A word from the vicar (2020-2021)

Candles

The season of Advent (December 2021)

Advent is a season that is very easy to misunderstand. Because it precedes a certain major festival, and because of the popularity of Advent calendars; it is commonly assumed to be simply a countdown to Christmas. Or, to give it a religious spin, a season of anticipation as we prepare to again celebrate the birth of Jesus. Even our Advent wreaths in Church might create this same impression (we light the final candle on Christmas Day). Many of the words we use in this season can also affirm this same incomplete view of Advent; waiting, watching, hoping, expecting, preparing... they could all be applied to Christmas-lovers at this time of year.

But as most of you reading this will know, Advent is primarily a season of waiting, watching and preparing for the return of Jesus – not this time as a baby, but as the victorious king, the righteous judge, and the redeemer of creation. This 'second coming' is not one we can accurately countdown to because "about that day or hour nobody knows... but the Father" (Matt. 24.36). But what the real meaning of Advent loses in terms of the certainty of its arrival, it more than makes up for in its significance.

This half-term I've been talking to the children at school about two very different kinds of hope. The first kind of hope is the hope that has the potential to disappoint. I might hope for a Liverpool season ticket this Christmas, but the likelihood is that I'll have to continue watching the Terriers (apologies Town fans!) Less trivially, the recent COP26 summit might have left us with a hope that a climate catastrophe can be avoided, but can any of us be certain that the promises made there will be kept or the targets that were set, achieved? Hope such as this is not bad; we might describe it as 'positive thinking' which is a far healthier state of mind than its opposite. But the point is that this first kind of hope is not something we can be completely confident in. Bing Crosby might have got the White Christmas that he dreamt of, but we might be disappointed if we hope for the same.

But the second kind of hope - the Advent hope - is something in which we can be certain. Jesus will return; the earth will be renewed; there really will be an end to suffering, mourning, and death. How can we be so sure? Because God's promises never fail. The Old Testament is filled with prophecies about the coming of God's Messiah; with the benefit of hindsight, we can find clear references to Christ's birthplace, his miraculous conception, his ministry, his betrayal, his death, his resurrection and his ascension. If God was right about all this, why should we doubt his promises about Christ's return?

Of course, knowing that Jesus will return - but not knowing when - presents us with a challenge. We need to ensure that we are watching and waiting, primed and prepared - like the bridesmaids with enough oil to fuel their lamps until the bridegroom arrives. So Advent is also a time of introspection, of examining our life and our faith. Are we ready for the bridegroom? And have we shared the hope that he is coming with those who aren't yet aware? Sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ is the best gift that any of us could give this or any year. Ian

The deep joy, peace, and hope of knowing Jesus (April 2020)Bradley St Thomas' Church

So here we are: schools all-but-closed, supermarket shelves empty, many of us self-isolating, and Church worship services suspended indefinitely. I don’t think that even a month ago, with China in the situation it was then, we could have possibly imagined this scenario in our own country.

In many ways it is very difficult for us as a Church to focus on anything beyond caring for those people whose heath and finances may be affected by this crisis, and ensuring that somehow, we are able to facilitate our congregation’s (and perhaps our wider community’s) need to engage with God through these uncertain months.  I am encouraged to know that these things will happen with or without my leadership because there is a strong emphasis on praying and caring for one another in our Churches and I thank God for you all.
God is undoubtedly calling us to love and care and share and pray during this crisis, but I believe he wants us to be more than just a spiritual emergency service, giving our time and our resources to those in need. I believe he also wants us to demonstrate the deep joy, peace, and hope that comes from knowing Him: a joy, peace, and hope that no disaster can take away. God calls us to be His distinctive people so that others will be drawn to Him. Jesus instructs us to “let our light shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5.16). Doing good deeds, yes, but also letting our light shine; the light that reveals in us the deep joy, peace and hope that comes only from walking with Jesus.

Perhaps you don’t feel particularly joyful, peaceful, or hopeful at the moment. If that’s true of you there are two possibilities for why this might be:

Firstly, it may be that you are confusing ‘joy, peace, and hope’, with ‘happiness, fearlessness, and optimism.’ These are two very different sets of feelings. I don’t think any of us are happy, unfearful or optimistic about the next few months. We are bound to saddened by the impact of this disease on our nation and the world. It would be strange if we weren’t anxious about the future and naïve to be thinking that it will all blow over quickly. There’s nothing wrong in feeling these sorts of emotions in times of trouble. Jesus himself experienced sadness, fear and foreboding at various times.   But the joy, peace and hope that we have in Christ runs deeper than these very human surface feelings. Ultimately, as Christians, we know the joy of being loved by God, the peace that all things are in His hands, and the sure and certain hope that He will make all things new at His appointed time and that we will spend eternity in paradise with Him. 

