Monday, 30 December 2013

Joseph: Jesus' Dad on Earth

In theology school they tell us we are not supposed to mix together all the Christmas stories. Tonight I ignored that sage advice. It’s not Christmas eve without reading the story from Luke. I love Mary—how she treasures things in her heart, how she ponders all the events. It makes a great story. But of Joseph we hear very little. We had a Sunday where we sang all the hymns about Mary. But there are no hymns about Joseph. He is the unsung hero of the Christmas story. I’ve had a couple of people say to me to – well my husband really mention that Christmas isn’t all about Mary. So tonight both readings so we can hear about Joseph who is featured in Matthew’s gospel. Without Joseph our Christmas story would fall flat. One of the children when I asked who Joseph was said it so well during children’s time, “Joseph is Jesus’ dad on earth.” 
Joseph is important. The angel visited him too. Mary and Joseph were engaged but before they were living together. It wasn’t unusual in those days for engaged couples to live together before they were married. But this was before that. Joseph found out the Mary was with child. He, being the good guy that he was, didn’t want to embarrass her so he planned to send her away quietly. That night, the Holy Spirit visited him in his dreams. The angel said, “‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 
 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ (Matthew 1:20 – 23) And Joseph did just that. It was Joseph who went with Mary to Bethlehem. It was Joseph who found Mary a place to give birth to Jesus. It was Joseph who stayed at her side through it all. Without Joseph where would Mary have ended up? Mary would have been alone. 
Perhaps this is why Ann Weems writes a poem about Joseph. It called, “Who Put Joseph in the Back of the Stable?”
Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?
Who dressed him in brown,
put a staff in his hand,
and told him to stand
in the back of the creche,
background for the magnificent light
of the Madonna?

God-chosen, this man Joseph was faithful
in spite of the gossip in Nazareth,
in spite of the danger from Herod.
This man, Joseph, listened to angels
and it was he who named the Child

Is this a man to be stuck for centuries
in the back of the stable?

Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway
guarding the mother and child
or greeting shepherds and kings.

When he wasn’t in the doorway,
he was probably urging Mary

to get some rest,
gently covering her with his cloak,
assuring her that he would watch the Child.

Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms
and walked him in the night,
patting him lovingly
until he closed his eyes.

This Christmas, let us give thanks to God
for this man of incredible faith
into whose care God placed
The Christ Child.

As a gesture of gratitude,
let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable
where he can guard and greet
and cast an occasional glance
at this Child who brought us life.

On the eve of Jesus’ birth we give thanks for all those who made this journey possible. For Mary who pondered and treasured and bravely said, “Yes, let it be with me according to your word.” For shepherds who journeyed to Bethlehem to see the child who changes everything. For the wise men who travelled from a far off country, ignored Herod and returned by another way. And for Joseph who stayed by Mary side, who ensured the baby's safety, and most importantly was Jesus dad on earth. Thanks be to God. Amen.  

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Advent 3 She Walked in the Summer

Solo: Oliver Dingwell

1          She walked in the summer through the heat on the hill.

            She hurried as one who went with a will.

            She danced in the sunlight when the day was done.

            Her heart knew no evening who carried the sun.

(She Walked in the Summer, #12 Voices United, Miriam Therese Winter)


The incarnation of God is messy business. You never guess it based on the serene images of Mary so meek and mild in her flowing blue gowns and golden halos. For centuries in art Mary has been depicted as a model of perfection.  How can God entering the world be neat and easy? How can the person charged with bearing God into the world be meek and mild? It reminds me of all the books for new mothers that show mothers gentle cradling their babies on the cover. They don’t depict how you manage sleep deprivation or troubles with nursing or crying babies. That might us scare too much to become a parents. The poet Killian McDonnell imagines Mary’s story this way in his poem called In the Kitchen:

            Bellini had it wrong.

            I was not kneeling

on my satin cushion

silently at prayer

head slightly bent.


