Advent Waiting

2020 has felt like “the longest year,” this advent has felt like the “longest advent,” and, if we are honest, we do not know what we are waiting for. A few weeks ago I read part of John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul.

This 16th century poem, written in five stanza’s of eight lines each, narrates the journey the soul takes as it becomes united with God.  The poem, which shows the importance of contemplation in our Christian journey, speaks of a presence in absence. As we contemplate God in the darkness of the night we are drawn to a closer union; our emptiness is filled by the presence of God. 

And, if you think, this kind of idea is a quaint trait of 16th century mystics, I recently came across the soul moving song “After the Storm,” performed by Mumford & Sons. In this song we encounter a set of profound spiritual truths which can be hard to understand. 

“And after the storm, I run and run as the rains come. And I look up, I look up, on my knees and out of luck, I look up.”

I wonder when you were last on your knees. When you last encountered a “dark night” of the soul. Christian life is full of such moments. No matter how positive we make faith look, we all face dark nights. We all face moments where we fall to our knees in the middle of the storm. 

We all face moments when we want to look up and scream.

It is interesting that these moments, these experiences of darkness tend to push out the positive. They outweigh any good and make us want to focus on the dark. To stay in it, alone. 

“Night has always pushed up day. You must know life to see decay. But I won’t rot, I won’t rot. Not this mind and not this heart, I won’t rot.”

Yes, it is easy to focus on the darkness, but both St. John and Mumford & Son’s 

allude to a greater truth. The truth that we are not alone. 

“And I took you by the hand. And we stood tall, And remembered our own land, What we lived for.”

One of the blessings of advent is that it opens up a new opportunity. As we prepare for a king we are reminded that God came to us. We are reminded that we do not need to perform religious acts, or build taller towers, but in fact God leans down and meets us in the form of a child. Emmanuel, God with us. God comes to us and meets us, often in the darkness, and shows us love. 

“And now I cling to what I knew. I saw exactly what was true. But oh no more. That’s why I hold, That’s why I hold with all I have. That’s why I hold.”

Once you have seen the truth. Once you have encountered the love shining in the darkness it is hard to turn back. Even when the tears blind us, or the pain cripples us, we can hold onto something else and in the midst of the darkness we can abandon our pain and greet the one who calls us by name. 

I abandoned and forgot myself,

laying my face on my Beloved;

all things ceased; I went out from myself,

leaving my cares

forgotten among the lilies.

On this, the darkest of nights, I am reminded that we all have darkness to face. We all have things that we hide in the storm. Yet, in the midst of the storm, we are not alone. We encounter one who offers us rest. He may not take away the pain, or solve the problem, but as the tears flow and the rain falls, we encounter one who wants to hear our pain. One who wants to take our sorrows upon himself and offer us peace. 

On this darkest of nights, why not light a candle, play a song, and try and cast your cares on God.


there will come a time

You’ll see, with no more tears

And love will not break your heart

But dismiss your fears

Get over your hill and see

What you find there

With grace in your heart

And flowers in your hair

That may not be tonight, but it will come, for the grace of God does not exclude. It does not stop. We may be in the storm but we are being prepared for more.  We are being prepared for a time when there will be no more tears. We are being prepared for the time when we will see God’s face and feel no more fear, rejection or pain. A moment when all we will feel is love. 

But, for now, on this darkest of nights, why not light a candle, play a song, and try and cast your cares on God.

For, the journey can be hard I know that too. But in the darkness God may come and offer you some rest for your soul. 

I pray, that tonight, God offers you rest for your weary soul and a song for your struggling heart.

So, light a candle, and sit. Sit and wait for God will come and ease the weary tears. God will come and sooth the pain. 

God will come.

Just as God came that first Christmas morn.

God will come. 

Psalm 23: Faith, Trust & Lockdown.

Over the past few months I have been reading Psalm 23 a lot. It has become a bit of a vocational hazard. It has been chosen by many families to be read, or listened too, at one of the most difficult moments faced by all; a funeral. Yet, there is much to be learnt from this psalm beyond the moments of death. 

Psalm 23 is probably one of the most well known, and popular, psalms and although wholly appropriate to be read at funeral services this psalm has as much to say to the living as it does to the bereaved. For this is a psalm which puts our daily activities; our eating, drinking, resting, seeking security, into the hands of God. This psalm shifts our self-entered perspective into a radical God-centred perspective. 

