John Conway – Epiphany 2 (Week of Prayer for Christian Unity) – 20/01/19

It is wonderful to welcome members of Palmerston Place Church to St Mary’s in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is good to be together once again – a visible sign and foretaste of that unity for which we all long. Not just unity between and for ourselves, but that unity, that reaching out across difference, which our world desperately needs. Our readings today suggest something of what that being together, or more accurately, our following of Jesus together, might look like.

Quentin Blake, the famous author and illustrator of children’s books, wrote his first illustrated children’s book, more than fifty years ago. It’s a book called Patrick – some of you may know it.

It concerns a young man called Patrick, who, on something of a whim, spends his last pennies on a dusty old violin from a market trader. Having blown the dust off, he proceeds to play it as he walks along. You really need Quentin Blake’s exuberant illustrations at this point to bring the action to life, but unexpected things begin to happen behind Patrick as he walks along, in the wake of the music. A couple of scruffy, down at heel children, suddenly find their old shoe laces turning into resplendent blue and red bows. As they turn and follow Patrick through an orchard, the trees don’t just sprout apples and pears but cakes, hot dripping buttered toast, jelly and ice cream. My children always made me pause at that page to relish the moment, choosing what they would pick and eat. The birds in the trees sprout glorious plumage, and are joined in the sky by the fish leaping from the local pond. Patrick walks on with his violin, almost oblivious to the mayhem behind him, the glorious procession now joined by a herd of cows, their black and white hides suddenly sporting a profusion of colours and patterns. This glorious and strange procession, winding its way through the countryside, finally meets an old tinker and his wife. The procession stops, and the tinker’s wife pours out her woes – her husband is sick, pale and wan; they have no chance of reaching the town in time for nightfall, and she is worried. Patrick’s only response is to play his violin – the tinker perks up, colour returns to his cheeks, his skinny body plumps out; the procession begins again, wending it’s way to town, fireworks erupting from the pipe of the old tramp they also pick up on the way.

It’s a glorious tale, and worth recalling any time, but it came to mind particularly as I read today’s gospel, that familiar but strange tale of the wedding at Cana, the reluctant and almost unintended miracle of abundant wine. As Austin Farrer dryly observed, this a wedding where our Lord did not preach to the happy couple their Christian duty in marriage, rather ‘he saw to the supply of wine.’

Like all good jokes, that has a degree of perceptive truth about it. Unexpected, glorious, abundant things happen in Jesus’ wake. ‘Seeing to the supply of wine’ is, we are told, the first of Jesus’ ‘signs’, signs that will structure John’s Gospel. After the first chapter of his gospel concludes with the calling of the first disciples, John then presents this first public sign. John doesn’t want you to read too much into it – hence that strange exchange between Jesus and Mary about the hour being not yet here. That hour will come later, on the cross, the greatest sign of all – the crucifixion of the Son that reveals the limitless love of God in all its vulnerable glory. And yet, in this first sign the disciples see enough, this seeing to the supply of wine shows that they are in the company of someone who makes things happen; they are in the procession of someone around whom extravagant, exuberant, abundant things happen, they believe as Jesus ensures that the guests at a wedding can party on. ‘Seeing to the supply of wine’ is important and revealing.

On the face of it that importance is odd, however – Jesus appears reluctant; and this is a miracle of provision where the need is not exactly great. There might be some embarrassment for the steward as the wine runs out – but this relieving of a domestic crisis is small beer, if you’ll pardon the phrase, it hardly compares with restoring a blind man’s sight or raising a dead man in full view of his family, friends and neighbours – the signs that will come later in the gospel. Things begin in understated fashion, behind the scenes, with only servants as witnesses – those who can give no admissible testimony in a court of law at that time. It is only the disciples, we are told, who begin to see what being in Jesus’ company might mean.

