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On being prepared

Many years ago I was working in Belgium for the year, and returned home briefly for a visit to the Spring Harvest Christian Conference. One of my reasons for being there was to act with a small theatre company called ‘Potters Clay’. Time for preparations was limited, and many of my lines had to be learnt whilst travelling. I have a distinct memory of standing in the wings still reciting my lines to myself for a sketch entitled ‘be prepared’! It was hard to escape the irony!

There are times, though, when you can be over-prepared, and allow risk aversion to drive you too much. Yesterday Borough Councils in England and Wales revealed the more bizarre requests made to them under the Freedom of Information act. My festive favourite is the request to Cheltenham Borough Council to state what they would do in the event of Santa’s fully laden sleigh crash landing in the Borough:

  • Who would rescue Santa?
  • Who would round up any stray reindeer?
  • Who would clear the crash site?

Interestingly, nothing was asked about contingency plans for present delivery – but I guess that is outside the purview of one local borough!

I am reminded of the chieftain in the Asterix books, Vitalstatistix, who lived in permanent fear of the sky falling on his head. Maybe there is a job for him in a Borough Council somewhere?


For a picture of how a sleigh crash might look you can  click here.

An amusing moment for Christmas

Often when I am preaching and want to illustrate the idea of ‘missing the point’, I turn to an old home video from someone who travelled to Cape Canaveral to watch an Apollo rocket launch. At the last moment, as the ground shook and the sky blurred with heat haze, it became apparent that they had trained their camera on a rocket which was not being launched, and they had spectacularly missed the point. If I ever need a Christmas illustration of the same thing, I reckon I might use the one below:

The Saxon Gospel

I first came across the Saxon Gospel or Heliand some eighteen months ago. I then touched on it briefly in the missions chapter of Who Needs Words. However, it has been awaiting a proper public airing, and will receive it at the midnight service on Christmas Even this year.

As you read the excerpts below there are a number of things to note. Firstly, there are oddities such as Mary adorning the child with precious jewels. Secondly, there is a real tenderness to the way God addresses his creatures. Thirdly, and most importantly of all, we see the Gospel dressed in the linguistic and cultural clothing of its age.  God is the Protector, Jesus is the great Chieftain, and the shepherds are horse-guards. Whenever we address full churches at the great festivals we need to take a leaf out of the Saxon Gospel’s book. We need to express the core of God’s message in the language and idiom of those who sit before us…even at midnight!



It was not long thereafter that it was all accomplished just as the almighty God had so often promised mankind – that he would send his heavenly child, his own son, to this world to free all the clans of people here from evil.  There in hill fort Nazareth the angel of God addressed her face to face, calling her by name and saying to her from God ‘health be with you Mary. Your lord is very fond of you. You are precious to the Ruler for your wisdom, woman full of grace.  You are to become the mother of our Chieftain here among human beings.’


At that time it all came to pass, just as wise men had said long ago: the Protector of People would come in a humble way, by his own power, to visit the kingdom of earth. His mother, that most beautiful woman, took him, wrapped him in clothes and precious jewels, and then with her two hands laid him gently, the little man, that child, in a fodder-crib, even though he had the power of God and was the chieftain of mankind.


What had happened became known to many over this wide world. The guards heard it. As horse-servants they were outside, they were men ion sentry-duty, watching over the horses, the beasts of the field. They saw the darkness split in two the sky, and the light of God came shining through the clouds and surrounded the guards in the fields.

Angel speaks

‘I am going to tell you’, he said, ‘something very powerful: Christ is  now born, on this very night, God’s holy child, the good chieftain, at David’s hill fort. What happiness for the human race, a boon to all men.. You can find him, the most powerful child, at Fort Bethlehem. He is there, wrapped up, lying in a fodder crib – even though he is king over all the earth and the heavens and over the sons of all the peoples, the ruler of the World.’

...and the Littlest Star

Readers of this blog who preach will appreciate the particular challenges associated with the last Sunday before Christmas. The traditional carols by candlelight service is a formulaic creature – certain songs must be sung, certain readings must be read, and a particular story must be told. The challenge when telling that story is to find an approach which is neither so straightforward as to be boring, nor so innovative as to be distracting.  The faithful want to hear the story again, and the Christmas visitors may want to know why they should take it seriously. Throughout last week I struggled to find my ‘angle’ on the story for this year. In the end, it struck me that the story of collaborative creativity and shared ‘ownership’ which is Littlest Star was precisely what I was looking for. In many ways the tweets below sumarise its lightning journey from concept to print and sale in 23 days:

During the course of those 23 days, one of the many remarkable things which happened is that a little story in my head ceased to be my story, and became instead the story of those who brought it to birth. It became the story of James and Annette and Libby and Chris and Diana and a host of others who were involved in bringing it out. When God ‘wrote the story’ of the world’s rescue, he involved others in it – from a frightened teenage girl and an overstressed publican to a group of shepherds and a posse of mystics from the wrong side of the religious tracks. God’s story became theirs, and in doing so it invaded the hearts of the human race

I finished last night’s sermon by setting out my long-awaited Oliver Farbel nativity set, pictured below. The artist himself describes it as  ‘a crib ensemble for the secularized mystic or wavering agnostic of our day’, but I am not so sure. Surely it is a crib scene for all of us? The characters are devoid of all race, age, ethnicity or adornment. Any of them could be any of us, and so the story becomes our story

Image: miggylikestheinternet

After the service was over, somebody commented that this nativity set looked like ‘Bible Jenga‘. If that means that it brought some presuppositions tumbling down, then I’m all for it!

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…





…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.


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.




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!


Richard Littledale

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