Did you watch the crime drama Maigret recently on TV? They were adapted from the novels by Georges Simenon and portrayed the French detective Jules Maigret. What made the new series stand out from previous ones, however, was the main character. The role of Mairget was played by Rowan Atkinson. I think Rowan portrayed Maigret very well indeed, but I kept expecting him to turn to the camera, open his eyes wide and grin like Mr Bean. That is the challenge for an actor portraying a serious role when he is associated with a very funny one. Rowan is in fact a very good hypocrite.
Around Easter time, a few years ago, I found myself in Bethlehem. I planned to spend the day with a Christian family in a village called Beit Jala near Bethlehem. Their land had just been confiscated. Their beautiful old olive trees are being bulldozed to make way for the 8 metre high Separation Wall. It was going to come within 3 metres from their front door and not only cut off all day light, but cut their whole village in half. The Hafrada or apartheid wall (that is what it means in Hebrew) has been ruled illegal by the highest court in the world, the International Court of Justice. But few are doing anything about it. So we did. But we never got to see the family that day.
As we walked down the hill towards their property we came face to face with a line of soldiers with guns and tear gas and sound bombs. And they were not about to let anyone through. They tried to scare us off by lobbying few sound bombs at us. And they succeeded in scaring us, temporarily. But we carried on walking toward them until we came face to face with these young soldiers. We assured them that we were unarmed and had peaceful intentions. We were not there to hurt them. We disagreed with what their government is doing. We wanted to see our friends on the other side of the road – please. They said no and after an hour or so we went home. I came back the next day with a friend and we managed to see the family and take these pictures.
I am still working through the rights and wrongs of civil disobedience. What do you do when you see people made homeless, widowed, orphaned? When you witness deep injustice, theft, exploitation? When you see a State abuse its power? And Christians justify this theft of land in the name of God? What would you have done? More importantly what would Jesus have done? I can tell you what he would not have done. Would he have picked up stones and thrown them at the soldiers? Would he have taken up a gun and forced his way through? No, of course not. But would he have ignored the suffering? Would he have walked by on the other side? I don’t think so. What was the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan? If you are not sure, you need to watch our film With God on our Side.
“Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father…”
All good Anglicans know the words of the General Confession well, but do we know what they mean? For the Confession contains language and sentiments that have virtually been erased from common usage, they might as well be deleted from the dictionary. It sounds all too negative, critical and judgmental. Surely we believe in a God of love. That is why these first words of Jesus recording in Mark’s gospel hardly seem good news. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). What is good news about repentance? It is not a word we use in polite company.
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
If Victorian’s over sentimentalized Christmas in the 19th Century, the baby boomers have trivialized Christmas in the 20th . Naïve romanticism led to cynical commercialism.
This evening I want us to explore “The Dark Side of Christmas”. I want us to discover the raw, authentic, genuine, real Christmas under three headings – in Bethlehem then, Bethlehem now and Bethlehem here.
1. Christmas in Bethlehem: Then
“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. (John 1: 9-11)
The Christmas story begins in darkness. Pitch darkness. Darkness comes in various forms.
If you were like me, when you were very young, there were only two really important events in your life. You felt like they could not come soon enough. What were they? The first was… your birthday. The second was… Jesus’ birthday. Both involved presents. Lots of presents. Then when you were old enough to know that Father Christmas was not in the Nativity Play and you were allowed to stay up late, there was a third special day. New Year’s Eve. There were no presents but you still looked forward to the party and seeing in the New Year. For me, Summer holidays were special but never as special as my birthday and Christmas Day. We love to celebrate beginnings. We celebrate new life. Our birthday. Family birthdays. Jesus’ birthday. The birth of a new year. So what is it with the Church? When does the Church year begin? Not Christmas and the birth of our Saviour. Not Easter and the gift of new life. Not even Pentecost and the birth of the Church. The Church year begins with Advent.
During my second year at university I made a decision that impacted the rest of my life. I decided not to return to the Civil Service after graduation. The call to full-time Christian ministry was clear. I was excited to be accepted for training for the Anglican ministry. But there was just one problem. I was terrified of being expected to take funerals. But the Lord was gracious. He removed my fears while at theological college in Bristol. Three months after our first daughter was born, Joanna’s father died suddenly. Then, just a month later, my own father died suddenly. At the age of 29 I became the oldest man in either family. In one month I gained all the experience I needed to be able to empathise with others. And a verse from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians took on special significance.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
And that is the purpose of tonight’s service. And that is one of the reasons we are reading Psalm 90 together. This beautiful psalm speaks to us of the brevity of life in the light of eternity. It was the inspiration for one of the best known hymns by Isaac Watts,
“O God, our help in ages past”. Surprisingly, there is not a hint of despair or complaint, simply humble child-like submission and trust. There are three parts to this little psalm. Each tells us something about God as well as about ourselves.
God’s Eternity and our Frailty (Psalm 90:1-6)
God’s Anger and our Sinfulness (Psalm 90:7-11)
God’s Mercy and our Hope (Psalm 90:12-17)
God has created us with meaning and purpose, with dignity and value – in His image. But for what? – We inhabit a world designed, created, nurtured and sustained by Almighty God, to whom we are accountable for the way we steward His good earth.
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters. Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idolor swear by a false god.” (Psalm 24:1-4)Continue reading
Life is a journey, with a beginning and end. We’re all travelers, somewhere on that journey, forever on the move, learning, growing, changing. The disruption caused by Covid-19, the daily news updates of casualties and the attempts to find a vaccine inevitably lead to a rollercoaster of emotions, highs and lows, hopes and fears. Psalm 23 is probably the most widely known and best loved of them all. In part it is because it addresses the strong emotions we often feel at times such as this. There are two parts to Psalm 23:
23:1-3 “The Lord Is My Shepherd” – What I affirm about God.
23:5-6 “You love will follow me” – What I experience of God.
23:4 links the two together. The Lord is my Shepherd because I know Lord you are with me.
We are invariably fascinated when secrets are revealed in the media – except perhaps when they are, our own. Those deeply personal things that matter the most to us – our children, our family, our bodies, our emails, our text messages, our age, our photos, our income, our bank accounts, we keep these private, and in many cases wisely so. The more important, the more personal, the more sensitive the information, the more likely, we will want to keep it private, confidential, or concealed. And many people feel the same way about their religious faith. Its personal. Its private. And it remains concealed.
“When Britain first, at Heaven’s command,
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves.
The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves.