St James’ Church, West End, Southampton SO30 3AT Registered Charity Number 1132863
Photography: Donna Ash
The First Sunday of Christmas is what I call the in-
I suspect that we all have stories of our childhood, some which show us in lots of different lights – the early achiever ‘Yes, she was walking and talking before her first birthday’; the dexterous enabler, ‘Oh he could put together all of the Star Wars’ Lego models by the age of two!’; the future celebrity, ‘I think she came out of the womb singing and dancing, we LOVE all the ‘shows’ she creates for us to watch’; but also the innate rascals, ‘every tree, every wall, every supermarket aisle shelf would need to be climbed – I think he’s going to be a mountaineer.’
Of course, we don’t always remember the things that we did from a very early age but have to rely on stories that are passed down to us and which become part of our family’s history. No doubt for Jesus, there were also stories from his childhood, that his parents, aunts, uncles and cousins would remind him of as he grew up, but we don’t get to hear about these, despite his later ‘fame’. Nothing comes out of the woodwork to show us the times when he wasn’t so obedient or got into scrapes with other children or indeed did anything out of the ordinary.
We have to be content with four brief episodes to tell us something about the child that grew into the man who was God, his extraordinary birth, his presentation in the temple, that he had some special visitors when he was a toddler, and that by the age of twelve he was displaying wisdom and knowledge beyond his years, astonishing his elders whilst at the same time being utterly respectful and freely submitting to his parent’s authority.
Yes, we could look for other remarkable stories of the child and youth Jesus, offering healing and miracles, that were recorded in the Infancy Gospels of Thomas and others, but these were gnostic texts, written some two centuries after his birth and we have no way of knowing whether any of ‘these’ stories are true and reliable and they were certainly not accepted into the canon of the bible.
In our gospel today, the gap between the twelve year old on the cusp of becoming a nominal adult through his bar mitzvah and the man Jesus beginning his ministry following his baptism, is covered in one brief sentence, that he grew ‘in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour’.
Perhaps this is all God determined that we needed to know, but it’s obvious that these were the years in which he would have been able to experience humanity to its fullest extent before living the last three years of his life in a fishbowl. If we recall the verse that Luke give us immediately beforehand (v40), ‘the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him,’ it indicates a normal childhood and early adulthood. We can imagine Jesus learning his trade as a carpenter from Joseph, his adoptive father; being a pleasant and hardworking individual, inquisitive and innately knowledgeable beyond his years, which amazed some who saw him as an uneducated handy man; growing physically, spiritually and mentally under the cover of God’s grace.
As devout Jews, his parents would each year travel to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, they would have travelled together with a large group of family and friends, and at twelve, Jesus would not have been expected to stay with them. So, the fact that they would not have noticed he wasn’t among the returning celebrants, would not have been negligence on their parts, and with men and women generally travelling in separate groups, it wouldn’t have been until the end of the day, when they came together that they might notice that he was missing. You can imagine the conversation of Mary asking Joseph, ‘Have you seen Jesus since this morning?’ and Joseph replying, ‘No, I thought he was with you’.
No doubt they were worried and spent the next few hours increasingly frantic, asking all their friends and relatives whether they’d seen him, before setting off back to Jerusalem, and finally the relief of finding him after a three day search, calmly sitting among the teachers, asking questions, not quite oblivious to the apparent distress he has caused them, as indicated by their understandable reaction, ‘Why have you put us through this anguish’ but reassurance that why would they think he would be anywhere else but in his Father’s house, not Joseph’s house, but God’s house.
‘Why were you searching for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’
For Mary and Joseph, there was still no full understanding of who Jesus was and what his work would entail, but Mary would once more reflect carefully on these events and would add them to her treasured memories of Jesus’ life. So, we hear that Jesus, returned with his family and as far as we know caused them no further upset, accepting their authority of parenthood, and at the same time growing and maturing into perfect manhood.
Now I don’t know about you, but I did not have a perfect childhood, mainly because I was not the perfect child! I can remember that I was not always obedient to my parents and would often find myself in trouble. However, I do know that I was loved, and any discipline metered out was undoubtedly for my own good. But that’s another story!
