OT Lectionary Christmas 2 Isaiah 60:1-6

‘Now what?’

Realistically it may well be that the references to gold, incense, and, to a lesser extent, camels, have led to this passage being set for Epiphany, which no doubt many churches will be celebrating this Sunday. It is easy to see how the visit of the Magi to the young Jesus could be found here. But in its original context this passage is probably addressed to Israel newly returned from exile and asking the question ‘Now what?’


I’ve spent the Christmas holidays reading David Bosch’s magisterial Transforming Mission, where he traces the paradigm shifts that the church has undergone down the years in its understanding of just what it is supposed to be doing in terms of mission. What became clear to me was that in our changing thinking we have got it wrong far more than we have got it right. This passage is, I believe, a challenge to Israel to think bigger, to rediscover their original calling, and to go for nothing less than world domination!

I’ve never lived in exile, but I guess if you do the one thing which preoccupies you is getting out and getting home. You live, eat, breathe and sleep both hope and disappointment. But if you do finally make it back to where you belong, the question ‘What next?’ must be a huge one. It can’t take long for the novelty to wear off, and the Israel of the time of these final chapters of Isaiah has the feel of a somewhat disillusioned, purposeless and nominal bunch of people. Haggai suggests to us that in the absence of anything more exciting to occupy themselves, people simply turned to DIY and home improvements.

So the prophet brings them what in years to come would be the message of Epiphany, that God is for everyone, and not just ‘PLUs’ (‘people like us’). God chose Israel to be the waiters and waitresses of the eternal banquet to the gentile guests, but so often they had simply been content to sit and eat themselves. This passage calls them to something bigger and better: they must become those to whom all the nations would come, seeking wisdom, seeking light in their darkness, and in turn bringing tribute and praise to their God. When the Magi came to visit the infant Christ this process started as for the first time those outside the Jewish nation brought their worship to Christ.

This is therefore an incredibly challenging passage to a church in a time of marginalisation. It seems crazy to suggest that David Cameron might ring up the Archbishop of Canterbury and say ‘Tell me what to do, O Man of God, about unemployment, or the recession, or crime or people-trafficking’. My guess is that ++Justin would be pretty near the bottom of his speed-dial list. But what a vision! A church alive with the wisdom of God, receiving tribute from those who had finally come to see how much they needed us. A church winning the respect of those who had previously had no time at all for us.

Is that how it should be? Some would claim that the church is at its best when vulnerable, weak and marginalised. After all, a crucified Messiah isn’t much to write home about. But I believe we have at Epiphany a picture of something which may for now be only a dream, but which is in God’s purposes for his people: a victorious church receiving the tributes of the nations.

OT Lectionary Christmas 1 Isaiah 63:7-9

One of the things about the Anglican lectionary with which some people feel really unhappy is the practice of ‘filleting’ or cutting out verses or paragraphs, usually because they are not ‘nice’. The church has an amazing ability to want to make everything lovely, so verses about dashing children’s heads against the rocks aren’t quite the sort of thing we want to read during Evensong. Christmas is a great time for this, being the time of ‘peace on earth, goodwill towards men’ (or, as the text actually says, ‘goodwill to those on whom God’s favour rests’, which is a very different thing.

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Today’s OT reading is a song of praise to God for all his goodness to Israel, for his kindness in choosing them and saving them. He has recognised in them a people who will be faithful to him, and he has been good to them through good times and bad. When things went badly for them, he felt their distress and acted in their favour. He truly is a great God to them. It doesn’t take much to see why this passage in chosen in the aftermath of Christmas, when we celebrate again the kindness of the God who has felt our distress, chosen to step into our world and save us, acted for our salvation, and invited us into relationship with him. But then the compliers of the lectionary, in their wisdom, stop there, rather than going on to verse 10:

Yet they rebelled
    and grieved his Holy Spirit.
So he turned and became their enemy
    and he himself fought against them.

