What Time Is It?: A Christmas Sermon

What time is it?*

On Christmas day I want to ask what time is it?

Most of you are probably thinking

why didn’t someone give him a watch for Christmas.

What time is it?

We read this morning from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians

and there he says ‘when the time had fully come,

God sent his Son, born of a woman’ (Gal 4.4).

What time is it?

Paul says it is the time of Jesus, the Son.

We live in a ‘present evil age’ (Gal 1.4) says Paul,

but now the time has fully come

and God has sent his Son, born of a woman.

Into our world,

God has interrupted time,

and has begun a new time:

the time of Jesus.

The author of the story enters the story

and begins to write a new chapter

and give the whole story a new end.

The whole of time now finds its meaning

in the birth of Jesus.


The phrase ‘the time has fully come’

could mean that everything had happened

that needed to happen in order for God to see his Son,

God’s plan from the beginning of creation

            through Adam and Eve

                        Abraham and Sarah

                        Moses and Miriam

                        Ruth and David

                        Isaiah and Esther

reaches its climactic point at this moment:

God enters time.


The phrase ‘the time has fully come’

could also mean that all that is opposed to God:

sin, death, and evil

your time is now up

for God has sent his Son;

your time is over,

the end of sin and the end of death

is now in view.


What time is it?

It is God’s time;

the one who is beyond time,

who sees all time – past, present and future – as an eternal now,

enters time, adopts it, embraces it,

in order that time might be healed,

in order that time and those who live in time

might share in the eternal life of God.

We are those living in the new time of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit,

and therefore

no longer, says Paul, are we bound by the old time,

where we were slaves to sin and to the law,

where we under the sentence of death

we are now, says Paul, those adopted into God’s time,

we are now living in the time Jesus, born of a woman,

who is now our brother and we are God’s children.


Christmas announces the beginning of God’s time,

            the old time is passing away

and God’s time is becoming the new time we live by

and it all began with the birth of a child

to a woman named Mary.

Christmas is the beginning of the end,

            for the coming of Christ

            is the decisive moment that means we can no longer

            consider history has just one thing after another:

            history and future are now focused in Christ.                        

What time is it?

It is the time for joy and grace and truth

for light and love and life.

The long wait of Advent is over,

God has arrived.

It is the time for joy and grace and truth

for light and love and life

because Jesus is the source of all our joy,

            Jesus is full of grace and truth

            Jesus is the light of the world

            Jesus is the love of God in the flesh

            Jesus is life – life as God intended it to be.

It is the time for joy and grace and truth

for light and love and life

because of Jesus

            and as those who celebrate the Christ-child

            we are Jesus-people;

      so let joy be our song,

            let grace and truth be the seasoning for our words

            let light fill our hearts and minds

            let love – the vulnerable love of Jesus – be our habit

and let life of the kind that points towards the Life-giver be our gift;

            the kind of the gift that remembers

that Jesus is for life, not just for Christmas!

Amen and Happy Christmas!

* J. Lou Martyn in his Anchor Bible Commentary suggests this is the question that the letter to the Galatians seeks to answer.

Walking Backwards to Christmas

Nativity-with-Burning-Bush-1991-Albert-Herbert-1925-2008Stephen Cottrell has written some fantastic books in recent years - 

The Things He Carried: A Journey to the Cross

The Nail: Being Part of the Passion

Christ in the Wilderness: Reflecting on the Paintings of Stanley Spencer

The Things He Said: The Story of the First Easter

 All written for Lent and Easter.

Walking Backwards to Christmas is his first book for Advent and Christmas. 

It's brilliant. In resembles The Nail as it offers a series of monologues from different characters in the story. However rather than telling the story from beginning to end, he tells it from the end to the beginning, beginning with Anna in the temple (Luke 2), and the journeying backwards through Rachel  (a mother who has lost a child to Herod's massacre), Herod, Casper, David (a shepherd), Martha (innkeeper), Joseph, Elizabeth, Mary and back further to Isaiah and finally Moses. Cottrell's inspiration comes from a painting by Albert Herbert, pictured on the front cover called Nativity With the Burning Bush.

