This is a copy of my reflection given at Cambridge Road Methodist Church, Birmingham, on New Year’s Eve 2017
Did you enjoy Christmas?
Was it a time for sitting around the fire/TV/Computer or being with family and friends that you have not seen for so long, or possibly being alone in your thoughts. We have journeyed through Advent to a time of great celebration of the birth of our saviour, Jesus Christ, being both human and divine, here on Earth. The event has transformed history, how is it transforming us today?
The season of Christmas extends beyond Christmas Day although the media would ask us to quietly forget that very quickly as the New Year Sales are already on, did they start on Boxing day!
Life is so quick today. Life is just one long rollercoaster, seemingly getting faster and faster with few opportunities to get off!
I wonder what life was like for one couple some time ago?
We don’t get told in the Gospel of Luke what it was like for Mary & Joseph in the first 7 days – but we could possibly guess.
We read from Luke that Mary came to the Temple in Jerusalem, on that eighth day, bringing the baby Jesus for a purification service. Why eight?,
just like the days of the week, it’s a sign that Jesus was into the next week or phase. We see it often in baptismal fonts where they have eight sides. This purification moment in the temple isn’t normally part of the Nativity Play – it seems extra but so significant.
Why did she bring Jesus to the Temple? So that he may be holy, set apart for God. Every male baby was brought on the 8th day and the every female baby was brought on the 15th day, not because of the baby was tainted but the mother was deemed unclean. The mother was also required to remain at home until 40 days after which a sacrifice was made. As a parent I think to remain at home after the birth, for a short while to rest to recuperate, might also be a good thing. The difference in the time between genders may be questionable and a sign of the patriarchal times Jesus was born into. Importantly equality was something Jesus later supported as Paul when speaking to those in Galatia, “neither male nor female, all are one in Christ” – no distinction.
There was a practice, in those patriarchal times, that the first born male had to be presented to the Temple and be bought back for 5 shekels. That seems quite strange really but we’ll come back to that soon.
Here Mary combines the purification offering and the purchase of the first born with the offer of a sacrifice of two turtle doves.
Mandy was worried at this point I would start singing.
But seriously the two turtle doves we possibly sing in the “Twelve Days of Christmas” relate to this sacrifice, a sacrifice by couples of low income (Leviticus 12:8). The Twelve Days of Christmas was originally written in Puritan England, when Christmas was banned, this song taught people faith using secular symbols. For example, the 10 Lord’s a-leaping are the ten Commandments, the four Calling Birds are the Gospels, we have three French hens or Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, two turtle doves and the one true love, who is God.
Back at the Temple, with their two turtle doves, Mary and Joseph were indicating in a public place that they were certainly not rich, not able to sacrifice what most could afford, otherwise they’d bring a lamb or a goat: you see Jesus was, even at birth, associated with the poor, those marginalised even within the Temple.
But it is striking perhaps that Joseph, his adoptive Father, bought Jesus, redeemed Jesus not for a life of privilege within the temple but in rural poverty with the people.
Just like we have heard in the Christmas story of couples: Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, now enter Anna and Simeon.
Simeon picks up the child, receives Jesus, and sees what the others in the temple have not seen : this is someone really special – the salvation, a light for all : Gentiles and Israel. Even at this stage of his life, Jesus brings in a change, one of all can be saved – a key feature within Methodism.
You can imagine how Mary & Joseph must have been feeling. This was their child, and then Simeon continues: “This child is a sign that is spoken against and a sword will pierce through your own soul” – whoa stop right there,
can we just rewind that bit?
Simeon was doing so well…
“a sword will pierce through your own soul”?
Jesus is already identified as one that will find opposition and it will affect those that follow him.
I’m sure Mary at this point was wracking her brain of what had been said over the last year: there was that angel who had said “Do not be afraid” ….”,
I’m sure that was encouraging. “He will be called great”
Oh yes Elizabeth had said that God had told her that “For with God nothing is impossible” – that’s also encouraging. When Elizabeth and Mary had met up she had heard Elizabeth speak of the “mighty things God had done”. These things were starting to speak to Mary again, to reassure her.
