An Advent Reflection

Doncaster, South Yorkshire. 22nd December, 2024.

So. Advent is nearly over. It really is time to get to grips with planning for Christmas.

A couple of years ago, I asked a friend whether he might have time to meet for up a drink before Christmas. He checked his diary. It looked good, but before committing be needed to check the family spreadsheet. In his family, the advent period was so busy that the diary was not enough. The pressure of children’s parties, shopping, cooking, cakemaking, social engagements, decorating, wrapping of presents, visits to the pantomime and so much more meant that a diary was not enough. The definitive plan was in a spreadsheet.

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As a family, we had several Advents when a spreadsheet might have been a good thing. Especially when we were both working flat out and had three teenagers to keep track of. After all, this is supposed to be the time when we look forward to the coming of Christ – but we just get so busy that it becomes a period where we are blinded by the endless pressures and distractions which sap our energy and obscure the real meaning of the season. We are pushed and pulled in so many directions that we struggle to see the way ahead without the support of specialist Advent software.

We need to pause and take a deep breath. We’re missing the point of Advent. We’re missing the point of Christmas.

Advent is about the coming of Christ, but it’s about more than the coming of the Christ Child. For generations, it has been a season when we also look forward to the return of the Messiah. The Second Coming of Christ. The coming of the Christ as a human baby and the return of the Messiah are absolutely central to our faith. At some point in this busy season we really should be finding time to think about what Advent actually means. We should find time to reflect on the importance of Immanuel for us. We really must find time to slow down so that we can pause long enough to glimpse the majesty, power and glory of Christ in this hugely important season. We really should find that moment to be still. Perhaps a spreadsheet would help?

Anyway. Christmas is almost upon us and there’s still so much to do. We really both need to get on.

Happy Christmas.

Advent 4: Love

The traditional theme for the fourth week of Advent is ‘love’.

I’m wondering whether ‘love’ may be one of the most confusing words in the English language. I love my wife. I love my children and my Grandson. All ok so far. I love sitting on a beach watching a beautiful sunset and the view from the top of the hill down the road. That all makes sense. I love my apartment and I love the Christmas decorations in the town Square. These are all valid uses of the verb ‘to love’ in contemporary usage in the UK. I love paella or my wife’s cheese pie (she makes a very good cheese pie). You might love your car or your phone. But now there’s a hint of a problem. My love for my wife (we have been together since we were teens) is surely very different from your love of your iPhone? Can we really be talking about the same thing?

But of course as native English speakers our culture resolves the problem, because we all know what we mean. We can see a difference. We’ve sort of learned a scale – a continuum if you like – which allows us to use the same word in many different situations and mean something similar, but not the same. That sense of continuum helps us to understand what each other means. It’s as if we sub consciously pick up the word love, look at it in the context of our conversation, and get a good idea what we mean. Most of the time, we get it right.

You see, I can use the word love when I mean like. I can use the word love when I mean sex. It can mean affection. It can mean passion. I can use the word love sarcastically (I love Donald Trump) (spoiler alert – I don’t). I use the word carefully in social media messages (that’s my culture), although younger people than me will use it much more freely (that’s theirs).

In the Christmas story we see the love of a mother for a newborn child. We recognise in a heartbeat that the love of a mother for their new born child is a world apart from my affection for my wife’s cheese pie or your experience of an iPhone. It’s not the same thing at all. That kind of parental, especially maternal love is just about the top end of our continuum. It’s deep. It’s selfless. It’s passionate. It’s profound. The fact that Mary is in some sense a refugee, and the birth takes place in the most difficult of circumstances, adds depth, poignancy and richness to the love narrative. This is a story of really deep love.

But what if our understanding of the word love is incomplete. What if that continuum, which we think we’ve got sussed, goes much, much further than we ever knew or imagined. The idea isn’t as crazy as it might look. If you’ve been fortunate to experience a really good and fulfilling relationship, you’ll know that you can suddenly discover new depths of love that you never knew were there. You’d simply never experienced them before. It’s awesome. Your mind is blown.

What if there are levels of love beyond our experience or understanding? What if there are depths of love which go further than our culture can explain, or our minds can explain. What if the fact of this birth was itself an expression of love far greater than the unquestioned love which Mary felt for the baby?

What if there is a God sized love which is indescribably profound and yet somehow expressed in the birth of a small boy in a backwater of Bethlehem on a winters night. A love which goes far beyond our experience and the constraints of our culture. The kind of love which would break through the boundaries of our worldly perceptions and cause legions of angels to visibly sing praises to God and blow the minds of shepherds and wise men alike.

Pick up your concept of love, look at the context of the Christmas story, and recognise that there is something here more powerful and profound than you have ever noticed before. Just imagine. A love even deeper. Even more selfless. Even more passionate. Even more profound.

