Sermons - December 2020
Sermon 6th December 2020, 2nd Advent
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 6th DECEMBER 2020, 2nd ADVENT
“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 40:4-5
Out of the bleakness, the forgottenness of a defeated people
rises the voice of the anonymous prophet (“Second Isaiah.”)
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…
Words from - and for - the worst of times.
Jerusalem lies in ruins. Babylon is the super-power.
Following deportation in 587 BCE, the children of Israel are in exile there.
Far from home, many must believe God has abandoned them:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept.
From the Latin cum fortis, “with strength.”
Comfort, O comfort my people -
To the exile, the weary, the despairing,
to the fearful, the dying and the bereaved - Comfort.
Then: A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The wilderness - where Moses encountered God at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-3).
where the Israelites journeyed forty years after their Egyptian exodus,
where gospel writer, Mark will place first John the Baptist
and then Jesus’ temptations,
his place of retreat and the feeding of five thousand.
Wilderness, place of truth – sometimes harsh –
place of discovery and perspective. - reality check:
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
…The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”
Reality checks about our own mortality – about our own sinfulness –
are medicines we are reluctant to swallow –
but both prophets, Isaiah and John, prescribe them – for our health.
Similarly, the wilderness isn’t a destination we choose,
but many will know something of it –
from illness, our own or others, from hardship,
redundancy or divorce, by bereavements of many kinds.
The British artist, Tracy Emin,
in advance of her new show at London’s, Royal Academy,
spoke of the harrowing experience of facing death.
Diagnosed with a virulent cancer this year,
she has had major surgery, is now described as “miracle woman”
and talks about her overwhelming sense of relief.
“To know that I could have been dead this Christmas.
People could have been coming to this exhibition and I was dead.
People would have said: “That’s so Tracy!”
“I feel like I’ve been forgiven, or like a big giant curse has been lifted off me.
I feel like this is the real true beginning.”
New perspective, on our own lives, or the lives of others:
This week, the Moderator of the General Assembly, Rev Dr Martin Fair,
speaking about his parish church’s work with drug addicts,
described a young woman addicted to heroin.
The chaos of her life emerged from a desperate tale
of sexual abuse over a number of years by a family member.
Dr Fair, examining our tendency to judge, asked,:
Who couldn’t say we, would make some of the same choices,
if we had been born into those circumstances?
Memorably, his words: “No primary school child sets out to be a heroin addict.”
If the Moderator’s example is the micro,
this week too. the bigger picture/the macro
from Dame Sally Davies, former Chief Medical Officer:
Delivering the uncomfortable verdict that the UK has suffered a much-increased death rate, during the current pandemic, due to poor public health –
in large part, due to health inequalities.
The week passed, included World Aids Day, December 1st.
In a year that has made us aware of what a virus can do,
Christian Aid reminds us since the late 1980s
another virus has caused over 33 million deaths worldwide
and today over 38 million people are infected by HIV.
“Like Covid-19, HIV does not discriminate according to economic status,
ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation or status.
But both have a direct disproportionate effect on people of colour,
the poor and the vulnerable in communities.
This is directly linked to unequal social structures that result in poverty,
lack of access to treatment and often unfair laws and policies
which in turn lead to stigma and discrimination.”
Thirty years on from the beginning of the HIV pandemic
The world can celebrate that 25 million people are receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART),
which allows them to live long, healthy lives and with no risk of transmitting HIV to others.
But there are still 13 million people around the world, including 1.8 million children,
who do not have access to these vital drugs.
The vast majority of the people affected live in low and middle-income countries.
Access to HIV treatment is key in the global effort to end AIDS as a public health threat,
but this year, with all efforts turned to Covid-19,
it is predicted that the fight to end HIV and AIDS has been set back 10 years.
“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;”
“No one standing on a mountaintop wants the mountain to be flattened.”
Where is God levelling the ground we stand on?
Can we participate in God’s dream of a reimagined landscape,
“where the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together.”
A Thought for the Day broadcaster asked this week (Chine McDonald)
“What lessons have 2020 taught us?
Which lives matter; the importance of connectedness to community;
an appreciation of nature; a spotlight on UK poverty;
the importance of key workers; a reassessment of work/life balance.
This Advent, at the end of a very trying year, we hear the prophet declare,
‘The word of our God will stand forever.’
See, the Lord God comes…He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Out of despair, hope.
Isaiah’s passage ends upbeat and surprising.
For those who are being comforted
are actually called to become messengers too!
“Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
Those who are comforted, called to comfort others.
Those who receive comfort, pass it on.
Give and receive; receive and give. Mutual dependence.
(Not necessarily in the same boat, but in the same storm.)
Tracy Emin discovered: “When you come face to face with your own mortality,
and then in a sense, get a reprieve,
you never take anything for granted again,
you will try to do your best in life.”…
Her perspective: “We’re on the cusp of something and there’s no messing around.”
As we wait for new heavens and a new earth,
let the spirit level the way,
and lay the foundations, where righteousness is at home (II Peter:3:13)
Sermon 13th December 2020, 3rd Advent
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 13th DECEMBER 2020, 3rd ADVENT
The priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem asked John:
“Who are you?” What do you say about yourself?” John 1:1-2
“Seven of us, in two rooms. Polygraph House, near Euston –
Railway company accommodation.
You needed to be employed by the company to stay in the accommodation.
When Dad stopped working for the company, Mum changed jobs
and started as a cleaner at the Railway Head Quarters,
in order to keep a roof over our heads.
We shared a bathroom with two other families in the block.
Saturday’s were bath night - hot water carried upstairs into a tin bath –
all of us children in, one after the other, neighbour’s children too.”
Reminiscences shared this week, at a north London crematorium.
“It was a great place to live. There were always parties,
Mum the first one up to dance.
And singalongs; her favourites, Matt Munro or “I belong to Glasgow.”
We were poor, but we were rich.”
“Who are you?” What do you say about yourself?”
If you guessed/detected that the deceased was a Scot, you would be correct.
Tuesday’s funeral, part of a pattern at St Columba’s (& St Andrew’s, Newcastle.)
A Scot, decades before, leaves his/her homeland, makes a life south of the border.
No discernible church connection, but at death,
the funeral director rings up: “The family have asked for a Scottish minister.”
At the last, a lifetime after leaving the country of birth,
the request, that either for the deceased, or the next of kin, seems important.
Another London crematorium:
“Dad may have roamed far and wide – but he belonged to Scotland.”
Not just Scots of course.
Consider the double burial of the composer Chopin.
His body buried in Paris, with a container of Polish soil he had kept for years,
sprinkled over his coffin. His heart brought back to his native Poland, in a jar of cognac
and enshrined in the pillar of a Warsaw church. (the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw.)
As the poet says about exiles: The places we love, we never leave.
In a recent episode of Radio 4’s, “Something Understood” – its theme:
“Finding your voice in a foreign land” a Serbian author, with immaculate spoken English spoke about moving to the UK and living in the capital; her observation:
“Like many Londoners, we are from somewhere else.”
Questions of identity: “Who are you?” What do you say about yourself?”
Identities – partial or ultimate?
Yesterday, we had a winter wedding at St Columba’s.
The aisle lit by candles; the pew ends decked with mistletoe.
A bishop too; Jamaican-born, Bishop Rose Hudson-Willkin,
the Church of England’s first black, female bishop.
(Former Chaplain to the Houses of Parliament.)
She was great – her sermon began by asking members of the congregation
what their favourite love songs were – and I mean, really asking.
Then when an example was given – she sang the opening lines.
(I definitely have to up my game, come the next wedding!)
She was very warm; strong and direct too.
For the service she was resplendent in her episcopal robes.
Full white cape, trimmed with what looked like a red tartan;
including the bottom rim of her mitre (bishop’s hat.)
After service I asked her: “Do your robes have a particular significance?”
“Yes, they do actually. The tartan is made out of calico.
Historically, calico was the cheapest material available in Jamaica.
It was the material of the slaves.
And the tartan – well, there were Scots in Jamaica – slave owners.
So, I wanted my robes to remind me of some of those things.”
A reminder that no nation, no nationality, however proud,
will emerge unscathed, “scot-free” if one looks honestly, or fully at its history.
