Category Archives: Comment

Easter Day – John 20:1-18

Mary Magdalene is in the Garden of the Tomb – mourning the loss of the person who turned her life around. The one who loved her when no one else did. The one who brought her healing when she was filled with demons and mentally disturbed. The one who gave her dignity. The one who made her feel loved and accepted. But now he was gone, Jesus is gone, he is dead. Nothing can bring him back.

And what makes it worse for Mary is that someone has removed his body, stolen his body. She no longer has somewhere to go, somewhere to express her grief, somewhere to place her memories. For her, this theft, this desecration, is the greatest of cruelty – it brings despair.

At Easter we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. So easily, we rush past Good Friday and the long hours of Saturday, we rush past the pain of death and mourning and move as quickly as possible to the resurrection. It is uncomfortable to stay too long with death, with the cross – we prefer to think about new life, new hope – about resurrection.

The story of Mary in the Garden of the Tomb reminds us of the pain of grief, but it also of the need to allow grief to run its course. However much we long for the darkness to pass, for the feelings of anger, of guilt, of despair to go away, we cannot just brush them under a carpet of false hope. Nor can we talk glibly of the Christian hope of resurrection without experiencing the reality of loss.

If we are not careful, as Christians, we become so concerned to emphasise resurrection hope that we forget that it has always been a hope borne through the pain of death and loss. Resurrection can only follow death and loss – just as it did on that first Easter morning. Our resurrection hope is not just a general hope of resurrection, nor is it just about heaven, nor is it a denial of the reality and power of death,.

Christian hope of resurrection is specific and personal it relates to me and those I love. It is not an abstract, general, hope of resurrection.

Christian resurrection hope does not deny the reality and power of death. It is, in fact, is born in the midst of death, Calvary precedes Easter, and in a very real sense over this Easter season we are called to feel something of the power of death, to struggle with the disciples through death, through the uncertainty and fear for the future that Jesus’ death left them with. It is, in a very real way, intended to be a struggle for us to move through Good Friday into Easter Saturday and then on to Easter Day and ultimately, finally, resurrection hope. Hope born out of death.

Christian hope is for now as much as for the future, the impossible is possible with God, new things can be born out of the shell of the old, new things can spring to life, the phoenix can rise from the ashes of despair. We can be renewed, made new, have new life now, as individuals and as communities. This too is resurrection hope.

Mary Magdalene discovered resurrection hope not through dismissing her grief and putting on a brave face, but rather in her grief – Jesus himself drew alongside her, he reached out to her with one word of comfort – “Mary.” Hope, real hope, was born from the darkness of despair. This was no false dawn that would fade, this was a new day in which the brightness of the sun would warm Mary’s heart.

In some words that have at times been very special for Jo and me. Isaiah promised Israel:

“When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through rivers they shall not overwhelm you.” ‘I will stand with you’ says Isaiah, speaking for God, ‘I will stand with you in the pain, … you are not alone’.

For Mary, resurrection still meant loss – Mary could never have Jesus back as she had known him. “Do not hold on to me,” he says. “Do not keep clinging onto me.”    Mourning and grief are about letting go – letting go because we have confidence that we can trust our loved ones to God – letting go because we cannot hold on to them, letting go because we also trust in God’s love for us.

Jesus resurrection does not deny death, it fulfils it. Jesus resurrection assures us of all God=s promises not to leave us or forsake us – neither in life nor in death will he let us go. He draws near to us in darkness and despair, he speaks our name and gently draws us to himself where true hope begins.

Palm Sunday and Holy Week (Mark 11:1-11)

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One of the early experiences I remember well is watching Doctor Who. I always sat on the settee, with a cushion close at hand – and when things seemed to be getting to frightening I’d bring the cushion up to my face and peep over the top. If things looked really bad I’d hide behind the back of the settee – peeping out occasionally – with my imagination running riot!

I’ve carried this forward into adult life – some friends and I went to the cinema to watch Braveheart. The film has some very graphic and dramatic battle scenes. I was unaware of how I was responding. Each time an axe hit someone’s torso I was apparently jumping in my seat. At one point, I looked along the row of friends to find that they were all watching me rather than the screen.

I always get engrossed in what I’m watching on TV or at the cinema – and I find that I can usually anticipate the story line. My imagination works overtime – and if I’m not careful when I am watching TV, I find that the anticipation has got the better of me – I’ve got up from my seat and left the room. Before I even realize what I’m doing, I am in the kitchen putting the kettle on to boil!  In some things we watch on TV it is easy to get ahead of the action, anticipate what is going to happen and react accordingly.

We have a similar, but greater, problem with Holy Week and the Easter story. We can anticipate everything that is going to happen. It’s not that the plot is predictable or easy to anticipate – for us it’s the problem of hindsight.

We know that Palm Sunday’s jubilation was followed by the despair of Good Friday. We know that the seeming failure of Good Friday was quickly overtaken by the triumph of the first Easter Day. Hindsight is supposed to be beneficial – but in the case of the Easter story it robs us of the possibility of living through the events as they happened.

img_mouseover3What was going through the disciple’s minds as they came into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday? What was Jesus feeling as he rode into Jerusalem on that donkey? Our danger is that knowing the outcome we minimize the intensity of the events and feelings of Holy Week because we know it turned out OK in the end.

What was Jesus feeling as he entered Jerusalem knowing what the week ahead would hold? Was he was already feeling that overwhelming sense of loneliness that comes when we are completely misunderstood.

How many times had he told his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to die? How often had they failed to hear what he said?

Palm Sunday dramatizes for us the chasm in understanding which existed between Jesus and everyone around him – his disciples and the happy shouting crowds. … Jesus was alone. Really alone – no one understood what he was doing – no one grasped what was about to happen!

When we talk of Christ’s suffering – we think primarily of the Cross. We miss the agony of the anticipation, the loneliness of the last week of his life. The shame of abandonment and torture. … And because we miss his anguish we minimize the significance of many of the events of that last week. With the benefit of hindsight we rush on to the resurrection – to the good news.

1dc2b2a68ab7fd0b323a3e9778c579faAs Jesus repeatedly talks about his death his disciples remain at best confused, at worst oblivious to what he is saying. And the loneliness Jesus felt in the crowd of Palm Sunday, gets replaced by the loneliness of the garden of Gethsemane. Only he can walk this road. No one will walk it with him!

