Strictly Christmas

This is the sermon I preached tonight at Putney Methodist Church at our midnight communion service. The text was John’s introduction to his gospel: John 1:1-14. Merry Christmas!

My text today strangely does not so from the beautiful words of John’s stirring prologue to his gospel. Rather, they come from the somewhat less saintly figure of Kevin Clifton, one of the professional dancers on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing!

Strictly Come Dancing 2017For those unfortunates among you who are not addicted to the glitz and sequin-fest that is Strictly, I should perhaps first explain that every year on the show different celebrities are teamed up with trained dancers, like Kevin. Each week, the couples then compete against each other, performing different dances, and a public vote decides which one leaves. It’s all terribly exciting stuff! The couple who are voted off are then given a few moments for a valedictory speech to the 11 million or so viewers at home, where they traditionally thank everyone and say how this was the best experience of their lives. This year, as I have already indicated, I was particularly struck by what the dancer Kevin Clifton said a few weeks ago, after he and Susan Calman – the comedian and Radio 4 panellist – were voted off:

In a world where not everything going on at the moment is always nice, Strictly is the one thing that brings a lot of joy and happiness into the world, through the wonderful thing that is dance.

For some reason, those words – a couple of sentences among a flood of usually heavily scripted prose – struck a chord with me. Listening at home, they somehow seemed to catch the zeitgeist of our age because in many respects, I think he is right.

susan-calman-and-kevin-clifton-1076334Strictly brings an enormous amount of joy to a huge number of people each week. As the darkness of winter envelops the nation, so we seem to huddle closer to this bright spot on the television schedules every Saturday night. This glamorous world of beautiful gowns and costumes; of impeccable hair and makeup; of permanent smiles and laughter, where the troubles of the real world are kept very ‘strictly’ away. There is no swearing or bad language allowed; no prejudice or cruelty permitted; and even tragedy on the dance floor is made better by hugs from the other contestants and witty comments by Claudia Winkleman. In a word, it is pure ‘escapism’ and at present we seem to need more of it than ever before.

As we look back upon the events of the last year, then we would be forgiven for finding rather more lows than highs: the never-ending struggles over Brexit, the latest tweets from President Trump, the threat of nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, climate change, homelessness, stagnating living standards, and so on and so forth. Not much glitz or glamour to be had, sadly. And I find myself agreeing more and more with Kevin that we all need something like Strictly to get us through the week. I don’t think I’m alone in deliberately avoiding the news some days, or putting off watching the worthy documentaries which I know I should watch, and seeking out something light and fluffy to cheer me up. Be it Strictly, the latest Hollywood blockbuster, or a day at the spa, we all need some escapism in our lives – perhaps now more than ever.

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, Larry Simms, Jimmy Hawkins, James Stewart, Donna Reed, Karolyn Grimes, 1946Inevitably, there is a real temptation – especially at times such as these – to treat Christmas in the same vein. To see it as a bright spot in a sea of darkness. A chance to escape from the harsh realities of life. The one day of the year with no newspapers, no daily grind. A chance to forget about the problems we face; to over-indulge; to treat ourselves and others; to eat, drink and be merry. Let the consequences wait until the new year, when the credit card bills and the waistlines start bulging. And the films and television we see at this time of year generally reflect such desires (except perhaps Eastenders!), with happy endings and a warm glowing morality that leaves us feeling as though all is right with the world, and we are better people just for having watched them. It is all escapism pure and simple, in a world, as Kevin says where “not everything going on at the moment is always nice”.

On the whole, there is nothing wrong with that. God knows (literally) that we all need some Christmas cheer in our lives, especially at present. We all need the opportunity to enjoy such times, if we are able, and to have a little escape from the demands and worries of the daily routine. The Bible speaks clearly about the need for all creation to enjoy regular periods of rest, and I only wish that more people – especially shop workers – could enjoy a longer break over Christmas. But, as a Christian, that understandable desire for escapism cannot be the whole story.

