Be born in us today
It was almost 150 years ago, when the Rector of Holy Trinity Church – not of Chester, but Philadelphia – wrote a Christmas Carol which is now most popular both in USA and also this side of the ‘pond’. It is ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’. Inspired by his visit a few years earlier to Israel, Rev Phillips Brooks wrote the beautiful words now so familiar to us. The last two lines, ‘O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel’ summarise for me so much of the message not only for Advent or Christmas-time, but also for all Christians at any time of year.
Jesus is our Lord, our Immanuel. The word Immanuel is Hebrew, and literally means ‘God with us’. Jesus is God, born in human, come to live among human beings, so we can know him with us. With us in all we go through day by day. With us in the humdrum ordinary things we do. With us in our special moments. With us when we go through hard times. Even times when it feels like nobody can understand what we are suffering, Jesus, our Immanuel, God, is with us. It is God’s presence in the world, in our lives, within us, that is the good news of every Christmas.
In the carol, we ask Jesus to come to us, to come close to us, to be born within our hearts. So we can know him close by us in all we do and all we go through. When we have faith, we build a close and lasting relationship with God, with Jesus. We ask him to come and pitch his tent within our hearts, to abide with us, today and everyday.
God may know that he is with us, but we are not aware of that. Our prayer at Advent is for God to open our eyes to behold his presence. We want God to show us, and help us to understand, how he is alongside us in all we do. And those of us who follow Jesus, who call Jesus our Lord, will then know that He is alongside, helping us in our daily lives. It is for us who are Christians to show others that God is here, and his Spirit is with us. At this time of year, when we welcome many into the church who maybe do not worship with us for much of the rest of the year, let us ensure that all that happens within our services, and also amongst us at other times, helps point them to Jesus our Immanuel amongst us.
Come, Lord Jesus. We ask this for ourselves and for those we meet. Amen.
A HUNDRED YEARS AGO
On 4th August 2014, to mark 100 years since Britain declared war on Germany, Holy Trinity Church will be open all day for prayers for peace. This will mark the start of a number of commemorations of important events in the First World War. Churches and cathedrals around the country will be similarly marking this important anniversary.
Some might ask, why should we remember? What are we remembering for? The 1914-18 Great War saw many of one generation lose their lives: 770,000 British soldiers died and 1.7 million were injured. The war also caused much upheaval, and so marked the turning point for our nation, and the way our society is structured in all kinds of ways, not least the roles of the different classes within society, and the role of women. There was economic disaster in its aftermath, and the foundations were laid for the growth of Nazism, and the Second World War (and even greater loss of life) not long after.
It is important to remember, because if we do not, we are in danger of forgetting. If we forget mistakes we have made in the past, then we are in danger of repeating them. It is important to remember, so we can give thanks for those who gave their lives in the Great War, in recognition of their service and sacrifice on our behalf. It is important to also remember all who have given their lives in service of this country in conflicts since then, right up to the present day.
When war was declared, Britain’s foreign secretary at the time, Sir Edward Grey, famously said, ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe’. We shall conclude our day of prayer with aRemembrance Vigil at 7.00pm. A key feature of this will be the lighting of candles.
A lighted candle is an enduring symbol of Christ, the Light of the World, shining into the darkness of our lives. It is fitting that, as we pray for peace, that it is visibly represented with lights that endure, that are not put out. For God has defeated all the pain of death and conflict through rising to new life from the dead. We worship God whose light never goes out, in Britain, in Europe or across the world.
God is at work in all things
I write this on a beautiful, warm sunny day. People are talking about an Indian summer, but I do not pay a great deal of attention to that. But like most Brits I do talk about the weather perhaps more than many other topics. This country’s weather is so varied, and relatively unpredictable, that very often until we look out of the window in the morning, we do not know what weather we will be facing. Which makes a day such as today feel like a gift, maybe a gift from God.
We are used in this country to treating the weather as an unexpected joy, or a temporary woe, day-to-day. We are prepared to allow that God is in charge of the wind, the sunshine and the rain. But are we willing to place other aspects of our lives in his hands? What about the amount of money we do or do not have? What about the people we meet on a particular day? What about whether or not we receive an unexpected nasty bill in the post?
God is the Lord of heaven and of earth. There is no aspect of what happens in this world which does not concern him. Whether it is international politics, or the price of bread, or our health, or whether the roof leaks. There is no aspect of our lives that does not concern him. But that does not mean that he will always intervene to affect every little thing. God is able to make water flow in the desert, and to make fertile land dry up and become like a desert. He is able to transform paralysed people into ones who can walk and dance around without hindrance. He is able to cause others to suddenly die. These are all within God’s powers, but he does not always do all of them in everyone’s life. We cannot understand what he knows, and the depth of his wisdom about our lives, and why he decides to do what he does.