In our OT reading we heard that wonderful intimate image of salvation being like the marriage of God and his bride Israel. John revels in the paradox that it is Jesus who, at this wedding feast, is the true, but unknown, bridegroom – God coming to restore salvation. And this bridegroom ensures that the necessary wine for a wedding feast does not run out – in fact, he doesn’t just replenish it but produces an overabundance of new wine – 120 gallons of the stuff. This is how Good News starts – not with Jesus drawing attention to himself, but by ensuring that the feast goes on; not with heavy pronouncements on the doctrine of marriage, but in a gratuitous, over the top supplying of new wine. Perhaps churches have something to learn from that.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul is urging his readers to notice the gifts, the abundance of gifts that are all around them, the Spirit of God at work in each person to build up the common good of all. So this is where Christian Good News starts, in having our eyes opened to God’s abundant providing – not worrying overmuch where it comes from, but delighting in the provision, in the abundant gifts present in ourselves and those around us, whose company we share.

So we gather in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as disciples, at the beginning of something, to find our stocks replenished, our joy rekindled, to feast with one another and in the company of Jesus. For we are wedding guests – invited along with all humanity – and the marriage feast is before us. This is where it starts and who knows what signs we might discover, what bursts of exuberant, abundant life might unexpectedly bloom as we learn to travel together in the company of Jesus. Amen.

Andrew Philip – Baptism of Christ – 13/01/2019

What words do you long to hear the most? What would be a good word for your soul to carry you through 2019?

There are probably as many answers to that question as people present this morning. But my guess is the words that most of us — perhaps all of us — long to hear have something to do with relationship.

When push comes to shove — as it too often does in this world where many are jostling for power and position — we all need to know that we are loved. This is more than a nice, touchy-feely sentiment: hard science confirms the importance of love for the healthy development of a baby’s brain. Child or adult, we all flourish when we are recognised, valued and loved just as we are, not for what we do, produce or consume.

Jesus, in today’s Gospel, hears that he is loved. And he hears it from the most powerful source: the voice of God the Father telling him, “You are my son, the Beloved”.

  • “You are my Beloved” this good word is for all of us and is one that we all need to hear.

It’s worth thinking about how the revelation of Jesus’ Sonship and Belovedness takes place in the context of baptism and prayer:

“when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying […] a voice came from heaven”

“When all the people were baptised”. Though this might seem like a throwaway line, it makes an important point.

First, this reminds us that, even though we might tend to think of baptism as the act of an individual, it is also very much a corporate event. If that was the case for the baptism John offered, how much more so is it the case for our baptism into Christ. More than simply a corporate event, it is an act of incorporation because it marks our becoming part of the Body of Christ — the Corpus Christi. This is why our baptismal liturgy includes words for the entire congregation, reminding us of the faith and mission of the church as a whole.

Secondly, baptism isn’t just an act of incorporation; it is also an act of identification. If we accept that Jesus was without sin, that leaves us with a big conundrum as to why he wanted to be baptised. He didn’t need to repent and he certainly wasn’t being baptised into his own Body. A standard answer is that he submitted to baptism out of solidarity with sinful humanity. I don’t know about you, but that argument leaves me thinking, “Yes, but surely there’s something more going on.”

One commentator I read (Carol Lakey Hess) says that, in submitting to baptism, Jesus shows that he understands the full implications of the incarnation — that is, he acknowledges that he is fully part of humanity’s broken set-up; he’s born into and from it.

We can all attest to that brokenness. The way that our systems, our social structures, steer and shape our options means that we are left with no unambiguous or sin-free choices. It limits our choice of what kind of work we can do, what clothes of food we can buy and even we can vote for. In other words, as Bruce Cockburn puts it in his song “Broken Wheel”, you “can’t be an innocent bystander in a world of pain and fire and steel”. In submitting to baptism, therefore, Jesus is saying, “I’m taking part in this mess. My choices are walled in by it too.”

If that’s the way we should understand Jesus’ baptism, then it means that the voice from heaven speaks the words, “You are Beloved” to someone who is as much a part of the messed-up system as we are — one who not only identified with broken humanity but identified as broken humanity. But one who also overthrew that system.

No matter how broken we are, no matter how sinful we are, we are Beloved of God. And this applies not solely to those of us who are in the club of the baptised but to the whole world. In baptism, we identify ourselves publicly as sinners in need of redemption, so we identify with the whole of humanity. We also identify with Christ in his death and resurrection and so enter the truth of our Belovedness. But we were Beloved before our baptism, even before we believed, even before we were born. As the First Letter of John says, and as we are reminded every Sunday, “We love because God loved us first.”