In the Christmas story, Jesus is called Immanuel. Immanuel means God with us. A God of love, whose love is for you.

Continuum re-evaluated.

Mind blown.

Fame, Celebrity and the Son of Man: Mark 1: 45b

As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to Him from everywhere. (Mk 1:45b)

‘Fame,’ someone once said, ‘is a powerful cultural magnet.’ (i)

The fame of Jesus at this point is because he has been healing people, lots of people, in Capernaum. Suddenly his name is out there. Everyone expects and wants these healings to continue. People are queuing up outside Peter’s door demanding more,  but in the preceding verses, Jesus has declared that His purpose, the very reason He has come, is not to to be a celebrity healer, but to preach the Kingdom of God.

There’s something extremely attractive about celebrity. Something which affects us all. Yet we know that celebrity isn’t always as much fun as it’s cracked up to be. Stereotyping is always unhelpful, and of course many celebrities lead happy and very fulfilling lives, but the lifestyle is not without pressure and can be tiresome and restricting at times. Just occasionally, we hear something of the overwhelming pressures which are borne by some contemporary celebrities. It can be difficult to know who your friends are. Difficult to know who to trust. Other people constantly drawn to you, wanting their moment with you, making demands. The reality is, that sometimes celebrity can be a very lonely place to be.

Personally, I think that this verse attracts less attention in the commentaries than it should, because it lifts the veil on an angle of the life of Christ in these early days of His ministry. Jesus is being hounded by people who want his attention. People are constantly looking for him. He is unable to move anywhere without people pursuing him and making demands of him. If he appears in the town he gets mobbed. If he wanders in the countryside he’s hunted down. His life is no longer his own. He is pursued and watched at every turn. Jesus is a celebrity.

If there had been pens, everyone would have wanted Jesus’ signature. If there had been cameras, there would have been paparazzi riding donkeys. There would have been endless demand for selfies. If there had been Facebook, everyone would have wanted to post pictures, tell stories and spread rumours about Him. For Jesus, there was no safe place to escape to. No gated communities or secure houses where he could take time out. No publicists or media teams to help Him to manage the message. No teams of security guards to keep people at bay.

Wherever he went, people felt a magnetic attraction to Jesus. We do well to notice the  pressures which celebrity put upon Jesus and those around Him. It gives context to those moments when the Disciples tried to protect him, from the leper, from little children. It gives context to those moments when Jesus took time out, withdrew from everyone and everything. It gives context to the times when Jesus needed to reconnect with God, and to refocus on His purpose. Moments when he needed to step back from the pressures of celebrity. We do well to notice that this is a verse which we can connect with. We understand the magnetism of fame, and so we can begin to think about the way people interacted with Jesus. There’s something very contemporary about this verse.

Celebrity is a powerful thing. It has huge impact on our culture today, and that helps us to identify with some of what is going on here. Fame is not always been a good or helpful thing. It needs to be managed. Without control, those who pursue and make demands, the whole publicity machine,  start to define the celebrity. Here is the Son of Man, being hounded by people wanting more healings. Here is the Son of Man, being chased by people demanding more of what they want. Here is the Son of Man, responding to and  managing his celebrity, and recovering control of His own identity. They demand dramatic healings, but His purpose is to preach.

This Scripture gives some really accessible context to the life of the Son of Man in these early days of His ministry. He is a man pursued. He is a man with a mission.

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Advent 3: Joy

 

The traditional theme of the third week of Advent is joy.

Some Churches have traditions relating to this week. In some traditions, the third candle in the advent ring is coloured pink, and clergy wear rose coloured robes. Historically, the colour pink has been symbolic of joy.

I learned this year that the third Sunday of advent is sometimes called Gaudete Sunday. The introit for the Catholic mass is “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete”. This is a Latin translation of Philipians 4:4.  ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!’.  The word ‘rejoice’ is interesting. We don’t often use it in modern English, and I want us to reflect on what it really means. Of course it is an exhortation to be joyful. Be filled with joy. Experience joy.

Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). This joy is not the excited, enthusiastic kind of emotion we might feel when our favourite football team scores a goal. Something different is going on here.

The Greek word is ‘chairete’ (Χαίρετε). It’s another one of those words which doesn’t translate easily into English. The meaning is far deeper than just being excited about something. It is a deep, strong emotion of gladness. It has a strong, spiritual element. It is the emotion we are to feel as we look forward to the reward which awaits us in Heaven (Matthew 5:18). It is the joy which we are to feel that our names are written in Heaven (Luke 10:20).

Advent is about anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah. The joy of advent is a deep, heartfelt emotion. It is the joy of anticipation. Anticipation of something so indescribably special that it defies description.

