Category Archives: Christmas

Reclaiming Christmas with Grace


Tinsel town?“Mine! Mine! Mine!” squawked the gulls in Finding Nemo.

“Mine! Mine! Mine!” I hear Christians cry as a marketing frenzy warps the Christmas message; as the god of our consumer society replaces the mystery of the Christ child with the clamour of the cash register, the jangle of canned carols and the lure of the sale.

“Christmas is mine,” we say as we seek to reclaim Christmas and redirect the celebrations from the Santa of the shopping malls to the child of Bethlehem.

The “spirit of Christmas” is spread liberally around, but the mystery of Christmas is lost in the clamour. I can understand the frustration of Christians who denounce it all, give up the fight and choose not to celebrate Christmas at all.

But is that really an option? Can we opt out of the celebration, of this time of remembering? Can we pretend it didn’t happen, as some do? They say 25 December was a pagan celebration anyway, so it’s not Christian to celebrate. But, whatever date we choose, sometime during the year we have to stop and recognise the incredible gift of our incarnate Immanuel–God with us.

All rushed outOthers just want peace and quiet, to be able to celebrate the coming of Jesus in meditation and prayer, without the requisite gift-buying frenzy. Ah, what bliss that would be.

But would we? Would we remember at all, if the rest of the world wasn’t involved? Unless we worship in a church that uses lectionary readings, the great festivals of the church generally pass us by. How many of us celebrate Epiphany, or even the Ascension? And Pentecost? My guess is that we only celebrate Pentecost because it falls on a Sunday.

I know it’s a mad rush, I know the world’s involvement raises expectations and anticipation of an entirely materialistic nature. I know that we are so rushed by the commercialisation of the season, that we have little time to think of the meaning. But on this day, shared with pagans, perhaps, but on this wonderful day, we invite the world to stop, to reflect, to notice Jesus amidst all the tinsel and the jangling and the food. On this day, we say to the world, it is all because of Jesus, because of the most wonderful gift of all. Most of the world won’t hear us, will ignore us, will miss the point. But did rejection ever stop Christians from pointing the way, or from celebrating the life and death and resurrection of Jesus? Did rejection and misunderstanding stop Jesus?

As someone put it:
“Nations have their red-letter days, their carnivals and festivals, but once in the year and only once, the whole world stands still to celebrate the advent of a life. Only Jesus of Nazareth claims this world-wide, undying remembrance. You cannot cut Christmas out of the Calendar, nor out of the heart of the world.” Anonymous(from CrossQuotes.org)

Accepting the full meaning of Christmas, beyond the tinsel and the carols, would mean a commitment that even we find difficult to give. Can we wonder that the world would rather trivialise this event than celebrate it.

Christmas CarolsSo let’s sing our Christmas carols, and let the world join in. Let’s worship together with those who never come to church at any other time. Let them have our seats and get the words wrong, and eat our mince pies, and even go away unchanged. Because grace is the gift that was given at Christmas, not “peace on earth.” The peace the angels sang about will come when we learn to share the grace we have received.

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Easter celebration, a matter of life and death


Easter

Easter (Photo credit: 427)

We went to the gym last weekend (Easter Saturday morning); I hope everyone is impressed.  Oh alright, to be brutally honest, after swiping our cards and going inside, we sat down at the coffee shop to enjoy a healthy breakfast.  What weights?  What treadmill?

While enjoying the fare we heard the folk at the next table talking about religion, and bits of their conversation drifted over to us.  “You know what they say,” one of them joked.  “Jesus saves, but Moses headed it in on the rebound.”  (I wondered whether it would become more profound, or was that it?)

“Religion’s a good thing I suppose,” said one. “Especially for those who are dying; it helps people get ready.”  (Well, it wasn’t much, but it was better than the joke.)

“Yes, that’s true,” another one added.  “But really, I don’t believe all this Christianity. I mean, Christ wasn’t really born on 25 December. That was just a pagan festival. The people who invented Christianity decided to use it because it would get more people involved.” (That’s what he said: “Invented”.)

“Ja,” another one agreed. “Easter too, with those Easter eggs.  It’s all part of a fertility cult that the Christians have taken over.  It’s not Christian.”

