Archive for January, 2016

Fulfilled in proclamation

Posted: January 25, 2016 in Uncategorized

24 January 2016, Good Shepherd, Battle Hill

Luke 4. 14-21

Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing

This week’s passages are about the power of the Word
Why is Scripture powerful? Where does its power come from?
Why does it not speak powerfully to everyone, all the time?

Nicky Gumbel, has described his first real encounter with Scripture: “I was completely gripped by what I read. I had read [the Bible] before and it meant virtually nothing to me. This time it came alive and I could not put it down.”

He cannot really explain what happened – why was his experience that night so different from all the other times he’d tried to read the Bible?
What Gumbel experienced that night was the power of the Spirit to bring the dead letter to life

Some people treat the Bible like magic book – as if just having it in the room made a difference
There is nothing magical about Scripture; it’s much more powerful than that
We can sit down with determination to force some meaning out of the Bible
But nothing will happen to us unless God acts first (Although a bit of serious study always helps)
The Word is only powerful when it speaks to us through the voice of the Spirit

What the people in the synagogue in Nazareth experienced that day was not just the teaching of Jesus
It was the Holy Spirit speaking through Jesus – and Luke is at pains to make that clear
– Luke tells us Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit when he returned from the Jordan – he has received the Lord’s anointing
– Jesus announces to the people that he is filled with the Spirit
– He reads the words, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me from Isaiah
– And then immediately applies them to himself, by saying,
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing

Questions of faith always involve us in circular arguments
Jesus says, you can believe the Scripture is fulfilled in me, because I’m telling you it is
I’m filled with the Spirit because Scripture says I am
And you can believe what I tell you, because I’m filled with the Spirit
If you disbelieve any one of these statements, you reject them all – and you reject Jesus

The proof that’s most available to the people in the synagogue is Jesus himself
He speaks with authority, because he is filled with the Spirit
It’s up to the people to decide whether to believe him
Whether to believe he truly is the Messiah – the Lord’s anointed One
But what enables them to perceive his authority? What enables them to believe?
It’s the same Holy Spirit

We face the same question in church every week
Can I receive what I’m hearing with faith – does this message bear the Lord’s anointing?
Is it the Word of God, or just human breath?

But unless you are open to the movement of the Spirit, you won’t be able to tell
Without the Spirit, you can still say whether you liked the sermon or not
Whether you agreed with it or not; but those are just opinions
What we all have to pray for is the discernment of the Spirit
That the Lord will anoint both the words we hear, and our understanding

Advertisements

Make our lives a hymn of praise

Posted: January 25, 2016 in Uncategorized

24 January 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Psalm 19

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

We don’t pay the psalms as much attention as we used to
We don’t sing or read whole psalms in church – we just pick out a few verses we like
Perhaps use them as a call to worship

But one of the best sermons I ever heard was an exposition of a Psalm
The preacher started with the background: he taught us how to read the psalm
He showed how the psalm spoke to the people who originally heard it
And then he related their situation then, to our situation now

Psalm 19 is a very unusual psalm, for two reasons
Firstly, you will have noticed that it falls into two parts
Verses 1 to 6 tell us how the universe sings hymns of praise to our Creator God: there is no actual speech or word, nor is its voice literally heard. Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth
This is a very remarkable passage – there is nothing like this anywhere else in the Bible

Verses 7 to 14 are a prayer song. The verses of the song are equally divided between
– praise to God for giving his Law: The Law of the Lord is perfect; the Lord’s precepts are right and make us joyful
– the speaker’s worry that he might have failed to keep it: Who can know all his errors?
– and a closing prayer to God for acceptance: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable

What has happened is that two originally separate psalms have been brought together
The first part is very old
The second part is much more recent – it comes from the time of Ezra, after the exile
But the two have been brought together because they seem to comment on each other

Let’s remind ourselves what a psalm is: psalms are songs
Songs are written to be performed
If there’s a performance, there’s an audience
If the performance use words, there is a message for the audience
They are meant to interpret what they hear – and apply it in some way to their own experience

So what is the message of Psalm 19?
– It’s one of three so-called ‘torah psalms’, in other words psalms about the Law
– The others are 1 and 119

The core message of the torah psalms is that God’s Law is a blessing to us
– We should be grateful for it
– It’s a privilege to be able to study the Law (we can apply that to Scripture generally)
– Scripture is as sweet as honey: we should love having it in our mouths
– When we go to bed, the words of Scripture should still be flowing through our minds

