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A chorus of dissent

One month after the flash mob hallelujah chorus in a shopping mall near Niagara – someone tried it again yesterday, with unfortunate consequences.  An invitation to join in  with the event went viral via Facebook and over 5000 would be choristers turned up at the Westfield Galleria in Roseville California.  After a serious fire caused major damage to the mall in October of this year, the event should have been a pleasant way to erase that memory. However, as singers assembled ready to begin, ‘popping’ sounds were heard from the floor supports and emergency services evacuated the mall.

 

Photo: CNN

Clearly this was a shame for both singers and shoppers.

It makes you wonder, though – if Facebook and Twitter had existed when Jesus was born – would the shepherds have been unable to get into the stable because of the crowd already assembled?

The night of the radishes

In Oaxaca in Mexico the knives will be out right now in time for the annual Night of the Radishes on December 23rd . Ever since Dominican Friars introduced vegetable growing to the region five centuries ago, local producers have shown amazing skill in carving these vegetables into elaborate scenes from local folklore and the nativity story, as pictured below.

The radishes themselves are grotsquely swollen (sometimes weighing up to a kilo each) and ugly – and yet in skilled hands with the right knife they can be transformed into objects of amazing intricacy and intrigue.

Lots of scope here for talking about God’s transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary on Christmas night,I reckon.

Just raided the fruit & vegetables section of the local supermarket to make sure that everyone gets a radish when they arrive at the midnight service on Friday…

 

Photo: amazingdata.com

Photo: blogmakezine.com

 

How differently similar…

Someone speculated to me the other day about how different the first Christmas might have been if social media had been invented.  I suppose in some ways it might.  Word would have got around sooner, that’s for sure.  People would have been able to track the star more easily, and the shepherds would doubtless have posted their experiences online as the “returned glorifying God”.  Other things would have been the same though.

Mary would still have felt frightened and Joseph would still have felt inadequate.  When the great day came a mixture of awe and anxiety would have descended on the proud parents as it does around any crib.  Those summoned to make their way to the birth of the young  king would still have wondered what to take and what they might find when they got there. Plus ca change…

Whilst comparing the differences…and similarities, enjoy this ‘digital nativity, from Portugal.

…what the wise men bring

Today on the wonderful @natwivity the wise men are really getting into their stride. They are looking up (at the star)  saddling up (the camels – including the dubiously named ‘Carl’) and setting off (for Bethlehem).

Theirs are the parts that little boys always want to play in the nativity play (wardrobe incidents not withstanding). They get to wear great costumes, carry expensive looking gifts, and rarely have to learn any lines.

As we grow up with the story we learn to appreciate their role in the drama of Christ’s birth too.  Coming from such a distance – both geographically and spiritually, they emphasise the global enormity of Christ’s birth.  By turning up at the baby shower, even a few days late, they fulfil long held prophecies concerning the Messiah’s arrival. As Isaiah had predicted “kings will be drawn to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60 v.2)

Some years ago at a family nativity service the wise men entered the church to the majestic strains of Aaron Copland’s ‘fanfare for the common man‘ . Someone afterwards queried how appropriate this was – given Copland’s Jewish roots and humanist stance. In my view it could not have been more appropriate as a fitting  fanfare for the arrival of unexpected and unlikely guests at the nativity scene.

I have another week to go until I preach on these men at a carol service featuring artistic depictions of the story from distant Ethiopia. My question is this – how to honour their story without sentimentalizing it? How do we extract the lessons of their persistence and humble worship for a Christmas congregation who will not all be Christians?

Suggestions welcome…

…theft of baby Jesus?

Just spotted this label on a beautiful wooden nativity set in a local charity shop.

 

Thankfully the staff were gracious enough to spot the unintentional irony. All the same, makes you think, though – doesn’t it?

One of my favourite expressions for an object which is useless is “as much good as a chocolate fireguard”. Not sure “as much use as the nativity without Jesus” will ever catch on. Even so…

Tales of the unexpected

Preaching through a series on ‘tales of the unexpected’ in the run up to Christmas, and last night it was the turn of Herod and those around him.  I decided on a narrative approach, and reproduce it here in case you find it helpful.

_____________________

The sound of the messenger boy’s footsteps outside the door made the scholars jump.  In fact, if truth were told, everything, everywhere made people in the city jump just now.  Ever since a rumour had started of strangers asking about a new king in town ‘his majesty’ in the palace had been on edge.  Every bang might be the fall of an axe on another unfortunate neck. Every squeaking door might be the sound of another man or woman whose face didn’t fit ‘disappearing’ at the hands of the secret police.  People had been hiding, here in the palace – even in plain view. No-one caught anyone else’s eye. People scurried down stone corridors with their eyes firmly fixed on the floor.  No opinions were voiced, no advice offered.  The king’s temper was a pile of brittle bracken, dried to perfection by the latest gossip, and no-one wanted to be the spark to set it alight.

BANG, BANG, BANG

A summons – this could not be good.  Men like them – keepers of the ancient tradition and readers of the ancient scrolls were only window dressing here. Herod only kept them about the place, like peacocks on a country estate – for show.  They were part of the Jewish décor, local colour to make him fit in – as if he ever could.

And now they stood before him – trying not to show that they trembled.  The king’s voice was remarkably calm, horribly calm in fact – like the dainty hiss of a sibilant serpent before delivering its venom.  “Where” he asked…”where is your Christ to be born”?

