ABC Day 37: The end is a new beginning – returning by another way

An Epiphany. A striking revelation.

Advent has been and gone; it is twelfth night. Today the church remembers the visit of the magi – trusting in the revelation through study of scripture, they followed a star to Bethlehem.

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’

Matthew 2:12-15; 19-23

This is the third time I’ve thought about this passage since Christmas. I’ve heard it preached on twice, and now I’ve been enjoying reading Maggi’s thoughts on the passage as well as those of Pam, Graham and Ruth.

Journey of the magi
Journey of the Magi, by Stanislav Lvovsky on Flickr.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

An unexpected journey then – or rather several unexpected journeys.

A few days ago we thought about how Joseph probably hadn’t been planning to bring a pregnant Mary all the way to Bethlehem to give birth. Yesterday we thought about the magi’s trip to Bethlehem.

Today we get both return journeys. Maggi points out that these are unexpected journeys because of an encounter with Jesus. The magi are scared to return the same way because of Herod’s attitude to the challenge of a new King; Joseph has a similar concern about Herod’s son. Both of their paths changed by an encounter with God.

Now, I suppose, is the time to admit that the #adventbookclub has led to some unexpected journeys for me. Virtual journeys to share the views of both friends and those I’ve never met. Thoughts about the journeys of faith that have brought some of the club’s ‘members’ to an unexpected place in their ministry (ministry isn’t just for the clergy, either!). Our journey outside yesterday in the rain to chalk our door. And my own journey to think more deeply about the passages of scripture picked for us by Maggi (unknowingly, perhaps, as in 2007 the idea of a virtual book club may not have been top of her list!).

May each of our onwards journeys be unexpected – surprised by God when we most need it – and hopefully I will meet some of my fellow ABCers along the way. Amen.

Finally, I thought I’d share a sonnet by Malcolm Guite:  listen to ‘Epiphany sonnet’ on Audioboo. He’s promised more for the other Sundays of the Epiphany season, so you might want to keep an eye on his blog…

ABC Day 35 – Born in a borrowed room

Hello. Remember me? I was blogging every day with the #adventbookclub. And, whilst I’ve been following along the words of others, and reading Maggi’s book, and praying, actual blogging time has been limited. Half-formed thoughts just haven’t made their way onto the laptop; the laptop couldn’t make its way onto my lap during a prolonged parental visitation; a cold struck; and I’m still struggling to get the iPad app to talk to my webhost. But I’m hoping to now be able to complete the last few days, God willing…

IMG_0234

Luke 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

All Saints Church, Bracknell Road, Ascot, Berks – Reredos of the Last Supper by John Salmon [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Luke 22:7-13 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.’ They asked him, ‘Where do you want us to make preparations for it?’ ‘Listen,’ he said to them, ‘when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, “The teacher asks you, ‘Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.’ So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

Before Maggi’s book pointed it out to me (there’s a reason I’m not a theologian by profession, you know) I’d never spotted that this was two borrowed rooms at each end of the story – the stable of the nativity and the upper room of the passover meal – the last supper.

I was struck Maggi’s observation that, whilst an Englishman’s home is his castle, a rented castle is somewhat less secure. This fits with a lot of the news of the last few days – for example, the latest Shelter survey here. The second of the borrowed rooms set in train the ultimate in insecurity – betrayal and death. Yet Jesus trusted in God the father.

Finally, I am struck again by the links between Christmas and Easter. I didn’t enter into the debate sparked by this post here – my views will have to wait for another blog post (be warned, there might be life in this blog between the Advent Book Club and the Big Read 14).

So, setting aside the question of preaching to the ‘unchurched’ at Christmas, for those of at least some traditions within the ‘churched’ there is a focus on the four last things – death, judgement, heaven and hell – throughout Advent. I give you, for example, my thoughts from last Advent here. And with that focus, the Incarnation is all too close for comfort – a baby born young and innocent, in the knowledge that sacrifice on the cross is the endgame. Which brings us neatly back to the symmetry I was struck by at the start – the borrowed room is the beginning of the beginning as well as the beginning of the end.

You can follow the Advent Book Club on Facebook, on Twitter, or read about it on Pam’s blog.

ABC day 23: From now on…

Sandro Botticelli [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour…

Today Maggi has us read Luke 1:46-49, Mary’s hymn of praise when she is told that she is to be the mother of Jesus. Words used every day in almost every Church of England church as part of evening prayer or Evensong.