Cottrell's imaginative imagining of each character's feelings and choices pushes the traditional story in new directions. Particularly powerful are the chapters on Anna, Rachel, Martha, Elizabeth and Mary - the grief and pain, the conviction and faith.

I used edited selections for our Carols by Candlelight service. It's probably too late to read this book now in Advent, but would make a great read for the 12 days of Christmas, or to wait until next year. 

Baby Talk

Christmas Day 2013

A few weeks ago there was praise yet again for the oratory of Barak Obama at the Nelson Mandela Memorial Service. He knows how to deliver a speech, to put together a set of words in a way that lifts them beyond our everyday talking, that connect with us in not only the words, but in their sound and their delivery. As well as politicians, we think of the great actors. During the autumn the National Theatre celebrated 50 years, and through a number of programmes there was an opportunity to see Laurence Oliver, Maggi Smith, Michael Gambon, Judy Dench, Adrian Lester, Derek Jacobi and others entrance us with speeches from playwrights old and new. Human culture at its most astonishing is seen in music, art and also the poem, the play, the novel. Words strung together in patterns that make us wonder, think, love, weep, be inspired and so on. Stop a moment and think about just what it is to speak words, to communicate the trivial and the profound, the mundane and the unusual …

At Christmas though, we celebrate not fine speeches or clever sentences, but baby talk. The way you cannot help but talk to a baby with funny sounds and made-up words. And as Mary and Joseph gathered round their tiny baby, and as shepherds turned up and later other visitors, we can imagine that there was no quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Homer’s the Odyssey, but a lot of coo-ing and goo, goo and ga, ga.

At Christmas, we celebrate baby-talk, because that it is the way God always speaks to us.  The church Reformer, Martin Luther said ‘when God speaks to humanity, he always speaks in baby-talk'. What he means by this, I think, is that first, God, because he’s God and we are, well not God, speaks to us in ways that we will understand, God speaks with a simple language … like a parent might speak to a baby. Second, God uses ‘baby-talk’ because ‘baby-talk’ is a language of love. If you ask someone who knows about child development they will tell you that ‘baby-talk’ is essential for a baby’s flourishing – all the cooing and tickling, grinning and silly chatter that goes on between parents and their young builds trust that is essential for one’s whole life …

Our reading from Hebrews, says God has spoken in many and various way, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son. In Jesus, God speaks not just like a parent to his child, but as a baby himself. God’s baby-talk takes on a new meaning. Stop a moment and think, for at least a year, Jesus spoke no words perhaps beyond whatever the Aramaic for ‘mama’ or ‘dada’ is. We declare at Christmas that the gospel begins not in the words of the adult Jesus, but in gurgling, laughing of a tiny baby. This is not incidental or insignificant to the gospel, this is God’s announcement that the good news is one in which God goes the full distance, taking no short cuts …

This messes with our theology, this messes with our faith, this messes with our world – we want an ordered, clean, reverent God … and God comes via the blood and water of birth, God comes pooing and weeing, God comes crying and screaming. There was perhaps so irony as we attempted on Sunday evening at our carols by candlelight to have this reverent service where we sing carols about the birth of Jesus a baby and we were surrounded by the noises of children. As I reflected after the service perhaps what we experienced was God saying to us: ‘Don’t you get it? Aren’t you listening to the words you’re singing? I came as a BABY!’ Our neat attempts to experience the mystery, to receive the quiet, to celebrate the holy, get disrupted by baby-talk. Ours is not a tidy faith, ours is not a neat faith, it’s as messy as the baby found in the manger. God in Jesus enters into our messy lives as one who creates a mess of the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-holy God we so often want. Here in this moment God turns power, knowledge, holiness on its head. So today, tomorrow and at least until the 6th of January embrace the baby, listen to the babbling baby-talk and discover the love and presence of God that messes up our lives and redeems us from our adultness that wants to be in control. And remember that the grown-up Jesus was heard to say that it was like a child that we receive the kingdom of God …

A Nativity Story

(This was my attempt, poor as it is, to try and do nativity story a la Julia Donaldson)