Why have these two psalms from different periods of history been brought together to make one psalm?
It’s simple, really: it’s all about how we see God’s glory revealed
The first verse of the first part says, The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork
The first verse of the second says, The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul

The hymn of praise to our Creator becomes a moral lesson
If you want to see God’s glory revealed in the heavens, just look up
But if you want to see God’s glory revealed in his Commandments, you have to obey them – you have to live them out

Compare your own life to the rhythms of nature
The constant turning of the earth that gives us night and day
The orbit of the moon that gives us our tides
The movement of the earth around the sun that gives us our seasons and our years

The physical universe is ruled by laws
Scientists and theologians agree about that

Compare the regularity of the days and months and seasons to the patterns of your own life
So many choices; so many decisions; so many opportunities to forget God’s way

The physical universe has no consciousness of its own existence
That is why it is so easy for the stars and planets to follow the physical laws that determine their behaviour – they have no choice

The psalmist sees the order and harmony of the universe
He sees the beauty and order of God’s commandments
And he looks at the lives of wrong-doers
He wishes the lives of human beings were a better testimony to the wisdom of their creator

He imagines the order and harmony of the movements of the heavens being put into song
And he creates another song – a song of prayer
He prays that God will write his Law as deeply in his own being, as the physical laws are written in the stuff of the universe
He prays that his life, too, will become a perfect hymn of praise to God

That desire to make Scripture a part of us is what links this psalm to our gospel reading
– The psalm encourages us to take Scripture to ourselves
– In the synagogue, Jesus takes the Scripture to himself: he says, the words of the prophet are written about me

Jeremiah speaks of flesh replacing stone, of the Law of God being written on the human heart
Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of that prophecy
Jesus fulfilled the Law and the prophets – he lived them out fully, in his human life, death, and resurrection
It is only in Christ that the Law of God is perfectly inscribed in human flesh, and perfectly lived out

Only grace reveals to us the God behind creation
Only grace satisfies the will of God revealed in the commandments
Only grace reveals Jesus Christ to us as our Saviour

Salvation is a free gift – that is how Paul describes it in Romans 5.15
But the gift of salvation does not let us off the hook – every gift creates an obligation

We still have the same obligation the psalmist speaks of
To try, with the help of the Spirit, to harmonise our will with God’s Word
To make our lives a perfect hymn of praise to God

17 January 2017, St George’s, High Heaton

Matthew 22.1-14

The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy

I talk a lot about how to read Scripture. Being a Christian isn’t all about reading books
But how we read Scripture shapes how we represent our faith to other people

If we aren’t confident readers of Scripture, we won’t be convincing when we speak about it
Or when we try to live it out: if we read timidly, we’ll live timidly
If we read arrogantly and dogmatically, that’s how we’ll speak

Let’s ask a literary question: is the Bible a comedy or a tragedy?
Of course that’s a silly question, because the Bible has lots of books
And all those books contain lots of stories and other pieces of writing
But what kind of ending do all the writings in the Bible point to?

English teachers tell us, the difference between comedies and tragedies is in the ending
You can have tragedies full of jokes, and comedies full of fear and danger

But tragedies have sad endings; comedies have happy endings
Tragedies end with a death (sometimes lots of deaths); comedies end with a wedding

This parable is a story about a wedding
Perhaps that lulls us into a false anticipation of a happy tale

But this parable is certainly not a comedy: many of the characters come to a sticky end

There’s a happy ending for the guests invited in off the street
But then, at the last moment, the guest without a robe is thrown out into the darkness

How do we make sense of such a complicated story?
One question to ask when you read a passage of Scripture is, where do I stand as I read this? What point of view do I take?

If it’s a parable like this one, who am I meant to identify with in the story?
Do I see things from the king’s point of view? From the son’s? The slaves who deliver the invitation? The guests who refuse to come?

Do I see myself as one of the last-minute guests dragged in off the street?
If so am I one of the good guests, who might deserve an invitation, or one of the bad, who probably don’t?
Or am I outside the story altogether, looking at events from a distance?

