Rob's message for January
Posted: Wed, 3 Jan, 2024 (2 months ago) by Rob
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
Posted: Thu, 7 Dec, 2023 (3 months ago) by Rob
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.
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
Posted: Wed, 8 Nov, 2023 (4 months ago) by Rob
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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Rob's message for October
Posted: Wed, 27 Sep, 2023 (5 months ago) by Rob
Scrolling down my Facebook feed this morning, I see I am invited to buy train tickets; cook sea bass with cashew, coconut and kale salad; and go to some classical concerts in Montreal. And that’s just the first three adverts!
Sometimes, but less often than before, something I see on there really grabs me. Recently it was a little video of a preacher talking about the criminal on the cross. You might remember that two of them were crucified on either side of Jesus. One continued to mock him, but the other stopped him, saying that unlike them, who were being justly punished, Jesus had done no wrong and did not deserve it. He turned to Jesus and asked, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”, and Jesus responded, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
The preacher imagined the scene (not described in the bible) as the criminal arrived at the gates of heaven and met the angel. The angel asks him repeatedly what he is doing there, and he replies each time that he doesn’t know. Frustrated, the angel goes to get his supervisor who questions the new arrival further. What does he think of the doctrine of salvation? He’s never heard of it. Or of the bible? No idea. Finally, exasperated, the supervisor-angel asks him on what basis he is standing there trying to get into heaven at all, and the criminal replies, “The man on the middle cross told me I could come.”
The bigger point that’s being made here is that if we wonder what it is that wins us eternal life with God, some of us might hope that it is through doing good – but what is good depends so much on one person’s definition, doesn’t it? I’ve always worried what will become of me if God’s definition of good enough is someone just ever so slightly better than me. Of course, those of us who call ourselves Christians might say something different, like, “Because I have faith”, or “Because I follow Jesus.” Now of course faith matters, and so this kind of answer isn’t untrue in a way, but there is a better place to start: not with “Because I”, but “Because he”. Because Jesus. Because the man on the middle cross told me I could come.
(Three crosses photo credit: Józef Kazimierz "Meaglin" Sokołowski)
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Rob's message for September
Posted: Fri, 1 Sep, 2023 (6 months ago) by Rob
Recently I was away at a big Christian festival we go to most years with people from the church, and I heard one of the speakers, a vicar I have known for a long time, tell a story about someone who went to a vet he knew to get their Alsatian puppies immunised. They were very excited, having bought them for a discount price in a supermarket car park. The nurse had a first look at them, and felt she might need the vet to help with this one. He came in and peered in the box, and was quickly able to diagnose the problem as… being guinea pigs.
In our household we have recently got a pair of very cute guinea pigs. Apart from the fact that I find it almost impossible to imagine that anyone could mistake them for Alsatians, of all things, I have already noticed the change they have made to our lives. First of all, they have worked out that the tasty vegetables are in the fridge, so every time I even go to get the milk to make a cup of tea, they shout and scream until I fish them out a bit of cabbage or whatever. But more than that, we’ve become friends with them, and I hear the sound of various voices as we say hello to them, or tell them not to argue, or whatever it may be.
Having not had pets before, or at least not since I was a child when I wasn’t really responsible for them, I have been quite worried about them. Are they drinking enough water? Have I cleaned the cage out with the wrong chemicals? Is the run in part of the garden that contains deadly poisonous plants I’m unaware of (or even buttercups and daisies, which are both somewhere on a line from unsuitable in a large quantity to immediately deadly, depending on which website you look at).
It all reminds me a bit of the early days of parenthood, when you are given this baby and sent home with the expectation that you will know what to do with it. You are filled with this overwhelming love for this child, and don’t want any harm to come to it.
God’s love for us is better than the love of the best of parents. But God doesn’t have to learn how to take care of us, and feel his way. He knows instinctively, and perfectly, what we need. He knows what is good for us, and bad for us, which is especially important at the times when we don’t. He knows exactly who we are, is never confused or deceived, and he will never stop taking care of us. In Jesus he has given us everything we will ever need.
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