This should make all the difference in the world. It should put the words of our reading from Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you”, at the core of our being and it should drive our actions. But we often find it hard to lay hold of this truth.

I think it is significant that Luke mentions that it was “when Jesus … was praying” that the revelation came because this points to one of the main ways that we can grow into the truth of our Belovedness.

A few years ago, I was going through a particularly painful time and could not see the way forward. I could do nothing but sit with the pain, holding it before God. That was the only way I was able to pray. One day, after I don’t know how many weeks of this, it suddenly dawned on me that there was nothing I could do to make God love me more and, more to the point, nothing I could do to make God love me less. The pain didn’t vanish but I felt a profound release and saw a way through. I had suddenly emerged into the truth of my Belovedness.

I still wrestle with my broken humanity. I still mess up. But I can now recentre myself in my identity as Beloved.

  • This is the heart of prayer: not asking God to do things but entering deeply into the relationship that God calls us into, understanding who we are in the eyes of God.
  • Prayer is not about us changing God’s mind but us being changed into people with the mind of Christ.

When we know ourselves to be Beloved of God, we are freed to see others as Beloved too — not just those we find it easy to love, but those we struggle to like, even those who injure us. All these people also need to know that they are Beloved.

This is the task of the church: to live in our identity as Beloved so that others can find that identity too. The person who has survived years of cruelty and abuse — they need to know that they are Beloved. The young person wrestling with their body image or gender identity — they need to know that they are Beloved. The businessman whose life is ruled by the firm’s performance targets — they need to know that they are Beloved.

“You are my Beloved.” Let those words ring out in the depths of your being as we remember now what Christ has done for us and as we go from here to love and serve the Lord.

John Conway – Christmas Day – 25/12/2018

(Isaiah 52.7-10; Luke 2.1-20)

 

Is the dinner in the oven, the feast on its way? The table laid, even? Guests gathering, preparation over. A happy Christmas to you all. Or are you anxious over the details, worried perhaps about what the conversation around the table might turn to in this year of divisions and polarised opinions. Are you aware of who is not with you, grief cutting into our celebrations. It’s good to be together, but we know that many, too many, will be left out in the cold. Our burst of festivity, this year perhaps more than ever, feels like a bulwark against gathering storms, uncertainty and anxiety.

 

Christmas is a season of enormous contrasts; contrasts between the festival of Christmas, in all its joy and excess, its warmth and its madness, and the ongoing reality of a world of conflicts and division and difficult choices. How does our frenzy of activity and spending and preparation, the desire for a good Christmas, how does that frenzy and that desire touch the reality of the complicated and difficult world we live in; and what has all that to do with the story that lies at the heart of Christmas, of Mary and Joseph travelling long distances, and Mary giving birth in an outhouse, and angels proclaiming good news to shepherds? How are we to hold these things together – our desire for a good Christmas, our heartache that it is not always so, and the wee babe in a manger?

 

Lancelot Andrewes, in his Christmas Day sermon of 1620, described the birth of Jesus as ‘the Word that cannot speak.’ This is how God comes among us, the Word that is wordless, the Word that only cries, cries that call Mary and Joseph into parenthood, into a different kind of responsibility and self-forgetting love. God comes, says our Christmas Gospel, not in triumph, showering gifts but in the newborn cry and the suckle, demanding our attention. Richard Crashaw, the poet and contemporary of Lancelot Andrewes, writing in the first half of that rancorous century that will see the outbreak of Civil War in England, famously describes Christmas in similarly paradoxical terms:

Welcome, all wonders in one sight!

       Eternity shut in a span;

Summer in winter; day in night;

       Heaven in earth, and God in man.

Great little one, whose all-embracing birth

Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.

Paradox, the reconciling and overcoming of tensions and contrasts lies at the heart of our celebration of the Word made flesh; God among us, heaven in earth.

The circumstances are far from perfect, the preparation is incomplete, and yet God comes. Mary and Joseph, not yet married, have to negotiate the family politics of an unplanned pregnancy. We too have family tensions to balance, name or avoid. And in the midst of that comes the demand from the powers that be that Joseph register in his home town. The journey is long and arduous, with pregnant wife-to-be. We too know about external demands that disrupt and make life difficult. Many today embark on journeys long and arduous. And yet, God comes.