The second reason that you may not be feeling very joyful, peaceful, or hopeful at the moment is that your relationship with Jesus needs some work. These deep spiritual emotions don’t come from habitual church attendance alone. They come through regular talking and listening to God in prayer, through studying his life-giving Word, through being filled with His Holy Spirit. They come as we more intimately know and love our God: Father, Son and Spirit.  There’s no shame in saying you’re not there yet. In truth, all of us need to strengthen our relationship with God. But there can be no doubt that the closer we are to Him, the deeper our joy, peace, and hope will be.

I spoke on the third Sunday in Lent (at Fixby and Cowcliffe) about the potential this virus has for creating a new search for God amongst those who don’t yet know Him. People who have for years put their trust in themselves, their jobs, and their bank-balances, may begin to look for something or someone more secure. The Church must be there to meet this need and to guide people towards Jesus. No-one will be expecting us to be deliriously happy, stoically fearless, or wildly optimistic; but people will be searching for hope, for peace, and for a deep joy.  Let’s deepen our own relationships with God so that they be able to find Him, and these things, through us. Ian

Barnum

Lent with the Greatest Showman (March 2020)

As I'm sure most of you are aware by now, our Lent course this year is based on the film musical the Greatest Showman which is based very loosely on the life of PT Barnum. In the film Barnum is portrayed as a dreamer, an entertainer, and a philanthropist. The pursuit of his dreams causes him to briefly lose sight of what is important, but essentially Barnum is presented as a good man in an otherwise morally dubious world.

In reality, Barnum (1810-1891), was very much part of this morally dubious world. His critics accused him of doing everything possible to line his own pockets and he is widely acredited with coining the phrase "there's a sucker born every minute to describe his customers. His circus, Barnham and Bailey, did include the exhibiting of "human curiousities” such as the diminutive Tom Thumb but the extent to which he sought to present them as 'a celebration of humanity' is certainly open to debate. That said, Barnum also served as a politician and campaigned against slavery in the United States. Credit must be given to him for this, at least.

As we approach Easter again it is worth remembering that Christ's arrest and execution was also the case of a man misrepresented. Only this man's life was defamed rather than sugar-coated. Those who accused Jesus said He was guilty of blasphemy and sedition, and that He fraudulently claimed to be the king of the Jews, the Messiah, and even God's Son. His words were twisted to make Him appear deluded: "we heard him say this temple would be destroyed and that He would rebuild it in three days" (Mark 4.28). He was also accused with outright lies: "he forbade us to the pay the Temple Tax to Caesar" (Luke 23.2).

Jesus said little in his defence except to acknowledge that His accusers where not at all mistaken in saying that He was a king, the Messiah, and the Son of God. What good would it have done him to try and explain what he meant by rebuilding the Temple? What good would it have done him to reprise his teaching of "give to Caesar what is Caesar's"? His accuses has already decided to have him put to death (Mark 3.6).

Instead, Jesus went silently - "like a lamb to slaughter" - to the cross. It was the greatest injustice in history and yet it was God's will that He did so. In dying on the cross as a completely innocent man, Jesus defeated sin, death and the devil and took upon himself the mistakes and wrongdoings of you, me and all humandkind. His resurrection pointed towards our salvation and the redemption of the Earth itself.

Our redemption is the theme of the final week of our lent course. Before that we'll look at our hope, our calling, our identity and our temptation. These themes are all raised in The Greatest Showman though we'll discover that words like hope, identity and redemption have very different meanings in a Christian context.

We'll be looking Barnum and the other characters in the film as they are portrayed on screen rather than what they were really like. But we'll be firmly holdiing on to the true identity of Jesus: the Son of God, the saviour of the World, our Lord and our redeemer.              lan

Light Shine"Let your light so shine before others..." (February 2020)

This month's reflection has been written by Marc, our student from the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield, who was on placement with us in January. Marc is also a lay brother at the Community of the Resurrection. It has been a real blessing to have him with us. Enjoy!

On February 2nd, the Church mark's the principal feast' of Candlemas: The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This is a wonderful festival in which the Church has traditionally blessed lighted candles as a symbol of Jesus, who shows us God himself; the true light of humanity and of the whole creation. The blessed candles are then often kept throughout the whole year as a reminder that Christ, our light, is always with us. As Archbishop Sentamu says, “We are an Easter people and 'alleluia' is our song!"

