The easiest paper nativity set in the world.

Photocopy-able, colour-in-able, limited talents in cutting and sticking required. Do help yourself!  LLLA Make your own paper crib scene
This is not a work of art, nor a thing of great beauty, but if you want something easy and cheap, it might just fit the bill!

A sparkly christingle talk!

How about this for a sparkly way of looking at the Light and the World:

You will need:
Christingles for everyone, and the means to light them
A small vial of iron powder – you can buy this online.  Use powder rather then iron filings. 

Start with your vial of iron powder – show it, sprinkle some between your fingers, back into the container. Explain what it is – it looks just like dust. In fact, it’s what the earth’s core is made of. It’s the most common element in our planet. It’s earth-dust, nothing more; we might remember that the Bible tells of God making the first human being from dust.  You can’t get anything more earthy than this. It’s grey and dull, really. It doesn’t look like anything special. It doesn’t look like it’s going to do anything cool.  Not on its own, anyway.

But look what happens when we introduce the dust of the earth to the light of the world. (Light your own Christingle at this point, dim the lights, and carefully sprinkle some of the iron powder into the flame – it’s worth practicing before the service so you get the right amount – the iron should turn to bright orange sparks, clearly visible in a dark church.  You may need to get someone to hold your christingle for you so you have your hands free to do the sprinkling).

The dust of the earth comes alive when it touches the light of Christ – Jesus came into the world to bring it to life, to bring energy and joy to places that were grey and lifeless.  When Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world’ he meant that he was bringing the light of heaven right into the midst of earth’s darkness.  When he said ‘you are the light of the world’ he meant that he could transform our dull dustiness into bright shining sparks of God’s love in the world!

At this service, we turn from dust to sparkles! The light of Jesus is with us, and is bringing us to life, so that we can bring his light and life to the dark places of this world – that’s our life’s work, and we do it in the transforming love and power of Jesus.  So shine as lights in the world to the glory of God the Father!

As an added bonus, here’s an extra verse you can add to This Little Light of Mine, that reflects the message of the iron powder talk:

When I am feeling dull and grey,
and sunshine seems so far away,
when I don’t know quite where to start,
I remember the stardust in my heart:
all it needs is a tiny spark
to get me shining in the dark,
So Jesus, give me your fire divine
to let my little light shine!

Midnight

A sermon for midnight mass.

Last night, with still six sermons left to write, I found myself remembering that whatever I do or fail to do, whatever I say or don’t say from the pulpit, Christmas will still happen. Christ is still come among us. God is still with us. Christmas itself does not happen because of me. In fact, at this rate, it is more likely to happen despite me.

I’d be the first person to point out that the whole of the Christmas story depends on the compliance of the key players: Mary has to say yes, Joseph has to support her; the Shepherds have to listen to the angels and summon the enthusiasm to leave their flocks and visit the new baby; the magi have to notice the star and then take the risk of following it….

But to turn that around, isn’t the miracle that it all happened at all?  If God’s son was to be born on earth, there would have been far easier ways.  A different place, a different time. A less ad hoc plan. In fact, it almost seems as if the Christmas story happened despite all the things that could have, or did, go wrong.

Christ was born:

Despite Mary and Joseph not being married yet,  and the risk that both of them took to go along with the plan…

Despite the fact that they had to travel miles to go and register themselves for tax…

Despite the fact that with the Romans in charge, being born a Jew was a serious disadvantage in the first place…

Despite all the inns being full and the new parents and child having to sleep in a stable…

Despite Herod’s unspeakable act of rage and fear and jealousy as he tried to root out and kill the baby Jesus…

Despite all this, the incarnation happened. Christ was born. God came into his own world, became subject to its dangers, and ‘pitched his tent among our own’.

The Christmas story is a remarkable tale of how the purposes of God triumph over circumstance, over sin, over inconvenience, over hardship, over sheer improbability…  It was time for the Saviour of the World to come. And come he did, despite everything.

It’s a story that delicately balances the overwhelming loving purposes of God for the world, and the way that he draws us into that loving plan, giving his people crucial parts to play, and directing the action, but allowing and encouraging them to improvise and rewriting the script to take account of each twist and turn, and to allow for the weakness of those he has chosen for his starring roles.

Perhaps the key (at least a key, for me) in all these ‘despites’ is that perfection is not the aim. There is one thing that absolutely has to happen in the story: Jesus has to be born. Everything else was window dressing.  Yes, a house would have been nice rather than a stable, and yes, it would have been nice to do without the long journey. These things would have made the whole thing more comfortable.  But despite most things going wrong, Jesus was born. Christ came into the world. Emmanuel – God with us.

Seeing the story in that light made me question again my own priorities this Christmas. Was I, in fact, worrying about the window dressing, the things that would make everything feel good, and forgetting the one thing that mattered above all else? Where was the real presence of Jesus Christ in all that I am doing at Christmas, or had it got a bit lost in all the photocopying of service sheets, last-minute writing of sermons, singing of descants, guilt at not having done a great deal on the domestic front recently, and everything else.  You may all, of course, be paragons of organisation and domestic bless, everything ordered and precise, and all relationship healthy and happy, nothing at all to mar a perfect day.  If that’s you, that’s great, well done!  But I suspect you’re in the minority!

So that’s what I want to share with you tonight. You can have a Christmas in which everything goes wrong. And yet that same Christmas can be everything it needs to be if the one thing that really matters is in place. I’ve had to work out all over again – as I do every Christmas – what that one thing is, or it’ll get lost under all my attempts to get everything right, and then under all my flapping and worrying about having got so many things wrong or failed to do them at all. Christmas has such a lead-up and so much expectation that anything short of perfection can feel like failure.

