Sunday 31 December 2023

Shepherds glorifying God

Adoration of the Shepherds, Annibale Carracci 1560-1609

Address given at Killodiernan Church on Sunday 31st December 2023, the 1st of Christmas

“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing which has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us”.

So say the shepherds who were keeping watch over the flock in fields close to the town, as St Luke tells us in the Gospel reading (Luke2:15-21).

Luke’s is the only Gospel to tell us about the shepherds who visited Mary and Joseph and their new-born son Jesus. His beautiful story, so familiar to us, still resonates today. So let’s try to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the shepherds that night 2000 years ago.

Some of you I’m sure know much more than I do about sheep. Perhaps you’ve kept and tended them. But I doubt if any of you would call yourselves shepherds. Shepherds are few and far between in Ireland these days - but they would have been very familiar to Luke’s readers. The rugged Judean uplands were a pastoral country. Flocks of sheep represented wealth. A shepherd was paid to stay out night and day in all weathers to guard the sheep against wild animals and robbers. It was a hard, dangerous job, but very responsible. Jesus likens himself to the Good Shepherd, who would lay down his life for the sheep.

Luke’s shepherds are ordinary people, much like you and me. They are not self-important rulers or highly educated opinion formers, as Herod and the Wise Men were, in Matthew’s alternative Christmas story. Luke chooses to tell us about how ordinary people responded to the miracle of Christmas, not the great and mighty. And we have much to learn from them.

The shepherds had just experienced a miraculous vision, a vision of angels.

‘The glory of the Lord shone around them’ – I imagine shimmering light, like the Northern lights. An angel announces, ‘To you is born this day in the city of David’ – that is Bethlehem – ‘a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’  They are given a sign; they ‘will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger’. Then the angel is joined by ‘a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours”’

Wow! What an experience! What an exhilarating joy the shepherds must have felt!

Have you ever heard the heavenly host? I have, I think, and you may have too. I can remember my joy and exhilaration after the births of my twin girls. I can remember literally skipping down the wet deserted streets of Guildford at 4am in mid December, on the way back home from the hospital. It was as if the whole universe was laughing and crying and singing with me. And I shared my joy with everyone I met over the following days. Angel voices, indeed – a memory to treasure!

Surely it is an experience of this same kind that Isaiah speaks of in today’s OT reading (Isaiah 61:10-62:3), when he says:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
   my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
   he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
   and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Most if not all of us, ordinary people, experience once in a while that sudden rush of exhilarating joy, as both Isaiah and the shepherds did. It is not just poets and the mad who experience visions of angels. We should not be afraid of them, I think. Rather we should see it as God granting us a glimpse, just a fleeting glimpse, of his loving power and majesty. We should treasure such experiences when we return to the world of normality, and ponder them in our hearts, as Mary did.

The shepherds ‘went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in a manger’.

These shepherds are straight-forward, practical people. They don’t stand around debating and philosophising about what their extraordinary experience means. They go with haste to look with their own eyes. And what they find confirms their experience – it is just as the angel had told them. This little child is special, very special - a Saviour, a Messiah, the Lord. And they can’t stop talking about it! Just as I couldn’t stop telling everyone about the birth of my children.

The real miracle of Christmas is that through his grace our loving Father God makes the first move towards us, to you and me, to all people. He reveals himself to us as Mary and Joseph’s beautiful, helpless baby, their first-born son. This baby grows up to be our Lord Jesus Christ – in St John’s mystic vision, the Word of God, the true light that enlightens everyone – through whose life and teaching, and death and resurrection, we are shown the way to God.

But God’s grace is of no use to us unless we respond to it. We should learn from the shepherds how to respond to the miracle of Christmas. They went with haste to find Jesus, and we must too. Like them, we will not be disappointed.

‘The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.’

They don’t hang about. Once they have seen the child Jesus lying in the manger – the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord – and told their story, they just go back to work, to tend their flocks.

But something has changed - they are changed. They go back ‘glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen.’

And this surely is what we must do too. We are not meant to remain for ever in our visions, no matter how exhilarating they may be. We must come back to earth. Our job is to bring our experience of the love of God back into the everyday world. Let us pray that we too may go about the world as changed people, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen.

So we have indeed a great deal to learn from Luke’s shepherds:

  • We should treasure the glimpses we are granted of the love and majesty of our loving Father God.
  • We should go with haste to find God’s grace in the Christmas miracle of the birth of Jesus.
  • And we should return as changed people to bring God’s loving Spirit out into the world.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word

Saving God,
whose Son Jesus was presented in the temple
and was acclaimed the glory of Israel
and the light to the nations:
grant that in him we may be presented to you
and in the world may reflect his glory;
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Tuesday 12 December 2023

The birth of the universal church

Peter's dream, by Domenico Fetti

Reflection at morning worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on 12th December 2023

Today’s reading (Acts 11:1-18) records one of the most important moments in the life of the earliest church, the moment when it began to move from being a purely Jewish sect to being a church which accepted Gentiles as full members. In this moment we witness the birth of the Church Catholic – the universal Church.

In the paragraphs before today’s reading, the author of Acts tells us how Peter had come to associate with Gentiles in Caesarea.

Peter had an extraordinary dream while he was visiting disciples in Joppa, now a suburb of Tel Aviv in Israel. He heard a voice commanding him to kill and eat animals which as a Jew he had been taught to believe were unclean – they disgusted him, they were taboo. And a voice from heaven declared to him, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’. We have our own food taboos in Ireland today. Most people are horrified at the thought of eating horse-meat. But I tried it once in the Netherlands, and I can confirm it is delicious.