The feast of Candlemas has a definite biblical precedent. It is celebrated in commemoration of Mary's purification in the temple at Jerusalem, which, as a Jewish mother, she would have undergone thirty-three days following the circumcision of her son. This was a mitzvah or commandment of the Jewish law as recorded in the book Leviticus in the Hebrew scriptural portion of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch. (Lev. 12.) These five books, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus; Numbers and Deuteronomy are texts we share with our Jewish brothers and sisters; they remind us as Christians of our ancient roots in the Jewish faith.

Significantly, Candlemas serves as a mini Passover, when we recall from the book Exodus how the Spirit of the Lord 'passed-over the houses whose door-posts were covered in the blood of a sacrificed year-old male lamb, so that their first-born sons would not be killed by Pharaoh's army. (Exodus 12.)

Easter is the Christian version of this commemoration festival, because it is the gathering-up of our whole new identity in the person of Jesus - himself the 'showing of God - from our Jewish ancestors' crossing of the Red Sea, through forty years in the wilderness to the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and the first Covenant made with God under Moses. Jesus Christ it is the light of God - whose blood is the seal of the New Covenant (Testament) and the true Easter (Passover) sacrifice. Candlemas is a prefiguring of the Easter which is to come following the forty wilderness days of Lent which we will keep in a few weeks' time. It is a Mini-Easter - Pascha - Passover, because it reminds us of the fulfilment of God's promises which are both coming to us in Jesus, and yet are already here in his Incarnation and Epiphany: God's revelation of Godself to the world for the salvation - the saving of the world.

"Christ, be our light/Shine in our hearts/Shine through the darkness.../Shine in your Church, gathered today." St John reminds us, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn. 1:5.) How will you let your Christ-light so shine before others in this feast-time of Candlemas, that all may see it, rejoice in what love can do and give glory to your Father in heaven?

Your brother in Christ, Marc. (COR Mirfield.)

fireworks

Happy New Year? (January 2020)

As fireworks around the globe welcomed in a new decade, I couldn't help but reflect that many people in the world are entering the 2020s with some trepidation. There is a growing recognition that not only is climate change a reality, but also that its effects are already upon us. Wildfires are raging in Australia and elsewhere in the world, not only threatening lives and habitats, but also greatly reducing our precious forests and adding to the world's carbon output. Sea levels rising, more extreme weather, food shortages, and mass migration are just some of the likely consequences of increased global warming.

in our own country we wait anxiously for the seemingly certain arrival of Brexit and wonder how it might impact our economy and our society. Things we have relied upon for decades such as the National Health Service and anti-biotics are no longer certainties for our future. And I know that within our own Churches, many are facing significant challenges; especially with regard to their health or the health of a loved one.

Of course, a new year brings hope as well as anxiety. Many of us will be looking forward to weddings, births, holidays, or other exciting events. I'm even hopeful that 2020 will see Liverpool win a first league title for thirty years! But the overwhelming sense I have is that this decade will present the world and us, its occupants, with a range of difficult challenges.

Should we fear? As Christians we should not. Whatever problems we and the world may face this year and this decade; we hold on to the truth that God is sovereign, He is working his purposes out, and we - His people -are under His protection. But whilst we should not fear, we are right to be concerned. How can we not be as we see the world in the state it is, and as injustice, violence and immorality abounds? We are called to pray, make Jesus known, and play our own small part in standing up for creation and against all forms of wickedness.

And I can't help but feel that there is ever more urgency in this calling. Whilst the Bible is clear that no one knows the hour of Christ's return, we are told to watch out for the signs of his coming. In Revelation chapter 8 we read that Jesus return will be preceded by a third of all the trees being burnt up (8.7), a third of all the living creatures of the sea dying (8.9), and a third of the fresh water in the world becoming undrinkable (8.11). Nobody knows whether these events will be brought on by global warming or indeed whether they are meant to be taken literally. But they might very well be consequences of climate change and perhaps the process has already begun.

But far from being downbeat, now is the Churches' chance to shine most brightly. In a time of uncertainty and fear we have a message of truth and salvation. And we know that however bad things get in the world Jesus will return and will make all things new. Let us not shirk from the task. Let's talk about the gospel with renewed a passion and urgency. Let's pray for the world through tears and with hope. And let's pray fervently for the day of Christ's coming - Come Lord Jesus!       lan