The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Equality and Diversity Forum
commissioned new pieces of traditional music
to acknowledge Glasgow’s role in the slave trade of the late 1700s.
(The new music was performed and recorded during Black History Month (October) 2017.)
One of the works, by Bernadette Kellermann is called, “Unsettled”,
a title that worked at various levels –
millions transported from their homelands – unsettled –
others/perhaps us (?), reluctant to dwell overly on difficult truths – unsettled.
“Who are you? What do you say about yourself?”
are large questions, asking us to interrogate what we hold dear,
what we trust, what we love - and why. (Debie Thomas)
They are the questions addressed to the kinsman of Jesus, John the Baptist.
John’s Gospel treats John the Baptist differently to Matthew, Mark and Luke.
In the Fourth Gospel, the author does not describe John’s ministry or message.
It is not directly state that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
John’s work is downplayed; Jesus’ is elevated.
[Some scholars suspect that John (the gospel writer) is writing
against followers of John the Baptist who were still preaching “their man”
seventy years after his death.]
Maybe: but lies in words given to John: (John 3: 30, cf 1: 8-9).
“He (Christ) must become greater; I must become less.”
Despite the crowds that flock to him, John doesn’t claim an identity
that doesn’t belong to him. He is messenger, not messiah.
Defining himself as a “voice in the wilderness,”
He declares: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Quoting the prophet Isaiah 40:3 – (familiar from our reading last week.)
Words emerging out of the time of exile and captivity
for the children of Israel, in Babylon;
clarion call that begins, Comfort O comfort my people.
All four gospel writers make the connection: Isaiah to John – John to Jesus – Jesus to us?
Something wonderful is on its way.
Aware of his limitations; “I baptise with water” (John says)
“Among you stands one whom you do not know,
the one who is coming after me;
I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
This stirring up, this promise of change, is what attracts the crowds,
and in their wake, the religious authorities, with their questions;
just as later, they would question Jesus.
“Who are you? What do you say about yourself?”
Part of the DNA of John’s gospel are seven great I AM sayings of Jesus:
I am the Good Shepherd, I am the True Vine, the Living Bread…
In contrast, John delivers the I AM NOT – Elijah, the prophet, the Messiah.
Insistent: This is not about me. Look beyond me. There lies the key.
John is the witness – not the light;
But testifying to the light,
that others, might find the light.
John’s making space for Jesus is not a denial of John's gifts and abilities.
It is difficult to envisage anyone more invested/committed
to giving everything he has to give, to what he believes.
Of course, to follow/to attempt to follow the Christian life
may very well include certain sacrifices – that is the nature of love –
but it also surely means living out, as fully as possible,
the gifts, the opportunities, the passions which have been God-given –
in the arts or the sciences, in the professions or in the neighbourhood –
homemaker or volunteer, public voice or parent.
Summoning our best; giving our best – always aware of Christ –
our companion and compass, our light and guide.
John looked back, referencing/echoing the mighty vision of Isaiah,
whose wondrous cadences we heard this morning:
“Good news to the oppressed, bandaging the broken-hearted,
liberty to the captives, and release to imprisoned;”
for those who have loved and lost;
“a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
repair the ruined cities, raise up the former devastations.
Knowing something of former devastations,
Desmond Tutu wrote about both community and witness
(Crying in the Wilderness; 1990, pp 6-7)
“In the early church people were not so much attracted by the preaching,
but by the fact that they saw Christians as a community,
living a new life as if what God had done was important,
and had made a difference.
… … whether poor or rich, male or female, free or slave, young or old –
all quite unbelievably loved and cared for each other.
It was the lifestyle of the Christians that was witnessing.”
Who do you/who do we say we are?
Approaching our hundredth year, (in our congregation today)
or on our baptismal day (Charlie – in our congregation today),
by the grace of God, may part of that answer be:
we are witnesses, a community of witnesses
to Christ, the light coming into the world.