It seems to me that this is one of the central dilemmas of preaching and living the Christian faith: we do try to make it a lot nicer than it actually is. Today in my cathedral (well not mine, just the one I go to) they will be celebrating the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket, martyred in 1170). Yesterday was the celebration of the Holy Innocents, the ‘collateral damage’ children slaughtered by Herod around the time of Jesus’ birth. I have rarely found churches who did anything about this festival: after all it kind of spoils the mood of Christmas a bit, doesn’t it?

But the truth of today’s passage is a truth which runs deeply through the biblical record at all levels: God’s kindness demands a response. The reason there is still not peace on earth or goodwill to all is that human beings have chosen war and cruelty instead. God can be kind to us until he is blue in the face but unless we respond positively to him it will be worth nothing. And perhaps we need to hear that particularly during the time of greatest sentimentality, and resist the temptation to make the good news nicer than it actually is, or God kinder than he actually it.

OT Lectionary – Christmas – Is 9:2-7


Is 9:2-7

The Lectionary provides for several different sets of readings for Christmas midnight and morning: I’ve chosen Is 9 because it comes up so regularly and will, I bet, be the OT of choice for many people. The interesting thing about this well-know passage is the mix of tenses. The people have seen a great light; you have shattered the yoke; a child is born, a son is given; but then in the middle of the passage the boots and clothes will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. And then the coming Messiah will reign, and God’s zeal will accomplish all this.


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We’ve seen before the two (at least) stage fulfilment of OT prophesy: nowhere is it more clearly exhibited than here. And herein lies the eternal dilemma of Christmas: how can we preach and sing about peace on earth and goodwill when the world is clearly in such a mess. And how can the Messiah who came and went 2000 years ago have any relevance to us as we still live in great darkness. Anthropologists tell us that many cultures have some kind of a winter festival to help people through the cold and dark until spring begins to approach, and we know that the Christian church took over its Christmas celebrations from the pagan Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“the birthday of the unconquered sun”). So is that all there is to it? Is Christmas simply about a chance to let our hair down a bit during the long evenings until we can back to the beach in the summer?

Christians believe that the gospel is a gospel of something that has happened, something which is happening, and something which will happen. In Jesus’ birth a light has dawned, and one day he will be recognised as the Mighty God and the Prince of Peace. But in the meantime a lot of stuff is still only destined to happen. The fact that so many places in our world – Syria, Sudan – are still in deep darkness isn’t a failure of the Christian message, according to Isaiah. It hasn’t taken God by surprise that the world is in a mess and humans choose warfare and oppression over goodness and mercy. It’s just work in progress. Our calling always has been to worship Jesus as God and then to get stuck into his world, working with him against oppression until that which is destined actually happens.


Now, for those missing Steve’s Random Icebreaker:

‘Two sausages, both alike in dignity.’ Discuss.


I’ve got a new job.

What is it?

I’m working in a clock factory, but it’s only a front for a banknote forging business.

How’s it going?

Well, the hours are good, but the money’s rubbish.


What’s church for? Church as Fortress

I made the point previously that whilst most churchgoers know pretty well how they actually ‘do’ church week by week, very few of us have ever stopped to ask the question ‘Why?’ What are we meant to be here for, and therefore how should we be occupying our time? It seems to me that this is a highly urgent question, and I continue to meet more and more people for whom, for one reason or another, church just isn’t cutting it. Neither are we cutting it nationally or culturally, as we lose confidence under the onslaught of secularisation the new atheism, and marginalisation by the society for whose benefit we exist. 2013 has seen us fail signally to affect the political agenda as it has eaten away at historic Christian orthodoxy in the interests of ‘equality’ and political correctness. Church needs some attention, I reckon!

