30th December: the man who is God #adventbookclub

Today’s reflection on Philippians 2.5-11 got me thinking about the idea of servant ministry. It’s a term that gets used a lot – jokingly when the church toilets need cleaning, but often seriously too. But it’s also a term which I’ve encountered used oppressively, to justify why I should shut up and stay in the kitchen (not in my current context, I hasten to add): “It’s what Jesus would want. That’s what servant ministry means.”

No, it’s not. Servant ministry doesn’t mean ignoring the calling God has given us to carry out menial tasks. It doesn’t mean making ourselves subservient to other people’s expectations of what our ministry should look like. And it can’t be forced: that’s not servanthood but servitude, which isn’t what God intends for anyone.

In this passage from Philipians, Paul describes the model of self-emptying servant ministry which Christ has given us. It is a model which relies not on being powerless, nor on denying the power we have, but in choosing to say that the needs of others are more important than our own power. When we make our own power subservient to the needs of our brothers and sisters, we move one step closer to the total self-sacrifice which we see in Christ.

29th December: Fear, worship and wide-eyed wonder #adventbookclub

Today’s chapter examines several aspects of the shepherds’ reactions to the good news of Jesus’ birth. It is the third part of the title that I would like to concentrate on: the wide-eyed wonder. I think there is much we could learn from the shepherds about this.

I love the description at the end of today’s passage (Luke 2.13-20) of the shepherds “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen”. I imagine them on the way back to their flocks, stopping friends, acquaintances and strangers in the streets, desperate to tell them about what has happened, bursting with excitement, overflowing with the joy of the good news they had received. And I wonder how many people were changed by an encounter with the shepherds.

How often do we get really excited about telling people about Jesus? How often do we let the joy of our encounter with God overflow to those we meet? Not often, I’d guess. Perhaps it seems a bit embarrassing to be that enthusiastic, or we’re worried people will laugh at us, or it just all seems a bit unnecessary. But actually, we should be enthusiastic, we should be excited to tell people about Jesus. An encounter with the living God is awe-inspiring, life-changing and, yes, exciting, and why wouldn’t we want to share that with people?

Children are slightly better at this than adults, on the whole. Last term I was walking along the corridor of a school I visit regularly when a little boy came bouncing up to me, almost literally, obviously desperate to tell me something. “Guess what, Ruth, guess what?” “What?” “Did you know, Jesus loves everyone and even if you do something really bad, he still loves you?” Even if I hadn’t had a clue what he was talking about, I would have wanted to hear more, because he was grinning from ear to ear and hopping from foot to foot with excitement. He had just found out something amazing, just got it, and desperately wanted to share.

That little boy, like the shepherds, has something to teach us about how we communicate good news. Do we mention it tentatively, diffidently, as if unsure what reception we’ll get? Or are we so brim-full of it that we can’t keep it to ourselves. telling what we have heard and seen in ways that are compelling and real, and which glorify God?

That wide-eyed wonder of the shepherds is rare and precious. When we experience even a glimpse of it, let’s be ready to share.

28th December: Joseph #adventbookclub

Today’s reflection on the portrayal of Joseph in Matthew’s gospel got me thinking about families. We tend to focus on the readiness of God to enter into the mess of human relationships in the incarnation. But Joseph too was ready to take the risk of putting himself in a family situation which was far from straightforward (as, of course, was Mary). And for Joseph family, in the person of Jesus, extended beyond blood ties.

I have heard family defined as “the people God gives us to look after”. That resonates with me, and I think it would with Joseph too. Jesus is not his biological child, but he is the one God has given him to look after. The situation is messy, but it is the one God has placed him in. My own family, biological and otherwise, is messy. I suspect everyone’s is in its own way. But family, however we choose to define it, is part of what it is to be human, and part of what God chose to enter into in the incarnation. Learning to live as members of a family is part of how we learn to live in relationship with each other and with God. Being family, even understanding what that means, isn’t easy, as Joseph found out. But, as it was for Joseph, it might just be part of what God is calling us to.

27th December: The Word became flesh #adventbookclub

I am not sure that I really have anything to add to the vast amount that has been said and written about this most well known and much discussed passage. But it struck me again today what a commitment this one sentence contains: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. The Word was not visiting, not observing, not just passing through. The Word, fully divine, became fully human, so that we might dwell in God and he in us. That’s God’s commitment to us, his covenant with us. And however much we fall down on our end of the bargain, God remains with us and in us, committed to that in-dwelling which is begun in the incarnation and continued through the working of the Holy Spirit.

Boxing Day: Dirty or clean #adventbookclub

Reading today’s reflection from Maggi Dawn got me thinking about the way we compartmentalise our lives. Church, work, home, family, friends… And when these carefully boundaried areas run into each other it tends to get uncomfortable and complicated.

The incarnation is the ultimate blurring of boundaries, the blending of the seemingly incompatible: powerful God and helpless baby, dirty and clean, fully human and fully divine. And it is complicated and messy and uncomfortable. Because the reality of God cannot be neatly contained in a human-made box. The truth of Emmanuel, God with us, has to pervade everything and go beyond our limited horizons.

Christmas Day: No room at the inn? #adventbookclub

In today’s reading, Maggi talks about the stable, the kataluma being “not a freezing wooden shed at the bottom of the garden but a warm dry shelter within the family home”. A space apart from the bustle of the house itself, yet part of it. A place of peace and (relative) quiet, but not the place anyone expected.

What has always struck me about the stable is that it represents a particular kind of hospitality: the readiness to make room for a guest even when there isn’t really any room to be had. There’s something about that sharing of limited resources which is more obvious at Christmas. The bedroom shared with one too many distant relatives. One more place laid at the table for the guest you weren’t expecting.

In our family, it’s chairs. I remember as a child eating Christmas dinner at my Granny’s big round dining table, with people on every conceivable kind of chair, from folding garden chairs to the swivel chair from the study. My cousin and I often used to share the piano stool, and I remember once ending up sitting on a coffee table. But however many people turned up, there was always something to sit on, it just might not be what you were expecting. Everyone would move round a bit, elbow room would become more limited, and someone would end up with the fork with the wonky handle. But somehow the extra person always fitted in.

But there has to be an intentionality in that making room. A determination to create space even when it’s inconvenient and untidy. And that’s how it is with our spiritual lives too, it seems to me. We need to create space for Jesus, space to reflect, space to be still with God, space to recognise Christ in the everyday, even (perhaps especially) when to do so is inconvenient and costly and messy.

Day 24: Magnificat: a promise and a call #adventbookclub (sort of)

Sometimes Christmas seems like a cosy, well-worn story we tell

To comfort each other,

To make the darkness more bearable.

But incarnation isn’t like that.

It’s real.

It’s vulnerable.

It’s fiercely, heart-achingly beautiful.

It’s true in the baby laid in the manger,

the wood carved and carried.

It’s true in the bread laid in hand after hand,

Old, young,

Eager, tentative,

Mourning, rejoicing.

It’s true in the face gazing back at us,

In the congregation

Or in the mirror.

Because tonight is the night when everything changes.

Nothing will ever be the same again

Because Christ has come into the world

To lift up the lowly

To fill the hungry.

Tonight heaven bends near to earth

And earth gazes up at heaven.

And if we only stretch out our hands

We will receive

And touch

The Word made flesh

For us.

Day 23: From now on… #adventbookclub

Today’s reading is first part of the Magnificat, and in Beginnings and Endings, Maggi Dawn recalls the impact of hearing those words sung daily in the chapel at King’s College, Cambridge. I had much the same experience in my time at Oxford and for me too it changed how I read and hear the Magnificat.

These words which Mary sings occur at a specific moment in time, and relate to that specific moment, that temporal aspect of the incarnation. That is what the “now” in “from now on” refers to. But they are also true for us now, “for all generations” and in all times and places and situations, because the truth of the incarnation in which Mary’s song rejoices is eternal.

Whatever is going on in my life, however little I feel like rejoicing, those words of the Magnificat are true: “my soul magnifies the Lord … the Mighty One has done great things for me”. And because that is always true, there is always hope. Wishes may come and go, aspirations may change and develop or be thwarted, but in Christ we always have hope.

Day 22: Coming, ready or not… #adventbookclub

Today’s reflection on Mary and Elizabeth stresses the unexpected nature of their pregnancies, for different reasons. For Elizabeth, it must have seemed that it was too late to hope for a child. Mary may well have hoped for a child, but not yet. But babies don’t wait for anyone, and nor does God.

It got me thinking about timing with regard to vocations. I’m thinking here not just of vocations to ordination or other types of recognised ministry within the church, but vocation in it’s broadest sense of being called to the thing God intends us to do and be. I thought of friends and colleagues who have found their vocation late in life, after decades of wondering what God’s purpose for them could be, and perhaps doubting at times if he has anything in mind for them at all. And I thought of children I know who have a clear sense of God’s calling on their lives even before they can articulate it, and whose vocation is often dismissed by adults because they are “too young”. And then there are all those somewhere in between, myself included, who have discerned a vocation which is not what they would have wished at the time they would have chosen, but is still somehow undeniably the right thing to do, however disruptive or counter-intuitive it seems.

God’s timing is a mystery, and so often so different from ours. But that’s because he can see the whole picture, while we have only a snapshot. And that’s why we have to trust him, to rely on him, to put the pieces together in the best way, when we can’t even begin to imagine what the finished picture will look like.

Day 21: On the margins #adventbookclub

In today’s reflection, Maggi reminds us that the shepherds were among the most marginalised in their society. And yet it is to them that God chooses to reveal the good news of Jesus’ birth. Or perhaps they are the only ones prepared to see and hear what God is trying to say to everyone?

Do the marginalised and demonised have a particular insight into God’s message for humankind? Are they somehow ‘better’ than the comfortable and accepted at hearing what God is saying? We don’t want to risk romanticising real people facing real hardship by using them as an object lesson about listening to God. But perhaps there is a grain of truth in the idea.

Those who are privileged, accepted and welcomed tend to have access to more. More food, more friends, more opportunities, more money, … more stuff. And that stuff can get in the way of listening to God. How many of us at Christmas are distracted by presents and visitors and food and cards and parties and even (dare I say it) the organisation and preparations of church services, so distracted that we forget to pause in awe before the Christ child, we forget to listen to the song of the angels, we forget to make space in our hearts for the good news of Jesus’ coming. 

But if we had none of the trimmings of Christmas – not the presents or food or celebrations, or even our beloved families and friends – what then would be left? Only the joy and hope of love incarnate. Then we would have to hear God’s message, in all its awe and wonder, without the interference of all that has come to surround it.

So as we plunge into the last few days of build-up and excitement, stress and preparation, let’s make sure we take a moment to pause. Let’s somehow find our way onto our own personal equivalent of the shepherds’ deserted hillside, so that we too may be ready to hear God’s message for us.