Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Week 25: God's upside-down kingdom - coming in Jesus

‘Tree of Life’ (2009), Scott Rasman

Ezekiel 17:22-24

22-24 “‘God, the Master, says, I personally will take a shoot from the top of the towering cedar, a cutting from the crown of the tree, and plant it on a high and towering mountain, on the high mountain of Israel. It will grow, putting out branches and fruit—a majestic cedar. Birds of every sort and kind will live under it. They’ll build nests in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the field will recognize that I, God, made the great tree small and the small tree great, made the green tree turn dry and the dry tree sprout green branches. I, God, said it—and I did it.’”

* * *

Luke 1:39-55

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

A ‘cutting’ of tree wisdom: ‘Deck the Halls’ (Genny Tunbridge)

In the Christmas story, trees don't appear - unless shepherds sheltered beneath windswept trees on the hillside, or the manger-crib was made from rough logs, eyed critically by Joseph the carpenter. Yet for most of us today (Christians as much as anyone else) it's hard to imagine Christmas celebrations without a tree. What do they mean for us? For some it's about memories and family traditions - decorations brought out every year, some gifts, some hand-made reminders of children now grown up; or the expedition to select and bring home the tree.

The tradition goes back a long way. Fir trees with baubles are a relatively modern import (brought from Germany 200 years ago), but for many centuries before that in Britain and Northern Europe evergreen branches, particularly holly, were brought indoors to decorate for the midwinter festivities ('Deck the halls…') and great Yule logs (real ones, not chocolate-covered cakes!) were burned in fireplaces throughout the 12 days of Christmas. Evergreen leaves, and the light and warmth of burning wood, were both valued symbols in pre-Christian times representing the life and light of the sun, beginning to conquer the darkness after the winter solstice was past. When the early church adopted the winter festival to celebrate the birth of Jesus, these symbols of winter comfort and joy took on added layers of meaning as reminders of God's evergreen love and the light of Christ come into the world.

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.[1]

Real Christmas trees have a lower carbon footprint than artificial trees, particularly if locally sourced and responsibly disposed of. The National Trust #TreesUp campaign is inviting anyone to share photos of their decorated tree (or houseplant) and make a donation towards planting new trees:

‘The unchristmas tree’, by Rosie Miles & Nicola Slee

The unchristmas tree has no lights
except what filters through its spaces

no tinsel
except its own astringent needles

no star
except those caught in its branches

no presents
except the gifting of itself

The unchristmas tree costs nothing at all
except the grace to notice where it grows

Introduction to the theme (Al Barrett)

We’ve almost got there! Three weeks of Advent down, and Christmas is in sight. We’re also on Week 25 of our ‘Trees of Life’ journey of exploring and deepening, together, our Christian discipleship – the words we’ve used to describe the many different ways in which each of us, individually and collectively, tries to respond faithfully to God’s call to ‘seek justice, love with kindness, and walk humbly with our God’ (Micah 6:8). We’ve reached a natural stopping point – which is also an exciting new beginning!

Without regularly gathering all together, it’s been almost impossible to know what impact these reflections – written and spoken – over the last 9 months, have had on each and every one of you reading them and listening to them. I’ve had some feedback along the way, which has been really encouraging – but much of what we’ve shared has been a leap of faith, trusting that it will turn out to be helpful, in all kinds of ways that are hard to even imagine, let alone predict!

In the new year (starting on 3rd January), we’ll take up the journey once again, taking the time between Christmas and Pentecost (in late May) to walk with Jesus from his birth in Bethlehem, to his death in Jerusalem – and beyond death, on the freshly-trodden paths of resurrection life.

But for now, we’re on the cusp of that birth. Advent, the time of waiting and watching, is nearly over. The one we have been longing for, hoping for, is nearly with us, again and anew. The kingdom that, as the poet R.S. Thomas puts it, has for so long seemed ‘a long way off’, is within touching, breathing distance – and with it, perhaps, the possibility that our other deep hopes and longings might also find their fulfilment, even if not now, then in a time that is bearable – in God’s good time, we might say.