On the same day a man was quoted in a vox pop conducted by The Witness.  “I do not celebrate Easter, neither do I associate myself with anything that has to do with this holiday. I’m a Christian and don’t believe that it has anything to with Christ.” 

Well, however cynical it all sounds, all of them have got it right; but they have also, sadly, got it spectacularly wrong.  Of course we don’t know when Jesus was born; we could use any day of the year.  It’s not the day that matters, or what other people do with it; it’s what we do with it.  Whether it’s on that day or another, we celebrate with the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and to earth peace and goodwill to all humanity.”  Immanuel, God with us.  That’s something to sing about. That’s something to be excited about.

There are those touched by Christianity who refuse to celebrate Christmas.  For some it’s a theological rejection of the humanity of Jesus, but that’s a topic for a different time.  Others refuse to celebrate Christmas and Easter because they have been commercialised.  But that means they have thrown out the Babe of Bethlehem with the bathwater of commercialisation.  How sad to allow the world to dictate what we will hold on to and what we will discard. If the world misinterprets or misappropriates part of our faith, must we jettison it?  In that case, instead of confidently proclaiming our faith, we are constantly looking over our shoulders, and we end up with a cut-and-paste set of beliefs pretty meaningless to everyone, including ourselves. 

I have absolutely no theological or religious reason for eating hot cross buns.  I eat them because I like the taste, and I love the tradition of eating them after service on Good Friday, and on Easter Sunday morning just after a sunrise service.  On the other hand I don’t eat Easter eggs as a rule.  But again there is no theological reason.  I simply like chocolate too much to spend money on a hollow shell made from poor-quality chocolate.  Of course, if you insist on buying me a Lindt bunny (or reindeer) you will find me most gracious and appreciative.

But do Easter eggs and Easter bunnies, or a white-haired old man in a red coat, define our faith?  Are they even peripheral to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? Of course not.  Yes, the commercial word has muscled in; that’s what it does.  But that’s got nothing to do with us and our faith, or with how we celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection, or with how we share the Good News with the world.

What happened that first Christmas and that first Holy Week goes way beyond such trifles.  And it is far greater than our celebration of it in any form.  I also have news for my neighbours at the gym: it goes way beyond preparing us for death.  It is not about death, although a death is at the heart of it, but about life.  God has always participated in history not to prepare us for death but to prepare us for life—life in all its fullness.

When we as Christians bicker about Halaal stickers on “our” hot cross buns, or when they should be eaten, or whether people of other faiths should be allowed to have Christmas Day off work, we cheapen our faith, and we give the impression to a cynical world that faith is trivial and has no real meaning for life.

When we spend more time quarrelling about the “right” way to worship than we do reaching out to a broken world, when we spend our time pointing out the faults and shortcomings of others, criticising and condemning instead of encouraging, we engage in activities that lead to death rather than life.

In our worship and celebration, in our ceremonies and traditions, let us never forget that it’s about life not death, and that the focus is on God and not on our limited understanding of him.  Let’s put aside those things that hinder our relationship with God or our relationships with others, or that make it difficult for others to relate to God.  If they are too precious to put aside then let us at least ensure that in the way we live and the way we celebrate we keep the focus on Jesus, and not on the mere elements of our celebration.

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Plenty of Camels, Three Kings and a Baby


The following story was inspired by our minister who preached on the story of the wise men, and asked two questions.  First, which star are we following?  There are many to choose from in our over-stimulated lives.  The second had to do with the transformation of the wise men (they went home on a new road): on what new roads are we travelling?
 This story will, I hope, help you think about those questions.  For one, the wise men themselves were not always sure which star they were following, and unless our encounter with Jesus makes a difference in our lives and in our world (and leads us to new paths) then that encounter means very little. 
A photograph of three camels, taken at the Pyr...

I love camels.  Yeah, I know, I’m crazy.  No one loves camels, or no one tells anyone they love camels.  Most people put up with camels as a necessary evil, and camels certainly don’t love us; they hardly even put up with us.  Most people just use and abuse their camels; but before you start feeling sorry for the beast, rest assured, the abuse is mutual.

