On Christmas morning small children (and perhaps some not so small) will be waking up early to see what Father Christmas has brought them. Squeals of laughter and joy will ring around the house as they drag bleary eyed parents out of bed to watch them unwrap their presents. There is nothing quite like the sense of wonder, joy and eager anticipation of a small child on Christmas morning. Parents too (once awake), begin to enjoy the festivities, as they relax with family and friends throughout the day, celebrating with the traditional slices of turkey, Christmas pudding and cake. Perhaps this little introduction seems a little ‘rose-tinted’ and ‘sugar coated’ conveniently turning a blind eye to the sadness that some feel at Christmas and over-looking much of the world’s present suffering, but then, our society often promotes Christmas somewhat nostalgically as a ‘time-out’ – a time to escape the bleakness of the present, and to affectionately remember past joys combined with dreams of a better future. Perhaps the greatest examples of this, this Christmas, have been the television commercials for John Lewis and Sainsbury’s. The first encourages us to celebrate the innocence of childhood and cherish the wonderful imagination of a small boy. The second most poignantly encourages us to reflect upon the essential goodness of the human spirit, which overcomes adversity and even war as epitomised in the ‘Christmas Day truce’ of soldiers during the First World War. Not only do these commercials convey a sense of nostalgia, they use ‘Christmas’ to help lift our spirits and encourage us to think positively about who we are, our place in the world and what sort of world and values we aspire to (hopefully celebrated and endorsed by a suitable purchase from their respective stores).
Many no doubt, will treat ‘Christmas in Church’ nostalgically too – as simply another aspect of the traditional Christmas designed to lift our spirits and promote the concept of ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all men’. They would be surprised then to discover that it’s perfectly possible to celebrate Christmas without really understanding it. The Bible is perfectly clear about this; “the light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it”(John 1.4). Christmas is about “the true light” stepping into the world, but the “world did not receive him” (John 1.11). The Christian knows that Christmas isn’t simply about little boys and girls being ‘good’, it’s about putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ who died precisely because none of us could ever be quite good enough. Yes the world can be very dark at times. How strange then, that so many should perhaps turn their backs on the one who is able to transform its nature and fill it with light and life! If we really want to be able to celebrate Christmas, then we need to look past all the sugar coated nostalgia and tinsel and start to really unwrap the true meaning of Christmas as found in the person of Jesus Christ. That will make those presents a real joy and a morning worth getting up for! Wake up! It’s Christmas!
“To all those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” John 1.12
On Saturday 11th October a small coach party left Necton on a trip to London. The original intention was to take the members of our church youth group to London to see the sights and play a Monopoly style treasure hunt game where the youngsters (having been split into two teams of boys against girls), had to follow various clues to famous landmarks and take a ‘selfie’ of their team at each place to prove that they were actually there. In order to make the coach trip a little more affordable we opened our invitation to other members of the congregation who might like to come with us. Naturally, as youth group leaders we all hoped that we would have a great day out and a lot of fun (which we did!), but it was also hoped that our trip would spark a moment of reflection, because we were deliberately starting our day at the Tower of London in order to see the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red art installation situated there. The artwork consists of a huge display of ceramic poppies progressively filling the Tower’s famous moat from the 5th August to 11th November – 888,246 poppies to be exact, each one representing a British serviceman killed in action during the First World War. Of course 888, 246 poppies is a huge number of poppies, and a number which is difficult to comprehend or imagine until you see it symbolically laid out before you. When you do see it, it takes your breath away, and of course each poppy represents an individual, each with their own poignant story to tell, and each individual represents a grief stricken family which had lost some one in the service of their country. We may be marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War, but the pain felt by each family then was just as acute as any that might be felt today; and of course the freedom that our youngsters enjoyed as they ran around London, and that enjoyed by each one of us in our daily lives is largely due to all those men and women who have served their country in two world wars and other such conflicts around the world. Their bravery and stubborn tenacity in the face of an overwhelming and fiercesome foe secured our freedom and the way of life we enjoy today. We had hoped to visit the Cenotaph in our travels, but unfortunately street protestors made that element of our trip impossible – and yet, of course freedom of speech and the right to protest is also a well won right and democratic freedom which we enjoy. Our day concluded back at the Tower in time to hear a ‘roll of honour’ and a bugle playing the Last Post, a sombre reminder that many people couldn’t return home as they had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Jesus said ‘that greater love has no-one than this, than he lay does his life for his friends” (John 15.13), a thought illustrated so vividly in the artwork at the Tower and in the lives of countless men and women who died in two world wars, and other conflicts, in the service of their country – but then you see, Jesus should know – from beginning to end the Bible tells us the story of another conflict, and another amazing battle for hearts and minds in the face of an overwhelming enemy. It’s the story of a pervading force called sin that destroys people’s lives and ultimately leads to their destruction, but it’s also the story of wonderful new life, love, joy, justice and peace born out of an act of tremendous bravery and self sacrifice. It’s the story of Jesus! Our coach party returned home from London with a new sense of gratitude and perspective on what had happened during the First World War and what was truly important. It’s my hope that as we remember with gratitude this Remembrance Sunday those who have served their nation and those who have died for it, we will also remember that greater story of which theirs is such a poignant echo, the story of Jesus whose life, death and subsequent resurrection has accomplished so much more for us than we can possibly imagine!