We have heard a lot, in the last few weeks, about both judgment and hope: both the cutting down of the ‘high and lofty’, and the raising up of tender, new, green shoots – even from tree stumps that seem dead and beyond hope. Today, those visions come within a hair’s breadth of becoming reality. For the prophet Ezekiel, the little cutting becomes a majestic tree, full of life – what begins as God’s promise (‘I personally will…’) turns into a done deal (‘I, God, said it – and I did it.’). And likewise, for the spirit-filled, prophetic Mary, what the prophets of her ancestors so often framed as a future coming, she (like her foremother Hannah many years before) announces as a present reality: ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’). The world has been turned upside-down. The kin-dom of God has arrived.

As the poet Jan Richardson puts it: ‘Mary knows that some things are so outrageous that sometimes we have to talk about them as if they have already happened in order to believe they could ever come about. And so if we believe that God has brought justice to the world, we live that justice, and we share in making the world more just. If we believe that God has brought healing to the world, we live that healing, and we share in making the world more whole.’

And how does Mary know? She knows because she has come to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and even as she calls her greeting, the child in Elizabeth’s womb has leaped for joy. She knows because the same Spirit that surrounded and brooded over her, has filled Elizabeth too: cousin greets cousin, prophet encounters prophet, unborn child recognises unborn child. The Holy Spirit, the breath of life, the wind of creation, the ‘Go-Between God’, stirs within fleshy bodies, between blessed and beloved servants of God, and for a moment, at least, the kin-dom of God has taken flesh, and joy abounds!

Jan Richardson again: ‘Hope starts small, even as a seed in the womb, but it feeds on outrageous possibilities. It beckons us to step out with the belief that the action we take will not only bear fruit but that in taking it, we have already made a difference in the world. God invites us, like Mary, to open to God’s radical leading, to step out with sometimes inexplicable faith, trusting that we will find sustenance.’

As we approach this Christmas – feeling separations sharply, longing for a ‘more’ that is, for the moment at least, out of reach – may we feel the wind’s breath on our cheeks, know the Spirit’s connecting power bridging our distances from each other, feel Mary and Elizabeth’s joy bubble up from deep within us, and find ourselves, if only for fleeting Moments, walking ‘haphazard by starlight’ (to use U.A. Fanthorpe’s breathtaking phrase) into the kin-dom of heaven.

Reflection (Gloria Smith)

In school, one of the skills small children are asked to do is to put a story into the correct sequence. It demonstrates understanding of the story but also an ability to remember in the correct order. If I asked you to put the Nativity story in order, I wonder what you would say? I think generally there is a recognised order to the story and it starts with today’s reading from Luke. But I wonder if you realise this is an amalgam of two versions, one from Matthew’s gospel and the other from Luke’s. I would suggest that for today’s theme of ‘God’s upside kingdom-coming in Jesus’ the differences in the two versions is really significant, not only for then but also for us today.

Matthew’s account begins with the genealogy of Jesus, identifying that it can be traced back through the prophets and kings to Abraham demonstrating not only his Jewish lineage, but also his connection to royalty and power. We have to remember scholars believe Matthew was written from a Jewish perspective as that gave authenticity for the claim Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Hebrew Scriptures. This is then followed by a visitation of an angel to Joseph, the birth of Jesus and then a visit by the Wise Men who visited them not in a stable but in a house. The Wise Men gave gifts fit for a king and Mary and Joseph escaped to Egypt after Herod threatened to kill Jesus as he saw him as a threat to his kingdom.

Luke’s version has a different feel to it. It is almost all in an upside-down world. After the angel visits Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, the angel visits Mary in Nazareth. A small inconsequential village ‘up north’ you might say, of no significance to anyone other than those who live there. Gabriel tells her she will be having a baby and how special he will be. In those Jewish times the importance of women was generally in providing children, not receiving such a message from God. Only when Mary has agreed does the angel visit Joseph. Another upside-down moment. The angel gets Mary’s agreement before he visits Joseph, suggesting very much Mary is a willing participant. The story then moves to a visit by Mary to her cousin Elizabeth who is also having a baby, John the Baptist. This results in a long conversation between the two women where Elizabeth recognises Mary as the mother of ‘my Lord’. Mary responds with the Magnificat, stating what God is intending to do. Another upside-down moment, as it involves a long conversation between the two women about worldly matters, but we will return to the Magnificat later.

