Stairway to Heaven

You’ve probably heard of the actor who was so modest that, when he wrote his autobiography, he didn’t even get a mention in it.

Today (24th August) is St Bartholomew’s day and if you read the gospel set for today (Luke 22:24-30), you will find no mention of Bartholomew. In Matthew, Mark and Luke we see Bartholomew’s name listed as one of the twelve apostles, but that’s it. Nothing else. John’s gospel doesn’t mention Bartholomew at all. Instead, John speaks of a Nathaniel (John 1:43-end) and it is suggested that this Nathaniel is the same person. Matthew, Mark, and Luke name Bartholomew as one of the twelve apostles. John doesn’t, but does name Nathaniel. ‘Bartholomew’ is not a personal name but means ‘son of Tolmar/Talmai’, a bit like someone whose surname is Robertson or MacDonald. Or possibly it means that he was a ploughman, ‘son of the furrows’… Matthew, Mark and Luke list Bartholomew’s name next to Philip and in the John passage (John 1:45), it is Philip who finds Nathaniel and brings him to Jesus.

Bartholomew (or Nathaniel) was a fisherman from Cana in Galilee (John 21:1, 2). He is one of the seven disciples to whom the Risen Christ appears while they are fishing without success. Jesus invites them to have breakfast on the beach.

And, finally, Nathaniel is with the other disciples after the Ascension (Acts 1:13). And that’s it. No other references to Bartholomew or Nathaniel. Tradition has it that he travelled to India (possibly Arabia or Ethiopia) and to Armenia. He is said to have been flayed alive and is depicted in art holding his own skin and the instruments of torture (including by Damien Hurst, in his ‘Exquisite Pain’, currently at Chatsworth House). He is, therefore, patron saint of tanners, leather-workers and bookbinders.

In the John passage (1:43-end), Jesus is in Galilee and finds Philip and says to him, ‘Follow me’. Philip finds Nathaniel and says, ‘We’ve found him! The one promised in the law and the prophets.’ Nathaniel is not convinced that anything good can come out of Nazareth. Philip says, ‘Come and see’. Jesus is about to impress him: he describes Nathaniel as someone without guile or deceit. ‘How do you know?’, asks Nathaniel. Jesus says, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you’. This supernatural insight is enough to convince Nathaniel that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Jesus says, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!’ and gives this slightly strange picture in which heaven is open and the angels ascend and descend on the Son of Man. Behind this is the story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10-22). Jacob dreams of a ladder which reaches from earth to heaven, with angels moving up and down. When Jacob wakes he says:

“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
(Genesis 28:17)

Jesus is God’s ‘ladder’, the one who connects us to God. The place where God is made known, the place where earth connects with heaven; Jesus is the mediator who makes God known, the one in whom heaven and earth, God and humanity connect.

We know very little about Bartholomew – almost nothing if we don’t accept the identification with Nathaniel. But like us, he finds in Jesus the one mediator between God and humanity, the stairway to heaven.

The Rich Fool

Sermon preached at St Matthew’s Church, Stretton
On Sunday 31 July 2016 / Trinity 10 (Green) / Proper 13


Hosea 11:1-11 (OTp769) God the parent’s compassion for his wayward child: how can I let you go? #Hosea11_1 #TweetingTheBible
Colossians 3:1-11 (NTp187) Since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above. #Colossians3_1 #TweetingTheBible
Luke 12:13-21 (NTp69) The Rich Fool stores up treasure for himself without being rich towards God. #Luke12_13 #TweetingTheBible


So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above…


Donald Trump has had a tough life. He has worked hard to become the billionaire that he is today.

“It has not been easy for me… I started off in Brooklyn, my father gave me a small loan of $1 million. I came into Manhattan and I had to pay him back, and I had to pay him back with interest.”[1]

So, his father, Fred, who was an actual self-made multi-millionaire, with a dodgy reputation, lent him the small sum of $1M, from which Donald has made his fortune. Along with the 100s of millions he inherited from his father.

But it’s easy to use the parable of the Rich Fool to have a go at someone like Donald Trump. It’s fun, too. But, of course, the parable is not about someone else. It’s about us.

The Dangers of Wealth

Luke’s gospel, in particular, shows how Jesus warns of the dangers of wealth, of possessions. The danger is that we don’t possess our possessions: they possess us! They distort who we are and rival God in our lives.