Like many on our streets and in our city, Mary and Joseph struggle to find shelter, find themselves excluded; Joseph is called back to his home town to discover it is no longer home. And yet, God comes.

And gathering around that manger, around that wordless Word, come not the high and mighty, or the especially holy. Shepherds, as they go about their daily life, suddenly and to their surprise find themselves caught up in a blaze of joy, a glimpse of that inner life of God that is glory. And so we come, leaving behind, at least for a moment, our daily anxieties, our preparations and our present swapping; we come to stop and gaze and wonder: for into our midst, whether we are ready or not, whether joyful or anxious, God comes. And God comes, as the angels announce, not to fill us with fear -‘fear not’ they declare – but with a blessing of peace, the blessing of peace of this wordless Word, reaching out from the heart of God into the heart of our predicaments.

The Word that does not speak lies in the manger – in the feeding place. He comes today, to lie in our midst, to feed us, as we gather around this table, this feeding place. For we come not just to rejoice in the baby, but because that Word of God that is Christ grew up and learned to speak in the accent and cadences of love. Taught us and emboldened us to fear not. And gave himself in bread and wine that those who follow might become his body and blood.

In Christ God enters the mess and muddle of our world to give of himself. Heaven and earth are joined; the irreconcilable reconciled; the divided brought into relationship. God comes in the midst of our festivities, our frantic preparations, our consumerist fantasies, and gives of himself. Today, to be here, is enough, as we welcome the wordless Word demanding our attention; born anew to feed us; creating space in our hearts for love, so that we might echo to the joy of angels. For wherever God is, there is praise.

Today we are invited, in humility and wonder into that praise which is the presence of God. Into our midst comes the gift that restores our true identity beyond fear – this is who we are: creatures made for praising and loving, for wonder and the joy of communion. For this is God, the truth of our living and our world – the hopeful possibility of reconciliation. Here is the strength of God, to uphold our weakness, and break into our same old, same old ways, restoring, renewing, reconciling. Gloria in excelsis. Amen.

 

Andy Philip – Advent 4 – 23/12/2018

Where do we put the Magnificat?

A few years ago, while I was still working in the Scottish Parliament, I was asked to read the Gaelic lesson at the Parliament’s carol service. The reading happened to be Mary’s great song of praise that we’ve just heard — the Magnificat, as it’s known from its first word in Latin — but it wasn’t quite all the Magnificat, for the text that I was given ended at the line “and holy is his name”.

  • What happened to the rest — to the proud, the mighty and the rich, let alone the lowly and the hungry?
  • What happened to God’s mercy and remembering the covenant?

Well may we ask. I wasn’t party to the reasoning behind this rather striking omission. I suspect it might have something to do with wanting to keep the Gaelic reading short for all the non-Gaelic speakers. Nonetheless, it has helped me to take a fresh look at the Magnificat.

On the face of it, stopping at “holy is his name” makes a strong statement about what God is like. But there is a more subtle effect, too, because it also makes the reading all about Mary and God. The wider context is stripped out and Mary seems to be singing praises for what God has done for her alone.

Of course, it’s ‘right to give God thanks and praise’ as we say each Sunday. And while it is right to give praise and thanks for what God has done and is doing in our own lives, we shouldn’t forget that we say that line together.

If we stop the Magnificat before Mary mentions God’s mercy to the generations, her song stops being part of something bigger. But what God is doing in these early parts of Luke’s Gospel is definitely something far bigger. For Mary, it is the deliverance of Israel at the very least but, as Luke’s Gospel and its sequel — the book of Acts — go on to show, it’s far more than that: it’s the salvation of the world. It couldn’t be much bigger.

To switch the perspective round the other way, the Magnificat — and in fact our Gospel reading as a whole — brings to light the fact that God acts for the salvation of the world in and through the lives of individuals. God does the big stuff through the small stuff. Sometimes that small stuff is hidden away, just as God-with-us is hidden away in the embryo developing in Mary’s womb at this point in Luke’s story. But God allows people to see and name what is going on, as Elizabeth does for Mary in our reading.