When we grasp this, we will begin to be able to believe that Jesus understands our loneliness. … He knows the loneliness of the cell for those in solitary confinement; those condemned to die for their faith. But more than that – he feels the dark loneliness of depression; he is with us in the loneliness of the hospital bed; he knows the loneliness of watching other people=s pain; and he knows the loneliness of being misunderstood. It=s not just that he cares – he knows what we go through. He is the one that has gone before – he is the one who calls us on – in spite of the darkness or the pain – to continue to serve, to continue to love, to continue to hope.

So, as we live through this Holy Week, lets not get to far ahead of the plot anticipating the final outcome. Let’s rather to the best of our ability stay with the story watching and feeling it unfold. For then, perhaps only then, will we really begin to understand how much God loves us.

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John 2:13-22 – Jesus in the Temple.

Have you ever experienced what it is like to be an outsider? The first time I went to Uganda in 1994, I had people’s warnings ringing in my ears. “Be careful travelling on the buses.” … “Everyone’ll be out to get what they can from you.” “Don’t walk around on your own at night.” I also had had my own fears about going to a different culture. And, yes, I did feel like an outsider. I was white, everyone else was black. I was treated like an oddity because I was different. A reversal of what many black and Asian people felt in coming here.

You may have experienced something like this – perhaps joining a new club, going to a new job, or a new town/city, going to the hospital for the first time. Unease in unfamiliar surroundings is something many of us experience. Often it isn’t helped by the way that those in the know, those who already belong, behave.

What would it have felt like as a Gentile coming into the temple in Jerusalem for the first time? An unfamiliar place with strange customs. It can’t be too hard to imagine some of the confusion and uncertainty that any Gentile must have felt.

The temple had its barriers even at the best of times – there was the Holy of Holies at the centre – where only God and the occasional male priest could go, next, separated by a richly embroidered curtain was the Holy Place where offerings to God were left by the priests (all of whom were male), next was the court where the altar sat – Jewish men were welcome here – then there was an outer court where Jewish women were allowed, and out beyond this – in the outermost court of the temple Gentiles were permitted. The temple system reinforced these divides, both gender and nationality. A place that was intended to proclaim God’s welcome had become a place where barriers obstructed access to God.

No doubt the Temple was a place of familiarity and comfort for those who attended regularly, particularly Jewish men. Everything had a structure and a place – it was somewhere safe and secure. But those very structures created barriers for others and a hierarchy of access to God. Rather than seeing the different outer courts as places of welcome for the outsider, Jews began to see those courts of lesser significance – and the Gentile Court, rather than being a place for worship, had become a place of business. The place where Gentiles could worship had become a market place.

In our reading, Jesus erupts into this outer court, turning over tables and setting animals and birds free. And his comment in Mark’s version of the story reinforces his concern for the outsider; “It is written,” he says “God’s house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” The temple, says Jesus, is not to be a barrier to worship but a place of worship. The way the temple is run, the way things are done, needs to draw in the outsider.

Later, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that, at the moment of Jesus death, the curtain in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom – opening the path for everyone directly into God’s presence. No longer could anyone justify barriers which restricted access to God.

The Jews had allowed their place of worship to become a place that created barriers between God and those who came seeking him.

These short verses In John’s Gospel seem like a window into what it was like in the temple in Jesus’ day. But they are not a window, they are a mirror allowing us to see what we are like, they are a direct challenge to us:

How open are we to welcoming the outsider? Are we as welcoming as we think? What barriers do we place between God and those who seek him? Are we no better than the temple authorities?

How hard is it for new people to get their heads around our liturgy? How keen are we to have people in our services who don’t know what to do? What do we do to help those who are new? In a lot of our churches you can tell who is new … the regulars pick the seats at the back of church. I’m not sure why we see those as the best, but we hardly ever sit on the front row, do we. Often a guest will come into church and see the front seats clear and chose to sit there – anywhere else they’d be the best seats! It is only once the service starts that they realise their mistake – which bit of paper am I supposed to look at now, which book, do I stand or sit at this point in the service? Our guests end up feeling embarrassed. …. Is it any surprise that they choose not to return?

What happens after our services? Who talks to whom? Who seeks to include the outsider? One of our previous suffragan bishops, told a story about his wife Early in his ministry in the Diocese of Manchester he attended one church to preach and his wife went with him. At the end of the service she went to get her coffee and was very politely served and then she stood to one side, quietly drinking her coffee, and no one spoke to her.

When the Bishop introduced her to a few people, one woman said, “If only I’d known you were the Bishop’s wife, I’d have come over to talk to you.”

I wonder whether she had any real idea what she had just said about her own, and her church’s, attitude to the outsider.

How do we respond when children are noisy? How do we cope if someone sits in our regular seat? Do you have baptisms in your main church service? If so, what do you feel about Baptism families? Are we quicker to comment that they are bound not to return – rather than to welcome them, understanding just how alien the service must feel to them? How welcome do we make people feel? Are we really as helpful and welcoming as we=d like to think we are? We need to try to imagine what a newcomer sees and feels as they enter our buildings.

These short verses in our reading challenge each of us to take a step back to look at we do in God’s church, God’s temple. To try to look at what we do through the eyes of the outsider.

Jesus gave priority to the Gentile, to the outsider. He explodes in anger over the ugly barriers that religious people had created almost without thinking.

If nothing else, these short verses in our reading demonstrate that Jesus longs that we and all his followers will give priority, not to our own hopes and desires, but to those of our community and the wider world. Priority to drawing them into relationship with God.

The Transfiguration – 2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 (and Colossians 1:15-20)

The Transfiguration.

Our Lectionary ensures that we encounter the Transfiguration twice this year. On the Sunday Next Before Lent (14th February 2021) and on the Feast of the Transfiguration (6th August 2021).

The lectionary readings set for 14th February 2021 are:

2 Kings 2: 1-12, 2 Corinthians 4: 3-6; and Mark 9: 2-9.

The first of these readings is the story of Elijah’s transfiguration in the moments before his death. In 2 Corinthians, Paul talks of a kind of transfiguration in our hearts as we see Christ revealed in his glory. Mark’s short account of the Transfiguration, places Jesus, Moses and Elijah together at the top of a mountain.

Not in 2 Corinthians but elsewhere in the letters attributed to him, Paul struggles to impress on us the nature and importance of  Jesus as God’s Son. In Colossians 1:15-20, Paul writes:

Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Paul and others like him were doing Christ-centered theology for the first time. They had met with the risen Jesus, some had lived alongside him for at least three years, and they were all struggling to put into words and ideas the reality of what they had encountered.