I think the real answer in this story is, our point of view shifts; our sympathies move
We sympathise with the king who is insulted when his generous invitation is refused
We feel his rage when his servants are abused
We feel sympathy for the servants, who become the innocent victims of an irrational hatred whose real target is the king himself

But at the same time we can’t help identifying with the perpetrators of the crime
Because we know we too are good at making excuses to avoid fulfilling our responsibilities
We suffer from the same tendency to adopt convenient beliefs – that our moral decisions have no consequences

Who do we identify with in this story?
When you read a story, you usually know you are meant to identify with the goodies
But there’s a secret pleasure in identifying with the baddies, at least a little bit

With parables like this one, it’s different
You are offered a variety of different people to identify with
One of them represents the type of person you should be – here, the grateful guest
The others represent the types of people we probably are

You are invited to engage in some honest self-criticism
By finding how much you have in common with characters who are at least flawed, if not entirely wicked

Is this a realistic story?
It may not match our own ideas of things that could really happen
We may be guilty of dreaming up a feeble excuse to avoid a party we think we won’t enjoy
But it’s hard to imagine ourselves murdering the postman who brings the invitation
Psychologically, it feels wrong

So, this parable is not realistic in the way a novel is realistic
But it is not a novel – what it really is, is a potted history of salvation in parable form

Why are we being told this story?
It could have been written as a prophecy, warning a Jewish audience to recognise who Jesus is, while there’s still time
It’s more likely to be a story intended for a Gentile audience, who recognise themselves among the strangers on the streets – the ones invited in place of the original guests
Suddenly enjoying a party hosted by a king they had never heard of

The story depicts on one level how faith in Christ has divided Jewish and Gentile communities
It is also a warning to Christians not to repeat the mistakes of the past
God’s people have never been faithful in their dealings with him
They have always been tempted to place in the realm of fiction the possibility there might be eternal consequences if they reject God’s gracious offer of welcome

This story is both a comedy and a tragedy – a comedy for some, a tragedy for many
The comic ending is the marriage of Christ and the church
The tragic ending is the final outcome of the fatal pride of those who turn away from God
What ending would we like for ourselves?

Called by his name

Posted: January 10, 2016 in Uncategorized

10 January 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton  Covenant service

Isaiah 43.1-7

I have called you by name, you are mine

Last year in our Covenant service I talked about the relationship between covenant, the sacraments, and creation

I argued, creation reveals to us how absolute God’s power is
The covenant reveals how determined God is to form a relationship with us
The sacraments of baptism and communion point to the Incarnation
They reveal how far God will go, in order to come us

All of these things remind us how much God loves and cares for us
At the same time, they remind us we have no power over God
And yet, we persist in acting as if we had

We still think of ourselves and attempt to live as autonomous beings, capable of making our own decisions about how we relate to God and care for creation and each other – as if love and faithfulness were optional
But the whole point of a covenant is that it is not a matter of individual choice

What do we mean by a covenant?
A covenant is a treaty or a loyalty oath
Often between a powerful ruler and a subject people, following an act of conquest
God does not literally write covenant agreements and hand them to us
The covenant is just the nearest human equivalent of the way God has chosen to deal with us

There are three things to remember about God’s covenant:
1 God is our Lord and King: he makes a covenant with us, not the other way round
2 The covenant is not a settlement negotiated between equals: God dictates the terms
3 God makes his covenant with his chosen people, not with individuals

That third point is the one I want to focus on today
Because otherwise we might miss the point of this covenant service

We all individually decided whether or not to come this morning
We decide for ourselves whether or not to join in with the words everyone else is saying
No one can tell, as we say these words, how far they are echoed in our hearts

So there is an inbuilt temptation to regard the covenant as a matter of personal choice
As a private matter between ourselves and God
But that would be a grave misunderstanding

The Bible tells us, God created everyone
But he chose one people to enjoy a special relationship with him – a covenant relationship
God promised certain things to his people, and obliged them to do certain things in return

I must stress, God did not choose specific individuals: he chose a people
The Israelites or Hebrews: the people we in modern times know as Jews

We still accept that the Jews occupy a special place in relation to God
But we believe that God revealed himself in a new way in Jesus Christ
A new way that makes it possible for people who are not ethnic Jews to enter into a saving relationship with God
And so we have a Bible with two Testaments – relating to the old and new Covenants

But the principle of salvation has not changed in the New Testament
Only our understanding of what it means to belong to God

Under the old covenant, you belonged to God because you belonged to Israel
Under the new covenant, you belong to God because you are belong to the body of Christ

Let’s think about that, in terms of baptism and Communion
These days we are used to seeing people baptised one at a time
So it looks like an action performed by the church for a single individual

But really, there is only one baptism for the whole church
The body of Christ is all those who have been baptised into the name of Christ
Christian baptism has been practised for nearly two thousand years
– but there’s only one body, so all these individual acts of baptism are one baptism
– and similarly, when we share communion, we should think of all God’s people sharing it together