Sermon 20th December 2020, 4th Advent
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 20th DECEMBER 2020, 4th ADVENT
SERVICE OF LESSONS & CAROLS: REFLECTION
Last Sunday we were enlivened by the presence downstairs of our young people –
some Christmas craft, some catch-up with church friends, not met with for months
and some singing. The evidence is joyfully available on our website. (Check it out.)
In normal times, we would be deep in Nativity play territory – school or church:
parents and child, angels and shepherds, livestock, and travellers from the East.
Each of us, could roll an internal, highlight reel.
Memories - from childhood – our own, or offspring.
Moments of wonder and high comedy;
moments of beauty and, sometimes, precious sentimentality.
These pageants, beautiful of their kind,
nourishing to the spirit, particularly perhaps, as the years go by –
are in the DNA of our celebrations –
but do they do justice to the real protagonists
in a production we might call The (Real) Crown?
In particular – on this fourth Sunday of Advent (last before Christmas) –
do they capture the spirit of Mary, mother of Jesus – traditionally the focus this Sunday?
The most famous woman in the Bible; yet in most Christmas nativities –
Mary barely gets a line.
Protestants, Presbyterians, have traditionally been wary of too much Mary.
[“We may not know much about Mary,
but we know we do not have anything to do with her.”
Beverley Gaventa, New Testament Professor, Baylor University, Presbyterian elder.]
According to Luke, however, she has a whole lot more to say.
Like her kinswoman, Elizabeth, she says yes.
Their positive responses to impending new birth are intertwined.
Elizabeth, way beyond the child-bearing age; Mary youthful and unmarried.
Renowned, for the visit of the angel Gabriel,
breaking news of a child to be born, conception of the Holy Spirit,
we tend to think of Mary as submissive.
Artists depict the moment of her yes, with beauty and tranquillity:
“Let it be, according to thy word.”
But consider more of what we know. In original language, her name is Miriam/Mariam.
Popular C1st, Jewish name – not because it was the mother of Jesus,
but because it was the sister of Moses –
whose quick-wittedness saved her baby brother among the bulrushes;
who banged a tambourine and sang a victory song,
when the Israelites arrived on the safe side of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20-21);
capable of questioning Moses’ authority; joining her brother Aaron to ask:
“Has the Lord spoken, only through Moses?
Has he not spoken through us also?” (Numbers 12:2)
Mariam is a name with a history; a character that is more than just a yes-woman.
Our Mary/Mariam is also more than, one-dimensional.
Following his intentional disappearance in Jerusalem, aged twelve,
at the time of festival: discovered in the Temple:
“Child, why have you treated us like this?
Look your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
“Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”
Care for the grown man, who is too busy to care for himself.
And a stand-off at a wedding in Cana: “Jesus, they have no wine.”
She will love Jesus, but she will not be frightened of him.
Back at the start of things, news of her pregnancy having landed,
Mary visits/runs away to (?) her also pregnant cousin, Elizabeth,
mother-to-be, of John the Baptist.
At the encounter of the two women, Elizabeth’s child leaps in her womb –
a kick of approval from the one-day prophet in the wilderness.
“Blessed are you and blessed is the fruit of your womb” declares Elizabeth/Elisheva.
“That’s when prophet Mariam, lets rip,
on the far side of her own Red Sea.” (B Brown Taylor)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.
… he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Famed, for saying yes, Mariam also defiantly says, no.
No, to all that negates the life of the world, and its people.
No, to the pride that divides nations and populations into us and them;
No, to an inequality that leaves the few bored with excess,
while the many scrape to get by.
[The presence and need for charities, such as Borderline,
reminder of current and continuing realities.]
No, to indifference;
no, to that’s just the way it is, the way it has always been.
Mariam’s Magnificat – her freedom song - calls us to care;
to play our roles, however small,
in the ongoing Nativity play of the kingdom of God.
What would it take for us to take seriously Mariam’s words:
“All generations will call me blessed.”
American, Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor once preached that she has a dream:
The Dream: To get the Magnificat into the Nativity play
And to seal its presence by giving Mariam-Mary a tambourine!
Then, perhaps, we wouldn’t overlook or over-romanticise her, confine her to a corner.
And maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t be surprised,
that her child, raised on the lullaby of her special song,
would make that song his own.