My father had me working with camels from childhood, almost before I could walk.  He was Master of the Stables for the late King Belzeor and I used to help him with his work.  It was hard work but I loved it and learned to love the camels too.  When I was growing up my favourites were Grouch, Rat and Sweets.  Those weren’t their real names but that’s what we called them.   Grouch was a real grouch, even for a camel, but he was a hard worker.  Rat wasn’t as bad as she sounds but when she was tiny she was skittish about rodents; rustle in the straw near her and she’d jump.  Sweets loved anything sweet—would steal dates from your pocket if you gave her half a chance; not everyone could handle that, but Dad was a master and I learned everything from him.

When King Belzeor died his son Balthazar took over.  About the same time I took over from my dad as Master of the Stables.  Like his father before him, Balthazar was a Magus, respected far and wide for his wisdom and learning.  He studied the heavens and could read the stars.  I was lucky enough just to be able to read a scroll.

A few years ago there was huge excitement in the household.  The master was setting off on a journey. That wasn’t so unusual but what was strange was that he didn’t know where he was going or how long it would take.  When we discussed the camels he would need I asked him about the roads he would follow.

“Roads?” he said. “Not roads; we’re going to follow a star.”

“Well this is going to be fun,” I thought.  Finally the stars had gone to the master’s head.  But he told me about a new star he had discovered to the west, which had appeared about four months before.  Two other Magi had also recognised this new star as something unique, and they would be joining us.  They believed the star represented a new-born king.  They seemed to think he was a Jew but why the birth of a Jew (even a king) would cause such excitement or warrant his own star, I had no idea.  My master and the other Magi seemed to think that this king would somehow be greater than his people.  Well I didn’t know much about politics but as far as I knew Jews and everyone else to the west were ruled by Rome, so this new king would have quite a mission ahead of him.

Anyway, crazy as it sounds, we followed a star.  Early each morning while it was still dark we would break camp and the master would point to the stars in the west.  “There it is,” he’d say. “Let’s be on our way.”

At first we didn’t know which one was the new one, but it wasn’t long before we could distinguish it and we would look for it in the dark.  We would follow it until a few hours after the sun came up then we would camp during the heat of the day.  Late afternoon we’d break camp and be on our way until just before it got dark.  Initially the star wasn’t around in the afternoons, and as the months progressed it would appear at different times of the day, but the Magi would do some calculations and use those for when the star wasn’t visible.

We had been on the road (not that we travelled much on a road) for about six months.  What a journey it was.  I could tell you a hundred stories—another time perhaps.

About six months after we started, the party nearly broke up.  I thought the Magi were going to come to blows.  They were usually so calm and peaceful we never heard their discussions.  This time their arguing was intense and loud.  We had crossed the Jordan River and had driven through Jericho, on our way, we thought, to Jerusalem.  That’s the Jewish capital where their king, Herod, had his palace.  But Balthazar had other plans.

“The star is not leading to Jerusalem but more to the south,” he said.

“Maybe,” said the others. “But the star is probably leading us to where the child was born; we want to know where he is now.  Surely the Jewish King will know where the next King of the Jews is, if he’s not in Jerusalem with him.”

But my master was not convinced; he wanted to follow the star. “We’re not following an earthly king, but one that’s known to the heavens,” he said. 

 “True,” the others said.  “But after so long in the desert, surely we owe it to our party to have a short rest in the city.”  I wouldn’t want to be disloyal to my master but, I must say, that sounded like a grand idea.  “And the star’s been with us all this time,” they added.  “It will wait for us.  A couple of days won’t hurt anyone, surely?”

Then they said we could hardly enter Herod’s territory, on our way to find his successor, without at least seeking an audience, and my master finally relented.  So we travelled to Jerusalem and spent a week there while the Magi met with King Herod.

I didn’t meet the King, of course, but I heard all about the visit.  It seems Herod didn’t know what his visitors from the east were talking about.  If there was a new heir to the throne he certainly hadn’t been told.  But, for all that, he was a gracious host, almost as eager as the Magi to know more and to join the search.

