You who dwell in the garden with friends in attendance,let me hear your voice.
Song of Songs 8:13
The blackbird, the robin and the wren are all favourite garden birds since each has a lesson to teach us. Whilst they are utterly different in size, colour and habits, all have one feature in common – a loud voice! The blackbird is the first to wake in the morning so that his calls arouse the other birds to join the dawn chorus. The robin has a distinctive call which will scare off any intruders to his territory, whilst for one of the smallest of our garden birds; the wren has a remarkably loud voice.
Unlike the garden birds we in this country often tend to keep quiet about our Christianity. “We don’t want to offend anybody” we say, or maybe “They won’t understand” or perhaps “I am not confident that I have the ability to discuss it with someone who has other ideas”. And so we slip out unnoticed to church and return to carry on our daily life. No one is the wiser and no friends are lost. But is that what God calls us to do?
Let us look at these statements one at a time. Firstly, how can God’s commandments to love God and to love our neighbour offend anyone? Indeed ‘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 sounds like a wonderful and most precious gift to me, not something that is likely to offend anyone. Secondly, in order that they do understand what we say we need to prepare ourselves; here a good adage is, ‘think before you speak and pray before you think.’ Take comfort from the prophet Isaiah ‘Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.’ Isaiah 41:10. Thirdly, as to the idea that we do not have the ability to speak about our faith, I know from personal experience that God will give us the words we need at the right time. As Jesus said: ‘do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say’, Matthew 10:19 Lastly, and perhaps this is the whole point, remember: ‘Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.’ Matthew 5:15 (NIV). Of course, we must be careful not to appear as the Pharisee in the Temple, who prayed to show everyone how righteous he was; in other words he prayed for his glory rather that for the glory of God.
Yet surely, as God gave the birds loud voices to proclaim His glory each and every morning, we are called to proclaim our faith in God clearly so that everyone can hear?
Last week as our American cousins celebrated Martin Luther King Day my attention was drawn to a quotation by the great civil rights leader of the 1960’s. He said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Now that is a challenge indeed. Where you stand on that point is for you to discern but as you might expect I turn to the garden birds for a lesson.
Though small the robin is quite fearless around human beings, indeed he will happily sit on the handle of the garden fork watching for the worms he thinks I have dug up for him. Yet he will, if threatened puff up his feathers to make himself look a lot bigger. He has a bright red breast, is fiercely territorial and will aggressively drive away intruders. He also has a loud distinctive voice. Perhaps we can guess where he would stand! The wren, one of our smaller brown, perhaps dull looking, birds will naturally respond if threatened, but prefers to hide away in the leaf litter at the back of the garden seeking insects and spiders for food. She adopts a different and perhaps more comfortable option. Interestingly although she has a remarkably loud voice for such a small bird I doubt if many people would recognise the wren’s call. However, at dawn all the birds of the garden will sing together; a wonderful chorus to the glory of God.
In relation to Dr King’s probing question we, no doubt ask ourselves: can we as human beings really achieve that much on our own. Can our solitary, small voice make any difference to the world? But is that simply an excuse to do nothing? After all, we have a responsibility to work together, to speak the truth, to peacefully stand up for the rights of all men, especially those who cannot speak for themselves. (Note those words, ‘peacefully stand up for’.) Whilst alone we can do little, remember that in his Epistle to the Corinthians; St Paul reminds his audience that although they each have their own characteristics nevertheless they are all part of the same body. More importantly he reminds us that “Now you are the body of Christ and each of you is a part of it” 1 Corinthians 12:7(NIV). That then is the answer. Each of the birds has an individual voice, some louder or more easily recognisable than others yet at dawn they sing a beautiful chorus together. In the same way, together with our fellows we can achieve something. But with God’s help and in God’s name we can achieve that which we are called to do; to stand up to the challenges of the day. As Jesus said: ‘For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them’ Matthew 18:20(NIV)
Let us pray for God’s assistance to meet the challenges of the coming day, together, peacefully.
It’s January again! All the excitement, fun and fervour of Christmas is over. For our American cousins Thanksgiving Day must be a distant memory. There seems nothing to look forward to now; the summer holidays are a long way off, if we can afford one. Now the credit card bills that funded Christmas are dropping through the letterbox demanding payment. So far as the weather is concerned rain turning to snow is forecast, with gales and icy road conditions. Flooding is likely in some areas so that villages on the east coast of England are set to be evacuated. The garden is bare and brown. All seems doom and gloom.