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’. John 3.16
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It is with profound irony that scholars can refer to Iraq as being part of the world known as ‘the cradle of civilisation’ because it is clear that nothing remotely civilised is coming from that part of the world today. The appalling barbarism that hails from the region in the name of Islam and the hope of setting up a “caliphate” (Islamic state) is truly shocking and no ‘civilised’ society should condone it. The plight of the Yazidi community stranded upon Mt Sinjar and the fall of Qaraqosh (the largest community of Christians in Iraq), each fleeing from the threat of imminent slaughter unless they convert to Islam, has shocked the world. The promise that “anyone who kills a Christian will go straight to heaven” (Archbishop Toma Dawod quoted in The Guardian) has not only appalled many but led to speculation that this might even be the end of Christianity in Iraq. This, combined with the countless stories of men, women and children being executed, while others, women especially, are kidnapped, stolen and sold into slavery has left the world stunned – and embarrassed the many devout moderate Muslims who can’t equate what they see on the ground with their religious faith. It has to say something about the extreme level of violence when even Al-Qaeda feels compelled to disown the ‘Islamic State’ formally known as ISIS.
Appreciating all of the sensitivities relating to the recent history of the Iraq war and western reluctance to once again ‘put boots on the ground’, something has to be done. Humanitarian relief drops have been useful; American air-strikes have been pivotal, but it could be argued that it was Kurdish forces on the ground who ultimately prevented a Yazidi genocide – but for how long? If one accepts the premise that the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the withdrawal of Western forces left a power vacuum which was exploited by the extremists, then only a stable government acceptable to all sides has any chance of pushing the Islamic State back and securing a lasting peace for Iraq as a whole. Unfortunately, it may already be too late for that and the Kurds especially may favour the breakup of Iraq and the establishment of their own autonomous region.
However, the idea that people can be compelled by force to change their religion is a false one – because anything that is done by force only serves to breed resentment and alienates one from the very philosophy being espoused. If one has to be forced into adopting a particular faith or religion then you have already lost the argument and with it the moral high ground. Certainly, in the case of the ‘Islamic State’, one can’t help but feel that the true motivator is not the spreading of personal conviction but the gaining of mass control; it’s not the building of faith that matters but the spreading of fear. It’s the gaining of absolute power which we see before us and as we already know from the old adage, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. This philosophy is completely at odds with Christianity, which speaks of each person being made in the ‘image of God’ and loved by him. A God in fact, who loved the world so much that he was prepared to die for it in the person of Jesus. Therefore, life is sacred and not something to be easily dispensed with or cut down at a stroke. Even by Islamic standards the faith pedalled by the extremists is a corruption and a lie, whereas Jesus had described his teaching as the truth, not a truth that would bring hurt, heartache or pain, but a truth that would set people free (John 8.32). It was a truth that brought love, joy, grace, hope and peace into the world – doesn’t that sound civilised to you?
‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’ John 10.10