Can we recall what God has said to us over the years, over the last few months?
Anna, of mature years, who had lost her husband around the age of 12 or 21 and was now 84 or 103 (the grammar in the Greek text isn’t clear) but importantly she had remained with God in all that time.
Anna now spoke that Jesus was going to redeem Jerusalem, giving hope for all. Recall that the first born was redeemed; Jesus later pays the ultimate sacrifice and redeems the world. Her words were prophetic. Whatever our age God can speak through us, we can give words of encouragement to all, words of prophecy perhaps.
Mary must have been more encouraged by now, and have hope for the future.
And It’s New Year’s Eve today, do we have hope?
Mandy & I are awaiting news of our stationing….telling us where the Methodist Church wants us to go next. In 5 days time we will find out where in the country we will go and what we will do – it’s the latter question which focuses my mind the most.
Serving in areas possibly distant from the church, where Christ has yet to be found, but Christ most certainly is, can bring its challenges. We know from text books and from conversations what may be required but in reality, because people are complex and wonderful, the situation we will find ourselves in is, wherever that is, will be ‘fluid’ and is not easy to be defined. So how can we approach this?
God has called us. We heard that calling and many others have heard that, otherwise we wouldn’t be here on this journey now.
God has prepared us for our journey.
In the last decade it has not always been plain sailing : there is a song Mandy & I love to listen to which is entitled
“This is not a path I would have chosen”.
We have faced opposition. In our life, in ministry, we will continue to face forms of opposition but what remains so strong, so evident, is that God is taking us along this journey. In the last year or so we have had periods when everything has closed in, significant health problems with the family which could have implications with the ministry training, concerns within the family which have caused significant pain – but where was God?
It required us to stop.
Not taking great action, but a time of being…with God.
Asking, talking as to a friend, being with our amazing God.
We found that whereas we were hoping that God would simply change circumstances,
in our living relationship with God,
we were given opportunities to find God’s pathway.
We have all come to Church this morning, as Mary & Joseph did in Jerusalem. They came seeking ‘to be’ with God. They were encouraged by others to affirm that they were following God’s path. We come today to worship a God who has enabled Jesus to be born into humanity, to follow the ways of Jesus, to live life abundantly.
It is a Gospel of hope.
We have a living relationship with God in prayer. We pray within the Church and we seek to hear his voice. What are we expecting from God in 2018?
God hasn’t been at the Sales and grabbed a bargain, you know the one without instructions, possibly no guarantee, and ‘batteries not included’: with God you have instructions, a living connection to the maker, so power, and an eternal guarantee.
So what of 2018? At our church we are looking to participate within Church Without Walls, a time of communicating our faith to others.
It is not “outreach” because I don’t believe that we need to reach out and bring people back here, church, for God exists everywhere.
It’s not telling people and leaving them to it, because we believe in God’s love, one which exists in a rich generous relationship, so we look to be in that relationship with others.
The Church Without Walls in 2018 will not be a one stop wonder but, like a star, one that will shine throughout this year and beyond. We need to build relationships, permit opportunities for people to ask questions and to seek, investigate more about this life we have with Christ.
Mary & Joseph, after a difficult journey found great joy in the safe delivery of the baby Jesus. Then after a brief period of recovery they have come to their church and been told that their child can bring salvation to all but life may not be easy.
We too have that opportunity. Having taken that journey through Advent, celebrated at Christmas, we can either, like the shops, drop the brand and move onto the next media hype, or we can now venture forth in that living loving relationship with Jesus – all it requires is to be open to Jesus. We have that opportunity, like Simeon, to receive Jesus and to let others know what that relationship means to us. We bring ourselves to God and express our thanks for the love given and which will continue to be given to us today and throughout 2018.
In 2018 we can look to build those bonds with others in our area, enable opportunities for sharing our faith and build that Church Without Walls. We have a Gospel of hope!