To be clear: the Bible is not anti-wealth. Many figures in the bible are wealthy and see their wealth as God’s blessing. Contrary to what people often say, money is not the root of all evil. It is our attitude to money that matters:

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

1 Timothy 6:10

Of course, in church, the only time we ever talk about money is when we are trying to part you from yours! So, in order to stop loving money, you should definitely put more in the collection plate! Jesus talks about money, wealth, possessions a lot of the time, precisely because they are dangerous to our spiritual health. Unlike some who claim to be religious, Jesus never tells you to take money out of your pockets and put it into his! But Jesus wants us to be free. And the pursuit of wealth, for its own sake, is a form of spiritual bondage.

The Parable of the Rich Fool

Jesus is asked to intervene in a family dispute over an inheritance. (How many families have been broken by such disputes?) Jesus refuses to get involved, presumably because he knows that the motivation of the appellant is greed. ‘Don’t involve me in your money squabbles’, Jesus says.

‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ V15

Then he told them this parable of a rich man whose land produced abundantly. He has the problems of wealth: where am I going to keep all this stuff I have accumulated? I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones. He doesn’t know how lucky he is! “My grain, my goods”. It’s all me, me, me!

And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” V19

The problem is not with him enjoying his wealth, nor with planning to take it easy. The problem is that he can see no further than the end of his nose. He lives in a universe with himself at the centre. A universe which is empty of all but himself. There is no God in his universe; no neighbour in his world. Like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), he cannot see anything outside of himself. He speaks to himself: “I will say to my soul, soul…”

It really is all about ‘me’. Not a thought for the other – no mention even of family, let alone neighbour or God. His problem is not wealth but greed.

Who is the Rich Man?

The Rich Man is you. And me. We are among the wealthiest people who have ever set foot on the earth. And we don’t believe it! That’s because we have advertisers who tell us that we would be happier if we were only a bit richer. If only we had more stuff to store in our barns! You and I know that’s not true. So why do we buy lottery tickets? (I don’t! I’ve never bought a lottery ticket in my life. But I do pray for my dad to win!) Why do we fall for scams? Why are we taken in by advertising?


Our materialistic society wants us to focus on what we don’t have, not on what we do. Without everyone wanting more, capitalism fails. Jesus warns that greed is a powerful way to lose your life. What a terrible way to live! Storing up treasure but not being rich in any way that actually matters (‘towards God’)!

And, it turns out the man with the biggest brain in the universe – Stephen Hawking – agrees. We need to rethink wealth, he says. Because money doesn’t do it.

“The best things in life aren’t things.”

Art Buchwald


Hosea: Skeletons in the Closet

Sermon preached by Linda Buckley at St Matthew’s Church, Stretton, on Sunday 24th July 2016

Any skeletons in your closet? Anything that you’d rather nobody ever found out about you? These are some of the things that were found in the top 25 of a recent survey


1. Having an affair
2. An embarrassing incident
4. Debt
6. Family history
7. Phobia
8. Purchases
9. You smoke/used to smoke
10. Real-life crushes
11. Addiction
13. Bank/credit card statements
14. Age
15. A criminal past
16. Illness or condition
17. Previous marriage(s)
18. Pretending to like something/someone you loath
20. Tattoo
23. Sexting/Snapchat
24. Education/exam grades
25. Pretending to be good at something ..I include pretending you’ve read a book or watched a film

Apparently bumping the car is also there along with taking small items home from work previous lifestyle

We are going to explore a very public skeleton on full view in this story from a minor prophet, Hosea. Minor because shorter book in the Bible, not less important
Imagine, you get an invitation to the wedding someone you have been out of contact with. You look around. On the groom’s side are well-dressed​ families and some local church members talking quietly.
The bride’s side is packed and noisy. Lots of people are dressed as if for a night out, mostly single people and no families… Then the traditional music of Britney Spears “hit me baby one more time” starts and the bride enters wearing bright red … Well, almost wearing because, there isn’t much left to the imagination….and , although you don’t like to judge and know the groom has always been a person of faith and sound advice, you begin to wonder if he’s lost it.
Then the service begins… I take you for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, in adultery and prostitution……you want to stand up and shout “Is it too late to object? Run for it!”

So why did Hosea marry someone who he knew would sleep with other men and become a prostitute ….because God told him to.

At the time Israel was prosperous and successful as never before and as a result they had fallen away from God…they didn’t need him for help, they had all the security and material stuff they wanted. They became proud of what they had achieved and complacent. They forgot what God had done for them in rescuing them from Egypt, however it was his plan not theirs, and certainly not the plan of other gods
God is not pleased and through Hosea he basically says
You’ve sinned – stop it
God’s angry – repent
If you don’t he will punish
If you do he will restore you
God loves his people and wants them to love him

Back to the wedding. God tells Hosea to marry someone who will break his heart, who will commit adultery and eventually become a prostitute. Simply this will be an example to the people of Israel who keep breaking God’s heart. He marries Gomer
The bible tells us Hosea and Gomer have a son Jezreel, Jezreel was a place which was remembered by the Jews as a place of massacre because of disobedience to God. Would you call a child Belsen or Auschwitz? We are then told Gomer has a daughter mention of Hosea so we assume by someone else called Lorumaha, meaning no mercy, no compassion, and a son Loami – not my people. God will show no mercy they are not his people
How do we feel about Gomer? Do we want to punish Gomer, see her as the bad person? Gomer leaves her husband and children for other men, and prostration, eventually she gets so desperate she sells herself into slavery, we will return to the rest of this story later
While all this is going on Hosea is giving Israel God’s message

God says he’ll reject them if they don’t want, him he points out they don’t know him any more…there is no mercy in their hearts, or faithfulness, they are hard hearted, their love has gone like a vapour or early morning mist, they are following other gods or ideals as the centre of their lives (today could that be careers, investments, beauty, holidays, material goods, technology, social status or social media statuses, longevity)… All Mist and vapour

God wants mercy not sacrifice he wants love not false action

He says my “prophets will kill you with words… ” God didn’t come to set up a religion but a relationship, the Jews had kept some of the trappings of religion but rejected the relationship

So this is where Hosea is, the relationship with Gomer has been rejected, but his family still have a future…can they change things?
In chapter 2 we have hope, given through the language of relationship. Using the imagery of an unfaithful wife God talks about Israel, and the potential future the future of the relationship.

V 14 Therefore, I will now persuade her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.

God wants Israel to come back to him of their own free will

19 And I will take you for my wife for ever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. 20 I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord

God offers a clean slate , a fresh start leaving the past behind. The language of unconditional love.

So back to our story. Hosea wants Gomer back,chapter 3 Hosea says The Lord said to me again, ‘Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.’ So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer of barley and a measure of wine.
Hosea has to look for Gomer, actively search for her; he finds her and he has to pay the debt to buy her back. He didn’t have enough cash to redeem her so he uses important food and drink, he restores her. There is a cost for her rebellion
This is not a God who is keeping account of sin, but of a loving husband who says what is neededto restore the relationship – I love you still no matter what you’ve done… I will give you back your vineyards

And what about their children?

Chapter 2 I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.
On that day I will answer, says the Lord,
 I will answer the heavens
 and they shall answer the earth;
and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil,
 and they shall answer Jezreel;
and I will sow him for myself in the land. Jezreel here has another meaning sow, to bear fruit
And I will have pity on Lo-ruhamah,
 and I will say to Lo-ammi, You are my people’;
 and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’

Everyone has a place in God’s family

What a story, full of imagery full of real people with real relationships
What does it say to us?
Maybe we need to deal with our own skeletons, or those of others, When we say the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to forgive us . Do we truly forgive ourselves? If not , admit it and ask God for help.
As we forgive those who sin against us… Do we, really? If not ask God for help to do this. Admit it.
Some skeletons can be trapped in our idea and emotions?…. Things we are ashamed of feeling, and thinking.
In The Luke reading lJesus says
9 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened

At no stage was Gomer forced to come back. Just as Hosea went looking for her and offered her the opportunity, so God offers us the same. Through the sacrifice of Jesus we can enter into a relationship with God. Jesus is knocking, not forcing his way in, we can open the door, we don’t have to have Spring cleaned our lives, he is a visitor who isn’t looking at the dust, the unwashed dishes, opening the cupboard doors to look for skeletons ; he is looking directly into our eyes offering a hand if we take it. We come as we are.