Paul talks, in that letter to the Colossians, of Jesus as the image of the invisible God, as someone in whom the whole Godhead dwells bodily. … He has begun to realise just exactly who Jesus was and is, and it excites him. And in that passage from Colossians it’s as though, words tumble out as Paul realises just what it all means. We can almost feel his longing that his readers will understand too.

The story of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9) is part of the same kind of process going on for Peter. Up to this point, he has seen Jesus healing, he has felt his own poverty and sinfulness alongside the richness of Jesus character, he has listened to Jesus speaking, he has seen his wisdom and listened to his parables and gradually it has become clearer to him that Jesus is more than just a special person, but try as he might he can’t get his head around it all. In the verses immediately preceding our Gospel reading he has hesitantly voiced what is inside his head. “You are the Messiah, the Holy one of God,” he says to Jesus.

But ultimately he still isn’t sure what he means … and then comes the Transfiguration. He sees Jesus and Moses and Elijah together and he believes he’s worked it out. He places Jesus on the highest pedestal that his mind can comprehend. Jesus is the equal of Moses and Elijah, perhaps the greatest prophet ever. And for a Jew, that was saying something!

And Peter wants to build booths, small shrines, little churches. His leader, his master, is in his mind the equal of Moses, the equal of Elijah. This needs to be marked.

And then he hears God speak: … “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.” Listen only to him.

Peter discovers that he has not gone far enough. His own mind just was not big enough to comprehend who Jesus was, who Jesus is. The truth was just so much bigger than he ever thought.

And we are left with the same revelation – Jesus is bigger than our own ideas of him. God is beyond our comprehension and we will only begin to understand God, to relate to God if we relate to Jesus. And we will only do that if we allow ourselves to see God’s revelation of Jesus. The lesson of the Transfiguration is that creating our own image of Jesus, of God, achieves little. All it does is bring God down to our own level. And depending on our own perspective we create a Christ who is meek and mild, or a Christ who is white rather than a Jew, a red-haired handsome specimen of humanity; or perhaps we might create Christ as the freedom fighter, the revolutionary, the liberator, or we see him as the social reformer.

“No,” says God, “Jesus is bigger than all of this – he is my Son. You can’t pin him down. You can’t domesticate him. He is there to challenge you, to save you, to draw the best out of you. Listen to him.”

We are intended to be dazzled by the light of Jesus face. To be drawn to him, and to see the world fade into dimness. And in that encounter, God expects us to be changed, to be renewed, to be challenged, to be shaken out of our present categories, our concepts of the way things are.

By meeting with Christ, we begin to understand God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – but more than that – we are challenged to move out with hope into our world, believing that God’s kingdom in Jesus is all that other’s really need, looking to bring that kingdom into being, looking for the signs of God’s presence in the world around us. Longing to serve our Lord, longing to be changed still more. Longing to be Transfigured in our encounter with Jesus.

For as Paul says in our reading from 2 Corinthians:

It is the God who in creation said “Let there be Light!” “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has also shone into our own hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Into 2021 with God! – Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 – 10th January 2021

The authors of our lectionary placed the Old Testament reading alongside the Gospel reading for  10th January 2021 for a reason. They wanted us to see them in parallel.

In both cases God is doing something new.

I am not an expert in classical music, a bit of a Philistine really, but as I thought about these two readings from Genesis and Mark it seemed to me that they could be described as two different movements from the same symphony. I’m told that the classical composers used variations on the same theme to develop their composition and that if you listen carefully to the music you can hear the main theme being repeated. …..

Perhaps you can imagine a heavenly orchestra playing the first 5 verses of Genesis. Dark, brooding music portrays an overwhelming sense of chaos and darkness. I imagine that the composer would use discordant modern themes to convey a sense of disorder. Then over this music comes the main theme of the symphony – quietly at first, starting with flute and piccolo, and gradually engaging the whole orchestra. Like a wind gradually rising from a gentle breeze to a violent gale. God’s mighty wind (his Holy Spirit) sweeps across the universe. God is speaking, and his very words change the universe for ever. “Let there be light” and light appears. God saw that it was good, and Night and Day were born.

God breaks into the history of the universe with a powerful word of creation.

Our second reading comes much later in the same symphony. The main musical themes are now well developed – we=ve heard them over and again throughout the symphony. When John the Baptist appears we return to that same discordant, abrupt and harsh theme that we heard right at the beginning of the symphony. His harsh manner, his odd clothing, his strange habits all seem to echo the chaos and darkness of Genesis. The sound from the orchestra builds and noise of the crowds coming to John for baptism shake the concert hall and then John’s voice can be heard as a sharp solo, perhaps, by the oboe cutting through the surrounding noise.

Then quietly at first the main theme appears again. The theme that represented God at work as Creator gradually supersedes the chaos of the early part of this movement. Jesus has come for baptism. The Word of God, from the beginning of John’s Gospel, is beginning his work. And as Jesus comes up out of the waters of baptism the whole orchestra joins the theme – the heavens are rent open, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and God speaks, a strong solo voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.

Can you see the common themes in the two passages?

  • The milling crowd, longing for God to act in their lives; and the universe awaiting God’s creative action.
  • The wind of God, and the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of the deep and the waters of baptism.
  • The word of God bringing creation, “Let there be light”; and the Word of God, Jesus, God’s Son, whose ministry brings redemption.

God’s delight is obvious in both passages. Looking at creation, ‘God saw that it was good’. Looking down on his Son, God said, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased”.

The theme from each movement of our symphony is the same. God creating his world and God redeeming that same world. All part of the same plan. In our symphony, both represented by the same theme.

And now, early in 2021, we are participating in what the Bible calls the end times, the days between Jesus’ first and second coming. We are participating in what we might call the final movement of the symphony.

In the first movement, God saw that everything was good. What does he see now, at the start of this new year, in Ashton, in our churches, in our families and personal lives? Where are the signs of new creation? Where are the dark, formless voids that still await God’s creative action?

In the later movement God expressed overwhelming pleasure at the baptism of his Son. What things in our world, our town, our churches or in our lives today, give God pleasure?

Where might we begin to hear that same musical theme of God’s intervention here in Ashton-under-Lyne? What do we long that God would do in our town and in our world?

At this moment the pandemic looms increasingly large and we can feel the discordant notes of fear and anger. The discordant music seems to dominate our lives, yet quietly, almost unheard in the chaos of noise that theme of hope is still present quietly picked out again by flute and piccolo bringing a measure of calm in the midst of the noise.