Yes, Christ has died. But of course, Christ is risen. So rejoice. Be joyful. Christ will come again.

Advent 1: Hope

Advent 2: Peace

Touching the Untouchable: Mark 1: 40-45a

‘Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is a chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae. The disease affects the skin, the peripheral nerves, mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract and the eyes.’ (www.WHO.int/healthtopics/leprosy)

In a part of the world where we take medical advances for granted, leprosy, especially if caught early, is curable. In 1st Century Palestine, it was not. The biblical word lepros could have referred to a number of conditions, but we can draw two key conclusions. Firstly, the man was visibly sick. Untreated, this sickness would have been debilitating with visible deterioration of the man’s skin and flesh. Secondly, because of his sickness, he was excluded from the city, banished to live either alone or in what we might think of as a rough encampment of other sufferers of skin diseases. Such people were, in effect, the living dead – abandoned by society to their slow, miserable, lonely and painful death. They were a class apart. Reduced to begging on the open road, from travellers who would avoid contact with them at all costs.

The actions of this man tell that after the extraordinary events in Capernaum, the fame of Jesus as a man of healing had spread beyond the town. The leper knows who Jesus is. He is absolutely confident in the ability of Jesus to heal. Jesus is moved by compassion, and the extraordinary faith of this man.

I can feel the disciples tensing as this man approaches. Jesus reaches out his hand and actually touches the man. I wonder whether you remember the disciples trying to come between Jesus and small children who were coming to sit with him and perhaps to distract him. This man is unclean, wrought with incurable disease, and rushing to get close to Jesus. Against every cultural norm, Jesus allows him to approach and fall to his knees. We struggle to grasp how this would have looked to the first followers of Jesus. The minds of the horrified disciples are divided, perhaps, between creating a physical barrier between Jesus and the leper, or keeping their own distance from this desperately sick man.

In that instant, at the word of Jesus, the man is healed. His condition is not simply improved. As with Peter’s mother in law, the healing of this man is immediate and absolute. The visible marks of his sickness are gone. They are no longer there. No wonder that, in spite of Jesus’ appeal, he ran off down the road declaring his healing to anyone who would listen. A moment before he was facing a ghastly premature death. Jesus has given him new life. His joy must have been utterly overwhelming. What the disciples think at this point we can only imagine.

The Jewish Law requires that having received healing, the man present himself to the priest who has the power to declare him clean. Jesus direction to go to the priest demonstrates respect for the Law of Moses. But why is this extraordinary healing to be kept quiet. As simple, perhaps, as the fact that Jesus has told us that his purpose in going to the villages is to preach. He needs to be seen as the one who has the words of life, rather than being pursued as some kind of celebrity healer. He has left Capernaum to escape the crowds who want to receive or at least witness healings, and the profound testimony of this man means that his attraction as a healer will only continue to grow.

We are privileged to live in a time and place where leprosy is rarely diagnosed, and can be healed. Our distance from the impact of this dreadful disease means that we might miss the grace of Jesus highlighted by Mark. Here is a lesson for the us, and for those first disciples.

Here is Jesus, ready to very deliberately cross one of the most clearly defined social barriers. Moved by compassion, he not only gives time to the leper. He reaches out and touches the untouchable. He lays his hand on that which is unclean, and with his power and authority, in the words ‘Be clean.’ makes it completely, wholly, and absolutely clean.

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Prayer, Passion and Preaching: Mark 1: 35-39

‘After a day of intense excitement, with the news of God’s kingdom going public with a bang, Jesus knew his need of a God given sense of direction and inner strength, both to build on the apparent success of the previous day and to take things forward in the right way.’(i)

Jesus, we are told, didn’t leave the house early. He left very early – before the sun was up.  Maybe he woke early. Maybe, after the excitement of healings on the previous day he was having trouble sleeping. It’s probable that in the early morning, more people were starting to arrive at the house, looking for Jesus the healer. People are excited and desperate for help. They have never seen anything like this. Everyone wants to see Jesus.

Jesus was a guest in the home of the disciples. The fact is, I suspect, that when the disciples awoke, Jesus simply wasn’t there. How can you mis-place a house guest? Especially one as important as Jesus. Where’s Jesus? Surprise and embarrassment turn to panic as they search for him.

When my children were small, I had an older friend who used to tell me that the key to good parenthood was making time for ‘a bit of p & q’. Sid wasn’t a man of faith, but he knew that moments of ‘peace and quiet’ were precious. They could be restorative and energizing. In our modern lives, finding the right place for downtime is a challenge. We have to work at it. So many things are constantly grabbing at our attention, we have to create space. Back then, I used to grab quiet moments to sit, all on my own, on the back step of our house. All weathers – day or night., that was my space. The family respected that this was my quiet place. Of course there were always interruptions. Visitors would occasionally find it strange when they arrived to find me sitting on the back doorstep in the rain.