I began with the Bible – suggesting that at its most basic level church is there to carry on doing the stuff which Jesus did whilst he was incarnated here on earth. I could then skip on through church history and explore different understandings which have come to the fore from time to time: church as empire, church as withdrawal from society,  ‘christendom’, where it is assumed that everyone is a Christian really, and so on. But I want instead to get a bit more personal, and reflect on my own lifetime, and my own experiences of church for nearly 60 years.

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I was brought up as a nonconformist, and it seems to me now on reflection that the model of church which formed me was Church as Fortress. Even in the 50s and 60s we were aware that the new post-war culture was hostile to Christianity, and so what we had to do as Christians was to make sure we didn’t get tainted by the ‘naughty world’ around us. Certainly any engagement with culture was frowned on, because it would probably corrupt us. I can remember an impassioned sermon about why we should all make it an absolute priority to attend the mid-week Bible study, because we went out from Sundays into a world where people swore and drank, and we needed a mid-week top-up of God, because what we had received last Sunday would not on its own be enough to last us for seven days. My prevailing sense of the Christianity of my childhood and youth was all about what we weren’t supposed to do. I even developed the understanding (and I am now sure that this wasn’t official doctrine, just a child’s misunderstanding) that my eternal destiny, heaven or hell, depended on what I happened to be doing at the moment Jesus returned. At least this belief taught me to sin quickly, but if we did conform to the world the consequences could be deadly and eternal.

Is this understanding, of church as the fortress into which we barricade ourselves, alive and well today? I believe it is, although in some subtly different forms, since holiness has become a lot more unfashionable than it was back then. But the ‘change and decay’ mindset, in which the church is the final bastion of unchanging faith while the world around us goes to hell in a handcart, is alive and well among older people. This in turn has implications for those leading churches, whose job therefore is to protect their people from anything which might rock their equilibrium, like change, for example.

There is clearly much in the Bible about being holy, separate, blameless in a corrupt world and so on. But are we really here simply to pull up the drawbridge and try to be good?

Is there any of this fortress mentality in your church?

How does it manifest itself?

What does it demand of its leaders?

Dec 22nd Advent 4 Isaiah 7:10-17

Christmas and Easter are par excellence the times when OT ‘scriptures’ are invoked as prophecies about the circumstances of the life of Jesus, thus proving that God knew all along what he was going to do, and felt the need to give little hints to people which one day long in the future they (or rather their great great great … grandchildren) would suddenly ‘get’ when they saw Jesus. I blame Handel’s Messiah, which is full of the stuff, and makes it impossible for us to hear certain Bible passages without running the danger of bursting into song. Especially that ‘wonderful counsellor’ one. I once got myself into trouble speaking to a group of trainees at one of these youth gap year projects by daring to suggest that Is 7 isn’t actually a prophecy about the virgin birth, but might have had a relevance to the people to whom it was actually spoken. In context it is about God saying to king Ahaz, who feared a united attack from two enemy kings, that God knew exactly what was going on, had his hand on the situation, and was planning to do something about it. ‘But when?’ the king might have cried, knowing as we do that God’s next-on-the-list might take up to a thousand years. So God reassured him: this young girl you’re planning to marry and have a child with? Well before he’s a couple of years old these two kings will have been destroyed. It’s a message of deliverance, of hope, of assurance that God really is in control.

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And that, it seems to me, is the real point of this passage, and of its use just before Christmas. Apart from in Matthew 1:23 Jesus never once does get called ‘Immanuel’ , although we know that in a real sense he was ‘God with us’. Whether Is 7 does ‘prove’ the virgin birth or not I’ll leave you to decide. I have no trouble believing that a virgin could conceive, but a lot more in believing that this verse has very much at all to do with it. But Advent and Christmas are all about a God who knows, who cares, and who eventually will act. If we feel under siege, God knows. If we worry about what the world is coming to, we can be assured that God is in control and nothing humans can do will faze him. And if we despair of ever seeing change, God reassures us that the time is coming when he will act. So the message to us as Advent gives way to Christmas is to hold on, to stay hopeful, and to wait faithfully. And God, after all, is with us.