Let’s, therefore, get back to this morning’s story. We know that Jesus’ calling was to follow the will of God, so for him to spend time in the temple, the centre of Jewish worship, was an opportunity to discuss theology with experts, develop his own understanding and challenge people on their concepts of God. He was able to do this because of the personal relationship that he had with God.
We too are called to develop a personal relationship with God in order for us to better understand his will for our lives. However, for many people the sense of being drawn closer into the story through the events leading up to and celebrated at Christmas is already dissipating. ‘Phew, I’m glad that’s over and done with, let’s pack the baby Jesus away with the rest of the nativity set and get back to some kind of normality’. Of course, they don’t really mean it like that, what they do mean is they’re glad the frantic shopping has ended, no more stressing about whether the presents you bought are appreciated and family member and other guests are finally heading home… and even though you love them and have been glad to spend time with them, there is the relief of getting back to your regular routine.
Relationships can be pretty tricky; there was an article I read the other day that asked people if they had argued more over the Christmas period and what had they argued about? Most people said, ‘Yes’ they had had a row and that it was about petty things like the tree decorations, how the turkey was cooked and what they wanted to watch on television. An expert commented that this was perfectly understandable as when people in families are thrown together for a time, tensions can be unearthed and expectations can be different.
Just like Jesus’ parents were stressed, there was probably some tension between Jesus’ true identity, what his mission is and his relationship with his parents. I am sure that they didn’t expect to find him discussing theology in the temple, otherwise they’d have gone straight there and not spent three days searching.
But Jesus was setting the foundations for a new understanding of family. One that would be built on a relationship with God the father though his son, Jesus and which would be founded on love, forgiveness, peace and thanksgiving. A family not sharing a bloodline or DNA but linked together through the Holy Spirit.
Our reading from Colossians sets this out in more details. It’s a reading that a lot of wedding couples choose for their reading as they too set out on a new relationship. It starts by reminding us that we are all part of God’s family, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. Many people feel unloved and some are damaged psychologically. Yet no-
It is a wonderful, unconditional, free love and we are called to live lives that reflect this. To clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. To bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances we may have against one another.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love,
which binds everything together in perfect harmony
Showing compassion that comes from within, concerned about meeting people’s most basic needs; kindness that is gracious and humble; a gentleness that is not weakness, but a willingness to suffer injury rather than inflict it and patience that forgoes anger and resentment and does not seek revenge.
Of course, we all have our own faults, but God has forgiven us and so, who are we, who have been forgiven, to withhold forgiveness from someone else? This is based on God’s choice and love for us and is completely undeserved and helps put into perspective any problems that really are no more serious than a Christmas tree or a turkey!
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attempt to correct any conduct that is not part of God’s will, we are Christ’s ambassadors, we bear his name and we should reflect his kingdom values in everything that we do.
Many people came to church this year, and we hope that they would have felt loved, welcomed and accepted. But let’s not be complacent, instead let’s make sure that we continue to reach out to show even more compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. In that way we will all grow in wisdom and in both human and divine favour.
Good News! We have arrived at Christmas Day!
At Church Alive we always start by asking if anyone has any news that they would like to share -
For Abigail she was sharing good news of great joy, even mummy hadn't been prepared to tell everyone just that soon -
Good News indeed! Luke describes how first one angel then a whole host of angels appeared to the shepherds -
The message had three parts: 'Do not be afraid'; ‘See, I am bringing you Good News of great joy’; and ‘For all the people’.
Most importantly the shepherds did three things. 'They said to one another, let us go and see' -
How many of you have already shared Christmas wishes today? In person? By way of a phone call? Through a text or by social media? So many ways to send Christmas greetings. Who needs a heavenly host of angels when there are e-
God knew then by the shepherds’ response that His message had been received. Sometimes -
The angel told the shepherds 'Do not be afraid. The baby born is the Messiah, the Lord'. They responded, they went, they shared. Their daily routine returned to normal, yet they would be forever changed by the experience. Nor would those with whom they shared the good news of great joy, for 'all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them!'
God asks us to be like the shepherds: 'to praise God for all we have seen and heard'. As it has been told to us by others, so we must pass it on and not be put off, not to be afraid if there is not an instant notification.
The Church of England 'Follow the Star' initiative this year has encouraged finding out more, deepening faith and sharing. They have used a new version of the famous Carol 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' by Will Todd. That Carol has the line 'the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight' -
May we be ready to go out to share the Good News with the attitude of the shepherds: praising God for all we have seen and heard'.
May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
It’s wonderful to see you all here tonight, on this most important of nights; this holy night; this night when we celebrate once more the coming of God in the person of his son, Jesus Christ to earth.
However, they say that you should be prepared for anything and at about 8 o’clock this evening, it was pointed out to me that the readings that are printed in your service sheet are actually the ones for Christmas Eve – Morning Eucharist. An easy mistake to make I keep trying to tell myself, as we start this service on Christmas Eve, but we end it on Christmas Morning. I suspect when I was preparing the Worship rota in October, this minor, but important fact escaped me – I should have turned the page in the Lectionary – and so when I came to prepare my talk earlier for this evening it was the these ones that I’d used on which to base it
But I couldn’t let you not hear those beautiful readings from Isaiah and John, otherwise for some it would just not be Christmas, and I wouldn’t have got to read one of my favourite gospel passages from the bible – ‘the world became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory’ At least it also mentions John the Baptist…
It also wouldn’t be right to make you listen to both of the other readings as well, but please do glance through them so that you at least get an idea of where I’m coming from – the first one a message from God through the prophet Nathan for King David and his kingship, and the second a song of thanksgiving, formally know as the Benedictus, and sung by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist which prophecies about the coming saviour and the part that John will play in that.
The fact is nothing ever really happens without some preparation and for weeks (or months even) we have been preparing our workplaces, schools and homes to reflect this celebration. Or have we? Nowadays, we have to look hard amongst all the trivial fripperies, the giant inflatable Santas, the cheese advent calendars and unicorn reindeer to catch a glimpse of the real story of God coming among us.
But he is there, and your being here tonight is a sign that despite all the tinsel and the glitter, the message he came to fulfil still resonates at the deepest level with our needs as human beings.
The preparations for Jesus coming among us, probably started the moment that Adam and Eve stepped out of the Garden of Eden. God wanted us back, to heal the relationship that had broken down, to restore his trust in us.
Come forward several eons and we find ourselves in the presence of Nathan, a prophet in the time of King David, now only one thousand years before the birth of Jesus. Now at first there doesn’t seem to be any mention of a saviour, but again God is working on his preparations and it includes building a house – not a physical house – although the temple would be established by David’s son Solomon – but a dynastic house
To David, God has promised to ‘make for you a great name’. David, the unlikely king, a murderer, an adulterer, a drunken carouser – sounds a bit like he’d have fitted into the cast of Eastenders Christmas special, and yet a mighty warrior, a loving father and a great king. Originally a shepherd, one of the least amongst his society, yet an appropriate choice to be part of the lineage of Jesus.
Yet this was to be no ordinary royal dynasty – and if we want to be picky – the genealogical proof that both Luke and Matthew give us at the beginning of their gospels, that Jesus, in his humanity, was a direct descendant of Abraham and David through to Joseph, Jesus’ legally adoptive father and by birth, through Mary, is actually a messianic rather than a physical bloodline.
Come forward to another prophet, Isaiah, whose prophecy, ‘Unto us a Son is born, unto us a son is given….’ was a little premature – some seven hundred years premature to be exact, but it was further evidence of God’s preparations, before there began a silence…. A long silence… a very, very long silence…
Even at the next stage of preparations that silence was to continue as we now need to imagine we are in the temple, carrying out our priestly duties, we are called Zechariah and we have been drawn by lot to enter the sanctuary to offer incense. Zechariah probably wasn’t prepared for the sight of the angel that appeared to him, far less the news that his wife was about to embark on a geriatric pregnancy, hence why his incredulous questions rendered him unable to speak for the next nine or so months!
