4th Sunday of Advent 2019

Brian Reader

I can’t quite wish you a Happy Christmas yet, but my WELCOME together with LOVE is part of the theme I would like us to consider on this the 4th and last Sunday of Advent. Today, in Matthew’s Gospel, we heard about the approaching birth of Jesus from the point of view of Joseph. From other New Testament sources we know that Mary was an excited Galilean girl, probably very nervous, but nonetheless looking forward to welcome the birth, of her baby who she knew, was to be a very important boy.

OK for her then, but what about Joseph. It is assumed that he was probably older and more staid than Mary and it must have come as a great shock to find out that his young fiancée was pregnant. Wow, that was a stoning offence. I doubt if HE welcomed the news when he first heard it. But God is good; He knew the characters of both of them. That Joseph, her husband-to-be, was an upright man, and that he wouldn’t want to make a public example of her. God also knew, that while Joseph was deciding to set the marriage aside privately, that he would listen and follow the will of God, when it was explained to him by an angel in a dream – who said

The child she is carrying is from the Holy Spirit. She is going to have a son. You must give him the name Jesus…

The only point where the two Gospel stories come close is when the angel says to Joseph, as Gabriel said to Mary, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ That is an important word for us, too, as we read the accounts of Jesus’ birth.

At this point those who are not Christians will be heard laughing out loud. “From the Holy Spirit; A virgin birth, you must be joking!” Since a boy I have always accepted that the conception of Jesus was just another of the wonderful mysteries of the Christian faith. However, I also remember reading as a school boy, in the now defunct Sunday Pictorial that a number of women had claimed virgin births, but they had only produced girls. And surprise surprise, some fifteen years ago on the web, I found that while it would be a scientific anomaly to give birth while a virgin, it is not a scientific impossibility. This has been known to happen in nature, although it is rare. When it does happen, all offspring are female; it’s all to do with females having two X chromosomes. However, there is 1 in 5 million chance for a women to have both an X and Y chromosome, so, the birth of a son cannot be completely ruled out as impossible.

In the Bible, we are told that it was through the activity of the Spirit that Mary became pregnant. That is indeed all that needs to be said, since we are concerned with the entry of the infinite God into his creation. This is something that cannot be described, any more than the act of creation can be described in any detail. Nor can the virgin birth be rejected simply because it is a miracle. The miracle is the incarnation itself, that God chose to have his Son born as a human, and if we can accept that miracle, there should be no difficulty about accepting the means by which God chose to effect it.

Bishop Tom Wright accepts that for centuries now many opponents of Christianity, and many devout Christians themselves, have felt that these stories are embarrassing and unnecessary – and untrue. Some go further saying that this story of a miracle birth, has had an unfortunate effect. They have given the impression that in its self sex is dirty and that God doesn’t want anything to do with it. They have also given rise to the legend that Mary stayed a virgin for ever, (something the Bible never says; indeed, here and elsewhere it implies that she and Joseph lived a normal married life after Jesus’ birth). This has promoted the belief that virginity is better than marriage, and all that it implies.

It is of course true that strange ideas have grown up around the story of Jesus’ conception and birth, but Matthew (and Luke) can hardly be blamed for that. They were telling the story they believed was both true and the ultimate explanation of why Jesus was the person he was. They must have known that they were taking a risk. In the ancient pagan world there were plenty of stories of heroes conceived by the intervention of a god, without a human father. Surely Matthew, with his very Jewish perspective on everything, would hardly invent such a thing, or copy it from someone else unless he really believed it? Wouldn’t it be opening Christianity to the sneers of its opponents, who would quickly suggest the obvious alternative? Well, yes, it would; but that would only be relevant if nobody already knew that there had been something strange about Jesus’ conception.

In John’s gospel we hear the echo of a taunt made during Jesus’ lifetime: maybe, the crowds suggest, Jesus’ mother had been misbehaving before her marriage. It seems as if Matthew and Luke are telling this story because they know rumours have circulated and they want to set the record straight. Everything depends, of course, on whether you believe that the living God could, or would, act like that. Some say he couldn’t (‘miracles don’t happen’); others that he wouldn’t, because ‘if he did that, why doesn’t he intervene to stop wars and genocide?’ But Matthew and Luke don’t ask us to take the story all by itself. They ask us to see it in the light both of the entire history of Israel – in which God was always present and at work, often in very surprising ways – and, more particularly, of the subsequent story of Jesus himself.