When Jesus is born, it is (in Luke’s version) in a stable as we traditionally know – but this is the Son of God! This continues this upside-down account and is more so when Luke writes about a visit from shepherds. A choir of angels appeared to the shepherds in the field and they were told to go and visit the new baby, the Messiah. In those days, shepherds were loners spending much of their time in the open spaces with their sheep and were not particularly welcomed by village people. But, interestingly again a message from God, not to the rich and powerful but to the marginalised.

All of this narrative begs the question: Why did God use an ordinary  young girl from a nondescript northern village in Galilee to give birth to the Son of God, when he could have been born of a wealthy rich Jerusalem family and had a much easier and safer start to his life?

I think the answer lies in the Magnificat that you heard today. Mary talks of God bestowing upon her this great honour because she is ‘lowly’. According to the feminist theologian Jane H. Schaberg it is ‘a personal, social, moral and economic document’. It begins by vindicating Mary by honouring her as she says ‘all generations shall call me blessed’. Mary then goes on to say that God ‘scatters the proud’ and ‘brings the powerful down from their thrones’, ‘lifts up the lowly’ and ‘fills the hungry with good things’ and ‘sends the rich away empty’. Radical, subversive ideas. It is precisely because of whom she is that God chooses her. Not a rich daughter of a powerful politician or religious leader but a young girl from an inconsequential place betrothed to a carpenter. Out of the mouth of Mary came this earth-shattering statement about God’s mission in our world. These words that she speaks are huge upside down, world order changing words that signify the reason why Jesus came in human form. To be alongside not the rich and the powerful but the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed. Karen O’Donnell, another feminist theologian, says the Magnificat is ‘a radical declaration of the mode of God’s interaction with the world, in which God is on the side of the poor and oppressed.’ She goes on to say that every time it is said at Evening Prayer it is reminding us of ‘God’s intention to disrupt the established order’. In effect it declares right at the beginning of Luke’s gospel what God intentions are in sending Jesus into the world. And I would say if we only had Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus, where all the players are poor and where the message of God to the world is given through this young girl it would become really obvious about God’s purpose and longing for our world.

Reading the Hebrew bible from Ezekiel, this message is re confirmed:

‘I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree,
I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.’

The metaphor is really clear. Commentators write of a message of hope when a new king comes, the messiah, and a new kingdom will begin, and that kingdom will raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty.

So if it is true that God wants to disrupt the world order then does that mean as followers of Jesus that is what we should help to bring about?

I think it does. Mary speaks to us today as much as she spoke to Elizabeth back then. We have to hear the message anew. As I was brought up Anglo- catholic I used to know this off by heart but it is really important that we listen to what Mary is saying. Not just listen and say the words, but to take them into our hearts and help to bring about their reality. We need to become God’s agents in the world to challenge, to disrupt and to turn this world upside down with messages of God’s desire – to re-create an upside-down kingdom that was always her intention.

Reflection (Ruth Harley)

Some years ago, I was at an event where, as an ice-breaker, we were asked to tell each other what our favourite passage from the Bible was, and why. I wonder what your answer would be to that question? My answer was – and is – the passage which is part of today’s gospel reading: the Magnificat, the song of Mary.

