Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Midwinter Christingle

Fingers wet from the spilt juice of oranges, and encrusted with gummie bear sugar, I return from the annual Christingle making morning, thinking about sweetness and sharpness, light and dark and the mixed up sentiments of Christmas. 

The front page of the newspaper did for me this morning; somebody's beautiful daughter and her grandmother - one of those photos you proudly display at home on the mantlepiece, never dreaming it'll be seen by thousands - illustrate the news that 6 people died in a freak pedestrian accident as a Glasgow bin lorry went out of control the week before Christmas.

For Ministers there's always a heightened awareness of the piercing sorrow of Christmas, the one Mary, and all mothers, know - the bringing to birth of both the greatest gift and the greatest potential for personal sadness. There's always that pre Christmas phone call from the Undertaker that is particularly dreaded. I came straight from a funeral visit to lead an enormous Christingle service one year and it was one of the hardest things. 

That's why this afternoon in church, the Christingle light will be brightest when the lights go out. It's in the darkness that the light is seen most fully. Because, like the magi's offering to the child who embodies 'the hopes and fears of all the years', midwinter Christmas is always both dark and bright: 

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone cold tomb.

Glorious now, behold him arise,
King and God and sacrifice.
Heaven sings, Alleluia!
Alleluia! the earth replies.

(from We Three Kings).

Friday, 12 December 2014

No more Mr nice guy

Isaiah 64: 40: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down
John 1:23 I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord".

Sermon for Advent 3

It’s sometimes the case that when a new minister comes to a parish, or there's a new doctor in the local surgery, or a new class teacher in the primary school: people want to know, are they nice?
Being nice is hardly an epithet appropriate to John the Baptist – although in John he is more sympathetically portrayed than in Matthew and Luke – where he utters the immortal words, not normally printed on evangelistic leaflets, ‘you brood of vipers!’ to the Pharisees that come to him for baptism.
But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt this Advent and ask what was so memorable about his message, and what can we take from it for ourselves.
So, three things about John the Baptist and his message:

    1.     He sees himself as preparing the way.

Advent is a time of preparing the way – for Christ to be born amongst us again - and a time to think about his second coming too.
For John the Baptist, 'preparing the way' was figurative for getting people ready for the coming of the Messiah.
He didn’t go along the path in the desert with a broom, sweeping the sand off the path so Jesus could walk on by; his preparation was spiritual.
And it’s the same for us.
In many respects the Christian life is about preparing the way, year in year out.
What we prepare is our hearts, to receive Christ – as the hymn says ‘where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.’
So it’s not just at Advent that we prepare our hearts for Christ – it’s really all year round.
Preparing a way in your heart for Christ is as good a description of discipleship as any, in fact.
Here, the heart is the centre of our personality, the driver of everything we are – ‘man’s entire mental and moral activity, both the rational and emotional elements. In other words, the heart is used figuratively for the hidden springs of the personal life’ (from
But what does preparing your heart entail?
This question leads us to the second point about John the Baptist:

    2.     He calls people to repentance.

Because the best (and in fact the only) way to prepare for Christ is through repentance.
Repentance is not an entirely easy topic, even for Christians, perhaps especially for Christians, as we can become overly familiar with the confession we say in church week by week.
What does repentance look like for someone who’s been a Christian a long time?
In some ways, it’s easier to imagine someone who’s been estranged from Christ over something quite major, coming suddenly to value repentance.
What of all of the small sinners, who can’t recall the last time they truly felt sorry for anything.
Here it can be helpful to find a spiritual advisor, someone who knows how to discern God’s work in your life and who will suggest ways in which the arteries of the spiritual heart may have got clogged up along the way.
Another way is to read inspiring literature, to see how someone else a bit further along the path has grown in the ways of discipleship.
One such writer for me has been the elderly American pastor Gordon MacDonald, whose book A Resilient Life, really spoke to me this year.
His description of repentance is apt as we think about John the Baptist, out there in the desert.
He writes of a meadow, which he and his wife bought to clear and develop.
First the meadow needed to be cleared of boulders – these were big things, obvious from the surface, and a hindrance to planting.
They were relatively easy to see, and therefore easy to remove.
Then came the middle sized rocks, also fairly easy to see and to remove.
Finally, there were small pebbles scattered over the meadow – there were more of these, and they were less serious, but eventually they were cleared too.
He likens all this to the obvious things in our life that need attention – and the less obvious things, though still seen by God.
Then he takes the clearing of the meadow metaphor one stage further.
He writes, ‘when we cleared the field of its rocks and boulders, and cut back the vegetation so that the grasses could grow, we didn’t anticipate one thing that the locals could have told us if we’d asked. We didn’t know that underneath the soil (shallow as it is) were countless other rocks and boulders, each of which would make their individual appearance in time. As the winter frost went deep into the ground each year, it would thrust up many of these rocks and boulders. In the spring I would climb on my tractor mower and suddenly hear the blade hit a rock I’d never seen before. When I checked, I would be surprised to see the face of a rock peeking up from the soil. I hadn’t known it was there before. And when I tried to pry the rock loose, I often discovered that it wasn’t a rock, it was a boulder – much bigger than a breadbasket – and it had been there all the time’ (p. 122).
Repentance means we take seriously those things below the surface that only the Holy Spirit can point out to us, though we need to be willing and keen for this to happen, and to take steps to make it happen.