I find that perspective encourgaing. It means that our everyday lives can become part of God’s working to renew and restore the world. We don’t have to do big things for God; we just have to be available like Mary and Elizabeth and to allow Christ to be born in us, in our words and actions. That can include naming for others the work of God that we see in their lives, like Elizabeth did.

As women in first-century Palestine, Mary and Elizabeth found themselves on the margins of society. That reminds us that the margins are where God often acts. Israel’s hopes of deliverance from the power of the Roman Empire were focused on the great symbols and institutions of Jewish nationhood: the temple and the monarchy. In working through Elizabeth and Mary, God is overturning the expectations of that culture. This is part of what Luke is getting at when he places Zechariah’s skeptical reaction to the angel announcing John the Baptist’s birth to him against Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s Annunciation of Jesus’ birth earlier in the same chapter.

There is, of course, a broader, deeper overturning in the second chunk of the Magnificat. In language that echoes the Psalms and that harks back to the prayer of Hannah when she dedicates her son — the prophet Samuel — to God’s service, Mary celebrates how the Lord has turned the world on its head. The proud are confounded, while the mighty swap places with the lowly and the rich with the hungry. The people who thought they were on top find themselves at the bottom.

That can be hard for us to hear. As a society, we’re quite okay with individual religion but less comfortable with a God who wants to shape and shake our social structures, to subvert expectations. However, the God Mary praises, the one who is at work in her and Elizabeth, is just such a God.

It is revolutionary stuff! So anyone who tells you that the gospel is not political hasn’t been reading the Magnificat. Mind you, this isn’t politics as we know it: the King who is coming casts the mighty down from their thrones not to grab hold of the top job or jump on the gravy train, but to lift up the downtrodden and satisfy the starving. He isn’t a leader who will offshore his assets when it suits him but one who will give everything to free his people.

This is what has become known as God’s preferential option for the poor. It is scattered throughout Scripture as obviously and liberally as Christmas lights are scattered throughout the city centre.

We still need that revolution today. The horrors of Syria and Yemen; the horror of the number of people dying on our own streets for lack of food, shelter and care; the mere fact that, in a country so rich in resources, people need to use feedbacks to survive — these all cry out for the great reversal Mary sings about.

The first place where that revolution needs to take place is in our own lives:

  • We need God to topple the pride in our own imaginations, keeping us thankful and humble, open and generous.
  • We need God to pull us from our thrones, bringing to light the ways that we use and abuse power and privilege in our relationships and dealings.
  • We need God to heal us of our attachments to our things, freeing us from the urge to have more and more, freeing us to be happy with enough.

But we can’t allow the revolution to stay there. To do so would be to stop at “and holy is his name”, to live out an individual faith that doesn’t connect with anything bigger. It would be to spiritualise the Magnificat and confine God to the realm of our worship.

Mary’s song challenges us to place ourselves on the side of the poor, the victim and the hungry, not simply through charity but in confronting injustice directly. When everything around us is screeching at us to buy this, buy that, buy more for a happier Christmas, it can be the struggle to remember that the real meaning of the celebration is how the Lord has turned the world on its head, bringing liberation and salvation. Perhaps this Christmas, we should read the Magnificat and ponder prayerfully how we can join Mary and take an active part in God’s great work of reversal, renewal and justice.

Marion Chatterley – Advent 3 – 16/12/2018

This morning we find ourselves in the company of John the Baptist.  Last week, Jim Forrest reminded us that John wasn’t someone who would have a mantlepiece full of invitations to dinner parties or black tie events.  He is unlikely to be the person you would most like to bring back to life.  He was a dirty and ramshackle character who, I suspect, was pretty scary to encounter.  He didn’t mince his words; he wasn’t trying to win friends – he was a prophet in the truest sense, he sought to share the truth.  And he didn’t try to soften that truth or to make it more accessible; he just told it as it was.

And the crowds responded.  They asked him: What then should we do?  They understood that things weren’t as they should be; they understood that they had a part to play in changing the situation – and they came to this holy man and asked him, tell us; guide us; direct us.  Show us what we can do to make an impact on this state of affairs, to begin to shift the norms within our communities.  Tell us where we’ve gone wrong; point out the bad habits we’ve picked up and help us to get ourselves onto the right path.  Help us to have a different focus and a change of priorities.