Scattering the proud, raising the downtrodden;
breaking convention, bearing insult, shifting the status quo;
declaring yes to life and no to all that oppresses it.
His mother’s child –subversive to the world and submissive to God.
Sermon 24th December 2020, Watchnight Service
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
WATCHNIGHT SERVICE 24 DEC 2020, 6pm
A gentle, smile-inducing contemporary poem,
combines Palestine and pandemics -
shepherds, angels, regulations and royalty:
Up on the midnight hill
in the sharp watching weather,
the music was a shock –
lovely, of course, but all the same,
frightening – though the flock
just lay spellbound, quite still
when the angel came.
Don’t be scared, he told us, just go –
then – Wait a minute. Should you be
here all together?
I said, We’re in a bubble. We
live and work up here. What about you?
He looked offended. We’re angels, you know.
The rules are different. I’m sent
to tell you of the Holy Birth!
And so to Bethlehem we went:
stood at the stable door, looked through
at the Family, mother and child –
the Saviour of the earth!
– and Joseph, too. The Lady smiled.
Then social distance was no more a thing,
for we had knelt before the infant King.
(Quoted from Blog on the Learig website, Dec 2020)
In this year of social distance, how close do we approach the child born tonight?
If we took the knee at manger side, what would we behold?
In a new poem, Nativity, Scottish writer, Kenneth Steven,
sets the scene away from its accustomed Christmas card neatness.
When the miracle happened it was not
with bright light or fire –
but a farm door with the thick smell of sheep
and wind tugging at the shutters.
There was no sign the world had changed for ever
or that God had taken place;
just a child crying softly in a corner,
and the door open, for those who came to find.
Nativity, Kenneth Steven
Perhaps, tonight, you hear in those words, an unintended cruelty –
promise of an open door – when our own sanctuary is locked on grounds of safety.
As church friends have told me this week –
closed doors have felt like a physical blow and left one, too sad to sing.
But, the fact that you have taken time and trouble to join this evening,
by telephone or internet, speaks of the desire within us, not to be defeated;
still to seek the stable’s open door.
And if we look, what are the signs that God has taken/is taking place?
I think of the interactive art installation set up by an Edinburgh church this Advent.
Hundreds of stretched bungee ropes,
attached to the outside of the church and expanding,
weaving their way outwards – floodlit in the evening.
Entitled Deeply Woven, it carries no formal explanation,
But its creators hope it will make people stop and think about connections
and counter feelings of isolation and disconnection exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions.
To find the signs of God taking place –
God in our own worlds, this Christmas Eve,
we might examine our own deeply woven connections –
both what we hold dear, and what causes us pain.
God taking place, in the hurt of what we know we are missing,
the cherished rituals that give us meaning and warmth;
moments of isolation, loneliness or concern - for ourselves and others;
the desire to find the old normality,
the deep sense that things should be other than this.
But if we sense God in those shadowed things,
God is also taking place in things/plans/life adapted -
the myriad ways that something will be salvaged,
because a neighbour will deliver a spot of Christmas lunch,
or a phone call will be made, a gift will cheer or make one laugh.
God taking place, in the duties undertaken this night
by health professional, emergency or Armed Service,
charities and carers (professional and amateur.)
God taking place, in the epiphanies of what we truly cherish –
individuals, institutions – imperfect, but precious.
And for us, who choose to look in at that open door,
God taking place, in that child of Bethlehem;
Not just the child, but the man he would grow into.
Each of us gazing at the manger,
but seeing, being born to, the full meaning of Christ’s birth;
which is his birth, life, death and resurrection.
There was no sign the world had changed for ever or that God had taken place;
just a child crying softly in a corner, and the door open, for those who came to find.
In the words of the carol we will sing tomorrow:
He has opened heaven's door, and we are blest forevermore.
Christ was born for this! Christ was born for this! (Good Christian friends, rejoice)
Sermon 25th December 2020, Christmas Morning
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
CHRISTMAS MORNING, 11am
25th DECEMBER 2020
Under Tier 4 regulations, the Bethlehem Arms are shut;
shepherds are furloughed; Wise Men face a travel ban.
And Mary & Joseph?