If you read the Gospel’s, you’ll see that time and again Jesus made space in his life for a bit of very purposeful peace and quiet. A place where he can pray. A place where he can connect with God. A time when he could recover his strength and allow the Holy Spirit to direct His steps. If the Son of God needed that to keep Him on target, how much more do I need it!

In later times I have learned to find my own space in a field, or on a bench in the local park. As a commuter, I could be quiet on a busy tube train and I could pray as I walked across the city between meetings. As I write, I am having some downtime in a local coffee shop.

Of course, even for Jesus there were interruptions.  Can you sense the irritated tone of the disciples who found Jesus’ behaviour strange. ‘What are you doing here? Everyone’s looking for you!’ Yesterday was awesome. Today could be even better!  There are people queuing up outside my house and you’re up here taking a moment!

Yesterday, Jesus demonstrated his extraordinary power. Today he has the opportunity to really consolidate his reputation. But Jesus is not up for that. He is ready to leave Capernaum and head for the villages. The healings in Capernaum have announced his ministry to the world. But from now on,  His ministry is less about physical health. The heart of His ministry – his passion –  is spiritual health. From this point forwards, the heart of His ministry is preaching. ‘That,’ says Jesus, ‘is why I have come.’ (v38)

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Advent 2: Peace

The traditional theme of the second week of advent is peace.

The angels welcomed the birth of Jesus with a message of peace and goodwill (Luke 2:14). A true reading of this verse tells you that it is not the simple expression of goodwill to all mankind, but rather a blessing on those who men (and women) of goodwill.

In his 2003 book ‘What Every Person Should Know About War’, Chris Hedges suggests that during the last 3400 years of human history, no more than 268 days had been days of global peace.

In the past twelve months, many hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of conflict. In the West, the war in Ukraine has reminded us just how fragile peace is. The continuing horrific events in Israel and Gaza leave us feeling helpless and desperate. For much of the rest of the world, violence has been a fact of life for generations. The world is sadly short of people of goodwill. Now, as on the other 1.24 million other days in the last 3400 years, our world is not at peace.

Here’s the thing. The Greek word which we translate here at ‘peace’ is εἰρήνη (pronounced ei–ray–nay)which is very similar in meaning to the Hebrew word which we know as Shalom (בְּשָׁל֑וֹם). We translate the word as ‘peace’, but is has a much richer meaning than simply the ‘absence of war’. It means a deep, inward sense of completeness and wholeness. It is the ‘peace’ which passes all understanding ‘(Philippians 4:7). It is the ‘peace’ which Jesus gives and leaves with us (John 14:27). When you greet or bid farewell to a friend, or as you enter or leave a home, you use the word ‘shalom’. It expresses a deep sense of blessing – a heartfelt, enriching, supernatural peace. Shalom, ‘real’ peace, permeates Scripture.

Then I was young, I used to carry a sticker on my guitar which read ‘Real Peace is Jesus’. And that is the ‘peace’ which I am wishing you in this second week of Advent.

Shalom.

Advent 1: Hope

The first week of Advent is traditionally about hope. Talking about hope, right now, feels like a bit of a challenge.

The cost of living crisis is biting. Russia continues its war in Ukraine. Violence against Israel in October was outrageous. The ongoing retribution visited on the people of Gaza is obscene. The COP 28 climate conference is taking place in the United Arab Emirates, a key supplier of  fossil fuel. Political relationships are increasingly toxic. Refugees are crossing continents. People around us, and across the world, are discouraged. Hope, if it can be found at all, is in short supply right now.

Advent is about looking forward. It is about living in anticipation of the arrival of something. If we feel that we’re short of hope we need to lift our sights and remind ourselves what it is that we are supposed to be looking forward to. It’s not about looking forward to Christmas food or drink. It’s not about the parties, the presents, the bright lights – these might make us feel a bit better for a day, but they have little to do with the true meaning of Christmas. As Christians we are looking forward to a gift which is infinitely more important than any of that. We are celebrating the fulfilment of prophecy in the birth of the Christ child, the Messiah. And we are looking forward to the fulfilment of prophecy in the return of the Messiah and the restoration of the Kingdom of God. It’s about encouragement. It’s about hope.

Take Jesus out of the picture and it’s not surprising everyone feels discouraged. Put Jesus in the picture and there’s one major difference. Hope.

Of course we’re praying for peace across the world and for the restoration of hope in our communities. But the true hope for us all in this first week of Advent is Jesus.

Romans 15: 13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

Advent 2: Peace

Advent 3: Joy