Archive for December, 2015

Ready for Christmas?

Posted: December 7, 2015 in Uncategorized

6 December 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

Malachi 3.1-4  Luke 1.68-79

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me

Are you looking forward to Christmas?
We heap such a weight of expectation onto just one day
We’ve got just one day to
– Open all the presents
– Prepare all the food and eat it
– Play all the Christmas games
– Watch all the big films and Christmas specials

We have made Christmas into a problem
Specifically, we have made preparing for Christmas into a problem

We put everything we have into making Christmas Day a perfect day
But the reality is bound to fall short

Unfortunately, the effort of preparing for this mythical perfect day overshadows all the good things we could be doing in Advent
Things that would be good for each other; good for ourselves; good for our faith

The second Sunday of Advent is when we think about John the Baptist

Why is John the Baptist important at this time of year?
Because he was sent ahead of Jesus to proclaim his coming
But also because he tells us, today, how to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christ’s birth

We heard two different passages: one from the Old Testament, one from the New
But both with the same central theme, of preparation

The passage from Luke is a prophecy spoken by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist
The passage from the prophet Malachi is perhaps more difficult to interpret
But it speaks of a messenger sent to prepare us for the coming of God
And the Christian church has always assumed that this messenger was John

The three most important words in these two passages, the words that unite them, are: prepare the way

Malachi: See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me
Luke: you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways

The first point to note, of course, is that preparation is necessary
This world is not ready to meet its God
We as individuals are not ready to meet our God

How does John tell the people they should prepare for the coming of Christ?
He tells people to repent and be baptised

This is not a sackcloth and ashes message
John’s Christmas message is not that Christians should be miserable while everyone else is enjoying themselves
But John’s Christmas has a different shape to everyone else’s

I want you to draw something in your heads
Imagine a graph showing the excitement of Christmas, the way advertisers show it
The graph seems to start rising earlier every year – the moment summer is over

It goes up and up and up until Christmas Day
It rises up and up, into an unimaginable heaven of perfect, unending joy and happiness
They seem to suggest, you can go up and up, and never come down

The advertisers’ representation of Christmas builds to a crescendo
But it says nothing about the morning after
After Christmas Day, it’s the sales and the bills
Facing the reality, that in spite of all the hopes, nothing has changed

Now imagine a different graph
Imagine a U-shaped graph, that goes down and then rises
That’s the shape of our Advent

We have to alienate ourselves from the false, in order to discover the true
We stop trying to create a false sense of excitement
We stop trying to buy an escape from our problems
We look critically at the promises advertisers make
We start noticing the unconscious faith we have placed in this world’s offer of happiness

Through traditional practices like fasting, we try to make a downward journey, away from the false excitement of made-up occasions like Black Friday
We try to strip away anything false or inessential
We try to gain a sense of how little we actually need
We free up our minds so that we can give more time to God
That can be difficult: that’s why we look for opportunities to share the journey with other Christians

John had just two commandments for the people: repent, and be baptised
What I’ve described is the process of repentance: turning away from the world, and back to God

Of course we don’t baptise anyone more than once
But we do encourage everyone to reflect on the meaning of baptism
You can picture baptism as the same U-shaped graph

Traditionally, you took off your old clothes (it was a single-sex ceremony)
You descended into the water
You came out on the other side and were dressed in new clothes, to symbolise your new life

The water was deep: you went, all the way down, over your head
Some people at least must have found that frightening
In a way, it’s meant to be: the water symbolises death

So there’s a time of fear and uncertainty
But then, in the depths, we feel ourselves being raised up
It’s a visible symbol of God’s promise of salvation
We are raised up from the water, and we pass from death to life

Why did the crowds follow John out to the Jordan?
Why did they travel all that way?
Was it just a masochistic desire to be criticised and harangued?

No: they went because they saw in John the hope of salvation
A sign that God had remembered them, in their miserable, downtrodden state
A sign of God’s promise, to raise up children for Abraham
A sign of God’s promise made through Jeremiah, that David would never lack a son to sit on the throne of the house of Israel

We remember the hope given in Christ – and we hope to see it his year with a special clarity
Because this year we will have cleared away all the clutter that has built up around the celebration of Christmas
And in the days before Christmas, we will prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth, with a real sense of the newness of hope that event brought into our world

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Taking faith for granted

Posted: December 3, 2015 in Uncategorized

30 November 2015  Reflections from NCLC, Westgate Hall

Revelations 2.1-7

I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first

I had a pre-Christmas day off on Sunday, so I don’t really have a sermon to post here – just a reflection on someone else’s.

