You who dwell in the garden with friends in attendance,let me hear your voice.
Song of Songs 8:13
Advent is a time of hope, of anticipation but also of waiting.
As a child I expect you were frustrated at only being allowed to open one door at a time of the Advent calendar. Why do we have to wait? Why can’t we open them all at once? But once the doors were all opened the wonder, the joy of the message was amazing. It was worth waiting for.
Maybe you were involved in the school Nativity play. My acting ability was never recognised since the height of my career was fifteenth shepherd (in field –sitting). I never actually got to Bethlehem, never stood with my mates round the manger. Why could I not be cast as one of the Magi, then I would get to see Jesus. I always hoped teacher would choose me next year; but she never did. But I still hoped and waited. The Magi were clever, learned men who had made a study of astrology. They calculated that a bright new star would appear soon. What that star meant they did not know just that its rising heralded something very important. When it appeared as predicted they gathered together their finest gifts for this important event and followed the passage of the star. The journey was long and difficult but they travelled in hope. What they found at the end of their journey was not quite what they expected but then sometimes we do not get what we hope for.
The other day I found a piece that echoes these themes of waiting and travelling in hope and anticipation. It will be familiar to some of you: ‘Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.’
As we waited to open the doors on the Advent calendar years ago, so we now wait in joyful hope for the coming of God’s light into our broken world of chaos. But we do not wait passively, we wait actively together with our fellow Christians to prepare both materially and spiritually for a new and unforeseeable experience of healing and hope; for we need that healing and that hope now more than ever.
May I leave two Scripture readings with you for you to think about? Firstly:
Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice;
let the sea and what fills it resound;
let the plains be joyful and all that is in them.
Then let all the trees of the forest rejoice
before the LORD who comes,
who comes to govern the earth,
To govern the world with justice
and the peoples with faithfulness. Psalm 96:11-13
Secondly, the Lord who comes to govern the earth with justice is: ‘ The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ John 1:5 (NIV). Let us then wait in joyful hope.
As I look out of the window at the birds searching the garden for food to last them through the window my mind goes back to those days earlier in the year when the parent birds were busily gathering grass and sticks to build their nests. Perhaps you remember as children climbing a tree to peep into a nest to see the eggs yet to hatch. There was a sense of anticipation wondering what sort of bird would emerge from those tiny speckled blue eggs. Soon the wait was over as they hatched and the air was filled with the sound of the young fledglings calling for mother to bring them food. Then later, on a walk in the park you would see mother swan proudly leading her cygnets – her family - across the lake. Of course, this is not something that only happens in my garden or local park. All across the world something similar is happening. Earlier this year my friend Steve wrote about a walk round the lake in a beauty spot near his home, some 6000 miles from here. In that case the birds were of a different type from those round here but they were of the bird family just the same. In the same way we humans, of every race, creed and colour bring our children into the world – each one eagerly anticipated and cherished; we are all one big family.
At this season we look forward with that same eager anticipation to the birth of a new child, a new member of the human race. But this child is different for although He took on human form just like us, He is the Son of God. Yet despite His Divine nature He comes to share our human lives with us. More than that, His birth marked the beginning of the journey that led to our salvation through His death on the Cross. For by His Birth Life Death and Resurrection we are not only taught how to live our lives but that He has taken away the sins of the world.
One last thought. Many of you will have seen the painting by Holman Hunt depicting Jesus standing outside a door knocking, seeking admittance. In that picture you will have noticed that there is no handle on the door – that is on the inside. Jesus stands there knocking but waiting for us to invite Him in, to accept Him as a member of our family.
Let us then welcome Him into our lives, our families with the words of the old carol; “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and let us remember that we are part of God’s worldwide family.
Yesterday was the 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the Solemnity of Christ the King, and the end of the Church year.
When anything comes to an end it is natural for fear to creep in, to be concerned as to what will happen next. In this country we are in the process of severing our relationship with Europe, our largest trading partner. What will happen now? In America our cousins have voted for a new President; one who after his election called for the American people to unite. Given the unprecedented level of vitriol and outright hatred many observed during the election campaign and the appointments he has made to high office so far, that call seems a little hollow to me. So what now? Fear is everywhere; a fear of the dark, a fear of the unknown, a fear of things to come. The Disciples were not immune to fear. They feared the storm on the lake. When they woke Jesus to seek His help His response was “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Mark 5:40. God never forgets us; He is always with us, even in the darkest hours of the night. Psalm 30:5 tells us: “Weeping may last through the night but joy comes with morning.” The dark night will not last forever.