And John responded to them.  He wasn’t a prophet whose only contribution was to point out what was going wrong, he was also able to make some suggestions about how to turn things around.  And so he began to speak to them about redistribution; about fair treatment of other people; about appropriate behavior with others and about contentment with what we have.  That’s a serious agenda.  It’s a highly political (with a big P) agenda.  It’s an agenda about how we see ourselves in relation to other people, an agenda about turning our gaze towards others rather than focusing on ourselves and what we might desire – or even convince ourselves that we need.  It’s an agenda that reminds us that we are not isolated individuals wandering through our lives in some kind of protected bubble.  We’re each a small part of a number of communities, each of which is part of something bigger than itself and the whole is very much bigger than the sum of its parts.

One of those communities is our worshipping community.  We are a gathered group of people who come together once a week in this place at this time.

Each of us comes with our own story, our own understanding of the situation in our world, our own ideas about what might make a difference.  And perhaps in common with those early crowds who flocked to question John, we are looking for answers, looking for guidance, looking for direction.  This morning we hear some of that from John – share what you have; only keep what you need; do the task allotted to you with integrity; treat other people with respect.  Pretty straightforward principles that are difficult to challenge.  Most of us can, at least, have a stab at that – even if we don’t achieve all of it all of the time.

But that’s not the end of what John has to say.  He gives his guidance, he offers some suggestions.  And the people are touched by what he says, they are questioning in their hearts, they wonder whether this might just be the Messiah.

John is quick to answer: I’m not worthy to tie the sandal of the one who is to come.  You might think that I have something profound and life changing to say but you haven’t heard anything yet.

These are the preparatory steps on your journey of faith;  these are the things you can do now, to begin to prepare yourselves for the real change that is about to come to the world.  These are the ways you might change without too much personal cost or challenge.  But wait.  This is only the beginning of the story.  There is real good news to come – and it’s just around the corner.

We’ve reached that point in Advent when Christmas appears to be coming rather sooner than we might have liked – most of us will have plenty to do between now and the beginning of next week and if you’re like me a growing awareness that there are insufficient available hours for the ‘to do’ list to be completed.  What we know for sure, what we’re reminded of in this morning’s Gospel, is that the celebrations of the Incarnation are just around the corner.  Our encounter with the Son of God, renewed year by year and, in some way new and still magical year by year, is just around the corner.  We can make some preparations, we can think about the witness of John and be thoughtful about our decision making in these coming days, but the main show is yet to come.

The One who will actually change the world, the One whose Incarnation is the fulfillment of these weeks of watching and waiting, the one who challenges us to change in ways that are uncomfortable and sometimes difficult, the birth of that One will be our focus before we know it.

 

And the challenge then is to keep going on this journey of faith.  It’s all too easy to look at the suggestions for change that John the Baptist made, to do our best to achieve those changes, and then to convince ourselves that we’re living our lives in the light of the Gospel.  But that would be short-changing ourselves and in the long run short changing our community.  As soon as Jesus is born, we begin to see that he is a threat to the authorities of the time, that he brings challenge and tough suggestions about what amendment of life might actually mean.  He doesn’t let himself away with anything and he doesn’t let us away with anything.

Fundamentally the Christ child brings a message of hope – hope that God’s Kingdom really will come.  Hope that things really will be different.

The crowds who flocked to John in the desert asked: what then should we do?  The coming of the Messiah gives us a more complete answer to that question.  We should indeed do the things that John suggested – do what we can to make the lives of other people as good as they can be; treat people as we would wish to be treated; share what we have and try to have only what we need.

And in addition to that, we should take our gaze even wider.  We should begin to consider the brothers and sisters we can’t see and don’t know.  We should take seriously our responsibility for our planet, should find ways to exercise good stewardship of our shared resources.  The Christ child came not just for those who encountered Him but for the whole of humanity.  The Christ child came in response to God’s love for the world.  Our response to that child must be to take seriously His incarnation, his presence in our midst, and to seek to follow faithfully and with integrity.