Herod’s wise men pointed to Bethlehem as the birthplace of this new king.  They quoted their scriptures:

“Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
You are by no means least of the leading cities of Judah;
for from you will come a leader who will guide my people Israel.”

“Clearly a gift from God,” Herod told them.  “Go to Bethlehem and find the child.  Then come back and tell me where he is so that I may also worship him.”

“Murder him, more like it,” was the reaction from the more cynical stable hands.

Jerusalem was great.  The King’s stables were lavish but the camels were restless, so it was good to be back on the road again.  We left early in the morning, well before dawn, and the star was there, just to the south-west where Bethlehem lay about eight kilometres away.  Would the child still be there?

As we reached the base of the last hill before Bethlehem, and looked up to the village, the star seemed to rest on top of the hill.  We stopped and stared.  Could this be the end of our journey?  We waited for the star to set but it didn’t move.  It seemed to be sitting on the hill, waiting for us, until it faded away in the light of the rising sun.

My master and the other Magi were very excited.  “The child is here,” Balthazar said.

I’ll never know how he did it (I’m not sure even he knows) but my master proceeded to lead the way through the village to a small cottage.  What a stir we caused.  I’m told that Bethlehem is where the famous King David was born but you wouldn’t know it.  The villagers don’t seem to have seen anyone royal or famous for the last thousand years.  They stopped and stared and followed along behind. 

But when we arrived at the cottage there was something about it, and about the couple who welcomed us, that made us catch our breath.  I can’t explain it but I’ve seen a lot of rich and powerful people, and people who like to think they are rich and powerful—aggression and contempt is what they do best.  But not this couple; they weren’t overawed by our pomp or frightened by our numbers.  There was a quiet confidence; a conviction that they were in the right place, doing the right thing.  But there was humility about them too, suggesting that they might not be too sure just what the “right thing” was.

And then there was the baby.

He was just a baby; just like any other baby.  But then, somehow, he was so different.  Perhaps it was his parents; perhaps it was the sight of these three powerful sages kneeling down in front of him, offering gifts.  Whatever it was, we all felt it—even the camels were still.

We wanted to know more, to do more.  I know it sounds strange (the whole thing was crazy from the start) but I wanted to follow this baby, this child, this…King.

I could see that Balthazar also felt it.  Tears had poured down his cheeks as he offered his gifts.  As he gave the child’s mother a gift of myrrh I heard him say to her, “I brought this gift for your son’s anointing, but myrrh is also a sign of suffering, and I fear the swords that will put him on his throne will pierce your heart.” 

I had no idea what my master meant (perhaps he didn’t either) but it was clear that the encounter with this family, this child, had transformed him.  “We are not going back to Jerusalem,” he told us that evening.  “We’re going to find a different path; a new road.”  And I felt sure that he was talking about something more than just the route we would take home.

I still don’t understand it all, but I knew at that moment that it was time to leave the star behind and follow this child, whatever it might mean.

Balthazar summed it up for me as we gathered around him.  “I don’t understand all that has happened,” he said.  “I sense that we have been in the presence of greatness, but a greatness unlike anything I have come across before.   I can’t speak for you,” he went on, “But I want to learn more about this child and tell people about him.  Where we met him, no one needs to know that, but how he has affected us, and what it means to you and to me, that’s something to think deeply about and to share with the world.  I doubt that anyone will remember a bunch of Magi coming to this place,” he said.  “But, if we follow our hearts and share what we have experienced, the world will be talking about this child long after we are all gone.”

Last week was Epiphany Sunday.  It’s the day we celebrate the coming of the wise men to Jesus, a symbol of his being presented to the world, the gentile world, our world.  This story is not meant in any way to improve on the Bible story, let alone replace it.  We have become so familiar with the Bible stories that we often fail to hear them anymore.  I hope that this (and other stories I write) will help us hear the story of the wise men differently and receive new challenges.

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Christmas Morning


Our service on Christmas morning was an exquisite experience.  To be part of such a wonderful family of people gathered in joy and celebration, to worship, to renew friendships, and to share in the awe of Christmas, was a delight.