A chance to visit someone else’s church is a rare privilege, and this time my family and I decided to go to the midday service at the Newcastle Christian Life Centre, NCLC for short, which is proud to be ‘part of the Hillsong family’.

The church has taken over the Westgate Hall, familiar for many years to Newcastle church-goers as the Prudhoe Street Mission. The Senior Pastors are Jon and Dee Cook.
Jon was preaching this week.

The text was Rev 2.1-7, the message to the church of Ephesus
The key verse was,
I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.

But Jon’s real text was, Don’t take things for granted
His practical illustration was his nocturnal visits to the bathroom, occasionally enlivened by an invisible clothes drier left out in the dark hall for him to fall over
The unseen drier transforms a short routine journey into a dangerous adventure

And that’s where the comedy of domestic life impinges on our faith understanding
Understanding, if it is real understanding, is an adventure; and, like any adventure, it is dangerous (as Hans-George Gadamer has said)

Jon’s message was, don’t let church life become routine
Keep coming back to the dangerous excitement of hearing the gospel message for the first time

Jon made one practical observation that I hope struck home to his congregation
Looking from the stage, he couldn’t see anyone who had brought a guest
Visitors like ourselves, who made it into the building under their own steam, didn’t count
He wanted to see members of his church inviting their friends

That was something I didn’t expect to see here – the first signs of an ageing church
A church in danger of growing too comfortable for its own good
A church in danger of becoming self-serving
The time to sound a warning is as soon as the first signs appear

I’ve jumped ahead in my account of Jon’s message
Jon talked first about how words lose their meanings when we say them too often
Phrases like, taken for granted
What does it mean, to take something for granted?

One common meaning is, to accept that something is true, often without acknowledging an opposite opinion
There’s a suggestion of complacency here – which is what Jon was warning against

It’s as if the war is over – as if we no longer have to fight for understanding
We’ve got too used to the gospel – we’ve lost sight of its strangeness
It’s stopped challenging us – we’ve grown lazy
– so we can’t challenge what other people believe
We just go on repeating lists of truisms to ourselves, and each other

The precise meaning of taking things for granted hinges on that word, granted – or grant
What does it mean?

The most common meaning today is something like this (adapted, as usual, from Wikipedia):

Grants are non-repayable funds or products disbursed by one party (grant makers), often a government department, corporation, foundation or trust, to a recipient, often (but not always) a non-profit entity, educational institution, business or an individual

That’s a mouthful, but we can pick out the bits that matter to us

A grant resembles a gift, in the limited sense of being non-repayable
But it’s not a gift, because to get it you have to demonstrate in some way that you deserve it, or are entitled to it – that you satisfy the conditions for the grant

Theologically, that is where the danger of presumption creeps in – assuming that you are entitled to something – taking it for ‘granted’
Just because you hang around with the right people and do the right things

There are some truths very basic to faith we have to keep coming back to
One is that we do not – cannot – deserve anything from God

Everything we receive from God is a gift – we have not earned it
Everything God does for us is a gracious act
If we want to know what salvation means, we have to forget all about ‘entitlement’
We have to stop taking salvation for granted

When you take anything for granted, you fail to appreciate it
You overlook the fact that it’s a gift – that it is something given by someone else
You fail to appreciate the cost to the giver – whether that’s the monetary cost of a bunch of flowers, or the emotional cost of conceding an argument or offering an apology
If you take any of these things for granted, you commit the social crime of ingratitude

Ingratitude is a sin, that involves two other sins:
– Firstly, the sin of covetousness, because you help yourself to something that belongs at least partly to someone else
– Secondly, a failure of love: the worst sin of all: the sin that encompasses all others

So let’s do as Revelations says, as Jon encouraged us to do
Let’s return to our first love
Let’s get out of our comfortable beds – leave our familiar routines
Let’s rediscover our sense of wonder and adventure
Let’s relearn what it means, to be grateful for things that may be unwelcome, but which enable us to grow

Encountering the new can be a bruising experience
But bruised shins are better than dead faith