When he does regain his voice he uses it to confirm the child’s name and to break out into what we now call the Benedictus, his song of thanksgiving to God. It is this child that we hear about in his prophetic words, the child that will grow into the man John the Baptist, who will make the final preparations to announce Jesus’ ministry and the fulfilment of God’s promise.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways
But we’ve jumped too far ahead, because tonight we have come prepared for the Christ-
The reason that he came to bring joy. A joy that was shared in the songs of Zechariah, of Mary and the angels; a joy that is heard in words and the music of the carols and songs that we sing tonight.` The angels that bent near to the earth, to bring glad tidings of goodwill from God, tiding of joy and of reconciliation. A joy that can be shared among us, in friendship and fellowship to all, not just tonight but every day.
The reason that he came to bring peace. An outward peace in a world where men and women need to hush the noise of strife and warfare and look for ways of working together for the common good; and an inner peace, through the message that John will share, that ‘the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace’.
The reason that he came to bring love. A love that is all encompassing, limitless and freely given. Which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, as Paul tells us in his letter to the Corinthians. A love that brings its own peace from knowing that whatever situation we find ourselves in, whatever we might have done, there is forgiveness available to us, and because of that forgiveness we can be in a loving relationship with God again, and through our relationship with Jesus we can love one another better.
Finally, the reason that he came to bring hope; the realization of the Messianic hopes of the Jewish nation as they impatiently borne the yoke of the Romans, and continually sighed for the time when someone from the House of David would be their deliverer and to whom Zechariah was pointing in his prophecy. That same hope that is offered to all of us, regardless of age, gender, sexuality or ability. A hope that is everlasting, because of what Jesus would go on to do through his death and resurrection in order to bring us back to him at the end of time.
Zechariah wasn’t initially prepared to trust what God was going to do through him, and too often we can be so distracted by the world around us that we find it difficult to just accept what God might be saying to us, how he calls us into a relationship that demands nothing of us but to simply be prepared to open ourselves up to the possibility that his joy, his peace, his love and his hope are all that we really need.
So tonight, be open to hear his invitation to come and be prepared to receive him into your heart. Tonight, be open to share with others the things that you discover about Christ and yourself and be prepared to be that herald of good tidings. Tonight, be open to having your life changed by the child in the manger and be prepared to be transformed. Tonight be prepared for anything and everything.
For us the waiting is nearly over. We have lit the fourth of the Advent candles this morning and for us, our Christmas celebrations are just a day or so away. The longed for event that has been advertised in our shops and on the TV for the past few months is almost here, but not for Mary in our story. Early in her pregnancy Mary felt the need to get away. She needed time to think and pray -
Perhaps she needed to avoid questions from her neighbours. Perhaps she felt her parents needed time and space to come to terms with the situation. Mary was in a potentially shameful position as an unmarried and pregnant teenage daughter. A situation which became more complicated when the father of the expected child was not Mary’s betrothed.
The reality of the acceptance of her vocation to bear God’s Son was impacting on both Mary and her family. Mary chose to visit her cousin Elizabeth in order to let the dust settle -
What we have heard in our Gospel reading is two women, Elizabeth and Mary, who were both caught up in God’s drama. For both of them their lives were turned upside down-
The conceptions of both John and Jesus were impossible in human terms. They were both miraculous. Elizabeth was beyond the age of bearing children -
Mary, on the other hand, was too young, unmarried and a virgin. She was not expecting to have her first child until after marriage. Mary’s pregnancy would make her a social outcast as Elizabeth’s would make her a laughing stock.
At the point of our Gospel reading it has been a while since Mary first agreed to the angel’s request with her words ‘let it be according to your word…’ . The reality the situation was becoming apparent. In the time that has passed she has quickly grown wise beyond her years. She has left behind her former innocent teenage self who was sheltered in the bosom of her family as she prepared for her wedding day.
The meeting of the cousins was a bridge of mutual recognition between two deeply religious women. It was an opportunity for them to find strength in the presence of the other away from hurtful comments. The two cousins could be at ease with each other as they prayerfully reflect on the miracles inside their bodies as they accept the challenges ahead.