How might the final movement of our symphony be being played out? What should I do? What should we do to participate in God’s work here? Now, in these difficult times? Which of the musical voices are we contributing to? The discordant chaos or the still, small, haunting voice of calm and hope?

Epiphany 2021

Matthew 2: 1-12

In the bleak midwinter  by Christina Rossetti

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
A breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the moment when the story of Christ’s birth first becomes a matter for the whole world. Up until the appearance of the Wise Men, the Magi, the story is exclusive. All the main characters are from Palestine. All of them are Jews.

In Matthew 2: 1-12, we hear the story of how, after Jesus was born, some wise men from the East, from beyond the borders of what we now call Palestine and Israel, even from beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, heard that a King had been born. The Gentiles are at this point included in the story.

These wise men wanted to find the King so that they could worship him. They followed a star to Jerusalem and asked some priests there if they knew where to find the King. The priests knew where Jesus was to be born, because they had been told by the prophet Micah, so they told the wise men that they would find the new King in Bethlehem.

The Wise Men saw the star and chose to follow it, otherwise the Star would have been useless. …

So it is with all that God promises us in his Word. We need to respond to the gifts God gives us. We need to continue to grow in faith and commit to following God – and in doing so we make God’s promises our own. We find God to be trustworthy – God is there for us when we need him. This is the journey that each of us is on!

Wise men and women today are still seeking for Jesus. We don’t look for him in Bethlehem, because he is no longer there. He is on his throne in heaven. We don’t need a star to help us find him. We can find him by reading about him in the Bible, by sharing together in the bread and wine of communion, by talking together with others who know him well.

Just as the Wise Men brought gifts to the Christ-child, so Christina Rossetti reminds us that Christian faith is not just about how we receive the gifts and love which God gives, nor is it just about following the best path to the right place. The words of the last verse of her carol remind us that our faith is also about what we bring, about the offering of ourselves, the core of who we are, as a gift to the Christ-child.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

The Feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist – 27th December 2020

John 20:19-31

On 27th December, the Church celebrates the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. Born in Bethsaida, he was called while mending his nets to follow Jesus. He became the beloved disciple of Jesus. He wrote the fourth Gospel, three Epistles and the Apocalypse. The first chapter of his Gospel which focuses of the Word made flesh is one of the most read Gospel reading at Christmas time. In his Gospel and in his epistles, he speaks of the divinity of Christ and of the primacy of love. With James, his brother, and Simon Peter, he was one of the witnesses of the Transfiguration. At the Last Supper, he leans on the Master’s breast. At the foot of the cross, Jesus entrusts His Mother to his care. John was close to both Jesus and Mary. Towards the end of his life, we know that John was exiled to the island of Patmos under Emperor Domitian.

I have chosen to reflect on a passage from close to the end of John’s Gospel. It might seem strange to be reading an Easter story just after Christmas. It isn’t the passage set for the Feast of St. John. But it is the point at which John’s Gospel reaches its climax.

We’re not told why Thomas wasn’t in the upper room that first Easter evening when Jesus visited his disciples. We could spend time trying to imagine where he was – but we won’t! Suffice to say, he missed the key event, the turning point, the moment that changed defeat into victory. And how did he respond? … In exactly the same way as most of us would have done. … Thomas just could not believe what the others told him.

I doubt any of us would have done under those same circumstances. We say that ‘Seeing is believing’ – but so is sharing in an experience with others. Thomas not only didn’t see what happened, he was left out of the experience that everyone else shared. He was in a lonely place, wanting to believe, wanting to share in everyone else’s happiness, but unable to do so. He’d not been there, he had not seen Jesus.

Thomas’ reactions and feelings are understandable, and as we read the story we can see that Jesus thought so too. He provided a repeat of the same encounter – one in which Thomas could share. He then gently reminded Thomas of his outburst – no indignant rebuke, just words which drew Thomas back to faith. Thomas’ response is one of the clearest statements of Jesus’ divinity in the Bible. Having seen the truth of the resurrection he cannot but exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

The next 3 verses are important, and they are pivotal to St. John’s message:

Jesus said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” ….  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

St. John has led his readers through a story – a story which allows those readers to meet Jesus and begin to understand who he is. It’s a journey of discovery, one in which we can identify with the different characters, feel their emotions, struggle with them to understand what Jesus is doing and saying. Thomas’ words are the culmination, the pinnacle of the story – the point where even the strongest of doubters expresses faith. Jesus response is not just for Thomas’ ears, not just for the disciples, but for all who read John’s Gospel in coming generations. “Don’t think,” says Jesus, “that the disciples were in some way special because they saw all these events first hand. Rather, blessed are those who read the stories and encounter Christ through the work of his Spirit in their lives and the lives of those around them.”

“Blessed,” says Jesus, “are all who read this Gospel, who struggle with doubts & come to believe that I am the Son of God.”

St. John’s message for us is that we have not missed out on the party, we can still be part of the events which changed defeat into victory. We too can own the risen Jesus as our Lord.

This is good news – particularly for those of us who struggle with doubt; for those of us who’d like to believe more strongly than we do; for those of us who see other people’s faith, or the joy they seem to experience in their Christian life, and feel that we are somehow missing out.

I think this passage is not just important as the culmination, the climax of St. John’s Gospel. It is important because St. John chooses, at this climactic moment of change, to embrace doubt. He places the strongest words of faith in the mouth of Thomas the doubter.

Everything is different, Jesus was dead and is now alive. Nothing can now be the same. In the story, Thomas struggles to accept this new reality. For so many of us change is difficult to handle, yet it is happening all the time. It is happening right now as we struggle towards a possible post-Covid reality.

We need to continue to engage with the communities around our churches, looking for new ways to serve, new ways to make Christ known and to bring hope where there is despair. We need to accept that the future for the Church of England is one with significantly less stipendiary clergy – perhaps one third less in numbers in only a few years’ time – and we need to imagine new forms of ministry both lay and ordained, new ways of being church. Nothing is the same as it was, nothing will be the same as it was, and we want to shout out the loudest “No! Not now, not ever!”

I think that there are two key things to take away from this passage.

First – it’s OK to be honest – don’t pretend that everything is OK when it isn’t, don’t manufacture faith if it isn’t there. We can express our fears and we can express our doubts. In fact expressing our fear and our doubt is often, like it was for Thomas, the first step to faith.