The Church is often the worst culprit at colluding with such ideas of Christmas as escapist fantasy. If you look at the services we promote, then you could easily think that Christmas was only for children, or was only about singing Victorian carols, or was only an opportunity to get a few more bums on seats. A chance to break out of the usual routine and forget the everyday worries of church life.

charles_le_brunIf we truly engage with those wonderful words of John the Evangelist, though, we can see that Christmas is so much more than that. In his gospel, John, does not speak about shepherds and wise men, he knew that Matthew and Luke had already dealt with that, so it didn’t need repeating. What is important to him is not how Jesus was born, but that Jesus was born. Because he believed passionately that the very fact of Jesus’ birth changed the world – our world – forever.

He begins by making clear that there never was a time when Jesus did not exist; that somehow he was present even at the very dawn of creation. There was never a time when the life and light that was in him ceased to shine in the darkness: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (1:1)

At that first Christmas, though, God chose to do something even more incredible. Somehow, in a mystery we shall never fully comprehend, God was born into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Born of a human mother; born into a specific time and space; born not a demi-god or a superhero, but a human being. The hymn writer Charles Wesley expresses it far better that I ever could: “Our God contracted to a span, Incomprehensibly made Man”. Or as John put it, the  “true light”came into our world (1:9).

candles-elyWith sadness, the Evangelist acknowledges that not everyone wished to recognise this light: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (1:11) As he makes clear later in his gospel, in some cases this was because people, “loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil”.” (3:19) For many, though, it was because they saw nothing incredible. They may have regarded Jesus as a good man, a miracle worker, even a prophet, and they may have gone to hear him speak perhaps. But they saw no reason to change anything fundamental about their lives as a result. He was just an interesting diversion, an escapist sideshow, from the daily routine of life.

For John, though, this incarnation – this decision by God to become flesh – changed everything forever. For through Christ’s advent, God has given all humanity the opportunity to have a new relationship with its creator. God gave them, and all of us, the chance to “become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of a human, but of God.” (1:12-23) In that stable, God gave us the chance to have a personal relationship with the one who made us out of nothing. Not to be slaves or servant, bowing down in the dirt but to be “friends” with our God (15:15). To cite Charles Wesley again: “Jesus is our brother now, and God is all our own”.

Christmas changed everything forever. It has given generations of people the opportunity to know – to truly know – that their lives have meaning and purpose. That they are not alone in the great blackness of space – just a cosmic accident, waiting to be snuffed out and forgotten. That they are neither the playthings of a cruel and vindictive god nor merely the subjects of cold, unfeeling Fate. Christmas gave them, and gives us today, the assurance that each of us is loved, and precious, and important. That God has reached out from the realms of eternity and infinity, and has taken on all the limitations and dangers of our frail humanity, in order that we might understand the truth about the universe and our very special place within it. Christmas is not a day of escapism or fantasy, therefore, a day to forget all the other days. Rather, it is the day that makes sense of all the others. The day that gives true meaning and purpose to all lives everywhere.

img_2110So, let us revel in Christmas. Let us enjoy every aspect of it. Let us gorge ourselves on mince pies; deck the halls with holly and dancing reindeer lights; and even forget all the cares of the world with the Strictly Christmas Special! But let us never forget that, at its heart, Christmas is not about escapism, but reality. The reality of the depths of God’s love for you and me. A reality that lasts not just for a day, but for all days.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (1:14) Amen.

Pointing the way

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Barnes Methodist Church. Today is the third Sunday in Advent, the day the Church traditionally remembers the person and ministry of John the Baptist. The set gospel reading was John 1:6-8, 19-28.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast year, I was lucky enough to travel to Colmar near the French / German border and to visit the Unterlinden Museum there. The undoubted highlight of the museum’s collection is the Isenheim Altarpiece. It was painted by the German artist Matthias Grünewald in the early sixteenth century, and is generally considered to be his greatest work and a true masterpiece. The altarpiece is in fact made up of several different scenes on a number of wings that were meant to be folded out and viewed on different holy days: the annunciation, the resurrection and scenes from the life of St Anthony. Nowadays, it is possible to wander around and see all of them at the same time.