I do not know why he sometimes does not appear to intervene to heal some people, like a sick child. I do not know why he sometimes does not appear to intervene to stop people committing atrocities. But I do know that the situations where he has intervened are most of the time unlikely to be known about by us – simply because we only know how things have been after the intervention happened.
There was once an occasion when we were driving home on the motorway, and about 200 metres ahead of us, we saw a car in the middle lane swerve violently to left and to right, and hit cars in both lanes as it did so. Because of the speed we were driving at, apart from slowing down, there was nothing we could do but drive on straight through the debris (the crashed cars had somehow left space to drive in-between them, so we were safe).
It all happened so quickly, and we were on top of it so suddenly, that there was no way I could do anything to avoid them, but somehow we came out unscathed. In fact, it had all happened so suddenly that it was only a while later, long after driving on, that the full implications of it hit home. I do not know if God intervened, but it felt as if He had. I had prayed before we set out on our journey for safe travel – and I certainly thanked Him profusely afterward. Another thought also occurred later – that if we had been just a few seconds ahead on the carriageway, we would have been in the middle of that crash.
We are told that God is at work for the good for all who love him. Let us learn to trust him to be at work for the good in every single aspect of every single day. Let us place our lives in his hands each day, and let us also give him thanks for his mercies which are new every morning, whether or not we are aware of how great those are.
IF GOD SEEMS FAR AWAY, WHO HAS MOVED?
These words were on a car sticker that drove past some years ago, but its message has remained with me. God is the same each and every day. He is the same now as when he created the universe (sometime before the Big Bang). He will remain the same tomorrow, and in a thousand years’ time, and whenever this world comes to an end. He is the same today, yesterday, tomorrow and forever. But it doesn’t always seem that way.
Our lives can go through bumpy, even stormy times. Times when we barely know where to turn or what to think. We can go through relatively peaceful and happy times, but we might not recognise that until something happens to change everything, and our world is turned upside down. Our feelings about God go through highs and lows, and sometimes we can be aware of God close to us, answering our prayers, and caring for us. At other times it can feel as though God has abandoned us, or as if he is simply not bothering to listen to anything we say. But the truth is that God never moves, never stops listening, and never changes in his total and perfect love for each of us. Our feelings about him change drastically though, and that is entirely down to us and our attitudes.
The writer of Psalm 46 talks about how God is with us, even in the stormiest of times. Even in the midst of an earthquake, or a warzone. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble (verse 1). Whenever trouble strikes, God is still with us, we can turn to Him for help, we can sense His everlasting arms of love surrounding and sustaining us. Therefore, the Psalmist says, we will not fear (verse 2), though the earth should change, God is with us. God is the same yesterday and today and tomorrow and forever. However drastically the scenery around us changes, God is still the same.
God knows what it is to suffer. He is Lord of everything in heaven and on earth, he is the Lord of hosts (verses 7 and 11). He gave His Son to die for us on the cross, and in the humiliation of being arrested, and mocked, insulted and rejected, flogged and crucified, Jesus suffered far more than we are ever likely to. And through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, God defeated all the powers of sin and death. That way, we have in God not only someone who knows through experience exactly what we go through, but also One through whom we find the transforming power to overcome the pain we suffer.
So, with such a Creator on our side, there is, as the Psalmist found, no need to be anxious, no need to fear. Moreover, he is our refuge. When the storms around us become too much, we can go to Him for comfort, for shelter, for strengthening. And what is more, if we want to know God, to experience more of him in our lives, then we can find him not in the storm, or in some big noise, but when we are still. God says to us, ‘Be still and know that I am God’.
Whatever is happening in our lives, for good or ill, it is always helpful to have time set apart to be still with God. Being still means not having any background music playing; means removing thoughts from our mind about the million and one things that need doing; means closing the door and ensuring nobody disturbs. Even for just a few minutes in a day, it is valuable for all of us to have regular times of stillness, times of knowing God with us. May we each find ways of practicing God’s presence in our lives (for it does take some practice). Because knowing he is with us, and knowing he is Lord of Lords and King of Kings, the same yesterday and today and forever, is tremendously uplifting and encouraging and helpful.
It is so easy to fall back on labels, when we describe people, even when we describe ourselves. If you meet someone you have not met before, how often might they ask ‘What do you do?’. We are then defined by the label we put on ourselves. But that is never how God looks at us. He is not fooled by such surface matters as what job we do, or whether we have children, or what role we have in the church or anywhere else. He sees who we are perfectly, he knows us inside out, and he wants us to know him as well.
Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, 3.8 – ‘I regard everything loss compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’. So whatever position someone has in the church, or in their job, is nothing in comparison to the importance of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. However much money one has is nothing in comparison… However well one gets on with one’s family, or doesn’t get on with one’s family, is nothing in comparison…. Whatever our health, or however ill we become, is nothing in comparison… in comparison to the great enormous value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord, all of it is just unimportant.