As I mentioned yesterday, this isn’t just the hymn of a rejoicing expectant mother. It is a hymn of hope for us all – of praise, of justice, of hope, of resolution. Challenging, rebellious – how many kings and queens, emperors and empresses have heard the words “He hath put down the mighty from their seat” and wondered just what it is that their faith has got them into?

Above all, it is for me though, a hymn of hope – the fulfilment of the promise God made to Abraham – the promise we heard on day 8. The whole of the Old Testament has been building up to this – the whole of history has been longing for the Messiah. And he’s coming. As a baby. Lying in a manger.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

You can follow the Advent Book Club on Facebook, on Twitter, or read about it on Pam’s blog.

ABC day 22: Coming, ready or not…

The secret is out today. Mary goes to visit her husband Elizabeth, who knows Mary is pregnant (Luke 1:39-45). Not just the normal excitement for Elizabeth at good news in the family; she knows that the baby will be her Lord – the fulfilment of the promise God has made to all generations, as well as the fulfilment of the promise God had made to her about her son, John the Baptist.

Maggi tells us about her own experience of finding herself pregnant and finding a church not ready to deal with a pregnant ordinand; something then rare enough that there were no policies. Yet her baby wouldn’t wait to be born whilst the dear old CofE tried to work out what to do with her – her frustration and that of her tutor with the system that didn’t know what to do was palpable.

And so – are we ready for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas? I thought about this yesterday as I fought through the present-buying hordes. By the end of the day the hordes had died down – in part due to the rain, but in part due to either resignation or achievement.

Somewhere amongst the hubbub, about 4,800 people decided to take half an hour(isn) out to get ready by coming to one of our six Carols on the Hour services. 3,000 people did the same at Gloucester Cathedral last Saturday. The two services I was stewarding at had a “Big Sing” choir who weren’t even a choir six weeks ago, yet had spent every Wednesday since getting ready. Last Wednesday, carols at The Boot saw several hundred people come and go – and stay rather longer than they planned for the sheer joy of carolling with each other.

Yes, some of these may have been more or less devout than others. Yes, not everyone will have gone home converted to the faith. But each of them has opened their hearts, just a little, to God. Lord, I pray that however we can open the hearts of your people to your message, we do. Maybe they are firm believers; maybe “that’s not for me – I just like the tunes”. Yet somehow they witnessed a warm welcome, the joy of Christmas, and maybe heard something that might strike a chord. From small acorns, great oaks will grow; from a simple shoot from the stem of Jesse came your son who will redeem us all. From the small seeds of our own faith, let us grow in faith to be witnesses to the Word made flesh, amongst us still. Come, thou long expected Jesus…

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

You can follow the Advent Book Club on Facebook, on Twitter, or read about it on Pam’s blog.

ABC day 21: On the margins

Have you ever felt like you’re on the outside? Today we’re challenged with the story of the shepherds from Luke 2:8-14. They were an unlikely bunch, the shepherds. If this truly was a king who had been born, why were his first visitors some unknown shepherds? Why not other nobles? The great and the good of Bethlehem? Perhaps the magi?

Maggi reminds us that the shepherds of the time were a bit rough and ready, to say the least. They lived in the fields with their flock. They probably weren’t the most welcome in well-to-do circles. Yet they were the first to whom the angels appeared.

Yesterday was my last day in the office. Jokingly, I pointed out I wasn’t going home for a rest – the first of eight services I’m helping at between then and turkey time was last night. Lessons and carols is superbly done – uplifting, spiritual, beautifully executed. And don’t get me wrong – you’ll tell from my posts so far that I do like a nice bit of choral music.

But sometimes we need to get back to the Gospels. To remember that God isn’t just about a witness to the middle-class sensibilities of a well-to-do town in middle England. There’s something more raw. A gift shared with the poor as much as the rich – perhaps more so. As Mary foretold when she learned she was to give birth to Jesus:

50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Let us remember this – that the Good News is for each and every one of us. And the middle class, tinsel-tinged Christmas that society tells us we should aspire to is not what it’s really all about.

To close, a musical treat. Back to humble, traditional Yorkshire roots. The wonderful Kate Rusby sings a traditional carol:

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

You can follow the Advent Book Club on Facebook, on Twitter, or read about it on Pam’s blog.

 

ABC day 15: Every valley shall be exalted

Ev'ry valley shall be exalted
Yosemite valley, by me. Taken on our honeymoon.

One of the most famous pieces of prophecy about the coming of Jesus today – Isaiah 40:1-5; 9-11. And one I suspect that any of you who’ve ever sung in a choir that’s performed Handel’s Messiah will be unable to resist singing along with.