Second – this story of doubt and faith is made the crowning moment of John’s Gospel – the pinnacle – Jesus reaching out to his loyal but doubting and fearful follower, not in anger but in love. Thomas’ exclamation, “My Lord and my God!” is the point at which John choses to rest his case. He has asked his readers to understand who Jesus is and this story of doubt and faith is the crucial last part of his argument. Honest struggling with change, honest struggling through doubt towards faith is given the highest honour in John’s Gospel.

So, don’t be discouraged if the pace of change or the circumstances we face are a struggle. Don’t be discouraged if believing is a struggle. Be encouraged as you struggle to be faithful in an ever-changing context, when at times everything you hold dear seems threatened. Be encouraged as you struggle to believe, for the story of Thomas makes clear that God loves the open and honest doubter.

Uganda at the end of 19th century and the events leading up to the construction of the Uganda Railway.

It has been some time since I last posted about the Uganda Railway. I have very recently picked up a copy of each of the two volumes of ‘Permanent Way’ written by M.F. Hill in 1949. The first volume [1] is a history of ‘The Uganda Railway’ written in the 1940s when the railway company was known as ‘The Kenya and Uganda Railways and Harbours’ and published at the end of that decade under the jurisdiction of the new ‘East African Railways and Harbours’ which was formed to formally include the infrastructure in the modern country of Tanzania.

In order to provide the context for the construction of the Uganda Railway, M.F. Hill saw it as imperative in his book to provide a social and economic history of the East African region. It is impossible for me to judge the veracity of what he writes, but it clearly is written from a British Colonial perspective. In addition to covering the strife between the European powers who sought to increase their influence in the Great  Lakes region of the continent of Africa, Hill provides extensive quotes from leading British figures in the region about the Uganda that they knew before the coming of the railway.

It must be acknowledged that the perspective is essentially that of those who were seeking to enhance British influence and eventually to establish Colonial rule, however, it also has to be said that these men (and it was always men) sought, within their own Colonial and paternalistic terms of reference, to be a benign civilizing force. The picture which develops, as one reads M.F. Hill’s book, is, on the one hand, one of competition for influence between Germany, Britain and to some extent, France and Belgium, but on the other hand, a significant and seemingly quite unhealthy competition between three main religious groups, Roman Catholics, Protestants and followers of Islam.

Within the sphere of the Buganda ‘nation’, the influence of the two forms of Christianity was very significant, with adherents to the Muslim faith being a significant minority. The conflict between these groups has to be seen as one of the major influences on the choices made by Colonial emissaries. Yes, there was also an urgent consideration of competition with Germany for control over the Great Lakes region but it is significant that much of the focus of those who were leaders in the development of the British sphere of influence seems to be on the internal tribal conflicts in the region which seemingly were fueled by the rivalry between Protest and Catholic leaders.

Sir Gerald Portal, who led an overland expedition to Uganda in the early months of 1893 at the insistence of the 5th Earl of Rosebery (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the 4th Gladstone administration) commented in a despatch to Lord Rosebury on the situation he discovered on his arrival in Uganda in March 1893, “he emphasised both the evils of the native system of administration and the curse of the religious conflict which largely arose from political causes.” [1: p103]

The decisions being made about the possible/probable construction of ‘The Uganda Railway’  were equally focussed on the possibility of these tribal/faith conflicts flaring up as they were on firmly establishing British interests over-and-against those of Germany.

In this light, it is worth quoting directly from Hill who is himself predominantly quoting Portal:

Portal described Uganda as a ‘whited sepulchre’, and traced the country’s tragic story from the bloody despotism of Mutesa, and the early years of Mwanga’s reign, when the condition of Uganda had been scarcely rivalled by the horrible records of Dahomey.

“The form of government in Uganda,” he wrote, “is nominally a despotic monarchy, and in the days of the late Mutesa it was really so; but his successors, and notably the present King Mwanga, have been unable to maintain either the prestige or the power of the Crown. . . . At the time when I arrived, the whole population of Uganda was divided into three semi-religious parties, two of which acknowledge no authority on the part either of Mwanga or his Council. Uganda is divided into ten provinces, each of which is under the nominal governorship of a chief. Under these governors again are an immense number of minor chiefs, one below the other, in a complicated system of transmitted authority. . . . In theory, at first sight, this organisation would appear to be not a bad one; in practice, it has proved to be the cause of a vast system of oppression and robbery. The unfortunate peasantry are forced to toil for the support and glory of an immense number of useless and idle petty chieftains who would think it beneath their dignity to do a stroke of any sort of work from one end of the year to another. In recent times, even the small chiefs had powers of life and death over the peasants, and although this has been stopped, there can still be no doubt that cruelty and oppression in various forms are rife throughout the provinces. Economically, the present system is as bad a one as could be devised; certain taxes in kind have to be paid to the King from each province; these taxes are levied solely from the lowest classes, but as they have to pass through the hands of a long gradation of chiefs, the amount which ultimately reaches the King does not represent more than a fifth part of what has been paid by the villagers.”

Portal pointed out that this administrative system accounted for the importance attached by the Bishops and the political leaders of the opposing parties to the possession, on their side, of certain chieftainships or provincial governorships. The acceptance by a great chief of the Protestant creed might mean the addition of a thousand fighting men to the Protestant cause, whilst the appointment of a Catholic governor to the command of a province might mean that every chief, sub-chief and villager in the province had to make up his mind quickly between embracing the same faith, or being forthwith turned adrift and deprived of his house, dignity and position.

The miserable history of Uganda during the previous few years had shown how inextricably religion and politics were interwoven. The three great parties, Mohammedans, Catholics and Protestants, were nominally divided only by religious tenets, but in fact they were adverse and jealous political factions, two of which were led, to all intents and purposes, by European missionaries. [1: p103-104]

Portal went on to say:

“That the missionaries, on both sides, are the veritable political leaders of their respective factions there can be no doubt whatever. As regards the Catholics, Mgr. Hirth and the Fathers would probably be the first to admit this to be the case. On the Protestant side, it is not, I believe, admitted, but the fact unfortunately remains. . . . The present state of affairs is that the natives on both sides have acquired the habit of appealing to their respective missionaries on every possible question, whether it be a personal quarrel with one of the opposite faction, an assault case, an eviction from a plantation, a murder, a decree from the King, or a decision or order from Her Majesty’s Commissioner. There has thus grown up a sort of dual or even triple system of government, which adds very seriously to the difficulties of administration. It will from this be readily understood that the race for converts, now being carried on by the Catholics and Protestants in Uganda, is synonymous with a race for political power. To-day the Protestants are the strongest, and the most numerous, party; to-morrow a successful battle might place the Catholics in a dominant position and, in such case, that religion would gain on the second day many thousands of converts, from among those who are now reckoned as belonging to the Protestant party. Catholics and Protestants here seem to look upon each other as natural enemies; no doctrine of toleration, if it has been taught on either side, appears to have been received by the native Christians; the fear of English officers and of the Nubian soldiers at the Fort may keep them from overt acts of hostility towards one another while this control remains here, but as soon as it is withdrawn, the war of extermination will at once be renewed. It is this feeling which, through the introduction of the two forms of Christianity into Uganda, has cost so many hundreds of lives, and has thrown the country fifty years back in its advance towards prosperity. It is deeply to be regretted that the avowedly great influence of missionaries in Uganda is not used to introduce a spirit of tolerance and peace even at the risk of the loss to the party of some political power of a few wealthy chieftainships.” [1: p104]

Hill continues:

The Mohammedan party was weaker in numbers, wealth and arms than either of the two Christian parties. In the event of the withdrawal of British control, the strength of the Mohammedans lay in their power to hold the balance between the two Christian factions. When it became known that the Company proposed to withdraw from Uganda, overtures to the Mohammedans were made, almost simultaneously, by the Catholics and by the Protestants. Portal realised that the Mohammedan influence in Uganda was inevitably doomed. If civil war again broke out, whichever party gained the Mohammedans’ affiance would certainly win the day—and then turn upon and annihilate the allies who had assured their victory. If peace continued, the Mohammedan party would inevitably be wrecked on the same rock which destroyed the power of so many Mussulman states—that of slavery. [1: p104-105]

Mwanga II was kabaka in Buganda from 1884 – 1888 & 1889 – 1897. He died aged 34 or 35 in 1903. There are notes about his reign below the references at the end of this article.

In retrospect it seems as though there is ample evidence in the story told here for a rejection of all religious influence in matters of state/politics. However, the world is not such a simple place. Portal did not regard all the Christian converts in Uganda as animated solely by political or material motives. He knew that only “a proportion of the so-called Catholic and Protestant parties could truly be called Christians, but Christianity had undoubtedly gained a firm hold in the country. Mwanga’s persecutions, [2] a few years previously, had proved that there were a considerable number of sincere-Christians prepared to die for their faith.” [1: p105] In addition, politics is a descriptive term for all interactions between differing groups of people. Where people exist, politics will occur. It is to be sincerely regretted that denominational loyalties in the West were imported into the Great Lakes region of Africa in such a way as to promote conflict rather than tolerance and understanding! The level of trust between the principal Christian denominations was not high in Europe at this same time.

The primacy of religious leaders in the politics of the time meant that one of Portal’s first tasks was to seek an accommodation between Bishop Tucker, the Protestant Bishop of East Equatorial Africa and Mgr. Hirth, the Rpam Catholic Bishop of Thereste and Vicar Apostolic of Nyanza. Careful negotiation brought reluctant agreement to the partition of provinces between Catholic and Protestant factions.

On 8th April 1893, 40 Protestant Chiefs signed a statement agreeing to release all their slaves. On 29th May, Mwanga also signed an agreement which accepted British authority. On that same day, Portal left for the coast.

By late 1893, Portal’s health was failing and he made his last report to his masters in London before setting off for the UK himself, where he died very early in 1894. Much of the report had to do with the management of British interests in the Great Lakes region. As [part of that report he strongly recommended the building of a railway from the coast to Kikuyu, not to Lake Victoria Nyanza, but including a significant enhancement of the British fleet on the Lake. That report was considered, after his death, by Parliament in London.

In June 1894, the British government was still hedging its bets and not making a commitment to the construction of a railway, although a decision was taken to declare a Protectorate over Uganda. This move was proclaimed in Uganda in August 1894 and was heartily welcomed. A further Protectorate covering the area from Uganda to the coast was proclaimed in 1896 – the ‘East African Protectorate’.

The Report of the Committee on Railway Communication with Uganda was submitted in April 1895, by the end of June 1895, Lord Rosebery’s Government had fallen and the new Tory administration under Lord Salisbury lost no time in deciding that the railway should be built. It was seen as essential to the life of the Uganda Protectorate. Preliminary expense were granted in the sum of £20,000 in August 1895. And the decision was taken to construct the full length of the railway from the coast at Mombasa to Lake Victoria Nyanza – a distance of 650 miles. Through choosing a reduced gauge and a lighter rail, the cost estimate for the work was set at about £2,700 per mile – a reduction from £3,409 per mile in the early estimates of cost. However in April 1896, a Government committee recommended that the gauge should be increased to one metre and the rail weight restored to that originally recommended – 50lb per yard.

The engineering team arrived in Mombasa in late 1895 but the empowering Act was not to achieve its passage through Parliament until August 1896 with a budget of £3 million.

Earlier posts in my series on the Uganda Railway cover the line and its construction. That story starts with the following article on this site:

https://rogerfarnworth.com/2018/05/09/uganda-railways-part-1

Hill continues with the story of the building of the line. [1: p139-244] Given that this series is meant to be primarily about the Uganda Railway, this article has been something of a diversion.

As I am an Anglican priest it seems worthwhile to me to  return to the religious issues mentioned above. These will, in due course, be the subject of a further article in this series.

To restore the balance in favour of the railway itself. I will finish this post with some images directly associated with the railway which come from the pages of Hill’s book. [1]

Sir George Whitehouse KCB., the first Chief Engineer and General Manager of the Uganda Railway. [1: facing p144]

Rope Inclines on the Eastern face of the Rift Valley during construction in March 1900. [1: facing p179]

Kilindini in 1900. [1: facing p208]

Nairobi Railway Station in 1900. [1: facing p228]

Nairobi in 1900. [1: facing p228]

Uganda Railway – Class G 0-4-2 steam locomotive Nr. 101 and passenger train (Hawthorn 1746/1878). This locomotive was a one-off import from India, ex South Indian Railway. This image was posted recently on a French language site associated with the LRPresse Magazine(s), rather than coming from Hill’s book [3]

British East Africa in 1910. The Uganda Railway from Mombasa to Victoria Nyanza. Also included on the LR Presse forum. [3]

References

  1. M.F. Hill; Permanent Way – The Story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway – Volume 1; Hazel, Watson & Viney Ltd, Aylesbry & London, 1949.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mwanga_II_of_Buganda, accessed on 17th December 2020. Part of the text of this Wikipedia page is reproduced in italics below.
  3. https://forum.e-train.fr/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=87849&p=2255445&hilit=Ouganda#p2255445; accessed on 19th December 2020.