For me, this is, one of those pieces of scripture which has made its way deep into my bones. It has somehow become part of me, and it has shaped who I am and who I am becoming in all sorts of ways. It has done that partly through repetition. I have said or sung or heard it almost every day for most of my adult life as part of the liturgy of Evening Prayer. I first got into that habit when I was a student at Oxford. In my college chapel, Choral Evensong was a daily occurrence, and the words of the Magnificat, in the older translation of the Book of Common Prayer, would rise toward the vaulted stone ceiling: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour…”

It was, perhaps, an ironic setting in which to fall in love with the Magnificat: an Oxbridge college, the very epitome of entrenched privilege. For 500 years, that chapel has rung with the revolutionary words of Mary: “he hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away”. And yet, in that place as in so many places, the privilege of the rich and the mighty has always been obvious. For hundreds of years, the students who have sat in that chapel and heard that song, day after day, have been predominantly white, predominantly wealthy and, until very recently, all male, and have been schooled to perpetuate an inheritance of privilege, the extent of which most of us can barely begin to get our heads around. And yet, daily, that education is punctuated by Mary’s vision of a very different, God-shaped world. It’s a strange contrast.

At the other end of the sociological spectrum, the Magnificat is much loved by activists, especially those of a more catholic persuasion, myself among them. It is read by many who strive for a more just world as a mandate for action, a manifesto for what that world could look like: the powerful brought down, and the lowly lifted up; the poor fed, and the rich sent away hungry. That sounds like good news for people living in poverty, good news for people who feel powerless, forgotten or excluded. And it is, as the Good News, the Gospel, always should be. It is easy to see how the Magnificat has become the touchstone of liberation theology, which declares God’s preferential option for the poor: that God is on the side of those who are oppressed and excluded, in solidarity with all who seek justice.

But notice something about the text. Notice the tense of the verbs: “the mighty one has done great things”, “he has brought down the powerful”, “he has filled the hungry”. Past tense. God has done it. And yet… and yet we have only to look around us, or turn on the news, to see that the powerful remain powerful, and the hungry – too often, despite the best efforts of many – remain hungry. So what are we to make of that?

And notice something else about the verbs in this passage – notice who is doing them: God. God is the one who lifts up the lowly and brings down the powerful. God is the one who overturns systems of privilege and brings justice. The Magnificat is not, primarily, a manifesto for human action. So where does that leave us?

To say that God has done these things is not, of course, to deny the persistent reality of injustice in the world. The kin-dom of God is an eternal reality, already established, but not yet full realised. It is that now-and-not-yet which is the essence of this Advent season. We catch glimpses now of what has always been and will always be. And we are called to find ways to expand and magnify and – most importantly – share those glimpses of the kin-dom in ways which make them real and tangible.

To say that the verbs in the Magnificat belong to God is not to say that we should be passive, any more than Mary is passive, in response to what God has done and is doing. We are invited to participate in the life and work of God’s kin-dom. We, like Mary, are invited to say ‘yes’ to whatever part God is calling us to play. But the work is not ours to begin or ours to complete. Certainly it is not ours to control. We are not called to build the kin-dom. God has already created it. We are called to receive it, and to reveal it, which is precisely what Mary does in the Magnificat. And in receiving and revealing the kin-dom of justice which God has already established we, like Mary, praise and glorify God.

The Magnificat is more than a manifesto for justice.

It is a statement of who God is.

God is the one who disrupts privilege and overturns injustice.

God is the one who is on the side of people who find themselves on the underside of the unjust systems in which we are all caught up.

God is the one who has already – in Jesus, whose coming and coming again we now await with eager longing – overcome all the powers of death and destruction which now distort our troubled world.

God is the one who, by the life of the Holy Spirit in us, invites us to participate in a different way of living, to live in ways which reveal the kin-dom of God among us.

“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour.”

Rejoice in knowing that God has been, and is, and will be establishing a realm of perfect justice throughout the whole creation.

Rejoice in knowing that God is tearing down every form of privilege and division and oppression which separates neighbour from neighbour.

Rejoice in knowing that we are invited to participate in that work.

Rejoice in knowing that even in the bastions of power and privilege a different song is already, even now, being sung. 

“As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

There is something here about time. The kin-dom of God, which Mary is describing in the Magnificat, is an eternal reality. But it is one which is not yet fully realised. We catch glimpses now of what has always been and will always be.

Questions for reflection / discussion

As I read / listened to the readings and reflections for this week…

·         what did I notice, or what particularly stood out for me?

·         what did they make me wonder, or what questions am I pondering?

·         what have they helped me realise?

·         is there anything I want to do or change in the light of this week's topic?

Poems / prayers for this week:

‘The Kingdom’, by R.S. Thomas

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

‘BC:AD’, by U.A. Fanthorpe

This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment

When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.

‘For Joy’, by Jan Richardson

You can prepare,
but still
it will come to you
by surprise,

crossing through your doorway,
calling your name in greeting,
turning like a child
who quickens suddenly
within you.

It will astonish you
how wide your heart
will open
in welcome

for the joy
that finds you
so ready
and still so

[1] Strangely the carol The Holly and the Ivy mentions the blossom, berry, thorn and bark of the tree, but not the green leaves!

Week 24: 'Return to the Lord': repentance, praise and the coming Saviour

(‘Cathedral of Trees’, Photo: Jessica Foster)

Isaiah 55:6-13

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
    call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
    and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12 For you shall go out in joy,
    and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall burst into song,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
    for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

* * *

Matthew 1:18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

A ‘cutting’ of tree wisdom (Genny Tunbridge)

Oak, the Waiting Tree

Trees are as different from each other as people are; each species has its own personality. This poem, ‘Oak’[1] mentions the defining characteristic of ten trees – but is mainly concerned with the long-lived, sturdy Oak. The ‘waiting tree’ has seen much, and will see much more; deep rooted in the past, but seeing the new sunrise and still sprouting green leaves – the Oak reminds me a bit of faithful Joseph.


Out on the hill, old Oak still stands:
stag-headed, fire-struck, bare-crowned,
stubbornly holding its ground.

          Poplar is the whispering tree,
Rowan is the sheltering tree,
Willow is the weeping tree –
and Oak is the waiting tree.

          Three hundred years to grow,
three hundred more to thrive,
three hundred years to die –
nine hundred years alive.

Ancient Oak hears with ancient ears,
sees with ancient eyes; the snow
of another winter, the glow of a
new sunrise.

          Birch is the watching tree,
Cherry is the giving tree,
Ash is the burning tree –
and Oak is the waiting tree.

          Three hundred years to grow,
three hundred more to thrive,
three hundred years to die –
nine hundred years alive.

Knot shows through silver grain,
silver grain through bark;
but each fresh spring brings
oak-green leaves again.


          Holly is the witching tree,
Beech is the writing tree,
Elder is the quickening tree –
and Oak is the waiting tree.

          Three hundred years to grow,
three hundred more to thrive,
three hundred years to die –
nine hundred years alive.

Introduction to the theme (Al Barrett)

As we continue our journey through Advent, again we hear echoes of themes we’ve encountered in these last few weeks.

Repeated several times in the words from the prophet Isaiah (from towards the end of that prophetic book, probably written some time later than earlier sections of Isaiah) we hear the word ‘return’. We’ve heard much from Isaiah over the last few weeks – words of promise and hope to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon, longing to return home. But here, ‘return’ is less a promise, and more an invitation, or a command, or a beckoning. Here, it is less the people waiting for God to bring them home, and more God who is waiting for the people to come back. This is about repentance – that ‘turning around’, of our lives and our ‘direction of travel’; leaving behind the ways that are deadly, and turning back to the God who is the only source of life.

But in that returning, as we’ve heard over the last couple of weeks, it’s not just human beings and our relationships with each other that find healing and restoration – it’s also the flourishing of the whole of creation. The mountains, hills and trees burst into song and clap their hands, in praise of their creator. This is a home-coming that is, ultimately, about the whole of the created world coming to be ‘at home’, together, with God. What a radically earthed, ecological image of ‘praise’ that’s so far from the individualistic, ‘me singing to Jesus’ activity that often goes under that label.

It’s in this dual context, then – the people of Israel returning to God, and the flourishing of all creation – that Matthew tells the story of the birth of Jesus. Jesus, ‘Yeshua’, whose name means ‘The Lord is Salvation’. The root meanings of the word are to do with rescue. Remember the history of the people of Israel, of being enslaved, being invaded, being captive in exile. But the word also has resonances that suggest ‘being brought into a wide, open space’: a space to breathe, to flourish, to praise. This is what God is bringing, with Jesus, Matthew tells us.