Maggi points out that the word “comfort” used to have a wider meaning than perhaps we think now. It is not just a soothing supportive hug – it could also be encouragement as a parent pushes their child forwards to encourage them to participate in something. At the same time, God is also seen as both strong and compassionate  in equal measure, responding as he needs.

I’d not thought of this wider sense of “comforting” before. I’d thought it was more about taking heart – “you may be oppressed now, but your Messiah is coming”. I hadn’t thought that it might be “others are oppressed now, your Lord will take action”.

Lord – let us rejoice because you are coming. Let us take comfort in every sense – reassurance that you are on your way, and encouragement to keep the faith and witness to that hope of your coming again. Amen.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

You can follow the Advent Book Club on Facebook, on Twitter, or read about it on Pam’s blog.

ABC day 14: The beginning of the end

I’m not sure I knowingly know anything about the book of Habbakuk. And certainly I couldn’t knowingly quote any of Habakkuk 2:1-3; 3:16-19.

Habakkuk is told to write down a vision of the end of time – it will come – and the prophet trembles and waits for calamity – yet he still rejoices in God because he knows he will bring salvation.

Advent is not just a time to look forward to a beginning – the birth of Christ. Right back at the start of Advent we looked back to the real beginning – the dawn of the world. And we know there is a second coming to come – the end of the world.

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) or follower [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Traditionally, the church has thought on the ‘Four Last Things’ during Advent – death, judgement, heaven and hell – looking ahead to the second coming – for which our whole lives may be but part of a second Advent.

As I found with last year’s Advent Book Club, thinking on this second great Advent leading to the coming of Christ – “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again” – shows the link between Christmas and Easter. The Word became flesh to dwell among us not just to be with us, but because he would sacrifice himself on the Cross for us to give us the chance of eternal life and rising again. So perhaps death, judgement, heaven and hell aren’t that unusual to think about in Advent – why, after all, is Jesus being born at all?

Maranatha – come, Lord Jesus.

You can follow the Advent Book Club on Facebook, on Twitter, or read about it on Pam’s blog.

ABC day 13: Not in the fire…

Windows, Washington National Cathedral, by me.

Following on swiftly from yesterday’s reading, we have the rest of the story (1 Kings 1:9-18) – where Elijah sees the wind, the earthquake, the fire – and only then does God speak to him in the ensuing silence.

Professionally, as an accountant, I see myself in the point Maggi makes that if I find 150% of my hours aren’t enough to achieve my objectives, I immediately expect to work even harder.  This may be partly cultural for accountants – but I suspect it is mostly just me. The times when I don’t do silly hours are often the times when I have flashes of what I fondly imagine to be brilliance and insight.

And, as I alluded to yesterday, the times when I devote more time than I have or is good for my health to work are also the times when I perhaps feel further from God. Those are the times when eventually I need to creep away from the inbox, the phone and the baying hordes and take time to read, to pray, to make it to Evensong and just listen to God, or to an early moring Eucharist and meet him afresh in the bread and wine.

Maranatha – come, Lord Jesus.

You can follow the Advent Book Club on Facebook, on Twitter, or read about it on Pam’s blog.

ABC day 12: Eat, drink, sleep

In today’s reading from the story of Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-9) we hear of Jezebel’s threat to Elijah – as he has killed the prophets of her beloved god Baal, so she will kill him. Elijah flees to the wilderness, says to God “You might as well take my life – I’ve failed as my ancestors did” – yet he wakes and God has provided him with food and drink for a journey.

Crucially, this is a journey of forty days and forty nights – matching the period that Jesus was in the desert – and the reason why our Lent is this length too.

Maggi points out (it’s almost as if she wrote this knowing me – and many of you too I guess) that we all think we need to find our own desert – a quiet time and place – to hear the voice of God. Just as Elijah didn’t hear God in the fire but in the still small voice of calm in the cave, so will we – eat, drink, sleep, and listen out when we do find a quiet patch. Of which more tomorrow…

Lord – the last weeks and months have been the busiest of my career. I haven’t always taken the time to eat (meals skipped or eaten at odd hours), to drink, to sleep or to pray. Help me to regulate my life – to seek out normality so that perhaps I too can hear your still small voice of calm before Advent is out. Amen.

Maranatha – come, Lord Jesus.

You can follow the Advent Book Club on Facebook, on Twitter, or read about it on Pam’s blog.