We are now in the season of Advent; a time to look forward to the birth of a new King. Not a mighty warrior clad in fine robes with vast armies set to conquer the world by force, but a servant King who came to save the world with His life. The Bible is not just a nice old story which has no relevance to today’s fears and worries. It tells us that God lives now in each and every one of us! As His disciples we are called to follow Him, to walk with Him, to do His work in this world by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and standing up for those who have no voice – God’s fearful, anxious people. As my friend Tom said the other day: ‘It's time to take a stand, not only because it is the right thing to do; not only that, but because it is Christ's way of life and love for all God's people. He chooses not to save himself, but to love you and me and save all people from our fears, our suspicions, our hate, and ourselves.’
It is not enough just to say we love one another; we must witness to that love in our lives. God is greater than all the fear and hatred of the world. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of justice, of love and peace. By the coming of the Christ child we can overcome fear and look forward with hope to a brighter future in the knowledge and love of God. Thanks be to God!
November is traditionally the month of remembrance. Perhaps the most powerful remembrance is the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 when the guns on the Western Front fell silent and the ‘war to end all wars’ came to an end. Each year on Remembrance Sunday, this nation remembers and honours all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to secure and protect our freedom. It is not war that is being celebrated here but the sacrifice made by those who died or suffered in war. In remembering those who have died let us not forget:
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16(NIV)
In this country we also remember November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day. In 1605 religious teaching in England was Protestant making it difficult, if not impossible for followers of the Catholic faith to worship freely. Guy Fawkes and the other members of the Gunpowder Plot were all Catholics and the plot was a response to the repression they experienced. Thus they decided to blow up the King and his government at the opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605. The plot was foiled but the memory remains. Indeed, it finds echo in the UK when the people recently decided in a referendum that Brussels did not have their best interests at heart and so rebelled by voting to leave the EU. In similar fashion, our American cousins have decided that the current political establishment is out of touch with ordinary folk and so have elected as President a man from outside the political spectrum.
But as we remember those no longer with us on this earth let us look forward to the future. The newly elected leader of the free world has an awesome task ahead of him. Indeed his policies and the decisions he takes will have far reaching effects well beyond the boundaries of the US. Let us then pray that he will seek God’s guidance in making those decisions.
Let us pray as St Paul urges us:
1I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, 1 Timothy 2:1-3 (NIV)
For as St Peter tells us we must:
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor. 1 Peter 2:13-14, 17 (NIV)
Some people have a fear of spiders and you have to admit they do not look very attractive - unless you are another spider, I suppose. And they have a habit of just appearing, silently without warning where you least expect them. But perhaps it is a fear of being tangled up in the web that frightens people most. Nevertheless, like us, they are God’s creatures, made by God to fulfil His purpose on this earth.
So what lesson can Sister Spider teach us? Well several, actually. Firstly, consider the sheer skill involved in the design and building of the intricate and beautiful web that she weaves. For such a tiny creature, having what we humans would describe as limited intelligence to be able to do that is, I think, pretty amazing. What is even more amazing is that God should have given this tiny, unattractive creature such skills. Then, have you noticed how if her web does not reach the point she intended she will try again and again until it does? We could all do well to remember her persistence, her diligence and her perseverance. But perhaps the most important lesson she has for us is patience. Having spun her web, she will sit patiently waiting for her prey to become ensnared in her net. How often do we wish we had her patience! Certainly the world today seems to be revolving at an ever increasing pace so that we may feel we are going round in circles and getting nowhere. There are deadlines to meet, meetings to attend, so much to do; how are we to fit everything into the twenty four hours of the day? And you want me to set aside a time for prayer too? Really, I just do not have the time!
But remember that God has provided her with the skills and ability she needs to perform her part in the chain of life. In the same way God has provided us with the skills to perform the tasks He has set down for us. Skills which may need patience but remember that tiny creature weaving her web and then ‘Go and do thou likewise’. Luke 10:37 KJV
And one last thing; despite what you may feel about spiders, in her own way Sister Spider also displays the beauty and glory of God’s Creation. Let us then remember that all good things come from God and in His good time.
So how many of you were early for Morning Service on Sunday, very early? The reason I ask is that at 2 am on Saturday 29 October 2016 all the clocks in the UK went back one hour. We moved from British Summer Time back to Greenwich Mean Time so we all had one hour extra in bed!