But underneath all this talk of return and repentance, salvation and praise, is a fundamental truth about God, that isn’t named explicitly in either of this week’s readings, but can be seen and heard between the lines. And that truth is love.

God longs for us to return to her, because she loves us, desires us, aches for us. God longs for us – and all creation – to sing out in praise not because God is a narcissist that needs our worship to make him feel good about himself, but because that ‘bursting into song’ is about our flourishing, our coming to fullness of life, together – and that is what God longs for us, and delights in. ‘Emmanuel’ – the other name for Jesus given here in Matthew’s story – means ‘God is with us’. God longs to be with us, and for us to be with God – that could sum up the whole ‘big story’ of the bible.

There is another glimpse of love in this week’s readings. In Joseph, the humble descendant of the famous king David, we see an obedience that comes out of love: out of love for God, Joseph does what God’s messenger has told him to do. And everything he does (and doesn’t do), seems to come out of a deep love for Mary too. If Jesus is ‘love made flesh’, then that love is a unique mix of God’s, and Mary’s, and Joseph’s.

Reflection (Genny Tunbridge)

Who would have thought that there were so many trees in the Bible! When we chose the theme ‘Trees of Life’ for our discipleship journey, there were some immediately obvious places in the Bible where trees are important (the Garden of Eden, Revelation, the shoot from Jesse’s stump), and we knew there were more – but week by week I am surprised to see just how much there is in our readings about plants and trees, even in texts I thought I knew well.  Looking at scripture with new eyes (eyes that are alert to spot trees) brings use new insights and deeper understanding. Perhaps this is one way that we are seeking to do what Isaiah urges us, returning to the Lord as we return to scripture afresh and see new things.

After all, this is what happens when we return – we see things differently. A ‘there-and-back-again’ walk is just as interesting and rewarding as a circular one, since things look very different when seen from the opposite direction, and the new perspective gives us a fuller understanding and appreciation of what lies in our path.

For Joseph, it was a dream that made him change direction, turn around from the path he had chosen and go back. Instead of quietly setting aside Mary and their engagement, he was now resolved to embrace Mary and the mysterious child. The angel’s message opened his eyes, so that instead of seeing the pregnant Mary as a disgrace to be rejected, he was able to see God’s love at work in her and in their lives.

For me, it was a virus that made me change direction and return – not the current virus, but a nasty flu 11 years ago which has had long-lasting consequences. My body slowed right down, requiring a change of pace and a change of direction. Having to give up full time work and find a new way of life led to me returning to Birmingham (where I’d enjoyed my training, years before). It’s also led, in the gentler pace of life which I’ve had to embrace, to me returning to old loves which had been squeezed more and more out of my life due to pressure of work and losing myself under the burden of heavy responsibilities.  Cooking and baking, art and craft and making all kinds of things, sharing life with friends in community, spending time out walking and getting close to trees – all of these were things which I’d increasingly lost sight of in my old life. But in these past six years, thanks to my change of direction, I have rediscovered the joy and fulfilment they bring me, and – despite the frustrations of limited energy – I am feeling restored to nearer my true self.

And much more than that: on this return journey I’m not only re-claiming old loves but discovering new things about how they connect with each other, and how they connect me with other people, and how much all of this matters to God. I like Isaiah’s image of God’s relationship with us being like rain and snow sent to water the earth, eventually bringing forth life-giving crops. God showers gifts and interests, loves and abilities in each of us, seeds them deep within us. They may take time to emerge: we ourselves, or the conditions in which we live, may suppress and squash them. But if allowed and encouraged to flourish, they will ‘accomplish God’s purpose’ and grow thirty or a hundred-fold, overflowing to share joyfully with our human and non-human neighbours.