Mwanga came to the throne at the age of 16. He increasingly regarded the greatest threat to his rule coming from the Christian missionaries who had gradually penetrated Buganda . His father had played-off the three religions, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims, against each other and thus balanced the influence of the European colonial powers that were backing each group in order to extend their reach into Africa. Mwanga II took a much more aggressive approach, expelling missionaries and insisting that Christian converts abandon their faith or face death. A year after becoming king he executed Yusufu Rugarama, Makko Kakumba, and Nuuwa Sserwanga, who had converted to Christianity. On 29th October 1885, he had the incoming archbishop James Hannington assassinated on the eastern border of his kingdom.

For Mwanga, the ultimate humiliation was the insolence he received from the (male) pages of his harem when they resisted his sexual advances. According to old tradition the king was the centre of power and authority, and he could dispense with any life as he felt. It was unheard of for mere pages to reject the wishes of a king. Given those conflicting values Mwanga was determined to rid his kingdom of the new teaching and its followers. Mwanga therefore precipitated a showdown in May 1886 by ordering converts in his court to choose between their new faith and complete obedience to his orders and kingdom.

It is believed that at least 30 Catholic and Protestant neophytes went to their deaths. Twenty-two of the men, who had converted to Catholicism, were burned alive at Namugongo in 1886 and later became known as the Uganda Martyrs. Among those executed were two Christians who held the court position of Master of the Pages, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe and Charles Lwanga. They had repeatedly defied the king by rescuing royal pages in their care from sexual exploitation by Mwanga which they believed contrary to Christian teaching.

These murders and Mwanga’s continued resistance alarmed the British, who backed a rebellion by Christian and Muslim groups who supported Mwanga’s half brother and defeated Mwanga at Mengo in 1888. Mwanga’s brother, Kiweewa Nnyonyintono, was elevated to the throne. He lasted exactly one month and was replaced on the throne by another brother, Kabaka Kalema Muguluma. However, Mwanga escaped and negotiated with the British. In exchange for handing over some of his sovereignty to the British East Africa Company, the British changed their backing to Mwanga, who swiftly removed Kalema from the throne in 1889. He later converted to Christianity and was baptised.

Sunday 6th December – Mark 1:1-8 and Isaiah 40:1-11

The first Candle on our advent wreath in church spoke of the Patriarchs. The second candle speaks of the Prophets. Both groups witnesses, ahead of time in the Old Testament, to the coming of Jesus. The remaining two outer candles on the wreath represent John and Baptist and Mary.

Our gospel this week and that next week focus on John the Baptist, the last of a long line of Old Testament prophets.

I used to work in the centre of Manchester, and during lunch breaks I’d often wander around Piccadilly Gardens. Frequently I’d be approached by one of the men who lived rough – sleeping on the benches in the Bus Station or in the sunken gardens which were once the basement of a hospital bombed out in the Second World War. Usually I’d be asked for a coin or two to help purchase a meal. Money which, I was near certain, would be spent on alcohol. … Jo, my wife, once told me that when she worked in London and shopped on Oxford Street there was one character that she could rely on meeting. … Trudging up and down, eyes downcast, with a sad look on his face, a rather dishevelled looking man with a scruffy brown overcoat carried a sign “Repent, the end is nigh”. It wasn’t surprising that no one ever stopped him to ask about his message. He seemed rather strange, a person to avoid. Of no relevance to their lives.

This is how I imagine the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist – very similar to this dishevelled tramp, although perhaps with a little more fire in their bellies! . John the Baptist was an unconventional man, living in the desert, with clothes made of camels hair, living on a diet of locusts and wild honey – proclaiming a message of repentance. A seemingly unattractive person – someone to be ignored. Yet John was attracting large crowds and his message was credible. People listened and acted on what he said.

‘Repent’, said John, and people did, in large numbers. He was a success. …

So, what can we learn from John? How come he was so successful?

In John’s day, Israel was a weary people, living under occupation. They’d been so for 400 years – first the Greeks and Persians, and now the Romans. They were right at the bottom, depressed and desperate for any sign of hope. God had promised a Messiah, and in 400 years there had been only imposters claiming the title. God seemed to have gone silent. They lived under pagan occupying forces; they lived in a secular, world with a corrupt king and hypocritical religious leaders.

Yet among the people were those prepared and willing to hear John’s message. People longing for renewal and change, people who knew that there was more to life than the grind of daily living under the burden of an occupying power. People who perhaps were desperate enough to respond to anything – they’d tried everything else, and here was their last hope. Perhaps people, who when they heard John, recognised God’s voice calling to them. Or perhaps they were people who were just dissatisfied with the world around them and wanted something more.

This sounds very familiar? A secular world, full of unbelief? A lack of confidence in authority? Religion on the back foot? Church attendance dropping? Values of society changing – no longer so easily identified with our Christian heritage? God seemingly absent? … Just like today? Well, almost. …. Perhaps the pandemic makes our circumstances different, but the people in Palestine at the time of John the Baptist would have had significant concerns about their health. There were none of the amazing drugs which we can rely on today!

How should we respond? Pack up and go home? That seems to be the easiest option. Let’s retreat back into our churches, do the things we enjoy doing and let the world get on with its own agenda. Unfortunately, in churches across our land that seems to be the temptation. It’s so much easier to stick with what we know than to contemplate radical change.

John the Baptist chose differently, and so did those who listened him. John spoke words that the people needed to hear. Not, perhaps, what they might have wanted to hear. …… “Repent.” Why? Because God’s kingdom is near! There, in John’s message are the first seeds of hope. God seems to be speaking again, just like he did to the prophets of old, speaking with authority once again. Hope was being born again in the hearts and minds of all who listened to John. John was preparing the way for something significant to happen. Something new, something different.

John brought hope, and with it renewed energy and life. Hope that God would act. Hope that, in the words of the placard carried by the tramp in London, hope that the end was nigh. The end, not of the world, but of waiting for God to act. Now, soon, God will act. The people who went out to John in the desert became a people of hope, people with a renewed vision for the coming of the Messiah.

