Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas Day : Walking away from power


Titus 3:4-7
But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Luke 2:1-14
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’


I want you to think first of some really powerful things that have changed the world by their existence, whether for better or for worse.
(Eg a jet engine).

Did they change the world in a positive or negative way?

Some of us get really drawn to big powerful things. Big old steam locomotives do it for me. I know, I know, it’s a bit of a caricature, being a vicar and all that, but when I stand near a large express steam engine, and there is steam coming out from everywhere, from all these different copper pipes, and this beautifully oiled machine slowly backs on to a whole load of coaches weighing hundreds of tons, and then smoothly and almost effortlessly moves off in a riot of smoke and steam and noise, I find something awe inspiring in that use of power. So we’re drawn to power.

Now have a think about the names of some really powerful leaders who have made a difference, either for good or evil, in the world through the years.
Eg Winston Churchill,
Were they good or evil people? And those who were evil, did they start out with good intentions and just get corrupted?

Each of these people used power to change the world. Personally I find this to be quite the reverse of what I said about being drawn to mechanical power. I think that it’s because, for me, the desire for power is a terrible temptation that I could give in to all too easily. Having power always changes us, and it can corrupt us into wanting more of it, of being able to control or influence the destinies of other people.

I think that some people want power because they want to act for good in the world, and I find myself wondering how many of the evil rulers started out like that, wanting to do good, but becoming corrupted by the power, so that it became a drug they were addicted to, always craving more.

And then we come to Christmas and we find that God’s story is the total opposite of this story. The story of Jesus is the opposite of the story of most great leaders. Let me give you a little background to show you what I mean.

St. Luke is the only Gospel writer to give us a historical background, and actually that background is usually a little lost on us because we don’t understand what he’s trying to say about Emperor Augustus, and that’s because we weren’t there and our history is a little weak. So let me briefly fill you in.

Judea was not an independent country like Israel is today. Instead the Jews were a conquered nation who were now just a minor province in the huge Roman Empire, of which Augustus was emperor. Augustus was actually not his original name, but an honorific that was granted him after he essentially took over the Roman Republic, and through political subterfuge and the use of military power became it’s sole leader and changed the republic into an empire. Augustus, meant “the illustrious one” and it was a title of religious rather than political authority.

But, and this is the key thing that St. Luke is getting at. Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, and Julius Caesar had posthumously been declared a Roman divinity. And so Augustus, in his slow and sustained journey towards absolute power, claimed for himself the title of , ‘son of god’. Does that sound familiar?

Luke is trying to tell us that in the centre of power was a great man who called himself the son of god. Caesar Augustus was viewed by many as having saved Rome and had ultimate political and religious authority, and all the Roman Empire believed in him, but they were wrong.

Instead, here in the backwater province of Judea, a baby was born, and it was he, not Augustus, who was the saviour, and it was he, not Augustus, who was truly the Son of God. But unlike Augustus, Jesus did everything in reverse. Augustus had started from relative obscurity and went on to take power, bit by bit, until he had absolute authority in both political and religious life.

Jesus, on the other hand, did quite the opposite. He was the Word of God through whom the Father had spoken all things into being. He had absolute power and authority throughout the universes, and he stepped away from it, emptying himself, and being born of Mary. And what’s more, time and time again his Jewish followers tried to give him political power and every time he stepped away from it.

And in doing so he changed everything and pointed us in a new direction, and so he gives us a choice in how we’re going to live our lives. Do we want to live the life of Augustus, of a gradual accumulation of power? No one can deny that Augustus made a radical difference to Roman life, but his was a power amongst the powerful.

Or do we want to be like Jesus who gave up his throne to be born of a peasant woman and her carpenter husband, and whose birth was announced not to kings and rulers but to shepherds, the lowest of the low in social terms, just one step up from convicts. The Roman Empire is gone, but Jesus continues to change the world.

If you feel powerless, unable to change anything or make a difference, remember this: Jesus came in the same way, with no power, and he stands alongside you, and he can make a difference to the world with your hands and lips. And if, on the other hand, you are tempted to try and become more powerful, to have more influence, then remember this: In order to really change things for the better Jesus gave up more power than you can ever imagine having.

The true message of Christmas is this: The humble and meek are the ones who really change the world, and Jesus, the true Son of God, showed us the way. In our ambitions and desires, let us remember that we serve the Servant King, and he shows us the way to live. Amen.

Christmas Midnight: Mystery...

Hebrews 1:1-4
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

John 1:1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

CSI, in all of its different guises, has become one of the greatest TV hits that channel five has ever had. Actually it might be the only hit they’ve ever had! Do you ever wonder why it’s so popular? I think it’s because we all like a good mystery. We like to watch it with the cops and the scientists, and try and figure it out with the information we get fed in the hope that we can work it out before they do. And that’s the key thing; we like to figure it out. We like to solve the mystery. We all like to solve mysteries.

Or at least we did, but now I’m not so sure. And I’m not sure because I find myself wondering if we’ve got mysteries all wrong. You see a mystery is different from a problem, but the reality is that we treat them as if they’re the same thing, as if they’re interchangeable. We live in a scientific age, and having been a scientist myself for a good few years before becoming a priest, I know how much enjoyment the human race gets out of solving problems.

We’re tool makers and tool users, far more so than any other animal. We get a real kick out of being presented with a problem, and then figuring out how to solve it. The trouble is, we then lump problems and mysteries together and we assume that they’re the same thing, but they’re really not. However, even the church has failed to distinguish between the two for the last few hundred years.