I wonder if there is something that you could not have lived without during these past few months. Whether it be music, or food, or warmth, or the internet (and the dreaded Zoom), things which have enabled you to fill your life and make sure you have been okay. Things which have enabled your life to be comfortable no matter what is going on out there. 

I wonder if you panicked when the shops got low on toilet roll, or if you stocked enough pasta to get you through to Christmas. Did you trust in the kindness of others, or did you cling to self-protection and a culture of grabbing what you needed before looking out for those in need. 

Whatever choices you made there is a passage in the Gospel of Matthew which, when linked with Psalm 23, promotes a different way of life and tells us to trust in a different story. Jesus, speaking to his disciples, says this:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear . . . But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.” (Matt 6:25, 33 NRSV)

Strive not for the things of the world but, instead, strive for the things of the kingdom. Look first to God, then to the world. Focus on your heavenly needs rather than your earthly ones. This is the message Jesus is giving the disciples and they are words which we need to hear as well. 

As you return to this famous, and often read, psalm. Why not reframe your thoughts. Instead of reading it as a psalm within a context of death and dying instead read it as a psalm about striving to not worry now. For who has added a year to their life by worrying. No-one. Before worrying, pray. Trust in God. Live counter-culturally. 

In our culture we are told to trust no-one. The state will let us down, our friends will let us down, God will let us down. Ultimately, we need to trust in ourselves. For it is only through self provision that we will survive. Yet our Gospel tells a different story. Our Gospel tells of a story of hope in the midst of suffering. Our Gospel tells us that there is someone else to trust and that He died and rose again for us. That has to be something to be thankful for, even when we didn’t have enough toilet roll or pasta!

So, as you re-read this psalm pray that you will trust more in God, and less in yourself. Seek to live humbly and walk faithfully as a child of God. Pray to God trusting that He will answer your prayers when you call. For, as we read in Psalm 23, God provides all our food, all our security, all our hope.

Maybe this, over and above any other, is the reason that I have spent a lot of time with this psalm of the last few months. Not because it speaks of hope, and comfort, at a time of death. But because it reminds us that God is our hope and comfort now and that we can put our trust in Him. Maybe it reminds us all that rather than going it alone we should let God into our life and trust that He will provide for our needs, even when we run out of toilet paper and pasta. Maybe, just maybe, in this psalm we find a purpose and prayer. In this psalm, more than many of the others, we hear of a God who loves us completely and does not want to see us go without. Our God has abundantly more than we can ask or imagine we just need to trust.

St. Thomas – the Way, the Doubt, and the Faith.

John 11: 16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

I am not sure how many of you are aware of our little secret. I remember one conversation which happened not so long after my licensing in which I had to reveal it. Our common name isn’t in fact the churches actual name. Although colloquially known as Norbury Parish Church, our church is actually dedicated to St. Thomas. We are, in truth, St. Thomas, Hazel Grove.

“So are we St. Thomas, Hazel Grove, now you’ve come?”

“Well no. We’ve always been St. Thomas’s theres just a lot of them in the area so Norbury Parish Church works better.”

“So we don’t need to buy more paper.”

“No, not at the moment at least.”

There are many churches named after Thomas, and for good reason. Thomas, the doubting disciple, challenges us to to face the reality of our doubt and faith. We run with Thomas into situations, confident our faith will win out and yet the next minute we are demanding proof, unsure if God is real at all. In Thomas we find an exemplar of the christian challenge of faithful doubting. Something which many of us have now mastered as an art form. Yet, in and through Thomas so much more of our faith is revealed. 

In the passage quoted from John, Jesus is demonstrating the complexity of faith. The disciples, confused by Jesus’ response to hearing that Lazarus is unwell, demand an answer. Not another parable, or riddle, or story, but an answer. How often do we want an answer? How often do we want God to show up and tell us what to do. How often do we sit in silence hoping for a voice. Or sit in the pulpit expecting a neatly packaged plan for life. 

