“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. 21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.” (Luke 2:15-21)
There is one word that best describes the night the Lord Jesus was born – ordinary. The sky was ordinary. An occasional gust stirred the leaves and chilled the air. The stars were like diamonds sparkling on black velvet. Fleets of clouds floated in front of the moon. It was a beautiful night – a night worth peeking out of your bedroom window to admire – but not an unusual one. No reason to expect a surprise. Nothing to keep you awake. An ordinary night with an ordinary sky. The sheep were ordinary too. Some fat. Some scrawny. Some with barrel bellies. Some with twig legs. Common animals. No fleece made of gold. No history makers. No blue-ribbon winners. They were simply sheep – sleeping silhouettes on a hillside. And the shepherds? Peasants they were. Ancestors of today’s Bedouin. Wearing all the clothes they owned. Smelling like sheep and looking just as woolly. True they were conscientious, and hardy as well, to spend every night outside guarding their flocks. But you won’t find their staffs in a museum. You won’t find their writings in a library. No one asked for their opinion on social justice or the meaning of the Torah. They were anonymous, simple, ordinary people.
This year’s ReNew conference was organised by Anglican Mission in England, Church Society, and Reform and held in Leeds under the title Gospel Advance. The major theological theme of the conference explored the Atonement. Contributors included Christopher Ash, Sam Allberry, George Crowder, Matthew Mason, Vaughan Roberts, Rob Scott, Glen Scrivener, William Taylor, Rico Tice, Robin Weekes, and Paul Williams.
When you find yourself in deep trouble, when the rubber has hit the fan, it really does not matter whose fault it was or what caused it. All you really want is someone to help, someone to understand, someone to get you out of trouble. You see dying people, broken people, hurt people, used and abused people, don’t need theological explanations, or self-help tutorials, they need practical help, not next month, not next week, but today, right now, this very minute.
In Matthew 15 we meet a mother. A desperate mother. A mother with a sick child. Imagine that you’ve carried this baby in your womb for nine long months. You’ve been through the excruciating pain of childbirth. You’ve nursed her, fed her, washed her, changed her. Watched her grow, take her first step, say her first word. You can still remember her first day of school. How pretty she looked in that dress. The first time you let her out of your sight. She’s your little girl. Your little girl. And this was her little girl. Maybe she had been sick before. A cold here. A headache there, maybe a bruise or bump from time to time. But nothing ever like this before. In the daytime she screams and shouts constantly. You can’t put clothes on her because she’ll tear them off. Her hair is no longer washed and tidy with sweet little pig-tails. Her hair is all pulled out at the roots and the remaining ones are left sticking up. Strange voices come out of her mouth. She can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t play. But one thing is constant, those eyes. There’s a strange look in her eyes. Eyes that tell you that this is no ordinary sickness, no ordinary problem, no ordinary trouble. She is …. and you don’t want to even say the word… possessed.
On my first visit to Palestine, about 25 years ago, our tour guide was a Messianic Jew called Zvi. One day, someone in the group asked him a question about the Palestinians. He was prepared. He gave each of us a piece of paper with a quote by Golda Meir,
“It was not as if there was a Palestinian people in Palestine and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”
We didn’t ask any more questions until we got to Nazareth and met one of the local pastors. He gave us a short talk about why he was an Arab, a Palestinian, an Israeli and a Christian. I learnt that day that it was wiser and safer to let people self-identify and not presume to tell them who they are or are not.
Who am I? The world out there has plenty of ideas. Some would say I am who I was – the quest to trace our family tree, to know who are ancestors were can define us. My ancestors were here before yours were. Others insist I am what I achieve. What university did you go to? For others, I am what I drive. For some it is all about where I live. In a Settlement or an unregistered village? For some I am what I eat. For many I am what I do. For some I am who I love. For some I am what I know. For others I am who I know. For lots of people I am what I possess. But many people just don’t know. They are searching for meaning and purpose. They are trapped not knowing who they really are. Who am I? The Bible says, we will never know who we are until we decide who Jesus is. Because Jesus says, “I am who I follow”.
Apart from treason, membership of this exclusive club has been handed down from father to son since the 14th Century. Membership of what is probably the second oldest club in Britain carries with it certain privileges. Besides a title, there is the right to be excused jury service, from serving as a witness, and – very usefully – freedom from arrest in civil cases. These are just some of the perks. A 24 hour members-only bar, a free parking place in central London and residence in one of the most sought after postcodes in Britain go with it as well. Since 1999, when the membership criteria were relaxed and it was possible for literally anyone to buy their way in, things seem to have gone downhill. And with a threatened Brexit rebellion this week, the future of a hereditary House of Lord’s is once again being threatened. Presently, all peers are appointed by political parties, apart from the 92 hereditary peers who survived the first phase of Lords reform, along with 24 Church of England Bishops and the Law Lords. Membership of the oldest club in Britain has never been something you could earn, or buy or indeed ever deserve for public service. That is because the word ‘membership’ is of Christian origins.
A church not far from here was blessed with a godly minister for over thirty-five years. He was loved by the church and the community. After he retired, he was succeeded by a younger pastor. It was his first pastorate and he wanted to do his very best. He had only been at the church a few weeks when he began to perceive that the people were upset with him about something. He was troubled. Eventually he spoke to one of the leaders, “I don’t know what I may have done wrong, but I have a feeling that the congregation are not happy with me.” The man said, “Well, I hate to say it, but it’s the way you do the Communion service.” “The way I do the Communion service? What do you mean?” “Well, it’s not so much what you do as what you leave out.” “I don’t think I leave out anything from the Communion service.” “Oh yes, you do. Just before our previous rector administered the chalice and wine to the people, he’d always go over and touch the radiator. And, then, he would–” “Touch the radiator? I never heard of that liturgical tradition.” So the younger man called the former pastor for advice. He said, “I haven’t even been here a month, and I’m in trouble.” “In trouble? Why?” “Well, it’s something to do with touching the radiator. Could that be possible? Did you do that?” “Oh yes, I did… Always before I administered the chalice to the people, I touched the radiator to discharge the static electricity from the carpet so I wouldn’t shock them.”