Is this kind of ‘returning’ really what our Isaiah passage means?  The prophet is talking about repentance, and uses strong language to describe those who are not on the right path, calling the ‘wicked’ to ‘forsake their way’, and the unrighteous their thoughts. Was Joseph ‘wicked’ when he was minded to divorce Mary? Matthew describes him as ‘a righteous man’; he was following God’s law as best he understood it and believed he was doing the right thing – but God sent an angel to show him he was nevertheless on the wrong path and needed to change. Was I unrighteous when I was working too hard and had no time for friends or trees? I believed I was serving God faithfully and doing what God required of me, but I still managed to get onto a path that was taking me (I now see) away from a flourishing life and further from rather than closer to God. In words from a song I love called ‘Crossroads’ by Don McLean: ‘They walk one road to set them free/And find they’ve gone the wrong direction’. From the example of Joseph, and from my own experience, I am reminded being well-intentioned and seeking to live a godly life are no guarantees of being on the right path. Repentance, and the invitation to return to God, is not just for the deliberately wicked but for all of us – and it is an invitation that is renewed again and again, as we all, all too easily, will continue to take wrong turnings believing them to be right.

I find this understanding helpful when thinking about some of the ways we are learning that we need to change our thinking and our actions in our world today. The challenging, moving reflections during our Black History Month opened the eyes of many of the white members of our church (including mine) more fully to the reality of racism and to see that well-intentioned ‘colour-blindness’ was part of the problem and needs to change. And the way most of us have lived in relationship to the natural world for years, though it has not been deliberately destructive, has been thoughtlessly unaware and unsustainable and needs to change.

Turning, returning, we are learning to look at each other – and at trees, and soil and birds and rivers – with new perspective, with a fuller understanding, something closer to God’s perspective – with love. God is always calling us home when we get lost, and waiting (like the father for the prodigal son) to feast with us joyfully when we stumblingly return.

Reflection (Ros Sheppard)

One thing is certain is that this year, Christmas 2020 is going to be different! The effects of COVID-19 have affected all of us. Life has changed fundamentally at a deep level and there is a sense that will things never be the same again…

The theme for this week is ‘Return to the Lord’. Return means to go back to somewhere. It implies we are not in the place we should be and that we should return to that place just as we return home after a holiday, or an evening out.

But what if that place is somehow different, the same but different? We all long to return to ‘normality’, whatever that means, but we know things will not be the same again.

We have lost loved ones, jobs have been lost, relationships have changed and been damaged, in some cases irretrievably so. Communities have changed, shops have closed in the main streets. Schools have worked under tremendous pressure. Hospitals have become stressful and difficult places. Nurses and Doctors have given their all. The list goes on.

The place we return to will be different in some way, but we do not know how it will be different.

Some questions for reflection:

1          Is there anything you would like to return to that no longer exists? A place, a relationship, a job, a way of life.

How does it make you feel?
How might you cope with it in your daily life?

2          What do you long to see as we return to something of how our lives were before COVID-19?

What do you look forward to? What do you think might be difficult and what strategies might you have to cope with that?

Consider these words of Isaiah:

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (Isaiah 55:6,7b)

Think of ways of using them in your personal meditation and prayer time as you reflect on what shape your individual return might take. Maybe read the words slowly, pause, and read them again, gently seeking God and being aware of any particular words or phrases that may stand out for you.

The gospel reading Matthew 1:18-25, reminds us once again of the events of the birth of Jesus, that God came to be with us and to share in our humanity. The story is familiar to us. God at work through two very young people, betrothed to one another but not yet married, with an unexpected pregnancy. Mary is obedient to Gods prompting and full of joy,[2] and Joseph displays much kindness, compassion, and fairness towards Mary (Mat. 1:19). Joseph took Mary as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had given birth to Jesus (Mat. 1:24-25).

This reading reveals to us two key identities and descriptions of Jesus.

The first one is that he is given the name Jesus as he will save people from their sins (Mat. 1:21).

These are not just our own personal sins and wrongdoing that we may feel we commit but they are also the sins and wrongdoing of others, both of individuals and of policies and structures created by the government and those in power. The line in the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”, reminds us that we have sinned, but we have also been sinned against. The sinning against may be stronger and more real for some of us at this time.