Have you ever wished you could turn back time, just like that? But, of course, we cannot. Yet we have all said or done something and immediately wished we had not. If only we could retract that word or action; but we cannot. Once the word is out of our mouth it is gone and cannot be recalled. Once the action is taken or a decision made it cannot be undone; the harm is done.
So what to do? On this point Thomas Merton’s advice is: ‘There are many declarations made only because we think other people are expecting us to make them. The silence of God should teach us when to speak and when not to speak. But we cannot bear the thought of that silence, lest it cost us the trust and respect of men.’
How true, ‘we cannot bear the thought of that silence, lest it cost us the trust and respect of men.’ How many times have we jumped in with a comment when a few moments reflection would have told us to keep quiet? ‘The silence of God should teach us when to speak and when not to speak’. That is the most important point surely. Before making a comment, think but before thinking pray.
Surely, insofar as any decision is concerned, the same rules must apply; ask yourself what God wants me to do. Before taking any action write a list of pros and cons if you wish but before going further pray. Is this what God wants me to say, or do? Am I doing this for my benefit or for God’s? Perhaps a good place to start, and indeed finish, is: ‘My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.’ John 15:12 (NIV)
Remember in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus could have run away, ducked for cover when the palace guards came calling; in fact He need not have made the journey to Jerusalem at all, but He did make the journey and He did not run and hide. In fact His prayer was: ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ Luke 22:42(NIV)
In the same way, as we cannot turn back time, we cannot undo what we have said or done, we must ensure that, ‘not my will, but yours be done’
In the end we will be judged by how much we have followed the example of Jesus and so let us pray for God’s help and guidance in all we do or say.
It’s nearly the end of October! Where has the past year gone? It seems only a short while ago that the daffodils were bursting into bloom to welcome spring. Yet the exuberance of summer is now behind us. The leaves are changing colour to reds, yellows and gold before falling to the ground – a quite brilliant display that they put on every year. The nights are drawing in and it is quite a bit colder now; this time last month the temperature was at least 20° warmer than today. Whilst some of the plants are still flowering the pace is slowing, and soon they too will be taking their rest. All will then be quiet until spring brings forth new life. Speaking of new life it will soon be Christmas!
I read the other day: ‘You who dwell in the garden, with friends in attendance, let me hear your voice.’ Song of Songs 8:13 (NIV) This is appropriate since God has inspired me to write these reflections about the garden for nearly eighteen months now and many of you have been in friends in attendance all the way, for which I give thanks. Let us then raise a prayer of praise and thanksgiving for the glory of God’s Creation and for all the gifts that God has given us. After all: ‘ The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds, it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right.’ Sirach 35:21-22
October then is a time for reflection, a time to look back over the year, a time to ask ourselves what we have achieved in the last twelve months. What have we done for God this year and what are we doing for Him now? Perhaps more importantly what have we not done for Him? God has walked with us all the way but have we walked with Him? Does that seem a strange question? It is not really. I am sure that there have been times when we thought we knew best; perhaps for a brief moment that we knew better than He did which way to go. But as I say God has been with us and is always ready and welcomes us back to the path with unbounded joy. The days are getting shorter, the nights darker and there is uncertainty ahead but Jesus said: ‘I have come so that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ (John 10:10). Let us rejoice in that whilst we consider the last of the three great questions; what can I do for God in the coming twelve months? Rest assured whatever it is God will give you the tools to accomplish it and He will not leave you alone.
This growing season is over, the harvest is gathered in; now let us look forward with confidence and with faith in God Our Father to the next year.
The other day I had to go to the opticians in the High Street for an annual eye test.
There are 143 references to eyes in the Bible according to a search of biblegateway.com. Perhaps the best known reference is “an eye for an eye”. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus turns this round by saying that rather than extract revenge one should love his neighbour.
Anyway at my age I suppose I was not too surprised to find that my eyesight had deteriorated so that new glasses were prescribed. I can now see more clearly; which leads neatly to St Paul’s letter to the young church at Corinth:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV)
The message here, I believe, must be that as mere human beings we are not able, in this life, to grasp the enormity of God’s plan for us. Moreover, although we see God the Father when we see Jesus nevertheless we do not see Him fully; we are limited by our human nature. As St John says, Jesus is the Word of God; He is God speaking to us in terms we can understand. But yet we do not see God fully. Jesus shows us God’s love for us but because of our humanity we only see the faintest image of that love. Jesus himself tells us that He is the Way; in other words He is not the goal. That is an important point to keep in mind; it is God the Father who is the end and objective of our life on this earth and beyond.