The answer they get must have shock them. Just as it would shock us if Val, or Hugh, or Peter, or Alan, gave us such a direct response to our questions about faith:

John 11: 14 – 15 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead,and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

The absurdity of this must smack the disciples right in the face. Why go somewhere that is dangerous. For Judea, where Lazarus was, was somewhere that was not safe to Jesus. In fact the gospel writer plainly tells us that the Jews had tried to stone Jesus when he was last in Judea. Why go somewhere that is dangerous, when Lazarus is already dead. Well, because that is what faith is about. 

Faith is about those moments when, even though we don’t truly understand, we encounter God more fully. When something of the christian faith is revealed to us. Especially when we didn’t expect it. When we understand, like Thomas, that we need to let go to the very thing we cling to so as to encounter, and be embraced by, God. 

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Thomas says to the other disciples. Not really aware what is being demanded of him, or what the way looks like at all. Yet, in this moment, Thomas reveals something to us which is crucial to our faith journey. 

Our faith is wrapped up in life and death. We are called to die to self and live in Christ. We are called to let go of all the truths the world around us believes and believe in God. Even when that doesn’t make sense. Let us then be a little bit more like our patron saint and be willing to jump both feet into this thing we call faith. Fully aware it isn’t easy and never will be. But fully expectant that as we travel as fellow pilgrims we will be able to utter those words that Thomas utters to the resurrected Christ at the end of John’s Gospel. After doubting his resurrection at all:

My Lord and my God. 

Let us die to self and be raised in Christ. Let us be a little bit more like Thomas fully doubting but fully present. Fully human and fully accepting of the work God is doing in us.  Even when we cannot see the light for the darkness. Let us find Christ in the most shocking places and let us follow wherever Christ calls us, even if we forgot the map. 

Now is the moment to act. A sermon for ash Wednesday with a call to repent and treat the world differently.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

There is nothing like the words of a prophet to remind us of our own sinful nature. To remind us of our sinful mortality and to demand us to change. To shake us to the very core and make us look up and see what is going on around us. 

16 year old Greta Thunberg is one such voice. A voice calling us to repent and change. In one of her speeches she says:

‘I want you to panic. I want you to act as if your house was on fire. I have said those words before… I agree. To panic unless you have to is a terrible idea. But when your house is on fire and you want to keep your house from burning to the ground then that does require some level of panic.’ 

I think one of the hardest voices to hear is the voice of the prophet. The voice of the person who reminds us of our mistake and calls us to repent and turn from our evil ways. 

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. 

Greta Thunberg finishes her speech with this:

‘Our house is falling apart. The future as well as what we have achieved in the past is literally in your hands now. But it is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision. It will take courage. It will take fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations when we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. … To do your best is no longer good enough. We must all do the seemingly impossible.’ 

Joel had a similar message for the people of Israel, their best was no longer good enough, they needed to do the seemingly impossible, turn to God and repent. Otherwise they were likely to face death and destruction. 

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Theologically, one of the most prominent messages that our passage from Joel places in front of any reader is a need to lament and turn back to God. But in the midst of their lament Joel promises them hope. Joel is not simply calling Israel back to God because it is the right thing to do but because God is where their hope is found. Joel is calling the people back to God so that their shame can be removed and their honour restored.

Joel does not just offer hope for the restoration of a sinful humanity but also offers hope for the restoration of creation as well . In verse 14, Joel makes reference to God’s blessing not just being upon the people but also upon the land. Here, Joel insinuates that God will leave a blessing behind him and that this blessing will restore the land as well as the people. This would have been important for the people of Israel who, at this time, would have been living in a land of desolation, and it is an important message for us to hear as well. 

In light of flash flooding and forest fires. In the words of Greta Thunberg and extinction rebellion we are being challenged to repent of our sinful treatment of the planet and amend our ways. We can see before our very eyes places of desolation and we must lament and, like the people of Israel, return to our God of hope.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Our current situation calls for us to repent. To turn back to God and put our trust in Him. For Israel this call to repentance was through acts of “fasting,” “weeping,” and “mourning” (2:12), which were linked to lament. Lent could be such a moment for us. Lent could be a time where we assess our sinful ways and mourn. It could be a moment, in the words of Pope Francis in On Care for our Common Home, that we weep and mourn for the state of “creation.” It could be the moment that we return to the Lord through worshi. There has been a moment like this. A moment which demands us to mourn, repent and turn to Christ.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

It is important to respond to the needs of “creation” in our worship; both liturgically and missionally. This, on the one hand, involves lament and repentance, it can involve mourning, but, above all, it must involve action. General synod made the bold promise of making the Church of England carbon neutral by 2030. This is impossible if we do not act. If we do not repent, turn from our previous ways, and act. 