That collective experience of belonging to God we celebrate in the sacraments corresponds exactly to what we hear described in our reading from Isaiah
God heard his people crying to him in exile
They were helpless and in despair, because they knew they were responsible for their own situation, because they had turned away from God

But he called them by name – by his own name, the name he had given them
In other words, he confessed that those people belonged to him, that they were his own

He called them back to their own land
He guided them across the wilderness, and through the waters of the river
And on that journey, he cleansed them and purified them
They died to the mistakes of their past, and were born again into God’s promise
So that journey out of exile and back to the Promised Land was a kind of baptism

God did not do these things for individual believers, one at a time
He did them for his whole people, together

What we have gathered to do this morning is bigger than ourselves, bigger than our congregation, bigger than our denomination
The words of the covenant have meaning only because we speak them to God, together
As we celebrate communion and re-affirm our covenant relationship with God, we don’t just say, “I believe” – we say, “I belong”
We belong, as a people, to God – he is ours, and we are his

Wisdom, mystery and riches

Posted: January 10, 2016 in Uncategorized

3 January 2016, St George’s, High Heaton

Matthew 2.1-12  Ephesians 3.1-12

Bring to the Gentiles news of the boundless riches of Christ

Scholars have pointed out various problems in the story of the Wise Men from the East
We saw earlier on today that these problems don’t originate in Matthew’s gospel itself
They come from the way we’ve put the accounts of Jesus’ birth in different gospels together
And from a lot of creative story-telling over years
Even into our own day, in films and children’s books and Christmas cards

This story-telling is not necessarily a bad thing
The Nativity scene in our crib might not be accurate
But it brings all the elements of the birth story together in a way that appeals to our imagination and makes it easy to remember

But what we have to do, is to keep coming back to the accounts in Scripture
To keep re-reading the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth and infancy so we don’t confuse the traditional stories with what the Bible tells us
And also, to go on reading the other passages of Scripture that have formed our traditional understanding of the events of the Nativity

This reading from Ephesians is a case in point
It says nothing directly about the Nativity at all – certainly nothing about the Wise Men

But it points to lots of things which are central to the meaning of the Incarnation
Paul talks about the mystery of Christ
– and if the story of the Wise Men doesn’t make us think about the mystery of Christ, then we really have missed the point

Then there’s the obvious fact, that the Wise Men are not Jewish
That is significant – the fact that they are called to make that journey from so far away
Their journey to Bethlehem is a sign
A sign, as Paul says, that the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Then there’s the other obvious fact
That whether the Wise Men are kings, or palace soothsayers, their adoration of the Christ child in the manger is a humbling of themselves
– a sign of how we all are called to becomes servants of the gospel

So there are many things in these few verses from Ephesians that help us to reflect on the Nativity
But I want you to think about two things in particular: riches and wisdom
Paul talks about the boundless riches of Christ
He talks about the rich variety of the wisdom of God

The story of the Wise Men is a story about riches and wisdom
The nature of real riches, and the nature of real wisdom

Two things we assume we know about the Wise Men is that they are wise, and they are rich
We know they are wise, because their name tells us they are
We know they are rich, because they have treasure chests full of expensive gifts

But as usual, it ain’t what you have – it’s what you do with it that matters
Herod has riches without wisdom
Herod has the wealth to build palaces and a fabulous temple and whole cities; he has the power to enforce his decisions
But without wisdom, it all turns literally to dust and ashes
The power of this death-dealing tyrant does not bring life; it does not give security or happiness

Paul tells us, real wisdom is to know the mystery of Christ
Real wealth is to have the boundless riches of Christ
The Wise Men have both riches and wisdom – because they searched for Christ and found him, and offered their riches to him
Those are the riches and that is the wisdom we still search for in our own lives of faith

Why do angels talk to shepherds?

Posted: January 10, 2016 in Uncategorized

25 December 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton, & St George’s, High Heaton

Luke 2.8-20

Why did the angels appear to the shepherds?
Who would they appear to now – someone on their way home from a meal out with friends? Someone pushing trolleys in a supermarket car park after closing time?