Preaching the OT Advent 3 Is 35:1-10

15th Dec              Advent 3             

Is 35:1-10


As with previous passages from Isaiah there is more than one focus, and more than one expected fulfilment here, but to understand it we need to do a bit of background digging first. It is generally accepted that our book of Isaiah is actually the work of three different authors, writing at three very different times in history and into three very different situations. However, it is not as clear cut as being able to say that chapters 1-39 date from this period, 40-55 from this, and 56-66 from another. In fact this passage from chapter 35 looks far more as though it belongs in the middle section: its language and message are far more appropriate to that era.

These middle chapters, written by someone we only know as ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ (now there’s a great name for your next kid!), were addressing a bunch of people who were living in exile, far from home, under an oppressive regime, and in what they regarded as a highly pagan society. So not unlike C21 Britain feels for Christians then. The message in a nutshell is this: things are going to get better. In fact they’re going to get better in lots of ways: the land itself will blossom, nature will be at harmony, healing and refreshment will be available, and God will ‘come’ with saving power to rescue and restore those who have become faint and weary from their exile.

I’ll leave you to draw your own parallels with the toughness of life today, and the hope of heaven made real by the first coming of Jesus and to be worked out fully at his return. Passages from the middle chapters of Isaiah are among some of the most comforting in the whole Bible, and like me you probably can’t hear them without wanting to burst into song with some lovely bits of Handel’s Messiah. But we must notice one more theme in this passage, a theme which occurs again and again in Deutero-Isaiah’s writings. The theme is that of separation or distinction.

There are some lovely promises here, but they aren’t for everybody. ‘Only the redeemed will walk there’ says v 9. ‘The unclean will not journey on it’ v 8 tells us. In fact the Bible is riddled with this kind of language. For me or against me, children of wrath or children of mercy, darkness or light, friendship or enmity with God … and we find it deeply offensive in our multi-cultural world to think that God might not welcome everyone and anyone, as long as they’re not really nasty like Hitler or someone. But this inconvenient truth invites us into a major theme of Advent – self examination and penitence. Are we feeble, fearful and about to give up? Do we know our need of healing? Or are we proudly assuming we’ll be fine because God wouldn’t dare do anything horrible to us? Advent isn’t good news for everyone, any more than Jesus’ first coming was.

Friday Fun – Tears for Nelson

I’ve written elsewhere my attempt at a tribute for Nelson Mandela, but here’s a lovely true story which I always think of when I hear the great man’s name.

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We happened to be driving back from holiday on the day of the Nelson Man­dela 70th Birthday Concert in 1988, so we explained to our two young boys that instead of following our normal practice of taking it in turns to choose tapes to listen to, Mummy and Daddy wanted to listen to the radio all the way, along with an estimated 600 million other people. Of course, they wanted to know what was on, so we explained (rather simplistically) that Nelson Mandela was a man with a brown face who lived in a country where the people with white faces didn’t like people with brown faces, and he had been in prison for twenty-six years, which was ever since Mummy and Daddy were little, and ever since our friend Helena was born.

About half an hour later we stopped in a the town of Lyme Regis for lunch, and had just got out of the car when Steve, aged 6, suddenly began to howl, just as if he’d fallen over or banged his head. He was inconsolable for a few minutes, but when he calmed down we discovered that he hadn’t hurt himself at all, but was crying `because of the man being in prison for twenty-six years’. Something about that situation had touched his little heart, and all four of us sat on the wall of the car park and cried and prayed together for a world where such evil can happen. As adults we would have just enjoyed the music of the concert, but it took a child to melt our hearts and show us something of the grief of God for his world. Nelson Mandela and South Africa stayed on Steve’s prayer agenda for years since.

And now back to the silly stuff:

I’ve got a new job.

What is it?

Traffic Warden.

How’s it going?


I’ve got a new job.

What is it?

Taser operator.

