Christmas sermon 12 months ago

Rembrandts Shepherds closeup
Not having a Christmas sermon to preach this year, for the first time for 42 years, here are notes from one I preached last year…

The question – is Jesus God, who 2000 years ago lived a human life here on earth? Or are the 27 books of the New Testament based on a fable? According to the latest national census, there are a significant number of people in this country who do not believe that Jesus is God, which is the heart of the Christian faith. It is still, by all accounts a majority, but not as big a majority as it used to be. (In Dec 2013, a YouGov poll claims that only 27% in the U.K. believe that Jesus is the Son of God…) The number of adherents to other faiths is growing. So, is the light shining from Rembrandt’s manger illusory?

The last carol we sang was “In the bleak mid-winter”. The second verse has a strong statement, about Jesus being God. In a recent rendering of the carol by the singer Annie Lennox, she left out the verse, but to be fair she does sing it at other times. Is it just a legend? Like the rest of the Christmas narratives?

In the New Testament letter St Paul wrote to Christians in Rome, he speaks of the minds of people being darkened, and how they so easily exchange truth for lies. Sometimes it is because of the suffering that people face, the parents of the little children killed a week ago in the USA, or personal suffering. For me, the greatest evil perpetrated in my lifetime were the Nazi death-camps, closely followed by other examples of mass killing, such as in Cambodia. Pope Benedict reminds us though: “In the face of the horror of Auschwitz, there is no other response than the cross of Christ. There, love descended to the very depths of the abyss of human evil, to save humanity in its core.”

Last year, some of us at St Lawrence Morden studied the book by John Stott: “The Cross of Christ.” It is a great book, ask me to get you a copy if you have not yet read it. If you wish for a five-minute read, then pick up one of the booklets in the pews…. The fact is, whatever the U.K. statistics reveal for our sad and increasingly lonely society, around the world, more people than ever before have come to accept the Gospel narratives are true, that the Old Testament writers were inspired by the God who was simply preparing the way for the ‘new-born cry’ heard by Rembrandt’s, and Kenneth Cragg’s shepherds. (Bishop Kenneth had sent me this picture on the last Christmas card he sent me.)

What is God like?
For Rembrandt, near the end of a life full of trouble, two wives and his only surviving son predeceasing him, he saw the face of God in the old father of the prodigal son in the story that Jesus told, which Rembrandt painted.
For Kenneth Cragg, (who died in October 2012 a few months short of 100 years), he passes on the baton of witness to the Muslim world, for him the face of God is seen in Jesus.
Not only as a baby, God made man,
Not only as a Saviour giving up his perfect life of the love of God, dying for you and me on a cross.
But as the judge who will one day call in the account of all our human selfishness and sin.
The price is unredeemable, except if paid by God himself.
“God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.” It is true. Test it. There Is no other Name under heaven by which you can be saved – by which you can find the true purpose for which you have been created, to live in the presence of a loving God, for ever. But love demands a response, to be forced into God’s presence against your will would be hell. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.

Thoughts before Christmas, on the shortest day of the year…

“I beheld His light from afar,
as from behind mountains, behind the horizon.
He arose like the light of a radiant morning filling it with joy.
He arose within my darkened, lost and confused soul,
a soul that did not know the meaning of rest.
He invites me like the gentle breeze,
like the fragrance that blows from heather-covered fells.
He visits with me, he inhabits the depths of my heart
and settles there within.
He fills my soul with purity, with Love.
He is Jesus, the tender, compassionate One,
the source of my joy, Jesus, the anchor of my soul.
I adore Him since I first met Him,
and melt in passionate love for Him.
And how can it be otherwise?
For he has loved me from before I was born.”

Preparing a term report, for the ‘public preachers’ licence given me by the Bishop of Southwark, I reread some notes from a conference I was some weeks ago and came across the lines above, I had copied down, I don’t know their origin…

Douglas Mawson The commitment that love demands – I was inspired this morning by the story of the Australian Antarctic explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson, OBE FRS, FAA (1882 – 1958) the commitment he had to record in detail the climate conditions he faced – how his colleague died alongside him – Wikepedia tells the story. We have him to thank for the comparisons in antarctic weather that scentists can now make with his observations of 100 years ago. Global warming accelerates, it is well worth looking up. May God raise up scientists and politicians to cause a far more responsible response than so far.

Another great challenge – apart from the one God has given to me in my dotage; fortunately, there are a few others who share the responsibility with me.

Remembering Edwin

It was six months after
I had heard it rumoured that he was dead
that I knew for sure.
If I had heard at once,
I would have wept in bitter grief;
but being uncertain for a time
getting used to the idea
with the hope that it might not be true,
when confirmation of his death did come,
I knew only silent bending grief
without tears or long sighs
just the deep sadness of a friendship broken finally
with all the rich potential of his life
thrown uselessly away.

Was it useless?
Where there others whose lives he entered as he did mine?
If only I among his friends remember him –
then the memory
unfading as it will always be
of talents lost and hope destroyed
given life by friendship
will keep alive more strongly in me
the desire to use what I have to the best advantage,
to live, so to speak,
as if I could take the hope that he had, from him, still alive
and show it to the world.
If others remember him still
then what I feel will be found in other hearts
and in different situations.
What in his death becomes a dream
in us becomes reality.

I scribbled these lines after Edwin died in a tragic accident in 1967, age 19.  In my last term at school – and 50 years today – Wed Dec 11th 1963, I noted in a journal I was keeping at the time, a conversation we had.  He had passed a piano practice room where I was, and came in to chat.  I had told a mutual friend I was concerned for him, the term before he had been ‘rusticated’ (given time out, but not expelled),  I tried to help him sort himself out!

Private journal keeping, even if only once or twice a month, simply for one’s own benefit, is a Godly discipline.  I heard recently that it is one of the secrets of happiness, remembering when you look back and re-read it later on, where you have come from.  It is different from a blog, which anyone in the world can read!

Like his brother, Edwin was a very talented musician.  Had I been a better Christian, I may have been able to help him more – I should have pointed him to the One whose Holy Spirit enables those who make Him their best friend to find life in all its fullness, as well as providing a way through death.

I wrote another journal entry the next day, recording a dance I went to with a girl I liked. (Hilary hadn’t moved to Bidborough until the next year, I still had a lot of growing up to do.  And still do in my late 60’s?)  Providentially, a few weeks later I was in Northern Nigeria under the influence of strong Christians, for eight months before becoming a Durham undergrad.

Rather a “me” blog. Time to move on, with the help of Isaac Watts and Job ch. 23, (thank you Jane Mann for pointing me to it)

O that I knew the secret place,
Where I might find my God!
I’d spread my wants before His face
And pour my woes abroad.

I’d tell Him how my sins arise,
What sorrows I sustain;
How grace decays and comfort dies,
And leaves my heart in pain.

He knows what arguments I’d take
To wrestle with my God;
I’d plead for His own mercy’s sake,
And for my Saviour’s blood.

My God will pity my complaints,
And heal my broken bones;
He takes the meaning of His saints,
The language of their groans.

Arise, my soul, from deep distress,
And banish every fear;
He calls you to His throne of grace
To spread your sorrows there.