caught up in the Mexican Drug Cartel Wars then this new world is going to be very welcome. Such a mother, risking life and limb jumping trains to get to a border where her child might be taken from her in the hope of a final walk across a desert to freedom will yearn for such peace and justice.

BUT... if you are in the pampered westerner living in decadent luxury at the cost of so many then this is a dangerous prayer. The prophets raged against expensive furniture and summer houses while the poor were trampled on. Justice means fundamental changes to work systems. Are we ready?

Are we ready for the revolutionary statements of this baby about to be born. “The first made last and the last made first...” Are we ready to put the refugee or the innocent Syrian child first? Are we ready to serve rather than lording it? Are we ready for when the poor and the meek take over? 

The Coming of Emmanuel. Glorious… but not without a rattling and shaking of our materialist comforts. Are we ready? King Herod wasn’t!


THE DANGER OF TEA TOWEL NATIVITIES

Child nativity

The Children's Nativity play the Sunday before Christmas. Call me a curmodgeon but I hate those tea towels that domesticate the Christmas story, diluting the potency and leaving it anaemic and inane. 

We have turned the prophetic powerful poignancy of God's arrival on earth into some children's primary pantomime.

Christmas is not for children. There are pregnancies outside of wedlock, a painful birth in some impoverished place, death squads hitting the streets to murder babies and a family of refugees on the run, in danger of their lives, to Egypt. You do not find many such scenes in a Disney movie or Pixar.

No, let us not blame Santa Claus for this domesticating of Christmas. Those tea towels might be much more dangerous. 

My fear is that in bringing the reality of the nativity down to children's play level we can lose the whole Gospel. I believe that everything that Jesus will do and teach is in this story. We need to treat it with potency. 

Do not be fooled by the gentleness of a baby landing in straw.

I once stood once in the Arizona desert and looked into a massive crater caused by a meteorite. Its is 1200m metres in diameter and 170 metres deep. Wow!

I often think that this moment of impact as God hurtles through eternity and across the universe to enter the human story is like a meteorite hurtling towards us and smashing into our human story.

The powerful impact of the peace on earth sung about by the angel choir will change individual hearts, minds and souls. 

It will also shudder the ground around every power throne across the world and across history. That is what Herod knew. That is why Herod sent the death squads.

So, let us be careful of the tea towels. Let us not lose the greatest story ever told in order to sneak the video of our sons and daughters getting their first big acting roles.

Christmas should come with parental warnings. Let us never sentimentalise the shock and awe.

 



 

 


WHY I PREFER FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK TO SOME CAROL SERVICES

McColl and Magowan

(This was my Thought For The Day on Good Morning Ulster (BBC Radio Ulster) on December 4th 2020...)

As a minister can I confess that sometimes I prefer Shane Magowan’s Fairytale Of New York than many Carol Services.

Oh I have friends rolling their eyes right now. They hate the Magowan classic… but let me explain.

Some Carol Services for me are a little clinical and perfect. I have sat through quite a few and wondered if any of the truth being read is evident in the sentimental fuzzy wuzzy atmosphere around me.

Over the centuries the church has done a lot to domesticate Christmas and the Jesus at the centre of it. 

It is as if Mary experiences no birth pains and Joseph has an extra mural in midwifery. The animals, not actually in the Bible readings, seem a little perfumed and blow dried. We even have a carol that talks about the baby “no crying he makes”. What. For goodness sake give me some reality!

Shane Magowan doesn’t give us any Jesus but he does give us a whole dose of reality. His song has us in a drunk tank on Christmas Eve. There’s shouting and swearing and a very broken world.

If we look around us there is a lot of reality in Christmas 2020. Many people are not going to get spending it with their families. More people are at food banks than ever before. High Streets are not only quiet but some big names have just gone to the wall. The implications of job losses are massive.

Of course I am not saying that we don’t need carol Services. We have a few crackers lined up on line in Fitzroy. BUT I am saying that unless we set the good news and peace that the angels sang about into the reality going on around us then we have something less than an authentic Christmas.

I believe that this Jesus wants to enter all of our realities, to bring hope and love and justice and salvation not just to individuals but to high streets, communities and nations.