Painters always

skew the scene,

as if my life

were wrapped in silks,

and temple smells.


Actually I had just

come back from the well,

placing the picture on the table

I bumped the edge

spilling water on the floor.


As I bent to wipe

it up, there was a light

against the kitchen wall

as though someone had opened

the door to the sun.


Rag in hand

hair across my face,

I turned to see who was entering,

unannounced, unasked. 


All I saw

was light, white

against the timbers.

I heard a voice

I had never heard.

I heard a greeting,

I was elected,

the Lord was with me,

I pushed my hair back,

I stood afraid.

Someone closed the door.

And I dropped my rag.

(Killian McDonnel, Swift Lord You are Not page 46 – 47)


Solo: Oliver


2          Fresh as a flower at the first ray of dawn,

            she came to her cousin whose morning was gone.

            There leaped a little child in the ancient womb,

            and there leaped a little hope in every ancient tomb.

(She Walked in the Summer, #12 Voices United, Miriam Therese Winter)


The incarnation of God is messy business. Maybe Mary was in the kitchen going about her daily routines. We will never know. Here is what we do know. Mary was young – 13 or 14. The weighty theological term for Mary is “Theotokos.” Which quit literally means God bearer. Because Mary said yes to God and she bore God’s son into the world. This is how the bible describes it: An angel of the Lord appeared to her. Not in a dream. Not in her imagination. But in person and says, “Greetings, favoured one. The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28) Now I don’t know about any of you. But I think that I’d be shaking. This is unexpected and confusing and probably scary. To reassure Mary, the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” (Luke 1:30)


Then the angel tells Mary that she has a special calling. Unmarried, young and she was going to conceive a baby by the Holy Spirit.  “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.” (Luke 1: 31 – 32) Many people would have run away because it is such an unbelievable story. I sometimes wonder how many people turned down this offer from the angel. It was Mary who had the courage to say yes, to say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)


Solo: Oliver

3          Hail, little sister, who heralds the spring.

            Hail, brave mother, of whom prophets sing.

            Hail to the moment beneath your breast.

            May all generations call you blessed.

(She Walked in the Summer, #12 Voices United, Miriam Therese Winter)


The incarnation of God is messy business and that’s good news for us. God enters the world with all its messiness, with all its imperfection, with all its failings and offers us a gift like no other – God own self wrapped up in human form. When God’s love comes in the world, it takes courage and faith to follow and to trust that love. There is nothing meek or mild about Mary. Bellini may have had it wrong but David Wynne got it right with his statue at Ely Cathedral. Mary still in blue but this time a vibrant blue. There is no golden halo. She stands with her arms stretch upwards and open to God – standing strong for whatever comes next. Ready to ponder the meaning of her son’s birth. Ready for the day Jesus disappears and heads for the temple. When Mary finally finds him, he says, “Well duh, Mom where did you think I’d be?” Ready for the worst of day of all as Jesus hangs on the cross. Ready to be overwhelmed by the joy of his rising.


The good news for us is that God is here with us in our best moments and in our worst moments giving us courage for what lies ahead. As we prepare once again for Jesus’ birth, pause to give thanks for those who made it possible. For Joseph who walked with Mary. For the shepherds who dared to leave their flocks to see what the angels were talking about. For the Magi who travelled from a far off country, who were brave enough to ignore Herod’s command to return to him and instead go home by another way. And for Mary, for her faith and courage as she bravely said, “Here I am. The servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to you word.” (Luke 1:38) Mary Theotokos. God bearer. Mary brings us a saviour, Emmanuel. God with us.


Solo: Oliver

4          When you walk in the summer through the heat on the hill,

            when you're wound with the wind and one with Her will,

            be brave with the burden you are blessed to bear,

            for it's Christ that you carry everywhere,

                        everywhere, everywhere.