Despite all that, on looking out of the kitchen window this morning we saw a thrush in the garden. Now the thrush is not an uncommon garden bird but we have not seen one here recently. There is a family of blackbirds who regularly make a nest in the bushes and the tiny wren can be seen in amongst the leaf litter, whilst the robin will allow me to use “his” garden, but the thrush is a less common visitor. Yet there he was eating up the bugs and worms he needs to get him through the cold days to come – he would really like a few juicy snails but they seem to be in hiding. What a joy to see him though!
What, you may ask, has a common garden bird to do with unpaid credit card bills or anything else really? The answer is that the divide between our secular life and our spiritual one is artificial. God reveals Himself to us in the ordinary everyday things of life: the birds, the trees, the plants, in everything we see or touch - if only we are willing to open our eyes to see! He is not remote, only to be found in some “holy place”. More than that, not only does He show Himself this morning in the thrush, but He provides the food that bird needs. Then Jesus’ words as recorded in St Matthew’s Gospel come to mind: 25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Matthew 6:24-27(NIV). If God is willing to provide food for one member of His Creation, surely He will care for us too.
‘Do not worry’ Jesus said. The icy storms will pass away, the people evacuated will return to their homes, the garden will bloom again and the credit card bills will be paid. Thanks be to God.
This Sunday we celebrate the coming of the Magi to the Christ-child. It’s a familiar story so the temptation is to gloss over it quickly and move on. Yet it is really a very strange story that only appears in St Matthew’s Gospel. Since the other Gospel writers do not include the story we do not know if the event was real or if St Matthew invented it to emphasis the kingship of the Messiah.
Anyway, what do we know about the Magi? We know they were astrologers, learned men who studied the stars and that they were not Jewish; they came from the east, probably Babylon which was the centre of excellence for the study of astrology in those days. Then the line between astrology and astronomy was blurred. Since stars are normally orderly, predictable in their course round the heavens any unusual activity in their movement would have been the cause of great interest. It was often thought to foretell an important event – like, for example, the birth of a king. They were obviously rich men who could afford to indulge their interest since they were granted an audience with King Herod who took their information seriously. Whilst tradition has it that there were just three Magi St Matthew does not give us a specific number. In any case, they would not have travelled alone but would have had a retinue of attendants, servants and etc to accompany them. Naturally they went to Jerusalem first to consult with King Herod since they were looking for the new born King of the Jews. He sent them to Bethlehem where the star led them to a house - not the stable in which Our Saviour was born as our Christmas cards illustrate.
Now, bear in mind two things. Joseph was a poor man, he did not have land or property to support his family, and so he worked with his hands as a carpenter. Thus he could not afford a grand mansion or perhaps even a proper house. Indeed, the Holy Family may well have lived in a cave since many poor people in Nazareth did just that. Yet St Matthew tells us that the Magi, rich important men that they were, found the right house and went in. More than that, they ‘fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.’ Matthew 2:11. Really expensive presents, fit for a king! How the Magi recognised the babe in this hovel as the Messiah for whom they had been searching is a question to be pondered but perhaps a more important question to ask is this:
When people come calling on you do they find Jesus?
13 When they [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’[c] Matthew 2:13-15 (NIV)
On 28 December we remembered the day that Jesus and His family became refugees, fleeing their home land for the relative safety of Egypt. We do not know what conditions the Holy Family had to endure on their journey or whilst living there but many years earlier the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt – not a comforting thought! Anyway, they were strangers in a foreign land, a different culture; a fate suffered by millions to this day. Since that time many people have had to seek shelter, a new life in a country other than their own. Our Jewish brethren have been constantly harried from pillar to post, for example. And, how many ordinary folk emigrated from Europe to escape religious persecution, seeking a better life in the New World, settling in Australia, New Zealand, Canada or America? Indeed, the inscription on the Statue of Liberty welcomes immigrants with the words: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" Truly a noble sentiment.
Yet still as a result of war and religious discrimination millions live in camps many miles from their homeland with little prospects for the future. According to ITV News, there are many Christians among almost three million Syrian refugees in Turkey so that not all refugees are Muslim; there must be some of other religions or none at all. Again not every refugee who wishes to enter our country does so intending to kill us. Each refugee is a person, a member of a family with the same hopes and desires that you or I have. Every day our TV screens show harrowing pictures of refugees living in squalid conditions. Next time you see one do not turn the TV off – it’s not just another appeal for money. Look at the face of the child crying for food, for shelter, for his family, for compassion and remember you are looking into the face of your Lord.
Each and every day let our faith in Jesus give us the hope and love to turn to those outside – those who through no fault of their own are refugees - and to make a home for them in our lives since by doing so we welcome Emmanuel God with us.