BETHLEHEM TO CALVARY - A ROAD NOT A ROUTE

Winter road

“A route differs from a road not only because it is solely intended for vehicles, but also because it is merely a line that connects one point with another. A route has no meaning in itself; its meaning derives entirely from the two points that it connects. A road is a tribute to space. Every stretch of road has meaning in itself and invites us to stop. A route is the triumphant devaluation of space, which thanks to it has been reduced to a mere obstacle to human movement and a waste of time.”

 - from Immortality by Milan Kundera

 

I was taken with this quotation when I first read it in the early 90s. It stuck with me. Any travel in rural Africa and you find that roads are more important, to Africans, than routes. You would never take a route. The quickest way might cause you to miss someone or some thing along the way. Roads are for travelling and learning and maturing and experiencing. 

The difference is a strong challenge to our stressed out schedule keeping world where we spend our life on routes and short cuts and miss so much of the wonder of life in all its fulness. 

The Kundera quotation came back to me one night when I was interviewing songwriter Ricky Ross of Deacon Blue on my old radio show Rhythm N Soul. Ricky had brought his brand new record Pale Rider into the studio with him and told me I would like the track Calvary… and that it was about Christmas! 

Ricky went on to explain that when he was growing up he noticed, in his Church, that as soon as Jesus was born they had him on the cross. 

We need to make sure that we take Jesus on the road from Bethlehem to Calvary and not by the quickest route. If we have him on a route to the cross then we miss the road of his teaching and life. The destination therefore becomes meaningless as we have no idea what to do when we have gotten there!

We need to follow Jesus as he invited his disciples to follow. As we follow down the roads of Galilee, Samaria and Jerusalem we can pick up all his insights. Like picking fruit off of a tree we should put everything he says and does into the baskets of our souls and then follow Jesus through the cross… and out the other end of resurrection… to live the fruit of his ministry on the other side. 

 

NOT A ROUTE… BUT A ROAD?

Not a route to

Too fast, too functional, too distracting

But a road through 

Slow to pay attention for impacting

 

Not a route to

Too easy, too brief, too matter of fact

But a road through

Taking in all that we’d need, to act

 

Not a route to

Too cold, too instant, to get it done

But a road through

From Bethlehem to Calvary

It was never meant to be a quick route to

But a following, 

Gathering all the things we’d need

A road that would take us right on through…


CHRISTMAS IS FOR ALL THE YEAR ROUND

XmasinJuly2

I was standing in the pulpit in First Antrim Presbyterian Church. It was the Sunday before Christmas in 1986. It was my first year as a young assistant minister and I thought, “Oh dear, Do I really have to do this same repetitive sermon for 40 more years.” 

I had not yet got the wonder of Christmas. Today I would love to found and declare myself as Chairman of the Christmas All The Year Round Society. I was telling my friend Fr Martin Magill this and he told me that that was a Martin Luther idea - Christmas every day. Me? I thought it was Wizzard, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday”.

In my mid twenties my theology was all off balance. Growing up in a conservative end of evangelicalism the cross had gotten a little over weight. Now, as we are in Northern Ireland I better say what I do not say as well as what I do say. I am not saying that the cross is underweight or light. 

What I am saying is that I had not given sufficient weight to the other crucial aspects of Jesus life and work - the incarnation, the resurrection and the ascension. The importance of the cross had caught so much of my imagination that I had missed those other vital moments.

Bruce Cockburn has an astonishing chorus in his nativity song Cry Of a Tiny Babe:

 

Like a stone on the surface of a still river

Driving the ripples on forever,

Redemption rips through the surface of time 

in the cry of a tiny babe

 

I now love the theological depth charge that ripples out the implications of Christmas. Bono speaks about his love for the poetry of it. For me that familiar nativity scene holds so much teaching about mission, pastoral care and spiritual formation. 

The incarnation? The idea of God becoming flesh. Wow! That needs some time to ponder in itself. Yet, there is so much more than that. Over the years I have become more and more convinced that everything that Jesus would say and do in his life is pretty much found here in this nativity scene. 

The imbalance might not be unique to myself. In July 2009 I was invited to speak at the Scripture Union Family Week in Ovoca Manor, Avoca, Co Wicklow. I decided to do the entire week on Christmas. Singing carols in July seemed to be really disconcerting for everyone. Yet, singing songs about Easter every Sunday in church seems to be just fine. 

Why have we relegated the wonder of God’s incarnation to one week in the year? What important truths about the Gospel do we miss as a result? Can you see why I want to start the Christmas For All Year Round Society?