When they met, their greeting was full of joy -
The choir has just sung the Magnificat for us instead of a psalm this morning. It is a familiar canticle in the Church which is said or sung daily as part of Evening Prayer or Evensong and the words have been set to many beautiful musical settings down the years.
The words have echoes of Hebrew Scripture. Hannah, another childless woman in the Old Testament, sang a song with very similar words following the birth of her son Samuel. Like Elizabeth and Mary she knew that she had been blessed to be part of God’s plan -
The Magnificat is a song full of joy and praise and the words fit both Mary’s and Elizabeth’s situation.
The song speaks of the reversal of man-
In these last days of Advent it is so easy for us to be caught up in the frenzied busyness of our man-
This Christmas, may God come into our hearts, homes and communities to make a way in the wilderness of our neighbourhood and our nation. Amen.
The sycamore tree in our garden is a mixed blessing. As with so many trees in West End it has a preservation order on it and we are only permitted to remove dead branches that would be casualties of stormy weather.
My study window looks out directly on to the tree that I can observe through the different seasons of the year. We are now in winter and superficially it looks dead, but the spring buds are already formed. These are a sign of hope, a sign of future life and abundance! In fact the delight in the bare branches at this time is that any sunshine during the short days will not be restricted by the leaf cover absorbing the light. I am also able to enjoy the antics of the different birds on the tree that are hidden from view during the summer months.
This tree is a sign of hope and expectation as it prepares itself for the next growing season. In a similar way the season Advent in the church calendar, which begins today, is a sign that we are living in hope and expectation for the coming of Christ and for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
It is no surprise then that Jesus’ observation of the fig tree in our gospel reading was directing his disciples to look for signs in the world around them for the coming of redemption. The fig tree in Jewish scripture was associated with God’s promise of prosperity, and its productiveness was a token of peace and divine favour, but the irony is that Jesus is talking to his disciples just before his arrest and death. They were all aware of the building up of tension between Jesus and those in authority.
So, here we are at the start of Advent for Year C and the lectionary reading has launched us into Luke’s Gospel at a time of great uncertainty and anxiety amongst Jesus’ followers. What would the future hold for them?
The early Christian communities were expecting the ‘second coming’ of Christ. When Luke’s Gospel was written some time between AD75 and 130 a generation or so after Christ’s death they were still waiting and preparing for the expected second coming.They were looking for signs that would predict that second coming.
Down the ages since then some Christian folk have also, mistakenly, interpreted the signs of distress among the nations as a fanfare for the second coming of Christ -
Jane Williams, the wife of the former Archbishop of Canterbury and a respected theologian in her own right, calls us to ‘intelligent waiting’ during Advent.
In our Old Testament reading from Jeremiah we heard some unusually upbeat words from the prophet. Jeremiah was typically a prophet of doom. He seems to have spent the whole of his life up until that point telling the people of Israel what they didn’t want to hear. They were facing the destruction of the nation and the division of the people and his prophecy came true. The city of Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonians, the powerful foreign enemy. Jeremiah was imprisoned and just when the world was falling apart and all appeared to be hopeless for God’s people, Jeremiah suddenly begins to talk about restoration and his prophecy, which we heard in our reading becomes hopeful.
Jeremiah has a vision of the coming of the Messiah. The Messiah who was the righteous branch springing up from the apparently dead tree stump The righteous branch that will reconnect the people with the great promises given during the reign of King David.
Advent for us is a time for hope and expectation. The last few weeks have been tumultuous in political circles and the coming months are veiled in a cloud of uncertainty. We need to be alert for signs of recovery in our troubled world. What signs of recovery? What signs of hope can we see in our world? What signs point to the coming of the Kingdom of God?
It is hopeful that in the media we are now, regularly, hearing calls for an end to poverty and oppression. We hear calls for changes in our attitude to our fragile world. We hear calls for the safeguarding of the young and vulnerable in society.
Advent calls us back to God from whom we come and to whom we will go. God never fails us. God will not abandon us. God’s Kingdom is near! Amen
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