We, the congregation of the parish of Norbury, need to be bold in our actions. We need to think about things differently. We need to be willing to change our ways and rethink how we care for creation. We need to move away from a model of apathy to a care which is deep and compassionate. We need to think bigger than recycling, bolder than turning of a light. We need to start rebuilding the foundations, even if we have no idea what the ceiling will look like. We need to reimagine what it means to live in a way which cares for one another, our homes, and the planet. This may take time, and it won’t be easy, but it is what we must do. For our house in on fire but it is still not too late to act.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Our passage from Joel reminds us that our salvation does not simply come from our repentance, but from God’s compassion. Therefore, in all our lament and repentance it is important to remember that it is not our action that redeems us but God’s grace. So, although we are called to care for creation and to repent communally, we are also reminded that it is God who saves us and it is God who redeems us. In the end our salvation does not come from our actions but from God’s love. 

When we come to the altar and receive ashes we are reminded not of our failed humanity, but of God’s redeeming love. We are reminded that there is a better path. There is a more worthy path. One which offers redemption for both us and the planet. We just need to be prepared to hear that call. What Joel reminds us is that our actions alone can never save us. It is only God’s grace that can do that.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. 

Greta Thunberg. 2019. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference.

Pope Francis. 2015. Laurdato si’ – On Care for our Common Home.

Challenge and Call: Do you love me?

“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Jesus asks three times if Simon Peter loves him in John 21. Three times Jesus commissions him to:

  • Feed my lambs
  • Tend my sheep
  • Feed my sheep.

Three times he asks Simon Peter if he loves Jesus.

Underneath these questions is a call to “Follow God”. To be taken by the hand and led into the unknown. Simon Peter is hurt by Jesus’ constant questioning, he doesn’t understand the call that his being placed upon him and yet he responds each time the same.

“Lord… I love you.”

This last year has been a whole heap of unknowns for Ashleigh and I. A year ago I joined with 21 pilgrims who yearn to see reconciliation and peace throughout the UK and Ireland. We had many moments of joy, but as we moved onto the next phase of our journey I realised that earthly reconciliation is only a temporary fix. A plaster, to cover the wound which can only be healed by the love of God.

Ashleigh, started her journey towards ordination. And after a couple of false starts she began training in September part time and has grown from strength to strength in her ministry. Reflecting the love God has for all people in deep and profound ways.

Yet, if that wasn’t enough we also answered a call to take up ministry in a new place, with a new flock. 50 days ago I was installed as Incumbent of St. Thomas, Norbury, and what a 50 days it has been.

We have seen over 1000 people come in and out of our building. We have mourned together at the loss of dear friends, while also celebrating and remembering the birth of Christ. We have danced and sang together, celebrating what is, but also sat pondered what is to come. It has been a hectic month and a bit, but that is part and parcel of God’s kingdom.

When Ashleigh and I look back on the last few months, we cannot believe what we have done. We know we are crazy, we know it has made our lives harder. But, we also know what motivates us, and it is the same love that motivated Peter.

When we began training for ministry we were very aware that life would not be easy. That there would be compromise and difficult decisions to make, but we decided to follow God’s call.

As I reflect upon Jesus’ question to Simon Peter, I cannot but help think that I’d be annoyed too. Annoyed that Jesus didn’t believe me, but then like Peter I would be missing the point. For just like Peter none of us know where we are being called. All we know is that we are being called through love. And the challenge is to show that love to others.

Jesus asks “do you love me?”

We are shocked by the places God’s love has shown up over the last few months and we are so excited to continue to follow it, wherever it may lead us. But, sometimes it is hard to remember who we are doing this for. It is easy to be caught up in the shiny or promising and forget the love which has called us.

The love which braved the darkest depths to call us home. The love which suffered the agony of the cross. We will not all face Peter’s call. Not everyone is expected to bare that particular cross. But we are all called out of God’s love.

I wonder where that love is calling you, and I wonder what your response would be to Jesus’ probing question.

“Do you love me more than these?”

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