We need a simple prayer. Please come in… It may be the first time we have opened the door, or it may be a revisit but we can come to God or come back to him as God is merciful and faithful and unconditionally loves each one of us
So our God really reigns and we can be a part of his kingdom on earth right here right now

The Lord’s Prayer

Sermon preached at St Cross Church, Appleton Thorn

On Sunday 24 July 2016 / Trinity 9 (Green) / Proper 12C

Listen to an audio recording of the sermon – click here.


The readings summarised as a tweet
Hosea 1:2-10 Want to know what it’s like being your God? Try marrying an unfaithful woman! H’s children named prophetically. #Hosea1_2 #TweetingTheBible
Colossians 2:6-15 Emptiness of deceit vs the fullness of God in Christ and fullness of life in him. From death to life. #Colossians2_6 #TweetingTheBible
Luke 11:1-13 When you pray, say ‘Father…’. Persevere. How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit. #Luke11_1 #TweetingTheBible


Gracious Father,
revive your Church in our day,
and make her holy, strong and faithful,
for your glory’s sake
in Jesus Christ our Lord.


The disciples ask, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’. You’d expect a religious teacher to teach prayer, as John the Baptist had done.

Jesus gives them the Lord’s prayer, not quite in the form that we are used to. The prayer is recorded in Matthew as well but Luke’s version is shorter.

Given what Jesus has to say about prayer (e.g., in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:7) you’ll know that learning a prayer off by heart and reciting it parrot fashion is not what Jesus is suggesting. Rather, he gives a pattern for prayer, an idea of what Christian prayer is.

What is Prayer?

Prayer is Relational


It comes from our relationship with God – the relationship that God has already established and offers, that God is our Father, we are his children. Prayer is addressed to ‘Father’. (Matthew has ‘Our Father’.) Given that the word Jesus uses is ‘Abba’, a term of intimacy, we begin with a certain confidence. God has made himself known to us as Father and we are invited to address God using the word that Jesus himself used, ‘Abba’. It’s the sound that a child makes, like ‘dada’, but it’s not childish because it also would be used by an adult to address his or her father.

Prayer is Reverent

…hallowed be your name.

We address God as ‘dad’, but this is no indulgent sugar daddy. This father is one whose name is ‘hallowed’, treated with respect. Matthew has ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’. This is our heavenly father, the who whose name is holy.

Prayer is about Ranking Priorities

Your kingdom come.

We pray first for God’s kingdom to come. Not ours. You are not the centre of the universe. The universe does not revolve around you. Matthew has:

Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

In prayer, we align ourselves with God’s will. And you thought it was about presenting God with a shopping list!

Then, Prayer is about our Bodily Resources

Give us each day our daily bread

Given that God knows what we need before we ask, why do we ask? Because we need to acknowledge our creaturely dependence on God. That’s the deal: God is Creator. We are creatures. Our daily bread is what we need to sustain us in our earthly pilgrimage. This is not caviar and champagne – though we may enjoy those on occasion – this is the staff of life, meeting our basic needs.

And Prayer is about our Spiritual Resources

And forgive us our sins…

Sin is what breaks our relationship with God our Father in heaven. In Christ, God has done all that needed to be done to restore that relationship. But we can drift away. Each time we pray using the Lord’s Prayer, we ask that the relationship be restored.

Prayer is about our Relationships with Others

…for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

Our relationship with God is always tied in to the relationships we have with others. We can’t expect God to forgive us if we are not open to forgive others.

Prayer is about having the Resilience to cope with life

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

It’s not a ‘get out of jail free’ card. I don’t know if you had noticed, but Christians – even vicars – do not necessarily lead charmed lives! We pray that we may have the resources to cope with what life throws at us.

Our prayer is that God will never take us to a place where we are stretched beyond our capacity to endure, to persevere.

Matthew has:

And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.


Prayer is never mere repetition or recitation of something we have learned by rote. It is

  • Relational
  • Reverent
  • To do with Ranking Priorities
  • We trust God for our Material Resources
  • and for our Spiritual Resources
  • We seek the Resilience to cope with what life throws at us.

Why did Jesus choose to die?