(She Walked in the Summer, #12 Voices United, Miriam Therese Winter)

Advent 2 -- The Prophets

            The Sunday of John the Baptist is always the most challenging Sunday for preachers during Advent. We don’t expect to hear his harsh words at this time of year. In this Advent/ Christmas time of year we expect to hear words of hope and peace. That is part of the magic of this season. I love the lights and the Christmas movies. People are more generous. There is so much to love about this time of year. And we are filled with expectations for each other, our families and our community. Then we come to church and hear the gospel reading and instead of hope, peace, joy, love and we hear “Repent!”

But if we are being honest about this time of year it is not always easy for people. I think of the people who don’t have enough money to buy food let alone gifts. For parents, or at least this parent, it can be challenging as the excitement builds to maintain some normal routines. Advent, the season leading up to Christmas can be difficult for so many other reasons. A loved one is away from home. You or someone you care about is sick or dying. Or perhaps there’s been a death of a loved one tints the season with sadness. Or maybe there is a private burden that you can’t find the words to talk about. This season of joy can also be hard for so many.

            Those Christmas movies I love, sell us short on the fullest or deepest meaning of this season. It’s not all tree lights, festive parties and family gatherings. It is about preparing the way of the Lord. It’s about what God did in Jesus and the coming of God’s kingdom. The promise of the prophet Isaiah is that “A shoot shall come out form the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Righteousness shall be a belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb. …They will not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:1, 6, 9)

            Isaiah shares with the people who are like that stump with no hope that God promises a future where peace will reign. God promises a day when there will be harmony among the nations. The promise of a world remade in God’s image is what drove John the Baptist out into the wilderness crying out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:3)

            Prophets are hard to listen to. They tell us things that we don’t want to hear. The call us to live in new ways. When John says “Repent” he is not talk about saying I’m sorry but how to turn to something new. Repent is like an invitation do and see things in a new way.  

            Prophets don’t only live on the pages of the bible. There are modern day prophets – like Martin Luther King, like Mother Teresa, like Ghandi. They all called for a turn from oppression and suffering to justice, mercy, compassion and love. This week the world lost another prophet. Nelson Mandela called for, demanded, invited and led the way to the end apartheid. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote, "I have no epiphany, no singular destiny, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people."

What is more amazing is that after all those years in prison, when he finally had the power seek vengeance for all that had been done to him and for that system that imprisoned his people. He could have done it. Instead he called for reconciliation – a far harder path. It reminds me of Isaiah words, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:6, 9)

Nelson Mandela started the work and it is now ours to carry on as we find ways to live into the promise of all God’s people living together in peace, with justice for all and compassion for all God’s children. That is the true gift of Christmas – a world remade in God’s image.

            It is a gift that transforms the world and individual lives. Barbra Lundblad writes “There is a man on my street I've known for years. We often met in the morning at the newsstand. Then, his wife died -- forty-two years together changed to loneliness. I watched him walking, his head bowed, his shoulders drooping lower each day. His whole body seemed in mourning, cut off from everyone. I grew accustomed to saying, “Good morning” without any response. Until a week ago. I saw him coming and before I could get any words out, he tipped his hat, “Good morning, Reverend. Going for your paper?” He walked beside me, eager to talk. I could not know what brought the change that seemed so sudden. Perhaps, for him, it wasn't sudden at all, but painfully slow. Like a seedling pushing through rock toward the sunlight. There must have been an explanation, yet he appeared to me, a miracle.” (

In this season of watching and waiting, let us listen to the words of the prophets who call us to live out our faith by following in the footsteps of Jesus. His earth shattering, world changing ministry changed lives and communities. Jesus reordered the world around him and transformed lives with the gifts of welcome, healing and wholeness. Do you hear the prophet calling you? Let us prepare the way of the Lord! Amen.  

Advent 1

I want you to imagine the desert around Jerusalem. For miles you can see nothing but sand in various shades of tan. The desert is not flat but hills and mountains of sand.  In the Godly Play stories that are told in the sand we are reminded that the desert is a dangerous place and people only go there if they have to. It is dry. There is no water and without water we die. It is cold at night and by day it is hot and the sun burns your skin by day. When the wind blows the mountains of sand change their shape and it is easy to get lost. The desert is indeed a dangerous place.