A 3rd question for reflection:

What sins and injustices do we feel have been committed against us and against our community and neighbourhood during this time of COVID-19? How do we feel about this? How might we deal with our feelings?


Secondly, Jesus will be called Emmanuel, which means God with us (Mat. 1:23).

One of the central struggles and difficulties for many of us, during this time of lockdown has been that of loneliness and isolation. For many weeks, meeting friends, families, work colleagues in ‘real life’, has not been possible, and there has been a great deprivation and denial of human contact, something which is essential for us to grow and flourish as human beings. It has been a real struggle.

Emmanuel – God with us, assures and affirms us that God is with us. We may not feel it, believe it, or even want God to be with us at times. But if we profess faith in God and belief in Jesus through the gospels then as we follow and journey in faith, this is simply a fact and is the truth. God wants and longs to be with us, it is his purpose, his destiny, his deepest desire, and we need to hear that very deeply.

As we seek of ways of returning to something of what our life was like before COVID-19, and as we come to terms with the injustices of how this has been handled, let us know absolutely, profoundly and completely that God - Emmanuel, is with us in all this and will never let us down.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Reflection (Gill Burrill)

When I was around 15 years of age, I was invited by a school friend to go to a church youth group at a Gospel Hall in Greenford Middlesex. I really enjoyed it and went most Saturday evenings. At the end of the evening there was usually an epilogue, where one of the leaders would talk about Jesus and we were invited to give our lives to Him.

On Bonfire night in 1970, as I sat around the bonfire listening to the testimonies of other young people, I felt God calling me to repent of my sins, to believe in Jesus and to ask for the gift of salvation. I was baptised with full emersion in May 1971.

I went on to have an active Christian life, involved in outreach and teaching in Sunday School.  I continued to worship at the Gospel Hall until I was 21, when due to my elder sister’s marriage break down and subsequent nervous breakdown, I moved to Tamworth to support her.

Even though I still had a faith, I stopped attending church and it wasn’t until I was married and had my two children that I started to think about returning to church as something was telling me that I should introduce Jesus to them.

Initially we attended the URC and then Hodge Hill Gospel Hall and then finally to PJ where we have worshipped for the past 27 years.

One of the things I have struggled with in my Christian Life is the act of repentance. I thought that to repent was not only to be sorry but not to commit that same sin again. I have to confess that amongst other things, I am very quick tempered at times. I say “sorry” to God, but then more often than not I lose my temper again and then I feel so guilty. I asked myself “If I keep making the same mistakes over and over again would I have that salvation that I asked for as a young girl?”

During this pandemic like many of us, I have had more time to pray and study the bible and my thoughts have kept coming back to this same question. The bible warns us that we shouldn’t keep sinning so should we have to repent over and over again?

I believe that God has spoken to me through his word. We are not perfect and will go astray but when we get to the point where we are truly sorry and we admit that we have no option but to cast our cares upon him, He is waiting.

Jesus taught us to pray to Abba Father. The word children use to address their dad. A child’s relationship with their father is full of closeness love and trust.

God has erased that insecurity from my mind. I don’t need to worry. I became His child at that moment of repentance on that Bonfire night many years ago. God has hold of me and will never let me ago.

A prayer for this week:
“Prayer of the Farm Worker’s Struggle” (César Chávez)

Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
So I will know my people’s plight.

Free me to pray for others;
For you are present in every person.

Help me take responsibility for my own life;
So that I can be free at last.

Grant me courage to serve others;
For in service there is true life.

Give me honesty and patience;
So that I can work with other workers.

Bring forth song and celebration;
So that the Spirit will be alive among us.

Let the Spirit flourish and grow;
So that we will never tire of the struggle.

Let us remember those who have died for justice;
For they have given us life.

Help us love even those who hate us;
So we can change the world.


[1] from the lovely illustrated book The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, published this year.

[2] Luke 1:46 “My soul magnifies the lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”

Week 25: God's upside-down kingdom - coming in Jesus

‘Tree of Life’ (2009), Scott Rasman Ezekiel 17:22-24 22-24  “‘ ...