How’s it going?


And your random icebreaker from Steve (for it is he). Continuing our nautical theme (Nelson – see what I did there?):

What would you do with a drunken sailor?

Free Nelson Mandela

tribute with every five gallons of the other tripe I spew forth each week.

Thought I’d join in with the tributes to this great statesman and leader, but let me begin not in Johannesburg but in Belfast. A couple of years ago my son visited the city for the first time, and was amazed to see what a great place it was, with so much going for it. He later confessed to me that he remembered growing up in the church where I was vicar and hearing week in week out in the intercessions ‘We pray for Northern Ireland’, and thinking ‘What’s the point? We go through the same old prayers every week, but nothing ever changes.’ But seeing the place as it is now, he came to realise that tremendous change is possible. It’s not perfect, but so much has been achieved, and who is to say how much the faithful prayers of Christians for decades aided that process?

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There’s a lot of Nelson Mandela hagiography going on at the moment, and rightly so. As far as I can tell no-one is making great claims about a Christian faith, but he does appear to have achieved near-sainthood, if you use the word in its ‘secular’ sense to mean a very good person, rather than its New Testament sense. However, whatever his own personal faith he has set the rest of us a stunning example of Christlikeness which puts many believing Christians to shame.

First there is his ability to forgive. In his excellent obituary of his friend, Desmond Tutu (http://t.co/JtmCNH2L9P) claims that

The 27 years [in prison] were absolutely crucial in his spiritual development. The suffering was the crucible that removed considerable dross, giving him empathy for his opponents. It helped to ennoble him, imbuing him with magnanimity difficult to gain in other ways. It gave him an authority and credibility that otherwise would have been difficult to attain. No one could challenge his credentials. He had proved his commitment and selflessness through what he had undergone. He had the authority and attractiveness that accompany vicarious suffering on behalf of others.

I can’t begin to imagine that degree of forgiveness, which he has since shown to many of those who helped make his life hell. But that is exactly the kind of forgiveness to which Christ calls his followers.

But even more significant is his ability to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that things can change. Last Sunday in a stunningly good sermon in Canterbury Cathedral Nick Papodopulos used the picture of the root of Jesse causing damage to the well-established structures of society just as tree roots can damage even the strongest buildings today. I’m pretty sure Isaiah didn’t have this picture in mind when he wrote, but it is a striking image. Whether you were a Jewish peasant in exile, or a privileged Pharisee at the time of Jesus, it must have seemed that the way society was was a given, just as apartheid seemed so deeply entrenched in South Africa. Love it or hate it, it was there to stay, both for privileged whites and downtrodden blacks. Yet through patience, forgiveness and work towards reconciliation that bastion fell, and again, who knows how much the faithful, enduring prayers of God’s people world-wide helped in that process?

I note three things from this. I promised you a blog on ‘What is church for?’, and although it felt right to interrupt my plans to pay tribute to Madiba, actually I do have one answer: the church is there to pray. It is there to pray, to go on praying, to keep praying, to carry on praying, even when the systems it is praying against seem to be built so solidly that any hope of change is futile.

Secondly, from great pain can come great strength, which is something I’ve been trying to say in my #godingrimtimes thread. It’s not easy to see our suffering as the crucible in which God is refining us. And of course we always have a choice: just imagine how 27 years of imprisonment could have gone the other way, and produced an angry and bitter old man. Something in Mandela must have been receptive to God’s transforming grace, or he would have gone down in history as just another forgotten victim of a corrupt system.  Like the forgiveness theme, this really challenges me in my little tribulations.

The third thing is very simple: God takes his time. Both Northern Ireland and South Africa show us that change is possible, but that it rarely happens overnight. I don’t know how many times whilst on Robben Island Madiba felt like just giving up. But he hung on in there. That’s our calling too.

Nelson Mandela – I hope you’re resting in peace. btw – loved your shirts!