      But that is not all that happens in the desert. In the early days of the church, the church Fathers and Mothers went to the desert to draw closer to God. Jesus was in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights following his baptism. The desert is where God’s people wandered for 40 years as they journeyed to the Promised Land. With one rainfall the desert is transformed into a sea of beauty as the desert wildflowers bloom in every colour of the rainbow. The desert is dangerous but it is also significant.

      Isaiah knows about the desert and the amazing beauty when it blooms. If you read Isaiah in sequence, todays comes as a total surprise.  So much of what Isaiah has to say is about doom and gloom. And then we get this beautiful passages promising something new, something different. In chapter 34 Isaiah is talking of destruction and desolation. And then, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom abundantly, and rejoice with singing.” (Isaiah 35:1 – 10)

      Good news is like that isn’t? It doesn’t come at the expected moment. There is no time to get ready for it. One minute is ordinary and then… “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; …for waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; he burning sand shall be come a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water; … a highway shall be there called the Holy Way; …they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighting shall flee away.” Isaiah 35:5 – 8, 10)

      From desolation to great joy in a heartbeat. We know that it doesn’t always happen like that but every now and then joy breaks through. Barbara Lundblad, shares this story:

      “For many years Chuck Campbell taught preaching at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He required students in one of his classes to lead worship and preach at the Open Door Shelter for homeless people in downtown Atlanta. One day he was leading worship in front of the shelter, amid the noise of rush-hour traffic. After the call to worship and a song, Chuck’s plans were interrupted. “I noticed one homeless man waving to me and pointing to himself. I was surprised when I saw him for the man can neither hear nor speak and is normally very reserved.

But there he was, eager to do something. He stepped into the middle of the circle, bowed his head in silence, and began to sign a hymn for us. It was beautiful, like a dance… In that moment our notions of ‘abled’ and ‘disabled’ were turned upside down. The rest of us had been shouting to be heard, but the noise was no problem for our friend…Our worship became a token of the resurrection in the midst of the powers of death, a glimpse of God’s beloved community.” Even Isaiah couldn’t have imagined the glory of that moment in downtown Atlanta as the hands of the speechless were singing for joy!” (

Sometimes that highway – that Holy Way for God’s people breaks into our ordinary days and something extraordinary happens. That’s what happened with the shepherds in our Christmas story. The shepherds in the fields watching the flocks. Perhaps they were sitting at the fire trying to stay warm. Maybe one of the shepherds was keeping watch while the others were by the fire. It was an ordinary day for ordinary shepherds. But it didn’t stay that way for long. An angel of the Lord stands before them and the light of God’s glory was all around them and they were terrified. Knees shaking, heart pounding fear because this is not something that you expect when you are in a field, taking care of sheep or really ever as we got about our daily routines.

“Don’t be afraid” says the angel, “I bring good news for all. As saviour is born and you will find him in a stable wrapped in bands of closing lying in a manger.” And then, and then more angels – a multitude of angels singing, “Glory to Godin the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”

We’ve heard the story – we know what happens but every year it is amazing. God’ breaks into the world and changes everything. That is what advent is all about, waiting, watching hoping, looking, remembering that Emmanuel – our God with us, comes in the ordinary moments of life and changes everything.

After that day the shepherds are changed. How can they go back to watching their flocks by night? The glory of the Lord shone around them and it was like waters in the wilderness and streams in the desert. God still breaks into ordinary moments in our lives and in our world in amazing ways. Sometimes it’s hard to see, sometimes it’s there but we just can’t or won’t see it.

Today it happens as we gather at the table to share gifts of bread and wine. God comes to us in ordinary gifts bread, wine and reminds us that our Emmanuel, our God with us, our Jesus is with us calling us, blessing us to be God’s people in the world. Amen.