Does the rest of the story, and the impact of Jesus on the world and countless individuals within it ever since, make it more or less likely that he was indeed conceived by a special act of the Holy Spirit? That is a question everyone must answer for themselves. In the OT reading we heard Isaiah proclaiming that God himself will give a sign. ‘A woman has conceived and will bear a son named Emmanuel.’ Now, the name ‘Emmanuel, was not given to anyone else, perhaps because it would say more about the child than anyone would normally dare. It means ‘God with us’.

Matthew’s whole gospel is framed by this theme: at the very end, Jesus promises that he will be ‘with’ his people to the close of the age. God is present, with his people; He doesn’t ‘intervene’ from a distance. He is always active, and sometimes in most unexpected ways. And God’s actions are aimed at rescuing people from a helpless plight, demanding that he take the initiative and do things people had regarded as (so to speak) inconceivable.

This is the God, and this is the Jesus, whose story Matthew will tell us through the Gospel readings in the coming year. This is the God, and this is the Jesus, who still comes to us today when human possibilities have run out. God with his powerful grace and love always offers us new and startling ways forward, in fulfilment of his many promises. During the Christmas season we will have Joy, but there also the challenge, to remember Christ all the year round. We must not put him away in a box together with all the other Christmas decorations. We also have to remember that Christ does not remain a child. He grows into manhood and challenges us to follow in his footsteps and to obey the commandments and the will of God. A challenge which most of the world finds too difficult to accept. Joseph accepted God’s word and welcomed Jesus as any other normal father would, and I’m sure he loved him as he watched him growing up, and while he was passing on his skills as a carpenter to Jesus.

Yes, welcome and love. That’s what we have to do, welcome and love baby Jesus this Christmas tide. WE also have to allow him to grow and be the man who will challenge us by revealing the true nature of God. As well as loving God, Jesus also teaches us that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. Do we welcome and love our friends who are non-Christians this Christmas time? Probably yes. But do we love and welcome those we do not know when they come to church at Christmas or for baptisms or weddings or funerals? God loves us all and we too should always be loving and welcoming to all of God’s children. WE owe it to God, we owe it to them!

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

Amen

Events at Foxhill

A Prayer for Advent

In this Advent of expectation draw us together in unity, that our praise and worship might echo in these walls and also through our lives.
In this Advent of expectation draw us together in mission, that the hope within might be the song we sing, and the melody of our lives.
In this Advent of expectation draw us together in service, that the path we follow might lead us from a stable to a glimpse of eternity. John Birch 

Saturday 7th December – 9.30am
Woodlands Volunteer Day & Carols around the Campfire

Many hands make light work! This day will continue to focus on The Anniversary Garden, preparing it for the planting of 50 fruit trees in the new year. Following on from the success of the last volunteer day in November, our gardener James said:

“The planting up of our new fruit trees has come a step closer thanks to some much appreciated volunteer efforts on Saturday! In mercifully dry-ish weather, we tackled the old terraces near the orchard, starting a gargantuan task of restoring the yew hedge at the top of the bank and then removing great quantities of gorse and brambles that inhabited the terrace below. This has the effect of allowing foot passage along the terrace for the fist time in a while and letting much needed light flood the area meaning people can now sit on the benches below without being snagged by thorns! Once the terrace is clear, we can then start planting the fruit trees in the new year. This exciting task, however, must be first preceded with a second go at the clearing, so please do join us for another round of hearty work and even heartier company on December 7th!”

The day will begin at 9.30am and finish with us gathering around a campfire at around 4pm for some carols and mulled wine (weather permitting). Lunch and refreshments will be provided to keep energy levels up! If you would like to join us for some or all of the day, please contact the Foxhill team for catering purposes. If you would like to donate a tree to The Anniversary Garden, a limited number are still available – more information can be found here.

Monday 9th – Friday 13th December
Each evening: Room at the Inn

A Series of short services offering space to reflect and reconnect with the true meaning of Christmas, and find joy in Emmanuel – God with us.
6.30pm – House open for quiet time in the Chapel or a chat in the Sitting Room
7.30pm – 8pm – Gather in the Chapel
Refreshments to follow.
Although booking is not essential, it is helpful for catering purposes – please call or email the Foxhill team if you would like to attend.

Saturday 14th December – 4pm
Journey to Bethlehem

An all age carol service bringing the Christmas story to life as we follow Mary and Joseph through the grounds of Foxhill on a candle-lit journey to Bethlehem. Although this is a free event, booking is essential as places are limited. Please email the Foxhill team here.