The best-known scene, and the one that has been most venerated and most reproduced, is that of Christ’s crucifixion. It shows Christ on the cross, with his mother Mary collapsing into the arms of John, the beloved disciple, and another woman weeping at his feet. And on the other side, John the Baptist. The depiction of Christ, writhing in pain from the agony of the nails, is generally considered to be one of the most lifelike in medieval art. The altarpiece was made for the nearby monastery of St Anthony in Isenheim, which specialized in the care of plague sufferers. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Jesus’s body is shown as being covered in plague-like sores, demonstrating to the patients that Christ not only understood but also shared their afflictions.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is a great deal more that I could say about the altarpiece but, for obvious reasons, it is that figure of John the Baptist which I wish to concentrate on today. Of course, in one sense, it is a completely inaccurate scene because John could not possibly have witnessed the Crucifixion; he had been beheaded by Herod several years earlier (see Mark 6:17-29). However, it is perhaps one of the best-known paintings of ‘the Baptizer’ (as he is more properly known) in existence, and frequently comes out at the top of any Google Image search. He is shown, as he often is in such paintings, with some familiar aspects of his Biblical ministry. He is wearing a camel-hair coat (Mark 1:6). He holds a copy of the Old Testament scriptures that point to his prophetic role (Matt. 3:3). His words to his disciples in John’s gospel appear beside him in Latin: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30). And he is accompanied by a physical depiction of ‘the Lamb of God’ (John 1:29), whose blood becomes the ‘cup of salvation’ poured into a communion chalice.

John the BaptistIt also features this curious hand pointing to the crucified Christ. If you try to imitate the movement, you will find it is very uncomfortable, and taken out of context it can seem rather bizarre. Arguably, though, what the artist is trying to do here – in this impossible scene – is to sum up that passage from John’s gospel today. John’s mission is not to glorify himself or to attract a cult following, but simply to point to the Messiah who was to come: Jesus Christ. It is as if he were saying to the viewer: ‘Don’t look at me, look at him. Look at what he is doing for you.’

This depiction is very clearly grounded in our passage today, which in many senses is a very negative one. There is a grand total of ten “not”s, “neither”s, and “no”s in these thirteen verses:

  • “He himself was not the light” (1:8)
  • he is not the Messiah, Elijah or the prophet (1:20-21, 25)
  • and he is not even worthy to untie the sandals of the one who is to come (1:27).

Now, in part, John the gospel writer clearly feels it important to stress this negativity as there are some, even in his own time, who followed John’s teaching about repeated baptism (Acts 19:4). (And indeed there are a few distant descendants of these disciples still practising today.) But it also reflected that prophetic tradition in which John so clearly stood: of knowing who you were and who you were not. As Amos told the priest Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son” (Amos 7:14). Or Isaiah, who quaked before God’s call and cried out, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Or Jeremiah, who similarly resisted his prophetic vocation, saying, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (Jer. 1:6).

John very clearly understood what his role was and was not. Despite pressure from the authorities and even his own disciples to pretend to be something he was not, he never wavered from his prophetic call. As we heard in our reading, John came as a “witness to the light” not to be “the light” (1:7). It is no mistake that the Greek word for witness – martyria, from which we gain our word ‘martyr’ – occurs thirty-three times in John’s gospel and only twice in the entirety of the three others. The evangelist continually stresses that the role of people like John the Baptist and the disciples is not to be the Christ, but to bear faithful witness to the Christ. To recognise the one whom God had sent to dwell among them, and to redeem the world. John rebukes those in authority, who had come out into the desert to question him: “Among you stands one whom you do not know” (1:26). Then and throughout the gospel, Jesus was in plain sight to the people but so many of them refused to recognise him, refused to open their eyes. The role of women and men like John the Baptist was to point and say, “Look! This is the one for whom you are searching.”.

Two thousand years later, that is our role as well. When the church and Christians have failed – as they so often have done and continue to do – it is very often because we have forgotten that vocation. Unlike John the Baptist we have so often failed to understand who we are and who we are not. We are not the judge of all the nations. We do not possess all truth and knowledge. We cannot heal the world and solve all its problems. Our role – like the Baptizer’s – is to point people to the one who is, who does and who can: Jesus.