In a village named Nazareth our story begins with
A man called Joe with hammer and saw
A handsome donkey enjoying his straw
A gossiping gaggle of women next door
A stern village leader who growls and who glares
And a young girl called Mary without any cares

And Joe said, ‘Ugggh’ as his hammer hit a nail
And the donkey said, ‘Ere-ore’ swishing his tail
‘Chatter, chatter, chatter’ said the women without fail
‘I like everything right’ said the old village leader
while Mary said, ‘I want to be more than a cook and a cleaner’

One day in Nazareth
An angel appeared, out of the blue
to Mary he said ‘a baby is growing inside of you’
‘Wowzers’ said Mary, ‘But I’m still a virgin!’
Joe said ‘What is this that’s now occuring?’
‘Ere-ore’ said the donkey his head a-turning
‘Well I never!’ said the women at the front door
while the village leader’s chin dropped to the floor!

On the long road to Bethlehem
The very pregnant Mary lets out a tired sigh
An anxious Joe holds her hand – what a good guy!
The donkey, ambles behind, under the night sky
The gossiping women said ‘What a journey to make; hope not too late!’
The village leader said ‘At least they married before the due date’

In Bethlehem town it’s busy and bustling
The first inn-keeper said ‘Full-up, no room’
The second was sorry ‘it’s the census boom’
The third said ‘I’ve a stable where you can sleep’
With no other choice, Mary and Joe lie down in a heap
While even the donkey is soon making no peep

During the night, in a make-shift maternity ward
Mary said ‘Oooowwww’
Joseph said ‘Push’
The donkey said ‘Ere-ore’
And Jesus went ‘Wwwaaaaaaa’

During the same night, on a cold hillside nearby
Angels appear with news of a birth
Some shepherds said ‘What on earth!’
the Angels said ‘No, peace on earth, and goodwill to all men’
well the sheep are stunned – all a fright in their pen
and the shepherd’s ask, ‘Just tell us where and then when!’

Later that night, in wonder and joy
shepherds arrive, having left their employ
To see for themselves the tiny new boy
Into the light, what a sight!
There’s Mary, there’s Joe and a donkey there too
All looking at Jesus, wrapped in cloth coloured blue

From far away country, a long journey to make
Travelled wise men without any break
They followed a star, shining so bright
To Bethlehem it led them night by night
And there they found, the king long foretold
And gifts they gave, incense, myrrh and precious gold

This tale we tell, at each Christmas time,
With song, and story and even some rhyme
It’s a story of God who loves everyone
that he sent from heaven is one, only Son
so to Jesus we come, please hear us today
as we say, with Mary, ‘Lord have your way!’

12 Days of Christmas

Back to school today. My first post of 2006 is on the service Hannah and I planned and led on Sunday. We borrowed some ideas from Shrewsbury Youth Office on a service they ran on the 12 days of christmas song. It's definitely something to consider running next year. We set up 12 different stations, one for each of the days of christmas:

partridge in pear tree - Jesus on the cross
two turtle doves - old and new testament
three french hen - faith, hope and love (1 Cor 13:13)
four calling birds - the four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
five gold rings - the torah
six geese a-laying - six days of creation (Gen 1)
seven swans a-swimming - seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:1-3)
eight maids a-milking - beatitudes (Matt 5)
nine ladies dancing - fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5)
ten lords a-leaping - ten commandents (although I changed this to the 10 distinctives)
eleven pipers-piping - eleven faithful apostles
twelve drummers drumming - twelves points of belief expressed in Apostles' Creed

We completely changed the church space. As the congregation arrived they look very uncomfortable, and a few people left. By the end I think the majority of people really valued the time and felt God really spoke to them through one or several of the stations. This is the first time I've done something so alternative in a morning service and it was, if anything, an interesting experiement to see how the church coped. There would be a few things I'd do differently again, but on the whole I think it was creative and accessible to all ages, which is the aim of our whole church services.

My 10 Distinctives were
1. God-worshippers only
2. Idol-free
3. Use God's name for praise alone
4. Keep the sabbath for God and resting
5. Think highly of those who look(ed) after us
6. Celebrate the gift of life
7. Faithful to those we love and who love us
8. Givers not takers
9. Truth-tellers
10. Happy with what we have

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas!