Sunday 15th December
Christmas Lunch & Carol Service

Join the Friends of Foxhill for a day of fellowship and celebration.
1pm Christmas lunch – £15pp 2.30pmCarol Service in the Chapel
All are welcome – please book in advance with the Foxhill team here.

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2018

Brian Reader

So here we are at the fourth Sunday of Advent, and Christmas is almost upon us. Veronica opened the service with the lighting of the fourth Advent candle. Here at St. Oswald we have a candle holder rather than the usual Advent wreath, which allows the congregation to see all the candles at once. Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ Child and Purple (or violet) has traditionally been the primary colour of Advent, symbolizing repentance, prayer and fasting. Purple is also the colour of royalty and the sovereignty of Christ, so demonstrating our anticipation in Advent of the coming King.

The first candle of the Advent Wreath, the Prophecy Candle or Candle of Hope, is purple. The second Candle lit, which is also purple is called the Candle of Preparation. Last week Veronica lit the Pink Candle for the third Sunday of Advent, which is also known as Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday, being over half way through Advent. Pink or rose represents joy or rejoicing and reveals a shift in the season away from repentance and toward celebration. Today the fourth Advent Candle is purple. It is called the Angel Candle or the Candle of Love because our gospel today reminds us of the Angel visiting Mary and of her great love for her unborn child. Lastly, the Christ Candle is white representing purity and light and this is lit on Christmas morning.

Christ is the sinless, spotless, pure Saviour. He is the light come into a dark and dying world. Also, those who receive Jesus Christ as Saviour are washed of their sins and made whiter than snow. While there may be several traditions regarding the meaning or theme of each candle, they all enable us to reflect during Advent. By focusing on the colours of Advent in the weeks leading up to Christmas, it is a great way for Christian families to spiritually prepare by keeping Christ at the centre of Christmas, and for parents to teach their children the true meaning of Christmas.When I was a young schoolboy, the family went to Plymouth Brethren services and there were no candles and certainly no Advent Wreath. To say that, as a child, I found their Communion services to be ‘dour’ would certainly be correct. They did not have candles, or crucifixes or any of those ‘Papacy trappings,’ so my first Christmas with the Church of England was a bit of an eye opener!

Our Gospel reading from Luke is all about Mary meeting up with her cousin Elizabeth when both were pregnant, and Mary being overjoyed and singing a song which we call the Magnificat. My Plymouth Brethren Sunday school teacher taught me that this was a very boastful song and that we should never express ourselves in such a way. I would hope that when she got married and had a child of her own, that she too would also share some of the joy that Mary felt, and would then correctly understand this song of Mary.

Just put yourself in that house all those years ago. We don’t know precisely where Zechariah lived but it is probably fairly close to Jerusalem. In an earlier chapter, Luke tells us that Zechariah was taking his turn in the temple, rather like Veronica, who as a canon has duties in Chester Cathedral. It is probable that Mary lived some eighty miles from Elizabeth which was quite a journey in those days, so she may not have been aware that Elizabeth was also expecting a baby. You can imagine the meeting, the two of them talking excitedly to each other about the wonders that God had achieved. They were both very, very, happy, and it is probable that they danced around together.

In his commentary ‘Luke for Everyone’, Bishop Tom Wright suggests that Mary probably made up a song with snatches of poems and songs she already knew or perhaps by adding her own new words to a great old hymn or psalm. And as she lived in a culture where rhythm and beat mattered, it would be the sort of song you could clap your hands to, or stamp on the ground. Mary’s song should be read like that. It’s one of the most famous songs in Christianity. It goes with a swing and a clap and a stamp. It’s all about God, and it’s all about revolution.

And it’s all because of Jesus – Jesus who’s only just been conceived, not yet born, but who has made Elizabeth’s baby leap for joy in her womb and has made Mary giddy with excitement and hope and triumph. In many cultures today, it’s the women who really know how to celebrate, to sing and dance, with their bodies and voices saying things far deeper than words. That’s how Mary’s song comes across here.

Yes, Mary will have to learn many other things as well. A sword will pierce her soul, she is told when Jesus is a baby. She will lose him for three days when he’s twelve. She will think he’s gone mad when he’s thirty. She will despair completely for a further three days in Jerusalem, as the God she now wildly celebrates seems to have deceived her (and that, too, is part of the same Jewish tradition she draws on in this song). All of us who sing her song should remember these things too. But the moment of triumph will return with Easter and Pentecost, and this time it won’t be taken away.