So John the Baptist prepares the way; he calls his hearers to repentance, and finally,

    3.     He points to Jesus.

Do our lives point to Jesus?
We’ve already mentioned that in John’s gospel we have no ‘brood of vipers’ speech – just John pointing to someone else.
This is John stripped down to the bare essentials – he points beyond himself to Christ - a mere signpost.
His life is in exact contrast to the self-promotion of our culture.
And before we run to judge our culture, when did we last do something, perhaps an act of random kindness, that went entirely unnoticed, and feel happy with that?
It’s not that easy to point beyond ourselves, to let someone else take the credit.
But it is the calling of every Christian.
We point, not to ourselves, but to Christ.
Could someone look at your life and see the connection between your faith in Christ and the fruits of the Spirit in you; see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness and self-control?
Do you have a holy frustration for God, akin to that of Isaiah, who cries out, ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!’?

As we approach the final countdown to Christmas, let’s learn form John the Baptist, who, though he may not have been 'nice', knew that we need to prepare the way of the heart; who called his hearers to repentance and who pointed beyond himself to the Christ who was coming, and is coming still.


Friday, 5 December 2014

Advent: Ink

It's probably of very little interest to most normal people caught up in the mad pre-Christmas planning/ spending/stocking up/school plays/boozy party rush, that the Church is observing Advent. The altars are spread in dark blue or purple, for royalty and penitence, and the spiritual atmosphere, in theory at least, is one of waiting.

I've always had a 'thing' for purple. Many moons ago, on a cold, wintry, late afternoon, there was an enticing dress buying outing for one small girl who liked dresses. It may have even been Advent. There was one style in particular in the shop; velvet, long sleeved, with little velvet covered buttons all down the front and a piece of white lace at the collar. It was perfection. It came in purple or deep midnight blue. I can't remember now the exact details, but one colour only was available in my (small, maybe aged 6) size. Was it the midnight blue? Did I long for the purple but make do with blue instead? Or maybe it was the midnight blue that I craved, and the purple was shunned. I can't remember. Anyway, I loved that velvet, wintry, Advent coloured dress.

Sometimes a song comes along that captures the spirit of the season. It's probably very tenuous, but for me, preparing to preach each Sunday through Advent on waiting, repentance, judgment and the return of the King, it has to be Ink, by Coldplay, from their new album, Ghost Stories.

It's partly the artwork. A pair of wings on a deep midnight blue background. They're like angel wings - a Nativity maybe. Or the wings of a dove. And the title. Ink. There's something deep and mysterious about a bottle of dark blue ink. Or sky, just before the dawn. Or the deep waters recalled in the mark of baptism. The singer has marked himself with a tattoo to remember his love ('the pain's alright'). 'Together through life', its message.

Ink is a love song. It talks about being broken and lost and loving till it hurts. Simple. It's haunting, like a Christmas song that's got under your skin without your permission, with a 'to die for' riff and two little melodies that come together as the song builds. It's circular, the chords going round and round with no apparent ending, the base note playing around the fourth, third, fifth and sixth; then the fourth, third, sixth and fifth.

Whether it's purple in Advent, or deep indigo blue; whether in dark skies that will eventually dawn, or in the deep waters of baptism, the song paints the mood. And it fits. Like the perfect dress.