They looked at each other – terrified to answer lest the question were a trick. Could it really be that simple?  With all the tension emanating round the palace and all the rumours weaving through the streets like smoke from some noxious bonfire – could that really be all he needed to know?  Why, that was easy. With one voice they chorused “In Bethlehem, of course”.  And then deferred to the eldest one with the greyest hairs as he quoted the prophet’s words:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephratha are by no means least among the rulers of Judah”

A dark cloud passed across the king’s face as he dismissed them with a clap of his sweaty, meaty hands.  As they retreated down the corridor with the messenger boy trailing behind them, one said to the other “doesn’t everyone know that?”  “If you know it – why don’t you do something about it?” trilled the boy – and then ran away down a corridor before they could cuff his ear.

_____________

In the throne room, all alone, the light of the flickering torches on the walls played and danced across the king’s scowling face.  Unseen by anyone he balled and unfurled his fist time and time again.  He turned his hand over – as if to read his fortune…or his bloody history upon it.  The blood of his wife, her brother, his own mother and two of his sons was already indelibly stained there.  It had been the work of a moment to order their deaths – the godlike word of the king.  But the stain had lingered far far longer.  His throne was borrowed, from the Romans and the solid walls of his palace round about created only the illusion of power.  He was vulnerable and he knew it.  A king…on his doorstep?  Ancient mumbo-jumbo from the prophecies confirming the awful truth? Magi – mystic men with their incantations and their star charts asking awkward questions on the streets of his city?  His fist balled once again, involuntarily.  This had to be stopped.

“BOY”! he yelled – and the messenger boy skittered into the room as if racing over hot coals.  “Fetch those stargazers here within the hour or you’ll find yourself burning in Gehenna by nightfall”.  With that, the terrified boy ran from his presence before another curse rained down.

_____________

Sure enough, within the hour the three swished, rather than walked into the throne room behind the white-faced and terrified boy.  Their flowing robes and gorgeous colours seemed somehow out of place in this angular room with its drab stonework..  The king stepped down from his throne like a deity stooping to earth and greeted each effusively in turn as if keen to impress.  The warmth was short lived though…as he turned his back on them and settled in his throne again.

He had been briefed by someone in these dingy corridors and feigned some degree of comprehension as he asked about star tracks, heavenly movements and the planets.  There was anger, too, when they tried to keep some of their mystique from him and he erupted with a  string of questions:

But WHEN did it come?

And where?

And how long before you find this King?

The three began to shuffle awkwardly.  This was clearly not the king for whom they searched.  There was nothing regal about him.  In fact, he reeked of spite mingled with the smell of fear.  When at last he stopped his rant and told them to go and find the child king they were glad, so glad to leave.

Outside the throne room the messenger boy lingered as they wrapped their robes tighter for the onward journey.  He gazed at their creased and exotic faces, couldn’t help but sniff at the rich scent coming from the parcels they carried.  And smiled from ear to ear when one tousled his hair and pressed a golden coin into his hand as they left.

_______________

I went on to point out that the boy was pure invention – but that his open acceptance of what God was up to, as opposed to the inaction of some and the fears of others – is an attitude worth emulating.

 

Photo: tv-ark.org

Insights from Alfred Delp

One of the problems about preaching through Advent is that we are constantly talking about two advents, outlining two hopes, and setting our spiritual compass on two different horizons. On the one hand, we want to preach about the first Advent. We want to pit all our wit, creativity, prayerfulness and speech against the whelming tide of commercialism and nonsense which can sweep Jesus from the heart of his own story. On the other hand, as Bible students, we want to acknowledge the Bible’s own far greater concentration on the second Advent. On a verse for verse basis, the bible has far more to say about the return of King Jesus in glory than it does about baby Jesus in the manger.  And yet..

This morning I found myself reading some words by Father Alfred Delp, a young Roman Catholic priest executed by the Nazi regime in December 1945. Rarely have I read words by  a man so able to keep the two horizons together – and I pass a small selection of them onto you now:

They grey horizons must grow light. It is only the immediate scene that shouts so loudly and insistently. Beyond these things is a different realm, one that is now in our midst.

Advent is the promise denoting the new order of things, of life, of our existence.

Just beyond the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing.

 

Cracking!

Some years ago I attended a day on preaching Christmas with J John, which is where I first heard this idea.

Inside every cracker there is:

  1. A gift  (the gift of God’s son)
  2. A crown (who comes as king)
  3. A message (of God’s love for the world)

Each of these points can be expanded to fit the kind of congregation and setting you face.I have used it in both all age services and a carol service for adults with learning difficulties. The fun of pulling crackers seems to appeal to all and each person ends up with a gift, a crown and  a motto as a reminder.

Not only that – but the visual aids are really easy to buy too!

 

Batteries not included

As well as being the title of an old Disney film, this is also the shorthand description of many a child’s disappointment on Christmas morning. Out of the box comes the exciting toy with flashing lights and a range of sound effects – but it is silent on account of having no batteries. Alternatively it has a couple of rather cheaper batteries ready supplied which run out by the time Boxing Day comes around.

Christmas can be a profoundly disappointing experience for some. Once the presents are unwrapped, the crackers pulled, the food consumed – it all feels as useless and empty as a toy with dead batteries.

In Jesus God gives a gift which never runs out or stops working.

As you can see – I was fortunate enough to obtain some seriously big batteries from Duracell – but you can make the point just as easily with ordinary ones!

The advent crown

First Sunday of Advent today, and always a special moment when the first candle is lit on the advent crown. With it, adults and children alike begin the journey of anticipation and joy which counts down to Christmas. The trouble is, try as I might I can’t avoid referring to the ‘four candles’, and every time I do I am inadvertently reminded of the classic British comedy moment depicted below.

There’s nothing wrong with humour in church and in preaching. In fact, carefully used it can aid both attention and absorption. However, there are some points where it is less appropriate than others – and the solemn moment of heralding Advent’s beginning (with its welter of emotions) is probably one of them!  Does anybody else have the same problem with the four candles of Advent…or have I just created it for you?

Richard Littledale

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