Why did Mary launch into a song like this? What has the news of her son got to do with God’s strong power overthrowing the power structures of the world, demolishing the mighty and exalting the humble? Mary and Elizabeth shared a dream. It was the ancient dream of Israel: the dream that one day all that the prophets had said would come true. One day Israel’s God would do what He had told Israel’s earliest ancestors: that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s family. But for that to happen, the powers that kept the world in slavery had to be toppled. Nobody would normally thank God for blessing them if they were poor, hungry, enslaved and miserable. God would have to win a victory over the bullies, the power-brokers, the forces of evil which people like Mary and Elizabeth knew all too well, living as they lived in the dark days of Herod the Great, whose casual brutality was backed up by the strength of Rome.

Mary and Elizabeth, like so many Jews of their time, searched the scriptures, soaked themselves in the psalms and prophetic writings which spoke of mercy, hope, fulfilment, revolution, of victory over evil, and of God coming to the rescue at last. All of that is poured into this song, like a rich, foaming drink that comes bubbling over the edge of the jug and spills out all round. Almost every word is a biblical quotation such as Mary would have known from childhood. Much of Mary’s song is echoed by her son’s preaching, as he warns the rich not to trust in their wealth, and promises God’s kingdom to the poor.

But once again Luke hasn’t just shown us a big picture. Mary’s visit to Elisabeth is a wonderful human story – of the older woman, pregnant at last after hope had gone, and the younger one, pregnant far sooner than she had expected. That might have been a moment of tension: Mary might have felt proud, Elizabeth perhaps resentful. Nothing of that happens. Instead, the intimate details: John, three months before his birth, leaping in the womb at Mary’s voice, and the Holy Spirit carrying Elizabeth into shouted praise and Mary into song.

Underneath it all is a celebration of God. God has taken the initiative – God the Lord, the saviour, the Powerful One, the Holy One, the Merciful One, the Faithful One. God is the ultimate reason to celebrate.

The stories of the special pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth is about much more than their just their mutual joy. It is about the great fulfilment of God’s promises and purpose and also reminds us of another important thing. God regularly works through ordinary people, doing what they normally do, who with a mixture of half-faith and devotion are holding themselves ready for whatever God has in mind. So while you enjoy, what I hope will be a joyful and peaceful Christmas, remember that God has a plan for everyone, and be ready to serve him, and follow Him whichever way and whenever he leads.

Blessed are you, sovereign Lord, just and true, to you be praise and glory for ever.
Of old you spoke by the mouth of your prophets, but in our days you speak through your Son, whom you have appointed the heir of all things.
Grant us, your people, to walk in his light, that we may be found ready and watching when he comes again in glory and judgement; for you are our light and our salvation.
Blessed be God for ever.

AMEN

Second Sunday of Advent 2018

Ann Coomes

Malachi 3: 1-4,  Phil 1: 3- 11,  Luke 3:1-6

How many of you are going to have a Christmas tree this year? How many of you have got it decorated yet?

 Because of course, without the lights on the tree, there is no glory in the tree. It is all dolled up, but nothing glitters or glows – there is no energy in it – no light!

For me, the most nerve-wracking part of getting ready for Christmas comes just after I have managed to get the tree to stand upright without falling over, and I have unravelled the tangle of Christmas lights and wrapped them round and round and round the tree.  Then just before I plug the lights in, there is that awful moment when I wonder if the lights will actually work or not.  Suppose nothing happens?  Why didn’t I check them before I put them on the tree?  And if they don’t work, which bulb is not working?   How will I ever find it?  

Anyway, I reckon that the people of Israel were feeling a bit like that in this morning’s reading from Malachi.  The time was about 445 BC, and Israel was in the doldrums. They had, if you like, a very big tree with lights on it – but it would not light up.  In other words, they had a magnificent temple in Jerusalem, but it felt flat, somehow, and there was no power in it.

To really appreciate their problem, we need to remind ourselves of the back story.  Israel had returned from exile in Babylon nearly 100 years before, in 538 BC.  But they returned to disaster, because Jerusalem was in ruins.  Solomon’s beautiful temple where centuries before the glory of God had been so evident that it had literally lit up with glory, had been destroyed by the Babylonians.

But still, the prophets who had returned from exile with the people had assured them that God had not forsaken them, and that one day He would come in power and restore the glory of Israel.

And so the people, working for decades, had slowly managed to restore the city, and the temple.  But then – nothing happened.  The temple, although it was ready for God, did not ‘light up’, and the nation certainly did not return to the prosperity, international prominence and wealth that their prophets had promised to them.