Matthew 1:1-16 Christmas Eve Communion 2005

We might think it’s strange and puzzling to start a story with a long list of names, many we’ve probably never heard of. But, this is no ordinary story and this is no everyday list of names. This is more than a list of names, this is the story of Israel in miniature according to Matthew – from it’s beginning with Abraham to – to it’s climax – the story of Jesus. This list of names functions as a summary of God’s story with Israel.

Names are important – especially in the Bible - when we mention a name immediately we connect that name to a story. The mention of a name will call to mind past events, stories and associations, a world of meaning. Names can be remembered fondly or fearfully, can bring a smile or a scowl, names can be honoured and can be shamed. Names identify who we are and who we belong to, whether it be our family name or the name ‘Christian’ which marks us as one following and joined to Christ Jesus. We are given names. We have generally little choice about them and as we grow older our name becomes a shorthand for our character, for our life. When someone hears our name what stories would they tell about us? What is or who is associated with our name?  Does the mention of our name bear witness to the truthfulness of the story of God?

This list of names that Matthew records, this family tree of Jesus tells a history of honour and shame, of praise and disgrace. It functions in one way to show Jesus’ credentials, to show that he is the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham and the promise to David, the one Israel has been waiting for. But Matthew also uses it to show that the way the story of Israel unfolds, the way God guides and brings his story to this point is not as we might expect … God chooses the unexpected, unpredictable choice … so we find there is Abraham who both trusts God and also takes things into his own hands … there is Tamar, who tricks Judah, her father-in-law into sleeping with her (Gen 38) … there is Rahab, the prostitute who helps the Israelites capture Jericho (Joshua 2, 6) … there is Ruth, a Moabite, someone from outside of Israel, God’s chosen people … there is David who sleeps with Bathsheba (who is not even mentioned here by name) and then has her husband Uriah killed (2 Samuel 11) … there is then a list of the kings of Judah, who, with the exception of Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah are described as doing evil in the sight of the Lord and leading the people astray, in particular Manasseh, who is described in 2 Kings 21 as being the most evil and sinful of all Israel’s kings ... This is not a history of good and upright people of God. Why does Matthew recount this history? Because God ways are not our ways and God’s plans are not our plans.  God is the God of surprises, of the unexpected … Matthew tells us this because the story of Mary and then the story of Jesus which will follow is a story of the amazing and astounding God realizing his salvation purposes. The way of Jesus into the world is a story of a young woman becoming pregnant outside of marriage, and who is then shoved off (according to Luke) to her cousin Elizabeth, so the family can pretend it hasn’t happened; a husband who is unsure and most probably embarrassed and humiliated by the events, who wants to do the right thing, but … In particular let us consider Mary: what was running through mind during those 9 months – fear most certainly, exhilaration maybe, anger, distress and awkwardness, delight – why does God ask her to do this? What was God doing choosing her? Was her pregnancy easy? Did she worry about having a miscarriage or a still birth? She must surely have spent many hours wondering what manner of child might this be? … Let’s not turn this story into a fairytale or a romance … Matthew’s list of names, says to us, God’s story is never a fairytale – its in-your-face inescapable reality, a full roller-coaster ride of emotions. Beneath the surface of Matthew’s and Luke’s different nativity stories is a story in which we are probably all secretly glad that we are not Mary or Joseph - we are glad God has not asked us to play their role in his story. But, what kind of role has God asked us to play in his story? Perhaps for some of us think we’d like to be the hero – the saviour of the church, the reviver of a nation; sorry, but Jesus has already taken that role. Actually I want to suggest that our role is to be that which we secretly fear: it is to like Mary who says ‘let it be, I am a servant of the Lord’ and Joseph, who does what God commands. Our role, like it was for Mary and Joseph will be scary, uncomfortable, cause us to get angry (most likely at God), but equally it can be exhilarating and joyful. Being distinctively different, being a disciple – one who follows Jesus in all things – is never in God’s story ‘and they lived happily ever after.’   

Whenever we think we have God worked out, fitting neatly into our human-made God-shaped boxes. God says, think again. Think again. Free your minds. Empty them. ‘I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?’ (Is 43:19) The story of God is one where we are left in wonder and awe. Is that your experience?  God does not keep himself at distance, but takes the plunge and becomes nothing.  He strips away all his power, might, knowledge, glory, all that was obviously divine, all preconceived ideas of God-ness are discarded, and God chooses to be conceived within a young woman’s womb and be born into this world (some of the wording here is borrowed from The Complex Christ, Kester Brewin, 2004). The story of the God who becomes incarnate is the story of a God who breaks into the world in the most astonishing and miraculous way … he turns our world upside down, back to front, inside out. When you have waited - when we have waited - for God to come to us for so long … he comes quietly and without warning in the frail and dependent life of a baby, utterly reliant on a mother’s love and care. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said earlier this month:

“Christmas is the Christian’s Christmas present to everybody else. Christmas, for a Christian tells us why people matter. They matter because God took us seriously, seriously enough to get involved with our lives to suffer with us and change things. That’s what I believe, that’s what Christians believe and Christmas exists because of that belief … that’s our present, that’s our gift to the rest of the world”

People matter to God. We matter to God. Every child matters. Every person matters. Where so often we think the only people who matter are those who appear on our screens and in our magazines, Christmas – the coming of Christ into the world – says every person is important and valuable, and perhaps especially those who live at the margins, those who are easily forgotten.  Matthew ends his summary of Israel’s story with Israel still in Babylon, still in exile. A people displaced, a people under foreign rule, subject to high taxation, alien laws, brutal oppression and a pagan society. Israel would ask if they were God’s people, called to be his true humanity, why did God allow his people to be trampled on and left at the margins? Did they not matter to God? The Christmas story of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, is God’s act of saying, I’ve not forgotten you, I’m doing something about it, although in a hidden and different way to how you might expect, yes you do matter, but also, every person matters – in fact, you failed to be the light to the nations I wanted you to be, you failed to show that every person matters to me. When we feel God’s left us, abandoned the church, allowed the world to trample on us, let us make sure we don’t miss what God is doing and asking us to do. 

A few years later, Jesus was on a hillside and teaching that Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the who hunger and thirst, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted, which is Jesus’ way of saying people matter to God.  Again the Christmas story demands our response, how do we show that people matter to God? Do we treat each other as those who are made in the image of God?

Does the mention of our name bear witness to the truthfulness of the story of God?
What kind of role has God asked us to play in his story? To be a Mary or Joseph?
Do we pay attention to God’s way of working or we always watching for bright lights?
How do we show that people matter to God?

Christmas is ...

For many Christianity is a beautiful dream. It's a world in which everyday reality goes a bit blurred. It's nostaglic, cosy, and comforting. But real Christianity isn't like that at all. Take Christmas, for instance: a season of nostalgia, of carols and candles and firelight and happy children. But that misses the point completely. Christmas is not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice old place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place, where wickedness flourishes unchecked, where children are murdered, where civilized countries make a lot of money by selling weapons to uncivilised ones so they can blow each other apart. Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don't light a candle in a room that's already full of sunlight. You light a candle in a room that's so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are. The light shines in the darkness, says St John, and the darkness has not overcome it.
(Tom Wright, For All God's Worth, SPCK, 1997)

10 Challenges for this Christmas

As people start shopping and planning Christmas about this time ... I thought I'd post this now, earlier than perhaps I would like ...

1) Having a spending limit per person (say £20) and give any extra money you would always spend to Tearfund or such like
2) Give friends and family an unusual gift from oxfam unwrapped
3) Control the amount of time you watch television
4) Attend christmas eve midnight communion - usually the best service during the christmas season
5) Enjoy food that is fairtrade where ever possible or locally grown (remember that where the average weekly food budget in the UK is £155.54, in Chad it is £11.27)
6) Invite someone to share Christmas with you
7) Read the Christmas stories (Matt 1:18-2:23; Luke 1:5-2:49) together and listen
8)  Get an credit card from an ethically-minded bank like the coperative bank and support a charity like Tearfund (and cancel all your other credit cards)
9) Don't get drunk on christmas eve (or christmas day or boxing day)
10) Remember Jesus is for christmas, not just for life