God knew that the world he had made was – and still is – in a mess, and he knew that he was coming into one of the messiest, most difficult, and most imperfect times and places in that world. That’s where and when he chose to come, because the light shines most brightly in the dark.

So tonight, I invite you to work out what’s most important. Find your answer in a reading: it might be, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ or ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’; find it in a carol: it might be ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight’ or ‘be bear me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay’; find it in a moment’s silence; find it in seeing a loved one you’ve not seen for ages, or in the greeting of a stranger; or find it in a prayer, in a sigh…. Whatever else you do, and however hard to decide to try to make everything perfect this Christmas, remember that the Christmas story is one in which almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, and yet it changed the world, because it was the moment that God came to us and stayed with us, and he is with us still – and that depends not on us, but on God.

Advent 2 (Isaiah 11.1-10 & Matt 3.1-12)

Today’s readings treat us to some wonderfully resonant words about what, or rather who, is to come.

It is likely that Isaiah spoke, or wrote his words over seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, while John the Baptist spoke his in the months immediate lead-up to Jesus’ own ministry; Isaiah speaks of hope, reconciliation and renewal, John’s words emphasize  repentance and judgement, but these are just two sides of the same coin. The ‘Day of the Lord’ that many of the prophets promise inspires both hope and fear; the promise of judgement brings both hope of justice and restoration, and fear of condemnation.  As a friend of mine once put it, The Wrath of God is what the Love of God looks like from Sin’s point of view.  Thus, John stands as the last in the long and honourable (though rarely honoured) line of prophets who, each in their own way, ‘prepared the way of the Lord and made his paths straight’.

As Christians, we hear their words and we think of the person of Jesus as the promised Messiah, the shoot from the stock of Jesse (as we can read in the gospel genealogies), the one whose sandals John was unworthy to carry.  We see in Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection, and his promised second coming, the fulfillment of the prophets’ dreams, the culmination of everything they hoped for and promised.  During Advemt we re-live that ancient hope, fulfilled for us in the Christ-child, and we re-kindle our present and future hope, for the renewal of the earth the the purging away of all that is broken and polluted and destructive in God’s world.

But for me it always comes down to this: what is our own place in the hope that we cherish, what is our own role in creating the future that we long for?  I have preached many times about the need not only to long for the kingdom of God, but also to work for the kingdom of God. And it appears that John the Baptist agrees: ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’, he tells the Pharisees. In other words, when you place your hope for renewal in God, do not forget your own part in making that hope come alive; for repentance to have any integrity, and indeed any lasting effect, it must be lived out in a life that is transformed and renewed, and John doubts whether the Pharisees are ready for this level of engagement with what he is offering.

It would have been easy, too, for the first hearers of Isaiah’s words to sit back and say, ‘One day God will send such a person, a Messiah, who will be all these things – full of wisdom and understanding and full of the Spirit of God – and our job is simply sit here and wait for that day’.  But Isaiah, and all the prophets with him, were at pains to point out that the justice that the Messiah would bring, and the peace, are also the work of every single one of God people. The prophets are constantly pointing out the inequalities that pervade even the chosen people, urging both the leaders and the people themselves to act with justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. Undoubtedly, the living out of the covenant in the Old Testament and the building of the Kingdom of God in the New Testament, are two sides of the same coin as well.

Working hard to establish the values of God’s Kingdom on earth, as well as praying for that end, does not in any way undermine the centrality of God’s free grace; rather it is about allowing that grace to work through us to bring about God’s purposes in this broken world.

This week we have been celebrating the life of a man whose who life’s meaning could be expressed in the words of Isaiah.  Nelson Mandela has been acknowledged as a man upon whom the Spirit of God rested, a man full of wisdom and understanding, a man who did not judge by appearance, but who strove his entire life for justice, for equity, and who, ultimately witnessed the reality of the miracle that he had prayed and worked for: a South Africa in which equality was possible, and in which the lion could lie down with the lamb. A man who, like John the Baptist, preached repentance, but who, even more remarkably, preached forgiveness.

He was also a man who embodied the wideness of God’s mercy for humanity. John talks of bringing forth children of Abraham from the very stones underfoot, and Isaiah speaks of a radical peace between diverse and conflicting creatures.  The sheer scope and generosity of God’s desire for the earth’s renewal is astounding, and we have heard again this week of the many ways in which Mandela’s legacy has had a profound impact not only on South Africa but on the whole world.

Nelson Mandela strove to be what Isaiah promised.  And if we find ourselves uncomfortable with anything that looks like a comparison between Jesus Christ and an ordinary human being, then we can remind ourselves both that Jesus came to earth as an ordinary human being at least partly to show us what true humanity looks like when it is lived out as God intended; and also that we, as the body of Christ, are called (both individually and communally) to be Christ-like, to continue the work of Jesus in the world.  If Isaiah describes our Messiah, then he also describes us, and every community that models itself on Jesus.

Thank God for those who show us that hope is not just an idea for the future, but a present possibility, something worth working for. Thank God for those whose lives mirror that of Christ: risking everything, giving everything, forgiving, bearing, enduring so much.  Thank God for the million and one small opportunities (and perhaps some big ones) that we have in our own lives to be all that Isaiah promised, and all that John asked for as fruits of our repentance. Thank God that he still uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things in his name.  And as we pray for the coming of the Kingdom – God’s kingdom of justice and joy – let us also pray that we may be the means by which that Kingdom comes and play our part in drawing heaven and earth that bit closer this Advent and Christmas and beyond.