Games People Play

There is a well-documented piece of research which suggests that the more a church laughs together, the more likely it is to experience numerical growth. Of course this isn’t the only factor, but it is an important one. So during my ministry I have sought to help my churches to be as silly as possible. Not all churches have appreciated this, it has to be said, but the best times have been when we have lived our Christian lives together with a lightness of touch, a lack of taking ourselves too seriously, and a determination to have some fun.

So here’s a game for you to try. I was reminded of this by a friend who sent in an appreciative comment (I think it was appreciative) after one of my son Steve’s recent icebreakers. You can try this for yourself, and I’ll blog some new suggestions from time to time.

The game involves two people, although it can be done from the pulpit with the congregation having learnt their responses (this works well in Anglican churches). The generic script goes like this:

A:            I’ve got a new job.

B:            What is it?

A:            [suggests job or role]

B:            How’s it going?

A:            [provides awful punny witty answer]


You might need a bit more info than that to make sure you really get it, so here’s a couple of examples as starters:

A:            I’ve got a new job.

B:            What is it?

A:            I’m working as a lift operator

B:            How’s it going?

A:            Well, you know. Up and down.


A:            I’ve got a new job.

B:            What is it?

A:            I’m working in a fireplace factory

B:            How’s it going?

A:            Grate!


A:            I’ve got a new job.

B:            What is it?

A:            I’m working in a herb packaging factory

B:            How’s it going?

A:            Well, I’m finding I’ve got a lot of thyme on my hands.


And so on. Please feel free to add your own suggestions below. Let’s see if we can sweep the nation with this ‘new job’ epidemic.


Steve’s Random Icebreaker

A very deep and penetrating question for you this week as you seek to open up discussion at your group meeting.

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If you could be an international sporting star,

or a chart-topping rock musician,

or a world-class musical virtuoso …

then why aren’t you?

What is Church meant to be for?

I have a friend who is training for ordained ministry in the C of E, and quite frankly he’s struggling a bit with it all. The problem, he told me, is that while everyone thinks they know what church is all about, there has never actually been any discussion about it, and certainly, therefore, no agreed consensus. So much of their learning isn’t really aimed anywhere, or certainly anywhere which he would recognise as being useful. There tends to be a kind of lowest common denominator pretence that we all understand it really.

This problem, I realised, is a microcosm of the church at large. Not many of us, I would dare to suggest, have ever had much discussion about what it is we think we’re doing by belonging to this venerable organisation. Yet we all get on with it week by week, and most of us, if we have ever thought about it, will be working on our own personal agendas.

I have some thoughts about church myself at the moment. I find myself in the position of being a vicar without a church, having been bullied out of my last job and finding it difficult to find a new one. I tell you this so that you will understand that I might just be a bit jaded at this stage of my life. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it if I’m honest.

So I want to take a few weeks of my blog to explore this question. I’ll begin with a few historical reflections, based on changing fashions during my lifetime, but I want to go on and ask some deeper questions about the way we do church, and get a few rants of my own off my chest.


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I’m going to end this series with a model of church which I believe is a useful and biblical one, but it’s probably right to begin with the Bible too. Why did Jesus set up a church? Quite simply, I would argue, because he wanted the stuff which he had been doing carried on, by more people in more places. When St Paul called the church ‘the body of Christ’ he was literally right: the things which Jesus had been doing with his body were the same things he intended his followers to keep doing. As the famous prayer of Teresa of Avila says:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out with Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.

Now that right there would be an interesting thing for a church to do: look at what Jesus actually did do while he was physically on earth, and compare it to the things which occupy your church’s life. Now of course time does move on, and we can’t recapture all the simplicity of organising twelve blokes and plop it down into a world-wide organisation. But surely we ought to be able to recapture something of Christ’s priorities. That is going to be my starting point, but for now let’s take a trip back 60 years while I invite you to consider some of the models of church which I have experienced.

Next week: Church as fortress.