So even with our annual check-ups, our new improved lens we are still not able to see God’s plan for mankind clearly. But what we are able to see is the beauty of God’s Creation all around us. Just look out of the window at the trees, the flowers, the birds, the sunrise and the sunset. Here is God in all His glory. And what about our neighbour whom Jesus calls us to love; do we not also see God in him or her?
Lord God we thank you for the gift of sight, that we may see the glory of your Creation in everything around us.
Whilst many birds have migrated to warmer climes for the winter my old friend the robin has stayed at home. He is made of sterner stuff! I saw him this morning as I was making a cup of tea. He was sitting on my neighbour’s roof, surveying his territory – I thought it was my garden but he sees things differently. To me it is a garden past its prime, in need of a good tidy up but to him it is a source of the food he needs to get him through the winter. We see things in a different way.
Indeed, we see our fellow man in different ways. For example; how do we see the young mother fiercely holding her child to her whilst desperately trying to climb from the overcrowded, sinking boat to the safety of a rescue vessel amongst her fellows all pushing and shoving trying to make sure they do not drown? Do we see her as a terrorist, a criminal, someone only interested in claiming benefits from our welfare system, someone disturbing our status quo? Or do we see her as a desperate mother trying to care for her child as best she can?
When Samuel was sent to Jesse to find a king among his sons he thought he had found the ideal candidate in Eliab:
‘But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.’ 1 Samuel 16:7 KJV
This I think is the crux of the matter, God has given us eyes to see but do we really see? Do we see as the Lord sees – not the outward appearance but the heart? Do we look with compassion on those worse off than ourselves or do we leave it to someone else to deal with the problem? Some countries are not prepared to take the chance and have erected fences to keep refugees from entering their countries, whilst some advocate walls should be built to keep everyone out. But is that not closing one’s eyes to the problem? We look, certainly but often do not see the sorrow, the suffering all around us since it is easier not to; we would rather look the other way. Yet sinners, the blind, the lame, and lepers were welcome within the holy community Jesus was forming and we likewise are called to show compassion to our neighbour.
I see an untidy garden whilst the robin sees a food store; we see refugees, the down-trodden, God sees human beings made in His own image. So must we.
Lord, we thank you for the gift of sight. We pray that we may use that gift wisely, to look upon the heart of our neighbour rather than his outward appearance; to look upon him with an eye of tender compassion.
The other day I spoke of the difficulty I had trying to convince an automated telephone system that I was who I said I was. These advanced communication systems are great, fast and efficient. For example, I can write an email click on “Send” and the recipient can read it almost as soon as I have sent it, anywhere in the world. The problem is that people don’t always do that. Friends have said to me “Oh, I don’t read emails, I get so many of them” or “Send me a text to let me know you have emailed me”! My grandson tells me that emails are old fashioned anyway since everyone uses social media sites to communicate nowadays. Sadly, I am old enough to remember a time when communication was done by letter or telephone if the household had one, though not everyone did in those days. To receive a letter, especially a handwritten one was somehow special – my mother in law used to spend hours writing letters to friends and relatives and took great pleasure in receiving a reply. Of course, everyone dreaded the plain brown envelopes containing bills or a tax demand. The telegram, the nearest we had to instant communication, was often feared as it would almost inevitably bring bad news. In fact, it was not uncommon for a family to send one of the children to fetch the doctor from his home if one was required urgently.
Nowadays we check our texts and tweets as well as Facebook every day (probably several times a day). Indeed, if you look at the youngsters in the street they seem to be constantly glued to their mobile devices – wired in, it seems. Some of us even check our emails and voicemails too.
Fortunately living in town the wi-fi connection is usually satisfactory here, but isn’t it good to know that we do not need to worry about getting an internet connection to God. We simply do not need one for He is here with us at all times! That is the meaning of His Name Emmanuel God with us. All we need to do is to speak to Him. He is there for us. He will listen and answer us at any time of the day or night and in any circumstance. Perhaps you remember the line in the old hymn “Take it to the Lord in prayer”. Yes you can and you must.
So let us do just that today. Find a quiet time, a quiet place and check in with God.
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time work for a number of years