There is an obscure Jewish tradition that shepherds would be called by an angel to bring up the messianic child
In which case, Mary and Joseph are intruders

But in the context of our story of Jesus, there are important reasons why the angels should speak to the shepherds
– They are conveniently gathered together
– They are found in an isolated spot, far enough from town be addressed by the angels without anyone else overhearing (because this news is not for everyone – not yet)
– Everyone knows, shepherds in the Bible have a special relationship with God

The shepherds are not told to come and see just for their own benefit
The message they are given is meant for others, too
By the nature of their occupation, they are outsiders
The message they receive is intended for people who live beyond the wall

The earlier witnesses in Luke’s gospel received a testimony about the origins of Jesus: about Jesus’ kingship
– it’s a message for Israelites, for insiders

These later witnesses receive a testimony about the last things, concerning Jesus’ divinity and his role in our salvation: I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people
News of the birth of a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord
The fulfilment of those words from Isaiah we all know: all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

If you think about it, it’s a topsy-turvy passage; it’s upside down
The shepherds are given a sign, but it’s the wrong way round
Instead of an earthly sign, pointing up to things in heaven, they get a heavenly sign, pointing down to things on earth

Angels point them to that humble scene around the manger
Something very ordinary becomes the proof of something miraculous
Something that never happened before – the union of heaven and earth, through the loving act of God

Still, today, we are called to do the same thing
To be a humble, earthly people, testifying to the reality of that miracle – that God came down to earth

24 December 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in—we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands (John 1.1, The Message)

I know you’ve all heard of Wonga; Newcastle has a special relationship with Wonga
Why are they called Wonga? Because Wonga is supposed to be a fun name
It’s supposed to gloss over the fact, they’ve talked you into paying 1500% apr for your pocket money

Wonga have a new slogan: credit for the real world
What is this real world? I think we’ve begun to lose our sense of reality

When people in the past bought things they couldn’t quite afford, they would pay for them on hire purchase
They called it, buying on the never-never
Making fun of the idea that you could have things without paying for them
As if you could be like Peter Pan, living in Neverland, never having to face the future

You could enjoy the fantasy of having a house full of luxury goods you couldn’t really afford
But if you couldn’t keep up the repayments, reality would arrive in the form of a van at the door, to take the goods back again

But now we’re being kidded into believing that payday loans are a sensible option
Credit for the real world: what world are Wonga talking about?
What kind of reality?

You can answer that question by asking another one
Why do Wonga run more adverts at this time of year?
Because so many people run out of money in December and January

Why do people run out of money in December and January?
Because they spend so much on Christmas

Why do they spend so much money on Christmas?
Because they believe the real experience of Christmas is something you can buy

They want to see the faces of their children light up when they open their presents
They want their family to sit down to the perfect Christmas dinner
They want to throw their friends a party they’ll always remember

That type of hope is actually a kind of fear
The fear of forgetting something, of getting something wrong
The fear of disappointment – of letting people down

The perfect Christmas you see on television isn’t real – it’s a dream they try to sell you
What Wonga offers isn’t credit for the real world at all
They just give you the means to chase a fantasy with borrowed money

This church isn’t interested in fantasy – we believe in reality
We believe the gift God gave the world at Christmas was a free gift
He offered it to everyone, and he’s still offering it now
The reality of Christmas is Jesus Christ himself

To receive this gift, all you have to do is to believe
If you want to know more, just ask
Shopping changes nothing – faith changes everything

Entertaining angels unawares

Posted: January 10, 2016 in Uncategorized

20 December 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

Hebrews 12.14-24, 13.1-2

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares

“Entertaining Angels” was a film about Dorothy Day (not Doris Day)
Dorothy was an American journalist and social activist

She edited a campaigning newspaper called the Catholic Worker for almost 50 years, beginning during the Depression
She fought for the rights of workers and the poor – even when that brought her into conflict with the authorities of the Catholic Church
Pope Francis spoke highly of her, in his first encyclical

She is remembered for many pithy sayings:
Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily
The object of Christianity is to make the rich poor and the poor holy
The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us

She had a personal crisis at one point
She was challenged to begin a practical ministry of hospitality to the poor
That challenge came from a friend of hers, Peter Maurin

Maurin was an eccentric French philosopher and social activist, who lived as a vagabond at times
He forced her to think seriously about these words from Hebrews: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

These words from Hebrews were inspired, of course, by stories in the Old Testament
Like the story of three angels who appear to Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18)
He treats them with humble courtesy, and offers them the best of everything he has, even though he has no idea who or what they are

We know Abraham from the Bible had talks with lots of important people – not to mention God
He was a tribal leader – his days must have been filled with meetings we don’t know about
What survives are the stories of significant encounters like this one
Where he demonstrates his generous hospitality, long before he has any reason to believe these strangers might deserve special treatment