I had an email from a friend in a previous parish. His granddaughter had phoned to ask a question for her homework:

She wants to know why Jesus chose to die rather than “use his magic wand to escape”.

“Get out of that one”, my correspondent challenged. So, I did my best in a short space of time. After all, a child’s homework can’t wait. Here’s what I said:

In the temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11) Jesus has to choose between taking the easy way out and doing what is right. He chooses to obey God, whatever it costs. In Gethsemane, Jesus struggles with what he must face, but again chooses to do God’s will. When Jesus is arrested, one of his followers uses a sword to try to save him, but Jesus says that he could have asked God to send an army of angels to rescue him, but that is not how God’s purpose will be accomplished.
Christians believe that God offers salvation to us because Jesus was obedient “even to death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). And, “God shows his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
So, Jesus chooses to die, rather than use a magic wand to escape, because God loves us.

I’ll be interested to know what mark I get. I mean, what mark she gets…

The Epiphany

In the west, we think of the Epiphany as being mostly about the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. But there are other associations which we are invited to make during the season of Epiphany – including the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan and his first miracle, turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.

The word ‘epiphany’ means a manifestation or revelation. It’s sometimes used to mean a moment of inspiration: you’ve been thinking about something for days and getting nowhere. Suddenly, the thing that was hiding from you pops into your head. You’ve had an epiphany. Something that was hidden becomes clear, that’s what an epiphany is. In the Christian church we think of the mysteries of God – things long hidden – being revealed to us. Starting with the birth of Jesus where God shows himself definitively to us in the poverty and humility of the manger. Outside of the Holy Family, the first revelation is to the shepherds.

The first nowell the angels did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay…

The shepherds were humble folk, Jewish but not particularly religious. Then come the magi, the wise men. They are exotic rather than humble, and religious but not Jewish. The shepherds are familiar local figures, down from the hills. The magi are mysterious foreigners who have travelled far. Matthew (2:1-11) tells us that they follow a star to find the place where the new king has been born. First of all, in Jerusalem, they face another king, Herod, who is afraid when he hears that a new king has been born. They outwit him – well, they were wise men! – and pay homage to the new-born King in Bethlehem. These strangers are drawn in to the story of God’s dealing with his people. Right at the start of Matthew’s gospel we hear that the one who is born to be Messiah, in fulfilment of (Jewish) prophecy, is also King to the gentiles, the foreigners, strangers, outsiders. The Gospel is not just for us and people like us. It is Good News for all.

And that is the note of Epiphany: like dropping a pebble in a pond, the ripples move ever outward. From the narrow confines of the manger, the news of the birth of Jesus spreads, to Jewish shepherds, to gentile wise men. At his baptism, Jesus is revealed as God’s Son:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Luke 3:21, 22

In John (2:1-11) we hear of the first miracle of Jesus, turning water into wine – not just any old plonk, but good wine – and are told that ‘his disciples believed in him’. In John, miracles are ‘signs’ which point to something. They are epiphanies, moments of revelation. John will tell us of healings, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, and the raising of Lazarus. At these moments, the veil is drawn back and we see the truth about who Jesus is, and how he reveals God to us. And we are invited, like the first disciples, to respond with faith.

The pebble is dropped into the pool and the ripples reach out, from the manger, to us. We are here because the Good News has reached us. But what if the ripples stop with us? What if this is as far as they go? We are the last to be reached. The Good News comes to us, but stops with us. The season of Epiphany is a reminder to us that the revelation of God’s love to the world is not just for us. We are charged with allowing the ripples to go beyond us, into the wider world, where our families, friends and neighbours are.

At the start of this year, we might well think of how we can share the Good News of Jesus with those beyond the church. Where shall we start?

In The Bleak Midwinter

I’m sticking with the themes of the Epiphany season. On Sunday I took as my sermon topic: why I never choose ‘We Three Kings’ for carol services. Put simply, the Bible doesn’t say they were kings nor that there were three of them… There’s also no mention of camels or stables and the magi almost certainly didn’t come across the shepherds, as they do in our nativity plays. But there were three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, and they offer fertile soil for reflection. Gold is a gift fit for a king; incense is offered to God; and myrrh speaks of both healing and anointing for death. The magi are exotic strangers who are drawn by a star to the little one who is the Light of the World, showing that God’s plan for the world isn’t limited to his people, the Jews. The magi are foreigners, gentiles. They too are brought in to the story of the incarnation.