John Conway – Advent Sunday – 02/12/18

In the name of God, creating, redeeming and sustaining. Amen.

Today is about new beginnings: as you walked in the West door, perhaps many of you were somewhat startled to see a new arrival above your heads. On closer inspection, no doubt you identified it as a star, pointing east, pointing beyond itself, a herald of things to come. Mike Appleby’s wooden installation marks the start of Advent, the beginning of our church year: it announces the coming of God – God’s advent. Look ahead, something is coming, prepare.

After we had finished pulling the ropes into place yesterday, and we contemplated the star dangling above our heads, I noted to Mike that it doesn’t point straight down the nave, the star is slightly off line, pointing askew. He assured me that that was deliberate, that he didn’t think it should simply point straight down the Cathedral at the High Altar. And the more I thought about that, the more I could see his point. For this is the season when things are out of kilter, askew, not quite how we expect them.

It starts with this beginning, this new church year itself. Why does the church’s year start now, out of sync with our ordinary notions of time – the new year, after all, isn’t for another month. At that new year we will celebrate and mark the passing of time, note another year passing, and welcome the next. But at the start of this new church year, we do something different – Advent does not mark time passing, but time being interrupted. The church’s calendar is not in competition with ordinary time, but marks the interruption into our ordinary time of God’s insistent presence and call. At Advent, God – the alpha and the omega of time – breaks through the clutter of our lives to announce to us that God’s Presence is very near, irrupting into our midst, holy, alive, and real. And the assumption at the beginning of each liturgical year is that we are half asleep, our ears dulled, lulled into viewing time as simply that which passes, of no great significance. We who are inclined to settle for less need are summoned into joy by the One who loves us.

Our Old Testament reading proclaims that promise of God – the promise that justice and righteousness shall characterize our future. Time doesn’t just pass, empty of ultimate meaning, it is underpinned by God’s promise – that all are made in God’s image, part of a creation destined for God’s glory, fully alive and real, called to righteousness. And in 1 Thessalonians, Paul characterizes the Christian community as those who have laid claim to that promise – not as something merely for the future – but as a present reality, seen, as Paul puts it in abounding mutual love; Christ has come among us, the incarnation of God’s promise, and we respond in lives of mutual love.

Our Gospel reading, however, indicates that this new beginning, the interruption of passing time by God’s promise, is no straightforward matter. Like any birth, the arrival of a new thing, it is accompanied by a mixture of fear and courage. We all know something of that fear and courage that attends the start of something new – whether the birth of a child, or a challenging venture into the unknown, a new job, or a different way of doing something that previously has been familiar. Fear always attends such moments and can threaten to engulf us. This is what new birth looks and feels like: courage to overcome the fears. And such courage, in the face of political upheaval, of climate change, of hate-filled speech, such courage rooted in God’s promise of righteousness, such courage feels needed more than ever. The apocalyptic language of our gospel can take on a strange appropriateness in our fear-filled context. But the danger is that apocalyptic can be heard to be all about our fear, and not about our faith and courage. In popular culture the apocalyptic is indeed a short hand for overwhelming disaster; our fears of nuclear annihilation, or disastrous climate change get played out in apocalyptic films and books. The fear is real and vital, but apocalyptic as a biblical genre isn’t simply about our human fears projected large. It’s about encountering God in the midst of those fears – it’s about how, in facing our fears, God is unveiled, revealed. The root of the word Apocalypse is revelation.

And beyond all the apocalyptic language in our gospel reading is the exhortation not to get caught up in the fear and anxieties of this and every time; that in the midst of all that assails us, and threatens to overwhelm us, to stand up, raise our heads, and see our redemption drawing near.

And as we raise our heads, so we will see the star, the herald of promise, pointing us toward Bethlehem. Not toward Jerusalem, the city of power and influence and conflict, but off to one side; to lowly Bethlehem; to a manger full of straw and a crying babe. For this is how God interrupts our passing time, calls us out of fear, and into worship. As the cross that also runs through the star hanging above our heads indicates, we will journey with this babe to Jerusalem – into the heart of our fears and conflicts; but that journey takes us first to Bethlehem, that he and we may walk to Jerusalem on the way of cross and suffering, and so into resurrection joy. Amen.