Malachi is, as you know, the very last book in the Old Testament. And so the OT ends on a rather dismal note – the people of Israel in Jerusalem, hoping for the glory of God to return to them, but instead facing a rather terrible time of it. 

Because in thecenturies between 445 BC and the birth of Christ, Israel was invaded over and over again.  For example, in 350 BC Jerusalem was invaded by Artaxerxes 111 of Persia.  About 20 years later, in 332 BC Alexander the Great arrived.  After him Israel came under the rule of Egypt and then Asia Minor, until in 63 BC General Pompey of Rome invaded it, and the Roman Empire swallowed it up. 

So no wonder the Israelites felt discouraged.  Where was Jehovah?  Why had he not blessed the second temple?  Why didn’t the Christmas tree lights come on, as it were?

No wonder that by the time of Christ the Pharisees kept so strictly to the Law of Moses – they hoped that in doing so, they would encourage God’s blessing on their nation.  

After all, Malachi had warned the people that when the Lord finally did come, who could endure his coming?  God would demand purity and holiness, he would be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.  And so the Pharisees preached strict observance to the Law – or at least the outward signs of it.   

But still –nothing happened.   Still no lights on the tree. 

The Jews could only wait and hope that one day the second temple would be filled with a glory that would make Israel the light of the world. But – where was it?

Of course, this morning, with the benefit of 2000 years history, we know that the reason the second temple did not ‘light up’ was that the first covenant God had made with mankind was coming to an end.  God was going to keep his promise of dwelling among his people in a way they could hardly have imagined – He himself was going to come to his people. He was going to be their glory, to dwell in their hearts, not in a mere building of stones. 

Which brings to our Gospel reading, from Luke, where John the Baptist begins his ministry.  John was unique, for he was the very last ofthe Old Testament, pre-Christian prophets, and the very first prophet to recognise Jesus for who he was. 

Isaiah had foreseen John the Baptist eight centuries before, calling him:  

A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’

The coming of John he Baptist was so important that Luke actually went to the trouble to set it in the context of world history by linking it with the political situation of the time.   He tells us that it was during the 15th year of Tiberius the Roman emperor.  Well, Tiberius ruled from AD 14-37, which would make his 15th year either AD 27-28 or AD 28-29. 

John the Baptist’s witness was almost the hinge of history, if you like.  The age of the Law was ending, and God was about to make a new Covenant with mankind – one written in the blood of Christ. 

From now on, the way to God was not through keeping the Law, but through repentence and forgiveness.

The middle one of today’s readings was from Paul’s letter to the Philippian Christians, which offers each one of us some wonderful encouragement as we prepare for Christmas this year.

Paul writes that he is confident ‘that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus….’

In other words, God is at work within us, through his Spirit, and He will never give upon us.  We may have various troubles in our lives this Christmas, but we can be sure that God will never leave us or forsake us. 

Indeed, Paul says that as we share in God grace,

  • our love ‘will abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 
  • we will be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless
  • and we will be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
  •  

All of which takes me back to my Christmas tree lights.

They cannot shine of their own accord, they need energy from outside.

They cannot shine if their filament is corrupted or twisted in any way. 

They need to be properly plugged into the source of their energy.

Only then will energy from the Source be able to flow into them, and light them up,bringing glory to the tree, and being a light to all those around them.

Only when the Holy Spirit is dwelling within us will we, in our small way, become lights to the world, because his light is shining through us. 

Advent 2017 at St Oswald’s for young people

The season began by preparing the Christingles.


The RiCH* Christmas party involved some dressing up…

*RiCH = Refreshment in Church,  where Bollington’s Secondary School pupils (Years Seven to Nine) are able to drop in on their way home from school for a drink and some home made cake…


There were some special visitors at the Praise and Play* Christmas Party

*Praise and Play is for pre-school children and babies & their parents and/or carers


More dressing up for the Crib Service on Christmas Eve…


More information about parish activities for young people and families here

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2017

Roy Arnold

[Roy wasn’t able to make it to church, so Veronica read the sermon]

I had thought I might be with you this morning, but thought better of it. Maybe next Christmas, or better still, Easter. Anyway, here we are again on Christmas Eve. Another year drawing to a close. A year for me of lessons learned – like the wisdom of those who wrote our Wedding Service and the words “in sickness and in health” as part of our relationships whether we are married or not.