Our challenge, today and every day, is to see Jesus in everyone
As Dorothy Day herself put it, If we hadn’t got Christ’s own words for it, it would seem raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality for Christmas–or any other time, for that matter–to some man, woman or child, I am replaying the part of Lazarus or Martha or Mary and that my guest is Christ. … There are no haloes already glowing round their heads–at least none that human eyes can see.
And yet we do have Christ’s own word for it: if we’ve done it for them, we’ve done it for him

Christmas is a good time to think about hospitality
We are citizens and householders
Our homes are our own: hospitality is something we can offer, or withhold
No one has an automatic right of entry through our door

But we are not just citizens: we are Christians
Christians have no right to choose who to welcome
Jesus demands that we treat everyone who comes to us, stranger or friend, poor or rich, invited or not, as if they were visiting angels

Many people looked at Jesus, and all they saw was a nuisance
Sometimes, we probably look at the people on our doorstep through the same eyes
Only the spirit of welcome can reveal the angels to us

The King is in your midst

Posted: January 10, 2016 in Uncategorized

13 December 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Isaiah 12.2-6  Zephaniah 3.14-20

Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel

Last week, the most important words we heard in the lectionary readings were, prepare the way

Malachi 3.4: I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me

Luke 1.76 You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways

Luke 3.4 As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Of course, we interpreted those readings as referring to the ministry of John the Baptist
But it still remains the task of God’s people in the world, to prepare the way of the Lord – to make his paths straight

This week, the three central words are, in your midst
You find them in both of these readings from the prophets

Isaiah says, Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
Zephaniah says, The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst

These are words familiar in Scripture
They are reminders of Israel’s special relationship with its God

When the Hebrew Scriptures say the Lord is in the midst of Israel, that is literally what they mean
The special place of God’s presence on earth is the Holy of Holies, behind the veil in the temple

This picture of the world is a bit like a target
The Holy of Holies is the bullseye: it’s at the heart of the temple

The temple is at the heart of Jerusalem
Jerusalem is at the heart of the kingdom, and the centre of God’s world

There is a Jewish tradition that says, the rock on which the temple altar stood was the very spot where Abraham came close to sacrificing Isaac
That rock was the very centre of the earth
It was the point from which creation began
So when the prophets said,
the Lord is in your midst, they meant literally that

But what does that mean for Christians?
What is its relevance to our celebration of Christmas?

To answer that question, we have to think about the different circumstances in which these two passages were written
The Isaiah passage did not come from the prophet we call Isaiah – or any of those prophets
Its style is much closer to those psalms we call the enthronement psalms
Which were either songs used in the coronation rituals of the kings of Israel and Judah
Or poems written in the style of those songs

So it is a celebration of kingship
Kingship imagined as an institution sanctioned by God, and modelled on the rule of God himself

The setting of the Zephaniah passage is entirely different
It’s a passage offering reassurance – a promise of restoration after a time of disaster and suffering

What time was that?
We have a choice of two possible settings

It comes either from the time when the people came home to Jerusalem after the exile in Babylon
Or it comes from an earlier time of hope, when Judea had been saved from the threat of conquest by the Assyrians
When king Josiah had embarked on a programme of wholesale reform of the temple and national religious life

Both views might be correct – the passage might have been written before the exile, then revised to fit the circumstances of life after the exile
We simply do not know

We could argue about it – but we don’t really need to know
To us, both passages are examples of how the early church reinterpreted the Hebrew scriptures as prophecies of the coming of Jesus Christ
And how we still interpret those passages today

Not just as prophecies of the fact of Christ’s coming – but prophecies of its significance
Clues
to what Jesus meant, when he told people, the kingdom is at hand

When we apply those words, the Lord is in your midst, to the coming of Christ, we mean he is really here
Not just as a symbolic presence
Not just as an empty room no one is allowed to enter, behind a veil at the heart of the temple

But as a real, breathing, flesh and blood human being
Healing, teaching, offering signs, telling stories, challenging people with what he knows about the way they live and what they think

Our trouble is, we’ve slipped into believing in a faraway God
We’re more comfortable with a God who came and then went away, than with a God who is in our midst

But that’s what Christmas is all about
Immanuel, which means,
God with us
Jesus Christ, the God who became flesh – who lived among us – who tabernacled with us

Jesus Christ, who set in place and demonstrated in action a new relationship between those who believe, and the God they believe in
Who is still with us, through the agency of his Holy Spirit

Who comes to us today in our prayers, in our praise, in our hearing of the Word
Who invites us to his table
Who is in our midst, simply because we have gathered in his name
Because we have remembered; because we have believed