I was reminded of how Eugene Peterson interprets Psalm 16:3 in The Message:

“And these God-chosen lives all around–what splendid friends they make”

Splendid friends indeed.

Our new minister began her journey with us on Christmas Day.  Ministers in the Methodist Church of Southern African move to new appointments in December each year (our summer), and their first service is Christmas Day; pretty scary I’d think!  But I hope and pray that the vibe we experienced would have given her a real sense of belonging to this new community of ‘splendid friends’.

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A Child is Born


Isaiah 9:2-7 (The Message)

(2)  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For those who lived in a land of deep shadows– light! sunbursts of light!

(3)  You repopulated the nation, you expanded its joy. Oh, they’re so glad in your presence! Festival joy! The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings.

(4)  The abuse of oppressors and cruelty of tyrants– all their whips and cudgels and curses– Is gone, done away with, a deliverance as surprising and sudden as Gideon’s old victory over Midian.

(5)  The boots of all those invading troops, along with their shirts soaked with innocent blood, Will be piled in a heap and burned, a fire that will burn for days!

(6)  For a child has been born–for us! the gift of a son–for us! He’ll take over the running of the world. His names will be: Amazing Counselor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness.

(7)  His ruling authority will grow, and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings. He’ll rule from the historic David throne over that promised kingdom. He’ll put that kingdom on a firm footing and keep it going With fair dealing and right living, beginning now and lasting always. The zeal of GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies will do all this.

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Do we need a Saviour?


“…Christ the Saviour is born….”

The truth is that the world doesn’t really believe it needs a saviour, does it?  Well, everyone would like to be saved from the perils of the European financial crisis, the Middle Eastern riots, poverty, HIV/AIDS, global warming, and a host of more personal disasters.  But few believe that there is any real relief from these things; we must just make the most of what we have and get on with it.

On the other hand most of us have our own favourites when it comes to any of these crises, and some vague idea of how we will be rescued.  COP17 will save us from global warming–you mean it didn’t?  Common sense, or ‘the will of the people’ (or maybe NATO) will save the Middle East.  Science will save us from HIV/AIDS (a vaccine is surely just around the corner).  The lottery will save us from personal financial disaster.  Not sure about Europe, or the earthquakes in Christchurch, which is a more personal matter.

What about God?  Isn’t he concerned about these and other matters that get our attention.  Well if we are concerned about them, God is too.  That’s what love is about.  But he’s not going to ride into our lives or into our world on a white horse and take care of it all.  Sorry about that (let me not tell you about Father Christmas just yet).

Our Saviour comes as a baby.  Yes, Christ the Saviour of the world is a baby.

Sounds a bit ridiculous doesn’t it?  There’s not much saving that a baby can do.  The only thing a baby can offer is its vulnerability.  And that’s pretty well all that this baby continued to offer for the rest of his life.  Oh, don’t get me wrong; Jesus wasn’t ever a walk over (just ask the Pharisees and other religious leaders–political leaders too, for that matter).  But he was only ever standing up for others, not for himself.  For the rest he offers us his vulnerability, otherwise translated as love.

I know, love seems like a pretty poor substitute for NATO’s bombing of Libya and doesn’t seem likely to help in the fight against totalitarian regimes, financial crisis, disease or poverty.  Indeed, we put love to death, that first Easter.

We think that love is too weak to deal with the world’s problems so we choose power and coercion to fix things.  After that, we think, we can start sharing the love.  But God thinks otherwise.  It was when Jesus knew that he had all power from the Father that he washed his disciples’ feet and went to the cross (John 13:3).  Paul knew God was sending him to Rome.  In his weaker moments he probably thought of it as some sort of triumphant entry: taking the gospel to the centre of world power.  No, not in chains, surely?

Isaiah describes the Lord’s servant: “He won’t call attention to what he does with loud speeches or gaudy parades. He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant, but he’ll steadily and firmly set things right.” (Isaiah 42:2-3 The Message)

Will my love for my neighbour bring world peace and a cure for AIDS?  Probably not.  But, if the love is real and involves real sacrifice, it will make a real difference in my neighbour’s life.  And who knows what God could do with that?

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