I know how much Hylda’s care (and that of our daughters) has meant to me since my disastrous fall in March, and I know also the comfort of your prayers from this congregation, and of the work of caring for the sick by doctors and nurses and district nurses, and of the benefits of our National Health Service. All lessons learned by me this year.

And the simple lessons of walking in someone else’s shoes. The shoes of my mother who suffered from arthritis for many years, or the suffering of soldiers wounded in battle. Or the simple annoyances of being reliant on someone else to fetch and carry.

I could go on about this, but it doesn’t sound very Christmassy, perhaps? Or perhaps it is?  Because (if you think about it) walking in someone else’s shoes is actually what Christmas is all about. About how God sent His Son to be with us, and to experience life as we live it, the good bits and the bad, in sickness and in health, the rain and the sunshine. The darkest time of the year when Christmas comes to give us some light – if we are willing or able to accept the life and the light and the love of Christmas.

Christina Rosetti, who wrote the well-known carol “In the bleak midwinter”, also wrote another carol called “Love came down at Christmas”. Perhaps Veronica might sing it for us (if she has any voice left and is not suffering from carol fatigue). But before she does I would like to thank her – and Dave – for her love and care for us all:

 

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Second Sunday of Advent 2017

Anne Coomes

Well, it is that time of year again: the time of the nativity plays. How many of you here this morning have children or grandchildren who will be appearing in one, either here in Bollington or further away? Some of you may know Lorraine, who often comes here to church with me. She has to attend THREE different nativity plays this year, as she has five grandchildren.

Nativity plays can be very sweet, are often hilarious, and we should be very grateful for them, as they are one of the few reminders that our culture still has as to the actual reason for Christmas: the coming of the Messiah.
And our readings this morning all focus on this coming of Jesus Christ, but the writers are considering it from various points in the timeline of world history.

First, there is the magnificent reading in Isaiah that begins: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” At the time that Isaiah wrote this, the Jews were in deep trouble. First, the Assyrian empire had seized the northern part of Israel and taken the ten of the tribes of Israel into slavery. Then the Babylonians had invaded from the east, and destroyed Jerusalem, and taken the remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin into captivity in Babylon.

Isaiah had not minced his words, throughout the book he makes clear to Israel that these disasters had come about because of her persistent sin and rebellion against God. She had broken the covenant God had made with her, and therefore, after many years of warning, God had given her over into the hands of her enemies. To all intents and purposes, the Jews should have faded away into history at that point. They could not help themselves, and all was lost.

But Isaiah had quite a different message. The message was that God still loved them, and that he would deal with their sins, and come to rescue them in power. They would be restored to a loving relationship with him.
Thus we have the words from this morning: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, …that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gently leads those that have young.”

And thus we have the other wonderful prophecies we also find in Isaiah: “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light, on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned…” or again “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever.”

A divine Messiah was coming who would rescue his people, establish righteousness and restore all things. These wonderful prophesies of Isaiah expanded on earlier ones which reach as far back as Genesis, or about 2000 BC. That was when Jacob foresaw that from his son Judah, a mighty king would come, “and the obedience of the nations is his.”

Ten centuries later, in about 1000 BC, when David was anointed King of Israel, the Lord had promised him that one his descendants would rule forever. And so, the idea of a divinely sent king who would right all wrongs began to take shape. He is mentioned in various OT prophecies from that time forwards, and also in the Psalms, and above all in Isaiah. As the centuries went by, this promise of a great coming king gave the Jewish nation an unfailing hope, a national identity, a purpose, to keep going. It reassured them that they were known and loved by God, and that there would be a future hope for them. One day God himself would come to rescue them.

Isaiah’s prophecy was partially fulfilled in 539 BC, when after 70 years of captivity in Babylon, the empire itself fell to the Persians. Cyrus, king of Persia, decreed that the Jews were free to go home and rebuild their temple.
They did so, but back in Jerusalem, still they waited for the coming of the promised divine king, or Messiah. And four more centuries went by, during which time there was more trouble, for in 63BC the Roman Empire invaded Palestine. Israel was once again under foreign occupation.

That was the situation when, in AD33, John the Baptist suddenly appeared in the wilderness, with a message that harked back to the prophecy of Isaiah. Here was the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. He is coming! Repent, be baptised! Get ready to meet him!
For John’s message was, basically, the same as Isaiah’s: the people were in deep trouble because they had sinned, and thus cut themselves off from their relationship with God. But God had not given up on them – he was calling them to repentance, so that they could accept the king who was now coming to them.

