The sign of the Manger

When I give directions, I often point out landmarks, when people come to my house, I tell them 10th house down with a Blue Audi outside. When you get down my road, count roughly to ten and look out for a Blue Audi. There’s enough information in that direction to think this is about ten houses and the chances of there being another Blue Audi are slim, especially in the next 3-4- houses and the fact it was given to you as a signpost makes it very likely you have found my house…
The Audi signifies that this is my house.

That was the thing about the manger. A roughly carved stone drinking trough with a Baby inside was unusual enough that when the Angels said they would find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in and there he was, they must have been sure this was the child Angel Gabriel had said to go see.
The other thing about the oddness of it, is that it sorts of proves they hadn’t lost their marbles, or the cold had not given them a funny turn, and an Angel really had directed them this way.

Even more importantly if we have seen an angel and he was right about this strange location for a Baby, and they had found them to prove they hadn’t imagined it. The angels were right about one other thing, and this was the messiah. What with the census going on it might be expected a few mothers and children might run away? But the manger was a signpost, this particular baby, in this location, in a rough drinking trough.

The manger was a sign.
This sign of the manger was given to Shepherds. Shepherds at this time were considered as very lowly people in society. They could not give testimony or be a witness, as they were not considered reliable. In a rigid honour based society, they were among the lowest..
So not only was the sign of the manger one of poverty, but it was given to the poorest and those regarded as the most unreliable.
These low born people were also his first heralds. They were the first ones to go and explain what had happened.

God’s and Messiah’s do not in our worlds view enter into the world like that. Our royalty leaves the king Edward hospital in the west end with the worlds press and world leaders as heralds and the woman looks very smart has her coiffured hair styled perfectly with. Dad in a very expensive suit, both smiling, holding the perfect baby as the cameras flash, and enter into a life of conspicuous privilege to lead a life detached from the day-to-day reality of all of us.
This view of royalty is one of detached, entitled perfection. It’s given to us as an aspirational thing. However, as Christians we recognise it is the precise polar and exact opposite of Jesus. But with that in mind we have to come to terms with the fact this place, this location, this poverty, displacement, and helplessness was a deliberate choice of God .God made that choice.

So we have to ask? this way God?
Why hasn’t Jesus been zapped out of the sky, been heralded by trumpets, prime ministers and princes, had roses thrown at his feet. Why hasn’t he turned up on a Gold chariot, with hangers on, mothers hair coiffured with Joseph in a Saville row suit in front of the worlds eager press .
Why has he not been led into glorious wealth, and led a detached life, while issuing ethical advice from said detachment about how we should all live? Why has god decided this way?

This is not an accident, God is complete, in every facet, in every part of his nature and being, he lacks nothing and is in everything. Omnipresent across space and time, knowing everything. However, not content with reducing himself from a thing with no boundaries in time or space, to an object, a creature with form and shape and limitations “the word” the ultimate, the alpha and omega etc. he joins us as a homeless baby

This is a god that instead of standing back and pointing the finger at everything bad. Joins us in it, born into poverty, on the run, placed in a drinking trough , literally in the mess made by animals, scared, met by and announced by societies outcasts. Totally reliant on parents, who themselves are exposed to danger, a refugee, essentially homeless,
That reason for that choice is the same reason I am a Christian, the reason for all the faiths for me this marks out our faith as unique.
Why Lord why? What should we make of this choice?
Because the only God I could ever worship, is one who met me at my lowest, who knows me at my worst, joins me in my suffering, loves me enough to die for, one who isn’t big ,scary and detached. But a baby who you could pick up and smile at, and who needs the care of a scared mother to survive. Who chose angels , a mum and the lowest of the low to announce him?

That’s the perspective the manger gives us, Christianity does not start with “Jesus saves you from your sins.” It starts with “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This means we cannot reduce Christianity to a method of being saved. It is a way of viewing reality and the narrative of scripture should influence our view of reality, how it was made, what are we, where we fit, what are we to God, what are others, etc. This view of reality in today’s shows us a lot about our lord, who he is ,who he chooses, where he is.

I don’t think he ever left the manger really; I personally feel closest to him among the homeless in southend. We often feel him most strongly when we are lost or alone, or scared or vulnerable. This is because this God knows what that is like to be vulnerable, and reaches out. This is where he is today in our story a helpless babe among the helpless, hapless and unreliable

The other person of course who shared this story is his mother. This is a mother’s story. Scholars think by the way that it was Mary that gave Luke this story. Unusually Mary’s name comes before Josephs in the text, and the fact that her reflection is mentioned in this is Luke making it as clear as he could where he got this story from . This is a mother recalling a night no mother would forget a detail about. “ But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”. The other thing that indicates this is Luke making it clear she did these things.

This is a God for 2020 isnt it? When our lives meet the real mess of life. A mother remembering giving birth in a smelly place with animals, and placing your child in the animals trough, on the run, sore, scared, worried, with a fresh burden of a new mouth to feed.

Mary’s prince is probably clearing the dung in the stable, emptying the trough, staying with her despite his young wife having given birth in a very odd way and not really understanding whats happening. His vulnerability is a sign to us , same way the manger is a sign to us, that where we should be, not pointing a finger but with others, helping saving making whole, clearing up the dung. So when we and so many are at our lowest point, I have no doubt that’s where he is, right there with us. Not pointing a finger, but with us, helping ,saving, making whole, loving us.
That’s where our lord put himself. Not by accident, not by mistake, but because that’s where he chose to be. He hasn’t locked himself up on a private island to rule us from the internet. He’s in our pain, in our loss, emptying his completeness into our loss. The angels made sure the shepherds knew him by the very fact of his poverty. The manger marked him out. The mother passed on the story, The outcasts announced him.
The shepherds show us we don’t need to be among the worlds elite to announce him, and that’s such a comfort to me personally. This story helps show that those who may feel themselves or may have been made to feel unworthy can be his heralds, and announce who he is. He doesn’t need the worlds press and the paparazzi, he can have a shepherd, an ordinary mum, or a slightly sweary east end boy.

This story is shared by the angels, the shepherds, Mary when she told luke, and me, and hopefully you.
All quite different beings but all given the same job.
Inthis story we are also shown how we must announce him, where we are to begin when we speak about him.
The manger marks our God out as one who’s selfless love meets us at the lowest point imaginable.
When we speak about him, we must begin at the manger, when the shepherds in our story did as was told in out scripture “spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child” , they were said to be amazed, almost certainly like us, amazed that God had chosen this way to enter the world. With the lost, placed in a drinking trough, with lowly scared parents, heralded by outcasts.
That gives us all hope , and shows us where to begin when we explain him, not from a lofty perch handing out great advice from above but from the perspective of fellowship of those who may not always feel worthy, but are worthy of being Christ’s heralds. We should be where the worlds at its messiest, and meet it with love, and see the world as inhabited by Gods precious creation worth enough to die foe

When we meet the outcast, the lost, the sad, the refugee, the desperate we have to meet them as if they were precious, parts of Gods creation , worthy of being heralds of Christ, because they are . So wherever you reach out to the lost, dispossessed, helpless angry, and bring peace through love that’s being Christ. Meet them at the manger, from the perspective of the manger, this is a God who met the world from the manger, used it as his sign. Share it from the perspective of the Shepherds,as someone who may be unreliable witness to some but chosen by God to share his good news, or the mother remembering her beloveds first day,
Oh and we share a helpless babe, that shows us that when we are at our wits end, when we are lost, clueless, worried, feeling unloved, scared by the future that’s being helpless is Christlike as well.
We have all had our days in 2020 when it all got on top of us, not known the right thing to do. Grappled with seemingly contradictory demands and tried to work out the least worst option. Felt pretty hopeless doing so, 2020 has reduced all of us to the vulnerability of a baby in a manger. Been made feel less than worthy.

Christ shows us its Ok to be vulnerable, to not be able to do everything. To not know whats going on, to just ad-lib our way through strange days. That’s the sign of the way he chose to enter, today he needs his mum, wants simply to be warm, and loved. He is vulnerable, helpless, reliant on selfless love . This is what our lord chose to be like on the day of his birth, reliant on love helped by people who don’t really know whats happening. Not even Christ can sort it out today, not until the time is right.

That’s the sign of the manger as well. Our lord the servant king, who came to love us enough to die , who today needs to be served by Mary and Joseph and has the both the angels and the low born of society as the messengers of his good news .

The only God that fits 2020, and every year

John the baptist and YOU are witness to the light.

Sermon john 1 6-8 19-28

What is a witness?

What should a witness do?

When do we get asked to be a witness?

I was in need of a witness once, I lived near a busy church and always went past it slowly on Sunday . Like St Catherine’s the car park was on the other side of the road. Once I stopped and a young lad on a motorbike swung past me impatiently hit a lamppost and fell off with the police who had arrived and they assumed I must have done something reckless to knock the bike over on an open road (I was young , it was a moped)  . . I did drive too fast in those days , but on this occasion, I was stationery, but it took the vicar and a few parishioners come out and explain what he had seen to get me off the hook.  So on that occasion I needed a reliable witness.

He was OK by the way.

In the bible witness is sometimes used a term for  a thing that stands as a reminder of a covenant, a contract between us and God, like the tablet of the ten commandments for instance. In which we are asked not to bear false witness or join hands with malicious witnesses.

The most common usage both here and in the bible is

Someone who tries to tell the truth of what they see, what they know, what they have faith in, they are mediators of the truth. They bear witness to their truth, what they know to be true.

Here we have John the Baptist declaring he is a witness

What was he a witness too?

He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe

8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

So, john was a witness who came to testify to the light.

We in advent are waiting for the light of the world that overcomes darkness to enter into it

This light should light everything we do as the famous author C.S.Lewis said

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. 

This shows what the truths and the light we are witness too in our lives and in scripture should do, illuminate it, and inform us.  As our scripture said the “true light, which enlightens everyone”

So, what do we do with that story?

We could for instance look at this passage and think, well done John 😊  that’s wonderful.

It’s really easy to put bible stories in a little box,  especially those we are familiar with and not look at what John the Baptist said and not relate it to our lives, however that would be a massive disservice to the bible itself and missing the point of a Christian life.   

The story of the bible is of universal truths given to particular people, and these people must share these truths, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob , David, all the prophets, Jesus, the apostles, the disciples, and us.

We are his modern-day disciples, the latest in the long line and we have our duty as they had theirs.

We are the particular people with universal truths to share, even in our dark days, some might say especially because whats the light for?

The disciples of old had  dark days, and we have seen ours in 2020

The thing  is, in the dark days of 2020 we have all been able to be witnesses to the light, indeed we can bring a little light into the world.

We are inhabited by the spirit, therefore we ourselves carry the light, we are not the light, but we can share the light, be the witness. Just like john

When we state our faith to others it is said we bear witness, when we act in a way that brings others to faith or make people curious, we are more than witnesses we are participants.  We are given the duty to share Christ by word and deed, to see Christ in all we meet. The child that we wait for in advent is what we share.

It is the greatest honour to know him, the greatest gift to share him. J.C.Ryle a great preacher of the 18th century describes what we share when we bear witness to our truth like john

Christ is to the souls of men what the sun is to the world. He is the centre and source of all spiritual light, warmth, life, health, growth, beauty, and fertility. Like the sun, He shines for the common benefit of all mankind – for high and for low, for rich and for poor, for Jew and for Greek. Like the sun, He is free to all. All may look at Him and drink health out of His light.

The child that comes very soon is light and salvation to the world, salvation translates to whole, being made whole. Being made who he planned us to be, not the diverted things we are in this life.
Not the compromises we are, not the precious things that God loves but that can never be all he wanted us to be, salvation brings his plan to fruition.  Knowing the light opens the door to that salvation. That salvation does not reside in this building, nor with anyone in it, its strictly between you and God, made achievable by the gift grace. The thing that allows us compromised creatures to be something clothed in splendour and come before God made whole.  But its up to us to let him in and our job to bring others to this light. To be witnesses like john.

That is what I try to do whenever I speak about him, its all I want to do with my life.

J.C ryle says it better than I can

Christian ministers are, not mediators between God and man. They are not agents into whose hand’s men may commit their souls and carry on their religion by deputy. They are witnesses. They are intended to bear testimony to God’s truth and especially to the great truth that Christ is the only Savior and light of the world.

Today john showed us he knew he was a witness, and he spoke about him.
The man that was predicted by the prophets, made possible by the deliberate action of God, the greatest gift we will ever be given will come into the world very soon.

Jesus Christ, the best news we will ever have even in the worst year for many a year.

This means our job as witnesses is more important than ever, more needed than ever, the world is more broken than its been, its in mourning for its dead, it’s mourning for family unseen that wont be together this Christmas, its searching for Good news.

We bear good news in a world looking for whats next, looking for the end of pain, looking for the end of loss.

Our lord eases the pain of all these things in this life and ends them totally in the next.

When we bear witness  it may not be easy, we may get asked a few questions like John has been?
Who are you? John was asked to sort of explain by what power he was using to be his witness.

John was using the same power we have been given, the holy spirit, the thing that will put into your mouths the very word to say. Have faith 😊 I’ve seen it and experienced it, it feels like very thin ice at times, but that’s us not trusting him. Looking back, I was standing on a rock that goes back to the very beginning before the beginning was the word. My words were resting on the word, yours will be too.  Trust me you’re not on ice at all, your foundations are the cornerstone, and you won’t be let down 😊

If you feel unlikely, your probably not less likely than a someone who has probably come down from desert mountains from a life of isolation,  dressed in camel hair, and eating handfuls of honey and locusts 😊. I think we are a little less out there than that.  

But more importantly

It’s our job, those that know him, those that carry him in us, to carry him openly this Christmas.

Tell them about the light that’s coming into the world, to expose the weakness of darkness, the temporary nature of it when exposed to light of Jesus Christ that puts it all into perspective. That makes this mess whole, in his time, in this life and the next.

Better still be the light, shine a little love into the darkness.

Be the reminder of the covenant between all humanity and our lord

Be a witness just like John, he was the first, now its our turn.

Intercessions for this sermon

Lord we thank you for this day

We thank you for our health and our families

We thank you for the chance to praise you again

We thank you for the chance to be your witness,

Lord as we wait for you help us wait with love and kindness.

And look after our families lord, look after them all for us.

Look after those we worry about, the sick and the young, our children who we never stop worrying about

Help all those that grieve in these dark days, grieve for loved ones, lost jobs, lives they wish they could go back too.

Bring them all back to you lord, and give them succour in the shelter of your love.

Make them whole

Bring them peace

Help us bring your light into all of the dark places lord, help us be your witness, help us participate in bringing your light to all.

Where there is rancour, help us bring harmony

Where there is anger help us bring peace.

Where there is ignorance, help us make space for the voice of wisdom

Help our leaders bring wisdom to all they do.

Help our leaders as the work through the final days before Brexit to come to the best decision for all.

Help our clergy bring your light and be your witness, help them shine your love into our community.

Lead them to where your light is needed the most.

Help us all to be the example of your love and bear witness to the changes you have made in us.

Help us all to make the changes we need to bring more to your church.

Help our church grow lord, help us plant the seeds of growth every day, and make space for growth.

Lord in a moment of silence we bring our private prayer to you.

Merciful father