Advent is a season for preparation, for anticipation, for longing; a season of hope; a season to allow ourselves to yearn for things to be right. A season when we can express even our anger to God – anger that the world is not the way it should be, longing that God will do something about it. Advent is a season when we can start to recognise that God has given us his first response to that longing, to that hope; a down-payment, a deposit that we can trust. In the incarnation of Jesus, we have God’s “Yes!” to our cries for help. “Yes, I am with you. … Yes, I have heard you.” … But it is also the season when we acknowledge that we wait for his final answer. We wait in hope for God’s final solution, when everything will be made right.

Advent hope, Christian hope. Hope that is not just ‘pie-in-the-sky’, but hope based on the firm commitment of a deposit made 2000 years ago in the birth of Jesus. Hope that doesn’t just pretend that everything is going to be all right, despite the evidence. But hope which has seen everything and endured everything and still has not despaired, because it trusts God and his promises. Hope which continues to bear fruit in reality, as people’s lives are changed through meeting with God in Jesus; as they encounter Christians who clearly aren’t perfect but whose lives have something deeply attractive about them.

John calls his hears, calls us to renewal, to repentance – to ‘turn round’, to change direction. Not just to tinkering with the edges of our lives, those little personal things that need to change, it’s a call to a complete reorientation of our lives, a call to begin to believe again in God’s love, to turn away from selfish values and to love again as God has loved us – only this kind of all-embracing repentance will begin to demonstrate that hope is more than wishful thinking, that lives can be and are being changed by God’s love. Only through this kind of repentance will we prepare our hearts and the hearts of those around us for the coming of Jesus.

John’s life witnessed to the truth of what he believed. He was sold out to what he proclaimed. He lived his message. Nothing in the way John behaved, not his words nor his actions, left any doubt about where his priorities lay. However strange found him, the one thing that you could not do was accuse John of duplicity. He was whole-heartedly committed to his message. John’s words and actions belonged together. John’s challenge to us is a challenge to integrity – to live day by day the way that we talk at Church on Sunday. To be united with each other, caring for each other, to be seen to be growing in understanding of our faith, to be seen to be loving each other, and to be reaching out with the love of Christ to everyone that we meet in our daily lives. And by so doing, to emulate John who, as our Gospel reading tells us, pointed beyond himself to another, to the one on whom people’s hope can justifiably rest, to Jesus.

How will we make Advent hope more of a reality in our world today? Certainly not by carrying a placard which speaks of impending judgement, nor by mouthing words of faith which are not clearly supported by the lives that we live. Advent hope, real hope, will be seen as a reality by those around us only when they see lives that are sold out to the Gospel.

Advent Sunday 2020

Mark 13: 24-37 – 29th November 2020

It is over 30 years since the fall of many of the Soviet states in Europe.

31 years since the Berlin Wall was torn down!

My brothers-in-law travelled there at the end of 1989 and picked up a souvenir piece of the wall. Pieces of the Berlin wall are still on sale today.

Over the New Year Holiday, the Berlin Wall was being dismantled. … The end of the Berlin Wall was the end of probably the most potent symbol of oppression in Europe in the 20th Century.

It’s disturbing to realise that it all happened over 30 years ago now. Maybe, at that time, you shared my sense of unbelief – ‘Is this really happening?’ It was hard to believe that the world order that I had grown up in – that of a Cold War, stand-off between two superpowers – was seemingly coming to an end. Something that even just months before those amazing events at the end of 1989 seemed impossible.

This same seeming impossibility surrounded the Jewish people in the centuries before Christ. They had been longing for a Messiah – someone who would change the course of history for ever. They were so often disappointed, different men came promising what they could not deliver. No doubt Israel felt the mocking eyes of others as they clung onto this seemingly vain hope of a glorious Messiah. Someone who would bring in Israel’s golden age. Everything pointed against it. Israel was a pawn, a minor league nation caught in the ebb and flow of the politics of the real powers.

In Advent, as Christians, we do at least two things – firstly, we remember, we enter into something of the feelings of the people of Israel as they waited for the coming of their Messiah. We wait with them. … They had to wait 500 years from the first promises made to them. We allow ourselves the month of December – but we wait for the coming of the Christ-child. Unlike them we know for sure that he will come – for we’ve read the story before.

But we are in other ways just like them. For we impose our expectations on him – we know what the Christmas story is all about – we’ve got the story neatly packaged. … We need the story to be constant, unchanging because life is too busy, too pressurised at this time of year. ‘Let’s stick to the routine,’ we say, ‘enjoy the celebrations, and hopefully have time to relax in January!’ Although what those Christmas celebrations will be like in 2020 is still a matter of uncertainty.

If we are not careful – if we don’t make the time to reflect, to listen, to wait – we’ll miss the Christ-child. We’ll not see the miracle of God in human form. Just as most of Israel missed its Messiah, so God’s grace will pass us by. Advent is our time to centre ourselves before Christmas, to focus on the true meaning of the Christmas story, to grasp that God’s Son, the Christ, God incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us – Jesus, is coming and he is coming for us, for me.

But we also wait in other ways … for many of us, life is not the way we want it to be and we pray for God’s intervention. It feels at times as though nothing is happening. Times like this are hard. We wait for God to come, and he seems absent. We are a little like the people of Israel awaiting their Messiah.

Advent is not just preparing for Christmas, but about looking forward to Christ’s Second Coming. Jesus spoke about this our Gospel reading. A difficult passage, because this Second Coming seems for Jesus to be so immediate. And so we, the Church, have our questions – raised at different times with different intensity. Why has it been so long? Has God forgotten us? Is Jesus never coming back? Were we intended to take it literally? Was Jesus mistaken? Is it important to believe in the Second Coming?

And these questions are often mirrored in our experience of daily life as at times God seems to be absent. And our experience of waiting in some way matches that of those nations waiting year after year under the tyranny of Communism. Seemingly without hope – yet in 1989 there was that dramatic change. What was unbelievable, happened. The wall came down, Communist regimes toppled.

Similar but different.

In our daily lives, we hold onto a promise – a promise to be taken on trust. Jesus’ promise to be there for us in the midst of all that life brings our way – Christ will come again.

But, as Christians, we also have something of the reality on deposit. In the meal of Holy Communion we look back to the realities of Christ=s first coming – his death and resurrection. And we also look forward to that heavenly banquet in which we will all share – a meal that Jesus promised to eat with us in his Kingdom.

We can believe that God is with us in our suffering. We can believe that Christ will return. Things that people dream about, do happen, God’s, presence with us is real, and Christ Second Coming is no more impossible than the collapse of the Berlin Wall felt to a divided Europe, a divided Germany. The seemingly impossible is possible with God.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.