So, today my theme is: why I almost never pick ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, despite it being a favourite of just about everybody. It has a fabulous tune, by Gustav Holst, who was born in Cheltenham. The tune is called Cranham, which is the name of the Gloucestershire village where Holst lived when he composed it. The words are by Christina Rossetti:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

First of all, we don’t know when Jesus was born and it is unlikely to have been during the winter, bleak or otherwise. The shepherds were out on the hills at night, which suggests that it was not winter and that it was not bleak. And if it was in the winter, how much snow do you think there was in Bethlehem? It does apparently sometimes snow in Bethlehem in winter but it’s rare. And, if it happened when Jesus was born, you would have thought that either Matthew or Luke might have mentioned it. But they didn’t. So, no ‘snow on snow’.

But I guess that Christina Rossetti knew that. What she did is what artists have always done: she transposed the story of the nativity into her own world. White Christmases were more common in the nineteenth century than they are today (because of a ‘little ice age’ that ended around the 1850s). Climate change means that our winters are increasingly likely to be warmer and wetter than they were in Rossetti’s day. There’s something about bringing the gospel into our own time and culture that makes sense: the incarnation means that God makes himself known in human flesh, in a particular place at a particular time, but in doing so, God is made known in all places and at all times.

I recently wasted a couple of minutes watching a video online in which an animated Martin Luther argues with a couple of Anglicans over writing a Christmas hymn. Luther wants to write about the doctrine of the incarnation and God’s plan to redeem humanity. The English hymn writers want to sing about snow and livestock.

But there’s theological reflection in Rossetti’s poem, as well as the description of meteorological phenomena. King Solomon, at the dedication of the Temple, asks:

‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!’
1 Kings 8.27

The God who cannot be contained by heaven, let alone a temple built by human hands, deigns to dwell in a mere stable-place and to be content with “a breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay”. We’ll skip over the fact that the Gospels don’t actually mention a stable, nor the “ox and ass and camel which adore”, and dwell on the humility which God shows in coming among us as that most vulnerable creature, a new born human child, born in poverty. I also love the tenderness of the description of his mother worshipping her Beloved “with a kiss”, while angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim throng the air.

But the crunch comes with the final verse and this is what makes the hymn work in worship, despite the dubious meteorology and livestock references:

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.

At the epiphany we think of the magi with their gifts, honouring the new born King. With them we recognise that the greatest gift of all is the humble child in whom God is made known. And with Christina Rossetti we wonder what it is that we can give in return for such a gift. Shepherds and wise men had the opportunity to worship the infant King:

Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.

Alan Jewell

Christmas 2015

These days, television shows which use hidden cameras are commonplace. Back in the day, there was Candid Camera. Members of the public were put in bizarre situations and their reactions secretly filmed. And hilarity ensued.

My favourite stunt is from the American version of the show (1974). Children were interviewed and asked a hypothetical question. Imagine you could meet a legendary sportsman, like the boxer, Muhammad Ali. What would you say to him and what would you do? Muhammad Ali probably still is the most famous sportsman of the modern era. What would it be like to meet such an iconic figure, a legendary almost mythical character? What would it be like to meet Muhammad Ali, face-to-face?

The children have a variety of responses; questions they would ask, things they would say if they could meet the legend. Of course, while they are answering the hypothetical question, Muhammad Ali himself, in person, walks into the room, behind the child. While they are still talking, Ali taps them on the shoulder. They turn their heads and find themselves looking up into the face of the legendary, mythical figure. At that point they stop talking. Their mouth falls open and they are silent, for a moment at least. What had been a hypothetical question about a mythical figure is now a face-to-face encounter with a person who has entered the room.

And that’s what the Christmas story is about. The figure of myth and speculation has entered the room. We can speculate about God – whether God exists, what God might be like – but the Christmas story says that God has walked into the room and is not a concept to be debated, but a person to be encountered.

It’s time to stop talking about God. It’s time to meet God. We find ourselves looking into the face of God in – of all places – a manger, an animal’s feed trough. The last place on earth you’d go looking for God!