Just as Peter was processing this shocking dream, three men arrived at the door asking for him. They had been sent by a Roman Centurion called Cornelius, a pious and God-fearing gentile, who asked Peter to come with them to visit him in Caesarea, about a day’s walk away. Peter felt the Holy Spirit urging him to agree, so the next day he went to see Cornelius. But we should notice that he took the precaution of bringing 6 witnesses along too. Under Jewish tradition if seven people give the same testimony it must be accepted as true.

When Peter arrived at Cornelius’s house, he tells him and the assembled household, ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection’. Clearly Peter has been reflecting on the meaning of his strange vision, as we walked to Caesarea.

Cornelius tells Peter, ‘All of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say’. Peter replies, ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him’. And he goes on to proclaim the Gospel to Cornelius’s household.

Cornelius and his household receive Peter’s teaching with great joy. We are told that Peter and his 6 witnesses were amazed at their response. They could see that these Gentiles had received the gift of the Holy Spirit, which they had all received at Pentecost. Seizing the moment, ‘(Peter) ordered them to be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ’.

Now we pick up the story in today’s reading.

When Peter got back to Jerusalem, news of his visit to Cornelius had arrived before him. The Jewish Christians were outraged that Peter had consorted with gentiles, in breach of Jewish law and tradition – and he had even gone so far as to have them baptised. ‘Why’, they ask him, ‘did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’.

Peter then, in front of his 6 witnesses, tells them the whole story we have heard. He concludes saying, ‘If then God gave (Cornelius and his household) the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’. The critics are silenced, and they praise God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’.

Let us praise God with the Jewish Church in Jerusalem, because God has given to us as well, as Gentiles, the repentance that leads to life!

Sunday 10 December 2023

Make Straight the Way

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 10th December 2023, the 2nd of Advent

Let’s listen again to the prophet Isaiah’s beautiful, poetic words in the 1st reading (Isaiah: 40:1-11):

A voice cries out:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

Now, we know a good deal about making highways around here – just think of the building of the M7 motorway some years ago, and the building today of the Killaloe bypass and the new Shannon bridge – I believe the first span was completed in the last week. Isaiah’s words could almost be an anthem for the National Roads Authority! Great cuttings have been blasted through the hills. Giant machines have moved the spoil to make embankments. Bridges have been built over rivers. All to make the road as gentle and smooth as possible.

Road building would not have been so vast in Isaiah’s time, but it would still have been a gigantic community enterprise to make the roads to allow farmers to transport their produce on pack-mules to market in Jerusalem, and to allow pilgrims to travel to the temple on Mount Zion. The roads knit together the Jewish people in the cities of Judah to their holy mountain of Zion, not just in a material way, but also in metaphor as a worshiping community. 

I feel sure that for Isaiah the way of the Lord was not a road for God to travel to his people on, but a road for his people to travel to God on.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

In our 3rd reading, in the very first words of his Gospel (Mark:1:1-8), St Mark recycles this road building metaphor.

John the Baptist is a wild man, wandering about the Judean desert, clothed in camel’s hair, with only a leather bag at his waist, who ate locusts and wild honey, we are told – the very image of an Old Testament prophet! Mark quotes Isaiah to identify him as: The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ He is the fulfilment of the hope expressed by Isaiah.

John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. And he is very successful to judge by the crowds he gathers. But John is also the self-effacing herald of the coming of another. Claiming no special position for himself, he says: ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.’ He means Jesus of course. And John continues I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’

When preparing this address, I asked myself, ‘Why have the compilers of the Lectionary chosen this reading for today?’. John’s message of repentance and forgiveness for sin might seem at first sight out of place in this Advent season. In Advent we look forward to Christmas and the great gift that God has given us. God comes to us. He comes in the form of a little child. His parents Mary and Joseph name him Jesus. We rejoice with them at the miracle of his birth. With angels and shepherds and kings we adore him. And we believe he grows up to lead us to God through his loving self-sacrifice. So why spoil all the joy with dismal repentance for sin?

I think the answer lies in the metaphor of road building. 

Yes, God makes the first move. Yes, God comes to us in the person of Jesus. But he does not force himself on us. He does not compel us to accept his love. He made us with free will, and we are free to refuse him. But we cannot share in his kingdom unless we make a move in response. That essential move is like building a road to travel on towards God. Each one of us must ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ and ‘make his paths straight’. And to do so we must each accept John’s baptism for ourselves. We must admit our own sins, we must seek God’s forgiveness, and we must undergo a change of heart to follow God’s way in future. Because that is what repentance means.

So, to sum up:

By the readings they have chosen for us, the compilers of the Lectionary have tried to correct any tendency we may have to be over sentimental in our anticipation of Christmas.

Yes of course we should look forward with joy to Christmas. Let us wonder at the miracle of Mary’s tiny helpless baby. Let us enjoy the stories of the shepherds and the three kings. And let us sing our hearts out with the angels in the beautiful carols we all love so much.

But let us also reflect on this. The love God shows us at Christmas is no use to us - no use at all - unless we choose to act in response, to build a good smooth road on which we may travel to God. John the Baptist has shown us the way by proclaiming his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. All we need do is to commit ourselves to that baptism, and to build the road.

I finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:

Merciful God,
you sent your messengers the prophets
to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation:
give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins,
that we may greet with joy
the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen