Rob's message for March

Easter’s coming early

It can’t just be the vicars who have noticed that Easter is coming early this year. A quick online search shows that between 2015 and 2030, Easter Sunday is only falling in March on three occasions. So the diary definitely agrees: early it is.

But is Easter really that early?

The Bible has two ways of looking at it. First of all, it would seem the opposite is true. There are centuries of longing through the Old Testament that the Messiah will come. Over and over comes the haunting question, “How long?” Here’s one of them: “We are given no signs from God; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be.”

Perhaps you have known times of great longing, or are in one now. You might long for something, or someone. No sign of it happening, no-one seems any the wiser, you don’t know how long it might be. But I wonder if you are aware of longing for God, and for Easter?

Lots of those people in the Old Testament didn’t have a very clear idea that their longing would end up at Easter, but we get some hints. Isaiah writes about the Lamb who was slain, bearing the sin of many, and about the idea of death being swallowed up forever. The two great promises of Easter, Jesus’s death and resurrection, were glimpsed even then. One day, longing would be fulfilled.

Of course, there’s another way of looking at it. Looking back at Easter, instead of forward, Paul has a different perspective: “at just the right time, while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” So we have the same idea, in some ways – longing feels like powerlessness, doesn’t it? – but at the same time something different and extraordinary. The time has come. The object of the deepest of human longing has arrived, and arrived for the powerless, and the ungodly. Jesus does not look for our strength, or our goodness: only our longing. 

Except not only our longing. When you look at the times in the bible that someone asks, “How long”, you notice something unexpected. Time and again, it’s God’s voice, not ours. His longing for a wandering and wayward people to come back to a Father who loves them beyond understanding. A God who has searched for us since way before we searched for him; who looks at us and asks, “How long?”

For God too, it was time. Time for his longing and the longing of all his people to meet at the first Easter, when Jesus died and rose again for all of us at just the right time.

Next year, Easter will be three weeks later. But that won’t mean we will have even more time to long for its coming than this year. It will already have come, already be done; for us, by Jesus, at just the right time.

Happy Easter everyone 


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Rob's message for February

I’ve found myself chatting to a few people recently about how it is pretty much exactly 12 years since we arrived in the villages and the Vicarage here. Inevitably when you do that you end up talking about how different things are, whether it’s the number of people we’ve seen move into the new houses in Stoke, or the way we arrived with two small children and seem to have ended up with three quite large ones, or (if you ask those same children) the increasingly hilarious state of my hairline.

What it all means is that it is a very long time since I have gone through the process of getting used to a new job, unlike John the Baptist, who we spent some time thinking about at our All Invited congregation in January.

In some ways John’s job was brand new: it says that he appeared in the wilderness, telling people about Jesus. There wasn’t any fanfare or announcement: he wasn’t there one day, and he was the next. But in other ways it wasn’t. John and Jesus were related through their mothers, and there is a lot of excitement in the Christmas story about Elizabeth’s pregnancy. He was born just before his relative, so there is a sense even from pregnancy and birth of him going ahead of Jesus.

John’s job is to carry a message. In this world of instant communication, and constant updates about every little detail of our lives, the idea that someone has to bring a message and that people have to hear it personally sounds very old-fashioned. But that’s how John brought his message. It was in person, and it was about a person. It wasn’t another update about the clever things John had been doing, but pointed away from him to someone else: to Jesus, who was coming after him.

The message comes with the same excitement as everything surrounding John and Jesus’s birth. This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus! God is coming to you: get ready for him!

You might not be getting ready for a new house, or a new job, or a new baby, but as you look ahead into the rest of the year, you might be conscious of getting ready for something. But what if that something is something you didn’t expect? You might not feel like John, with your destiny planned for you even from before you were born, but perhaps God wants to do something unexpected with you this year. Perhaps this is the year he is asking you to be ready for him, and the new things he might have in store for you.


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Rob's message for January

In the run-up to Christmas, we were looking at the Christmas story through the eyes of Mary. We followed her through the shock of her pregnancy announcement, right up to the birth of Jesus, and we watched her interaction with her husband Joseph and her cousin Elizabeth, herself unexpectedly pregnant with a baby who would become John the Baptist.

By the time you read this at the beginning of January, we will be up to the point in the story where the wise men come and visit Jesus. Lots of people think that this wasn’t a matter of 12 days, but that it took many months for them to follow the star and find their way to Jesus, who was a toddler living with Mary and Joseph in a family home by now.

How did Mary feel by this point, I wonder? She was looking ahead into an uncertain future, and wondering what the next months and years would hold. She couldn’t have known at this point that almost as soon as the wise men were gone, she and Joseph would have to flee with Jesus to Egypt until the danger of Herod subsided. Perhaps she always intended that she would return to Nazareth, her hometown, and would have known very little about the path that her son’s life was going to take her on, to the foot of his cross on Good Friday. Maybe she and Joseph just felt like lots of new parents; yes, a bit tired and stressed, but full of a sense of the promise of new life.