By far and away the most important thing – the only really important thing – is knowing Jesus as our Lord. Knowing that he died on the cross for us. Knowing that he rose from the dead, to give us forgiveness of our sins. Knowing that he is God’s only Son, and is now seated at God’s right hand on high, and that he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, that he is our Lord.
Knowing that he is my Lord. That is what is most important. And the rest of life –the rest of things we may regard as important in our society, come lower down.
So the question we have to face this Easter is, where are our priorities? Is knowing Christ Jesus our Lord more valuable than anything else in our lives? Is that more valuable than any of our possessions? Is it more valuable than our status in society, or our pride or any of our other relationships? As we draw close to him through our worship, through our Bible readings, through our prayers – is our relationship with him a close and intimate one? Because God calls us to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength – may we all know that more and more.
HOW DO I FIT IN?
I enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles. I enjoy especially when I have managed to complete a section of sky, or of grass, or other similar large section in the picture. There is something very satisfying about sitting back and looking at that portion of the puzzle which has been sorted. Every piece has its proper place – even pieces which may superficially look as though they are the same, have subtle differences, and each is in their own way unique. Each piece has its own particular place within the puzzle, and that’s the challenge.
Every member of the church is like a piece of a huge jigsaw. We are each unique in our own way. We have our own personalities, our own backgrounds and experiences. We each of us have gifts that God has given us in a unique way. And I believe every one of us has our particular place to fit into the jigsaw, with all the other people, in the church. If we try to squeeze ourselves into a hole that is not the right one for us, that will be uncomfortable for us (and for those around us). When we find the right place for us, that feels very good, and we thrive.
Sometimes, in my experience, people are not sure what God is calling them to, they are not sure quite what role God has for them in the church. It could be that the role is there, but we need to open our eyes to see it clearly. It could be that the role needs to be developed for that person. I firmly believe that God provides for our needs. So, every person provided to a local church is what that local church needs: if we do not know what that is, then we need to ask God to open our eyes to see it more clearly.
Quite often, in my experience, people grow and develop, so a role they once fulfilled, and which had been right for them a while ago, becomes no longer suitable for them. We need to accept that some roles in the church can pass from one person to another, and need not be seen as ‘jobs for life’.
Saint Paul describes the church as a body, the ‘Body of Christ’. In his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, he famously discusses how church members are like members of a body – arms, legs, hands, toes, elbows, and so on. If one part of the body (even a small part, say a little toe) is hurting, the whole body feels it. And if one part of the body is not functioning properly, in other words if one person in the church is not fulfilling the role God wants for them, then the whole body – the whole church – is underperforming, is not as healthy as it could be.
Let us seek to be as healthy as possible at Holy Trinity: let us ensure that every member of the body of Christ here in Blacon lives life to the full, in Christ, exercising the gifts God has given them, so that together as a church we can thrive, and all we do works together for the common good, and for His praise and glory.
The fourth Sunday in Lent (this year on 30th March) has been observed by the church as Mothering Sunday for about 500 years. This was originally when people would go to their ‘Mother Church’ to worship. So, people who had moved away from the town they were brought up would go back to the home town, in order to worship at that church. As the years went by, the tradition developed so that servants would be allowed the day off in order to be able to travel to visit their church, and also their families. Children on the way would stop and pick some wild flowers to give to their mothers. As time went on, the religious tradition evolved into a more secular one of giving gifts to mothers, and the association with the mother church was lost.
The present day habit of giving cards and gifts to mothers originated in America at the start of the 20th century, and instead of being called ‘Mothering Sunday’, became instead called ‘Mothers’ Day’ (and has its equivalent in Father’s Day for dads). It is now the case that the majority of people who observe Mother’s Day do not come near a church on that day (or indeed most other days). We could respond to that fact by bemoaning the change in a society that does not giving passing recognition to God, but I do not think that would be helpful or get anyone very far.
Instead, it is our duty as a church to help people to appreciate the mothering that God offers them, and that we as church offer on his behalf. We can do that in part by exploring imaginative and creative ways of encouraging people to join us in some way to learn about God, and his love for them. Only when people know who God is, and have faith, will they appreciate his love and care for them, his mothering, and only then would they be interested in joining us for worship. So as well as ensuring that the worship experience people have on a Sunday morning is an excellent one (and no church has ever found a perfect way of doing it, so we need to be constantly striving to improve) – we also need to look at ways of reaching people outside a Sunday morning.
Our Godtastic services are one way of connecting with families outside our usual worship. In addition, I will have contact with about 600 children and dozens of adults, in assemblies in our Primary schools in the lead up to Mother’s Day. That is I believe a wonderful opportunity of helping many young people learn more about God, and give them a chance of coming to faith.
Let us pray that all of us have a stronger sense of God’s love and care for us this Mother’s Day, and that those in the community who celebrate the day can also come to know his love more in their lives.