The garden is quiet at this time of year. It has been a very mild winter so far; the temperature on Christmas Day was 15°(C), which probably makes it the warmest on record. Some plants are not quite sure whether to come into leaf or not whilst there are still bright red berries on the firethorn for the birds; in the main though everything is a bit dull and drab. Resting before bursting into new life in Spring.
Last year our grandchildren gave us a pot plant for Christmas, a hellebore, more commonly known as the Christmas rose. A lovely gift from children we love. Now one of the problems with buying pot plants as presents on special occasions is that they tend to be “forced” by the growers to produce a beautiful flower at purchase but without the depth of strength to grow on afterwards. We enjoyed our present and when the flowers had died off we kept it in its pot until the weather was a bit warmer when we planted it out in the garden. I must admit we did not have great hopes for it but we cared for it as best we could.
This Christmas morning we looked out of the window to see amidst the gloom a beautiful pure white little flower on our Christmas rose! Right on cue it came into bloom! Truly a light shining in the darkness around it!
In my delight another thought came to me. What a wonderful gift a pot plant can be – a gift that keeps on giving year after year. That, of course, brings to mind God’s greatest gift to us: ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ John 3:16 KJV
Thanks be to God for such a wonderful gift!
The word I have been given this week is joy. Yes, I know I am a week late since Guadete Sunday is the third Sunday in Advent when we sing “Rejoice the Lord is nigh!” But we have just celebrated the fourth Sunday. My only excuse is that Jennifer and I have been struck down by a particularly nasty flu like virus which has confined us both to bed for much of the week and left us completely washed out. Writing about anything has been impossible.
Yet that setback reminds me that in all the rush, the buying of food and drink, the presents; the general joyful anticipation of celebrating Christmas with our loved ones, there are some less fortunate than our selves. Some for whom Christmas is to be endured like every other day, tramping the cold wet pavements seeking shelter or a bite to eat where they can. And perhaps in our own streets there are some who have not spoken a word to anyone for days or weeks; whose only companion is the flickering image on the TV set. Loneliness can be a terrible thing.
We may feel we have come a long way since that night 2000 years ago when a babe was born in wretched circumstances to a Virgin. Yet have we really? There is still oppression, war, hatred in the world just as there was then, people still live on the streets, are homeless or are refugees just as Mary and Joseph had to flee their native land. Real joy then still seems to be missing in our world today. Yet in the darkness a small bright light shines. Jesus Christ is that light which will illuminate the darkness of our chaotic world. Only God can forgive. Only God can say to the down trodden, to the fainthearted “Take courage”.
Christ then is the true source of our joy – not mere tinsel gifts.
As we celebrate with family and friends let us spare a thought, no, more than that let us do something positive for those less fortunate than ourselves this Christmastide.
Peace and blessings to you all.
By now you will have done all your Christmas shopping, probably sent all your Christmas cards and have everything organised for the coming festivities. Still got things to do? Well, don’t worry there are a few days left, but you need to be prepared.
As every housewife knows, the secret of a good party or event lies in the preparation, and that was the role played by John the Baptist in this world-changing event we call the Nativity. His father, Zechariah, would have told him, probably at an early age that an angel had promised that he, John would take after the prophet Elijah. (I bet he had a few sleepless nights thinking about that one!) As the son of a priest John would have grown up knowing the Scriptures. No doubt father and son would have talked over the meaning of the angel’s message as John ‘grew and became strong in the spirit’ Luke 1:80 NIV. When he was old enough he took some time away from family and friends to spend time as a hermit in the desert. There he could contemplate his mission and prepare himself for the enormity of the task to which he had been called. That task, like that of the prophets, was to call people back to God ‘for the kingdom of God has come near’ Matthew 3:2 NIV. He was to fulfil the prophecy: ‘As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him”’. Luke 3:4 (NIV)
In his mission his most urgent plea was that the people should repent their sins and be baptized so that they might know they were forgiven. Such was the strength of his message that people flocked into the wilderness to hear him and to be baptized by him in the waters of the river Jordan. From the power of his speaking some thought that he was the Messiah but John was quick to point out that ‘I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’. Matthew 3:11 What a day that must have been for John when Jesus appeared in the crowd coming forward asking John to baptize him! On that day all the preparation was fulfilled, John had completed the task God had set for him; he had prepared the way for the Lord.
We too, are in the desert waiting in joyful hope for the coming of Jesus. We too, need to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord, by repenting our sins, by letting our hearts be changed, by turning our lives around. Remember, God does not wait until we are ready. He will come whether we are ready or not, so let us get on with the preparations right away.
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.
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time work for a number of years