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.

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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.