Golf sale 2There is a challenge for all of us today in that gospel reading. To whom or to what do our lives point? As a minister and preacher, there is great deal of temptation to believe that all things point to me. To believe that when people come to me, as they do, with incredibly challenging problems, I can somehow solve them. To believe that my eloquence, or lack thereof, are the most important things about worship. To believe that I have the answers to all the challenges facing the congregations I serve. Many ministers before me have fallen into that trap, and destroyed churches as a result. I have failed if I cannot point people to Jesus as the one who can give them the peace and assurance they deserve, who holds the answer to their questions and who turns bread and wine into something infinitely greater. And God’s church – here and everywhere – is doomed to fail too, unless it grasps that truth. It’s vocation is not to point to itself but to the Christ it serves.

As we wait patiently this Advent for the coming of the Christ child, let us reflect on that challenge. Where do our lives point people? Do they point them to a building of bricks and mortar? Do they point to ourselves, in all our frailty and foolishness? Do they point to the values of this materialistic world, which surrounds us constantly in this season of pre-Christmas consumerism? Or do they, like the angels to the shepherds in the field, or John’s disciples by the banks of the Jordan, point to something infinitely greater? Do they invite one and all: “Come and see” (John 1:46)? Do they point the way to the Christ? Amen.

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Locust sandwich anyone?

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. (Mark 1:6-8)

IMG_3713This morning at church today we thought about John the Baptist and his ministry. We had great fun dressing someone up with a leather belt and a bit of sheepskin carpet. (Sadly, the charity shops of Sheen couldn’t furnish anything in camel’s hair!) We also offered round a locust and honey sandwich. (Sheen, remarkably, could provide locusts.) I was very impressed when one member of the congregation was brave enough to try a bite!

This is the Sunday in Advent when we traditionally think about the prophets who came before Jesus. John the Baptist was in many senses very typical of these prophets, even though he was separated by several hundreds of years from people like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Like them, John spoke with great authority. He spoke words both of comfort and condemnation. He challenged his contemporaries to return to a true observance of God’s commandments. And, like so many of them, he ultimately fell foul of the rich and powerful, who did not wish their deeds done in darkness to be exposed to the light (Isaiah 29:15).

st-john-the-baptist-detail-from-the-annunciation-from-the-isenheim-altarpieceThe question I posed this morning, to myself as much as to anyone else, was ‘Would we listen to a man like John the Baptist?’. This strange man, dressed oddly, living in the wilderness, eating locusts and honey. The other gospel writers make clear that he was certainly not a speaker who tried to please or flatter his audience.

when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. (Matt. 3:7)

Would we really have gone out into the wilderness to hear this kind of abuse from a strange hermit? Yet, we know that many, many people did. Because they recognised that John was a real prophet. A man truly inspired by God to shake them, and their rulers, out of their complacency.

Are we willing to hear prophetic voices today? Are we willing to put aside our prejudices and preconceptions to open our ears and minds to those who do not meet our expectations? When I worked in the field of politics, I was continually disappointed by our unwillingness to do this. I would always hear people telling me that they wanted politicians of substance and conviction, ‘real’ people, unafraid to speak the truth. Yet, whenever they were given the choice, they always seemed really to prefer the person who spoke ‘nicely’ and wore a decent suit. Politicians who came across well on the television and who, basically, said what they wanted to hear. It is why I fervently believe that, despite our complaints, we invariably end up with the politicians we deserve.

IMG_3714The same is true of church life. I was almost rejected as a local preacher in the Methodist Church because one of the people hearing my trial service, while believing I preached very well, thought I should have worn a tie! So often, we judge speakers, ministers and others by the way they dress, their accent or the colour of their skin. We make up our minds about whether or not someone has something worth saying well before they even open their mouth!

The challenge of the prophets, of John the Baptist, and indeed of Advent, is to open our hearts and minds to the true bearers of good news. To recognise God speaking and acting in our world, in the most unlikely places and among the most unlikely people. It is the challenge to believe that God still speaks to each one of us, if we have the courage to hear. To have the humility to recognise that we do not have a monopoly of the truth and that God challenges us still to change our hearts and minds. To accept the challenge that God may speak to us through a tiny baby born in Bethlehem, or even a locust-eating wild men in the desert.