Unable to take part in the New Parents webinar –
Because - no Zoom at the Inn.
Christmas 2020? Really?
In 1957 Theodor “Dr Seuss” Geisel wrote the children’s book – How the Grinch Stole Christmas:
A comic, rhyming critique of Christmas commercialisation;
a shout out, plea for the true meaning of Christmas.
The Whos inhabit the fictitious town of Whoville:
They love and celebrate Christmas with all the trimmings –
trees, lights, stockings, feasts and singing.
The Grinch hates Christmas:
“Don’t ask why – perhaps his heart was two sizes too small?”
One Christmas Eve he decides it is time to do something awful.
In the wee small hours, he slides into Whoville and steals Christmas –
house to house, stuffing sacks with wrapped presents,
ransacking fridges and the feasts therein,
even stuffing decorated trees up and out the chimney.
Till the only thing left - a trail of crumbs from the snacks, laid out for Santa.
The thief retires to his hilltop lair, Mt Crumpit
and prepares to toss the whole lot into the abyss.
Momentarily he pauses – to listen for the wailing of the town
as they wake up to their loss.
Yet, he is bamboozled to hear the unexpected –
“But the sound wasn’t sad
Why, this sounded merry!
It couldn’t be so!
But it WAS merry! Very!
Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
For the Grinch it is a moment of epiphany:
“It came without ribbons, it came without tags.
It came without packages, boxes, or bags.
Maybe Christmas (he thought) doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more.”
In this strange year that concluded for some with the chant, Stop the steal,
Is Christmas 2020 stolen?
Is Covid-19, our contemporary Grinch –
constraining households, making us anxious and fearful;
church behind closed doors – all of which undeniably hurts.
Question: If the Grinch has visited us, broken-in; what, if anything, remains?
And do we still have a song to sing?
A church friend sent me this week, words from another faith tradition:
“A remote Christmas is not what anyone wanted.
As a Muslim, I’ve already gone through a remote Ramadan, and two remote Eids.
I know it’s tough.
Although nothing can compare to an in-person iftar or Eid,
(where you feel united with friends and strangers alike,)
doing it on Zoom has forced me to think about what really unites us –
a shared spiritual and emotional experience,
not just a shared carpet. (Adeem Younis is founder and trustee of Penny Appeal)
[Part of a prayer written by Christian Aid Scotland]
Even if we cannot gather in person: Emmanuel, God with us
Even if some Christmas traditions have had to go: Emmanuel, God with us
Even if we might not get to hug family and friends
Even if we cannot sing carols beside each other
Even if Christmas cheer is harder this year
Emmanuel, God with us
As Christians, Christmas is neither cancelled/nor stolen.
On the contrary; stepping away from some of the familiar stuff
may open the door to a deeper appreciation of what/why we celebrate.
Yes, the pandemic has definitely stolen some of the Christmas tinsel -
rituals, gatherings, loved ones - with their attendant blessings.
But it has not/cannot, steal Christ.
For the things we have lost awhile, are only pointers –
road signs to a deeper hope and more enduring love.
God with us, forever – in shadow, and in glory.
If we acknowledge what we miss, maybe we discover what we value.
A Grinch-like epiphany of what really counts:
Health. Friendship. The recovery of others. Love, truth, beauty.
Seldom the things that can be bought or sold.
Christmas is not stolen – because you can’t steal the birth of Jesus
or the meaning of his life, death and resurrection.
Bethlehem is just the opening chapter for the story-teller,
who would one day, speak of his loving father, his Abba coming, as a thief in the night;
and would finally meet his own death, in the company of two thieves.
Because we hold precious that whole life,
Christmas is, and always will be our un-stolen treasure. Thanks be to God.
Sermon 27th December 2020
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 27th DECEMBER 2020, 11am
Two parents, brimful of the birth of their first born,
thread their way through the alleys of Jerusalem,
headed for the Temple, as custom demands.
They cannot help but be over-awed.
The Temple’s main concourse, some eight city-blocks long,
its peak, taller than a Gothic Cathedral, already forty years in the constructing.