Of course, Mark wrote these words long after John the Baptist. Mark’s purpose was to show how the great prophecies of the Old Testament had all been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, who brought the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God.

Which brings us to our final reading this morning – from 2nd Peter. Peter was writing to Christians who were by then an established church, looking forward to the second advent, the return of Jesus. For they, like us, lived their lives between two advents. Jesus is coming back one day, not as a baby, but as the king of kings. If 2000 years seems a long time to wait, Peter advises us to be patient, as 1000 years is as one day to God. In the meantime, he advised his readers: “You ought to live holy and godly lives, as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming…in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”

Meanwhile, back here in December 2017, it is only two weeks to Christmas, and we are in the nativity play season, recalling the arrival of the precious baby who is at the centre of world history. He is the true light, the good shepherd, the bread of life, king of kings and lord of lords. He became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only. And as the book of Revelation sums it up: “He is the alpha and omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

Amen.

Vicar’s Letter – November 2017

If November is a month both for remembrance of the pity of war and also celebration of friends and loved ones lost from our sight and touch, then December is a month both for reflection on our own mortality and also thanksgiving for the joys to come. The Church offers us the season of Advent as a time of preparation, not just for Christmas but also for some (hopefully distant) future time when our earthly life’s journey will reach its end. This certainly doesn’t mean these next few weeks should be all doom and gloom! Rather it means that between now and the end of the year we have opportunities to celebrate the gift of life and the legacies left to us by others, as well as to consider what our own legacy will be, what we will be remembered for, what positive difference we might make to the wellbeing of the world and of the people entrusted to our care.

You are warmly invited to come and spend some time here at St Oswald’s over the course of one particular December weekend, when you can take a break from “retail therapy” and enjoy some reflective, relaxing, quiet, contemplative time in good company and with God!

On Saturday 16 December, we are offering you the chance to spend part or all of the day in church, when we might explore some Advent themes in a whole variety of ways. The Quiet Day will begin with coffee/tea at 9.30am, leading into the first of a succession of “thoughts for the day” from the Vicar at 10.00am, followed by some optional creative activities/prayer aids/reading material to help you settle into the silence as the day progresses. There will be interludes when we break for a simple lunch at 12.30pm, for tea/coffee (and cake?!) at 3.30pm, and for a further simple sustaining snack at 6.30pm, then we’ll finally close our Quiet Day by sharing Compline (Night Prayer) at 9.30pm. My intention is that people may like to come and go during the break times, with the chance to stay for as long or as short a time as they wish, but with those specific transitional refreshment intervals offering an easy point at which to arrive or depart without undue disruption to others.

On Sunday 17 December, as always everyone is welcome to share in our informal Third Sunday Family Communion at 10.30am. Then, later on, you are invited to return at 3.00pm to round off the whole weekend with another kind of feast – this time to join in singing Carols by Candlelight, followed by seasonal refreshments and then enjoy listening to music played on our pipe organ, appreciating its newly re-furbished bellows (achieved thanks to your generosity in fundraising once again)!

So this whole weekend will be something of an Advent Adventure! Please do make a note of it all in your personal Advent Calendar – a great seasonal opportunity to open the doors of your heart and mind to God’s angelic message, as Christ humbly comes to greet us here, asking to be let into our busy lives and offering us perhaps a gently challenging, as well as powerfully refreshing, glimpse of heaven.

Every blessing,
Veronica

2nd Sunday of Advent 2016

Brian Reader

Isaiah 11: 1-10; Ps 72: 1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Some 10 days ago someone asked me “Why don’t we have flowers in Church during Advent?” I gave an answer but it raised other issues, and it set me thinking.

What is Advent, and what do we know about it?

Advent is so much more than a delicious chocolate calendar counting down the days until Christmas. In fact, the Advent calendar gives a wrong idea about Advent, as it assumes that Advent starts on the 1st December, when we all know that this year it started last Sunday on 27th November, and next year it will start on the 3rd December.  I therefore decided to speak this morning about Advent and I make no apology for using some of an article by Justin Holcomb which I found on Christianity.com.

For some of us there may be some confusion surrounding the meaning of the Advent season. The word “Advent” just means “coming”. So it is reasonable to assume that the Advent season focuses on expectation and to think that it serves as an anticipation of Christ’s birth in the season leading up to Christmas. This is part of the story, but as Anne explained last Sunday there’s more to Advent than just that.