It might be that you find yourself in one of these situations as a New Year starts. All promise, and the hope of new life. It might not be a baby, but perhaps it’s a new job, a new home, or a sense that things will be better in 2024. Maybe the future feels uncertain, with work or family circumstances suggesting there will need to be change, or things might get harder before they get better. Or the New Year might take you in a direction that you didn’t expect at all.

It's worth noticing that in the ups and downs of Mary and Joseph’s story, Jesus is always present. That seems obvious to us now, because he was their son, but it wasn’t a given; when the angel appears to Mary it feels that she has to agree to be part of the plan: “May it be to me according to your Word,” she says. It’s the same for Joseph: they have to agree to welcome Jesus into their lives in order for him to be with them.

The presence of Jesus with us is the greatest gift we can ever receive in this life, especially as we manage all of its ups and downs, but it isn’t forced on us: it’s something that we too have to say yes to. One of my favourite lines from the carols, which I would happily sing at every service before Christmas, says just that: “No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” Perhaps as a New Year begins, Jesus is calling you to receive him, so that his presence will be with you whatever this year and this life will hold, and so that he will lead you into eternity with him.


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Rob's message for December

What’s your Christmas day routine? By the time we have done the service at Stoke, then got to either set of grandparents, opened a few presents and sat down to eat, it’s normally well into the afternoon. It means that for us the King or Queen’s Christmas Broadcast is something to catch up with later, rather than sit down in front of every year at 3pm without fail.

I’m sure preparations for this year’s broadcast are far ahead of me writing this message to you. Maybe it is filmed already. I am sure it will feel very different for King Charles writing it this year; last time it was very much a response to the death of the late Queen just a couple of months earlier.

If you were the king, what would you say? With a long history of promoting cooperation between faiths, I’m sure he will refer to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, and the plight of Israeli hostages and civilians in Gaza. Perhaps he’ll also mention the war in Ukraine. Last year’s message also made reference to people serving in different ways, from the armed forces, to emergency services and health and social care workers, teachers and public servants of all kinds.

If you ask Mr Google, he will tell you that the first King’s Christmas message was George V in 1932. But it wasn’t. The Bible is full of Christmas messages from the king. Many centuries before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah looked forward to one who would one day come and change the world forever:

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 greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.

(Isaiah 9:6-7)


That’s what the angels come speaking: peace. Peace to a broken world, where conflict seems to increase rather than diminish. Peace to every heart wondering, in spite of everything, if God is for them. Everlasting, measureless peace.


Happy Christmas to you all


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Rob's message for November

People say that a week is a long time in politics, and it feels especially like that as I write now. We’re just days after the horrific Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians: men, women and children killed in the most horrendous ways, or abducted and held hostage in Gaza. The understandable Israeli reaction has seen as many as 2700 Palestinians killed, with over a million more ordered to head south and leave their homes. As I write, there are reports of Hamas deliberately delaying evacuations; of Israeli attacks on civilian cars on roads that were supposed to be safe; of hospitals with patients on ventilators wondering when the fuel for their generators might run out.

The horror of the situation raises so many questions – most immediately about how far you can go in defending yourself, how much responsibility you have to protect civilians, but in the end you wonder how the conflict might ever end. I hope and pray that things might be better by the time you read this, but it feels like it risks getting a lot worse.

All this is happening, of course, at the same time as we are preparing for Remembrance weekend in November, as you might notice elsewhere in this month’s magazine. As we gather for that important moment in the life of our nation, we’ll be very aware of another period in some of our lifetimes when the Jewish people were the victims of appalling atrocities, and when civilians on both sides of a terrible conflict paid an awful price. It’s another reminder of how desperately we all need to live in peace.

So many people have thought harder than me and prayed better than me for such a long time for what Christians often call the Holy Land. It’s devastating, really, that in the place where Jesus, our Prince of Peace, came and dwelt amongst us, there’s been less consistent peace since the Second World War than almost anywhere else on Earth. My thinking and praying, in case it helps you, tends to come back not so much to the words of Jesus as those of Paul. In Ephesians 2 he writes of how one of the purposes of Jesus’s coming was to “make the two groups (Jews and Gentiles) one, destroying the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace…”

It seems to me that two thousand years on, these words haven’t lost any of their power. What a vision that is: these two peoples not united but divided, not two groups but one. But there’s a challenge, Paul says: that sort of hostility is only destroyed by the cross. That sort of reconciliation is only possible when we are reconciled to God, through the cross. That’s why I always pray this way for everyone in the Holy Land: that a Holy God would meet them at the cross, and that they would be reconciled to him, and to one another. If you have other ways to pray, please let me know: at the moment we need all the prayer, and all the wisdom that we can find.


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