Priests hurry past, pilgrims jabber in every language beneath the heavens,
stone masons clatter, merchants haggle,
doves scatter and settle amidst the colonnades.
Protectively, Joseph steers his child and its mother through the crowds,
innocent to the knowledge of what this high and sacred place
would come to mean to their tiny child.
A place that would haunt their lives –
both House of the Father, and den of thieves.
The rituals accomplished, (presentation of the first born, purification for the mother)
the new parents make a sacrificial offering –
two pigeons, “the offering of the poor.”
Reminder of their child’s unfancied origins.
Perhaps with relief, they turn to begin the journey home.
But before they can depart,
the seemingly unremarkable couple and child are recognised.
And though it is the grandest of stages,
something about what happens next is intensely private, almost unseen.
Amidst the shouting and bargaining, the psalm-singing and jostling,
a stranger approaches.
We think of Simeon as old, near death; the text does not specify –
only that he was righteous and devout,
eagerly awaiting the consolation of Israel.
A witness of integrity.
An old man perhaps, carrying a vast hope.
Without explanation he takes the child into his arms;
delivers his hymn of recognition, his prayer of prophecy:
Lord, now let your servant go peacefully.
For as you promised, my eyes have seen the salvation
that you have prepared before the nations;
a light for the Gentiles and for the glory of Israel.
Then, almost as soon as it started, the moment is over.
Simeon hands back the child to his parents,
their smiles caught somewhere between delight and confusion.
As the mother cradles her child,
Simeon sees something in her and in her baby –
an intuition, a chill unsummoned, but clear as day.
As yet, a long way off,
as yet but seeds in the palm of a tiny hand –
but a harvest to come, costly and bloody,
wounded hands and broken hearts.
So, the parents receive the stranger’s strange blessing:
This will be a remarkable child,
destined to make some fall and some rise.
His life will show people in their true colours.
Some will love him; others will hate.
Simeon perceives Jesus is the long expected one,
but also that he is not going to be, what was expected.
His salvation will not necessarily unite the nation, or humanity;
in his wake, division and discord,
because not everyone will be able to accept
the priorities his life demands, or the discomforts it entails.
Fall and rise of many.
We normally talk of the rise and fall of public/celebrity/sporting figures.
We build up, sometimes it seems, in order to enjoy their fall.
But the gospel speaks of fall and rise: echo of that other verse (?)
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24
And as for you Mary – your child’s life will touch yours,
like a dagger to the heart.
It is the first, unmistakeable shadow of the Cross,
echo of the Wise men’s third gift – myrrh, spice for burial.
It is an early hint of what this life will demand and cost.
It is a reminder that all our loves,
carry within them, seeds of joy and seeds of sorrow.
“All love comes with risk.” The deeper the love,
the more painful its related hurts, more profound its eventual griefs,
but more enduring its joys.
A heart-shaped life offers no escape from this.
[Ask Mary, ask her son.]
Anna, a prophet who worships God 24/7, is also led by God to this baby.
She also sees God’s promises fulfilled,
and shares her excitement with others.
Her witness adds weight to Simeon’s words.
Her praise offered to God for the birth of the child
and his life to come, is her testimony.
The passage concludes with the family’s return home to Nazareth in Galilee.
They leave behind the formality and status of Jerusalem
for an area seen as distant,
but actually en route for much of the wider world.
Jesus’ upbringing is telescoped in the sentence,
“The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom;
and the favour of God was upon him.”
Often, we hear this story in early February:
the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.
the festival of Candlemas.
‘A Light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.’
Seen as a final farewell to Christmas, and a turning towards the cross.
Whenever we choose to tell it, however we choose to react to it,
it is a human story, set amid the realities of politics, religion, poverty and family.
It is the story of a baby being blessed, recognisable to all people –
meant, for all people.
[Coronavirus is limiting the contact new parents and babies can have with others –
those who can help or simply share blessings –
and is making celebrations and rituals for important life events harder.
So, we may hear the story with a mixture of joy and sadness.]
But, however we hear it, it is a reminder
of how all infants wield a kind of power,
and this child in particular.
As the Reformer, Martin Luther declared:
“God became small for us in Christ;
he showed us his heart, so our hearts might be won.”