We should also understand that Christmas, the “Christ Mass”, was not celebrated until 350 to 400 AD. Scholars believe that during the 4th and 5th centuries in Spain and Gaul, Advent was a season of preparation for the baptism of new Christians at the January feast of Epiphany, the celebration of God’s incarnation represented by the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus. During this season of preparation, Christians would spend 40 days in penance, prayer, and fasting to prepare for their baptism; in a similar way that some new Christians today use Lent as a time of preparation for their baptism at Easter.

So originally, there was little connection between Advent and Christmas. By the 6th century, however, Roman Christians had tied Advent to the coming of Christ. But the “coming” they had in mind was not Christ’s first coming in the manger in Bethlehem, but his second coming in the clouds in Glory as the judge of the world. So Advent was a season that focused on waiting.

It was not until the Middle Ages that the Advent season was also explicitly linked to Christ’s first coming at Christmas.

Advent is now the period of four Sundays leading up to Christmas, and each Sunday is commemorated by the lighting of one of four coloured candles in the Advent wreath, with a fifth white candle being lit on Christmas day. Advent symbolizes the present situation of the church in these “last days”, that we read about in Acts and Hebrews: as God’s people wait for the return of Christ in glory to consummate his eternal kingdom.

The church is in a similar situation to Israel at the end of the Old Testament: in exile, waiting and hoping in prayerful expectation for the coming of the Messiah. Israel looked back to God’s past gracious actions on their behalf in leading them out of Egypt in the Exodus, and on this basis they called for God once again to act for them. In the same way, the church, during Advent, looks back upon Christ’s coming in celebration, while at the same time looking forward in eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when he returns for his people.

In this light, the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” perfectly represents the church’s cry during the Advent season. While Israel would have sung the song in expectation of Christ’s first coming, the church now sings the song in commemoration of that first coming and in expectation of the second coming in the future.

But the world we live in seems to take an Advent-free leap straight from All Saints Day to Christmas Eve? WHY?

Perhaps because Christmas is about celebration, and celebrations can be a time to move products off the shelves. Advent is about waiting, and waiting is considered a waste of time in a materialistic world.

In the Western religious setting, new believers seek to use Jesus to provide them with their most convenient lives in the here and now, and Advent is a particularly awkward intrusion.

Advent links our hearts with those of ancient prophets who pined for a long-promised Messiah but who passed away long before his arrival. In the process, Advent reminds us that we too are waiting.

Even on this side of Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, there is brokenness in our world that no shopping trolley full of Christmas bargains can fix; there is hunger in our souls that no plateful of Christmas pudding and brandy butter can fill; there is twistedness in our hearts that no terrestrial hand can touch.

As the apostle Paul declared, “The whole of creation, has been groaning together for redemption.” In Advent, Christians embrace the groaning and recognize it not as hopeless whimpering over the failings of the present moment but as an expectant yearning for a divine banquet that Jesus is preparing for us even now.

In Advent, the church admits, as poet R.S. Thomas has put it, that “the meaning is in the waiting.” And what we await is a final Advent that is yet to come. In Advent, believers confess that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word.

Advent was intended to be a season much like Lent, a time of fasting, and reflection and there are a variety of ways that this time of mourning works itself out in the season. That is the reason that traditionally we have no flowers in Church during Advent, and why some Churches delay their carol services until after Christmas.

Today it is difficult to keep in mind the true meaning of Advent in the midst of parties, shopping, lights and decorations that we see all around us. Some may view Advent like the season of Lent, where you can celebrate it or skip it, waiting instead for the big holidays like Christmas or Easter. I can’t help but feel, that when we skip over these waiting periods in anticipation of the real meaning of the holiday, we come up a little empty when the big day arrives.

So what should we do?

Reflection on the violence and evil in the world cause us to cry out to God to make things right -to put death’s dark shadows to flight. One catechism describes the spirituality of Advent beautifully:

“When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’

It is only in the shadow of Advent that the miracle of Christmas can be fully understood and appreciated; and it is only in the light of Christmas that the Christian life makes any sense.

We are between the fulfilled promise of Christ’s first coming and the yet-to-be-fulfilled promise of his second coming. It is precisely in the light of the coming of Christ that faith has become Advent faith, the expectation of future revelation.

Faith knows for whom and for what it is waiting. The promise for Israel and the promise for the church is Jesus Christ; He has come, and He will come again.

So Advent reminds us to listen for the message that God is speaking, even in the waiting. This is the essence of Advent.

Are you listening for God speaking to you, through the Bible, or prayer or quiet meditation? Are you giving yourself space to hear what God is saying to you in this busy world?

What better time to start than this Advent?