The trouble is, the God of our imagination doesn’t look like this: that most helpless of creatures, a new-born human baby. A weak, vulnerable child that needs a mother’s milk to survive; a baby that needs to be changed and cleaned by human parents. And don’t give me any of that ‘Away in a Manger’ nonsense about the little Lord Jesus – “no crying he makes”! Of course he cried, when he was hungry, cold, uncomfortable or dirty. Like any one of us.

The adult Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus and over the city of Jerusalem because it didn’t know the way to find peace. It seems highly unlikely that he didn’t cry as baby!

‘Once In Royal David’s City’ gets closer to the truth:

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;

He was little, weak and helpless.
Tears and smiles like us he knew.
And he feeleth for our sadness
And he shareth in our gladness.

The bible says, that’s what God is like: little, weak and helpless. The child in the manger, because there was “no room at the inn”, discovers there’s no room in the world. The earthly life that begins in a wooden manger, will end on a wooden cross. Mary’s child will be nailed to a beam and publicly exposed to humiliation. A baby in a manger or a man nailed to a cross is hardly in a position of power! But then, this man shows what real power looks like when he wraps himself in a towel and washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus shows us a God who chooses the role of a servant, not the boss.

Not the God you want? Other gods are available! The gods of power, wealth, fame, comfort, religion… But I’m sticking with this one! The one who, as ‘Emmanuel’ – God with us – offers to share our lives with us.

Of course, one day we will have to give an account to God of what we did with the life he gave us. That’s a terrifying prospect! But the bible says we can face it with confidence because of what that child in the manger has done for us: he has broken the barrier between us and God through his death on the cross. At the Lord’s Table we are invited to take bread and wine in remembrance of him; the God who makes himself known as the babe in the manger, the foot-washing servant, the man on the cross and in the everyday ordinariness of bread and wine.

Happy Christmas!

Do You See This Woman?

Luke 7.36–end

Jesus asks a good question. Let me rephrase that: does Jesus ask a good question? (You’ll have guessed that I think he does.) Here, the question addressed to a respectable religious man named Simon, is:

Do you see this woman?

How could he not have seen her? She’s in his house! And behaving… Like that! Such a notorious woman, a well-known ‘sinner’. How could he not have seen her? A woman like that! (We are never told what kind of sinner she is. But we can guess. Her reputation goes before her.)

Perhaps we wonder how a woman like that comes to be in the house of Simon the Pharisee. ‘Mr Respectable’ certainly didn’t invite her. We’re so used to living behind locked doors, keeping the world out, that we can’t imagine a world where, if you invite a celebrity to dinner, the whole street turns up.

And what does she think she is doing there? It turns out, that although the respectable, religious world has rejected her – they know what sort of woman she is! – Jesus hasn’t. And Jesus, through his actions, models what God is like.

Simon, the respectable religious man, thinks, “If Jesus were a prophet, he would know what sort of woman this is, and have nothing to do with her”. And here she is, bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair. Kissing his feet! Showing her gratitude and love in the only way she knows how, through intimate, tender touch.

Simon, do you see this woman? Simon hasn’t seen this woman. He has only see what sort of woman she is. Jesus has seen this woman: a unique individual, created in the image of God.

And so Jesus tells this story about the two debtors. Neither of them is ever going to pay back what they owe, but the banker lets both of them off! Given that one owed a large sum of money and the other, a ginormous sum of money, who is going to be more grateful? (A: The one who is let off the larger amount.)

Simon, the respectable religious man, presumably feels that God is jolly lucky to have him on board. This woman (and sadly we are never told her name) feels simply overwhelmed that God, unlike so many others, has not rejected her. That’s what Jesus shows in the way in which he accepts her love.

Jesus tells her that her sins are forgiven, that her faith has saved her; that she can go in peace. Who is this that even forgives sins? Jesus is demonstrating God’s love, welcome and acceptance.

The photographer, at ‘the wedding of the year’, is taking pictures of guests as they arrive in church. The bride’s mother appears in all her glory. “Young man”, she says to the photographer. “I hope that you will do me justice!” “What you need”, says the photographer under his breath, is not justice, but mercy.”

How do you approach God today? Demanding that he do you justice? (Be careful!) Or simply needing his mercy? (I know which I need!)