We’ve looked at ‘mystery’ and we’ve seen ‘problem’, and have tried to solve the problems with answers that we call ‘theology’. But mysteries can’t be solved liked problems, and to do so just cheapens them and pulls all of the wonder out of the universe. When was the last time you looked at something and realised it was completely unexplainable in the deepest terms? When was the last time you were caught up in wonder?

When was the last time you looked into the face of your beloved, and I mean really looked, long and hard? You know that way in which you get caught up in the gaze of each other? It’s as if your heart seems to swell with something that transcends joy. The scientists will try and explain that in terms of hormones, but that’s like treating love and desire as a problem to be solved rather than a mystery to be wondered at.

Or, or how about your children, those of you who have them? Isn’t it an amazing wonder, a true mystery, that the look between two people, that deepens into love and wonder, can lead to the joining of two bodies and the conception of a completely new life, of someone who has never existed before. And yes, once again the scientists can tell us how it happens, but I am caught up sometimes in how the mystery of my own existence came from the love between my two parents.

I wonder, then, given how important mystery is to our humanity and our sense of wonder, why is it that we so quickly reduce mystery to being a problem which we then try and solve? Is it because we don’t like mystery? Is it, perhaps, because mystery is humbling? Is it because if we cannot understand something then it means that there is at least one thing greater than us, and because of our own desire to be in control of our own destinies, we don’t like that?

Yet here we all are again, gathered once more at midnight, as we prepare to celebrate the greatest mystery of them all, that God was born as a human.
When I say it, even the words themselves almost sound preposterous. “God, was born, as a human”. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that God really does exist. You’re probably here tonight because, at least on some level, you know that there is something greater than us. It’s a mystery that you hold in your deepest places, and you may not want any vicar telling you what to believe about it. You just know there is something. But just how big must this God be?

To put it on some sense of scale, if you wanted to walk around the earth at a constant three miles an hour it would take you almost a year. What if you wanted to go to the moon? Well it would take a little too long to walk there, so let’s say you drove there in your car doing 80mph for eight hours a day. That would also take you a year to get there.

If you wanted to use the same car to drive to the planet Pluto, you’re looking at something in excess of 5,000 years. And that’s without even reaching the limit of our solar system. Do you get the idea of how big this God must be? Let me go on: We’re in orbit around one star in our galaxy, yet there are something like a hundred, thousand, million stars just in our galaxy.

And then if we take into account the observable universe, we can see something like a hundred thousand million galaxies, all containing a similar number of stars. And that’s only the visible universe. Science is now suggesting that this is only one universe out of many.

So the magnitude of what we’re saying tonight is that we are gathered here tonight to celebrate that the one who created all of that emptied himself of all that power and was conceived and born as one of us. When I say it, it probably sounds preposterous to some of us, and that is precisely what makes it a mystery.

Yet I wonder whether there is a greater mystery than that. We can, if we like, treat that as a theological problem: how can the all-powerful God empty himself and be born as one of us? But there is something even deeper than that to engage with.

I think that the greatest mystery is not how he did it, but that he chose to do it, and he chose to do it out of love. And even more, that on some level the fact that we can even begin to comprehend his reasons is a huge mystery to me. All of those love relationships and wonder that I began by speaking about, he knows that these are ideal cases, but that the reality is that over and over again we screw up our relationships, we screw up our lovers and we screw up our children, and somehow, on some level deeper than we can understand, God said, ‘This cannot go on - I must help’. And so he came. Born as one of us.

Do you think that Jesus, as a small boy, had any less wonder in the universe than our children do? It was, according to the reading we heard from John’s Gospel, through his hands that the Father created all that there is. Yet this was the first time he had experienced it as one of us, seeing his own universe from the inside, and wondering at it.

So it is a mystery that we cannot understand that gathers here on this holy night, and I’m not going to try and explain it to you. The joy of the deepest mysteries is in their existence, and the invitation from God to embrace them. That’s why we’re here tonight. As we celebrate the Christ-Mass, we partake of the mystery of Holy Communion, in some way receiving God into the depth of our beings through the bread and wine.

We can’t explain it, nor should we. The love we receive from God is to be received as a gift that it will take all your lifetime to unwrap. And that, I guess, is what church is all about. It’s not being told what to believe, but being invited in. It’s not about trying to be good enough to be acceptable but recognising that whatever baggage we bring, the door to the stable is wide open.

These are places where we don’t seek to explain, but instead we simply learn to walk deeper into the forest of God, being caught up in the wonder that a new life could form the bridge from heaven to earth. If you want to explore this more there are details in your notice sheet of a space we’re creating for spiritual explorers. Call me or email me via the church website if you want to know more.

So may wonder be reborn in our hearts, like the wonder of Mary as she looked down at her new-born son, knowing that something new was coming. And while it may be near midnight now, Mary knew then that a new dawn was breaking on earth. May we embrace the mystery of God’s love made flesh, who saw wonder in his own creation through the eyes he gave to us.

May the joy of this Christ-Mass lead you into wonder, and into a deeper exploration of truth.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Fourth Sunday of Advent: God messing up lives

Romans 16:25-end
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.

Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

When I came to faith it all seemed very black and white. There weren’t many greys at all, although I can thank my parents for the way they asked me difficult questions to try and introduce me to a more three-dimensional belief. But in those first few years it was all very clear. If we came to Jesus, God would guide our lives and everything would be ok.

I wish, way back then, that someone would have introduced me to Mary. Of course I knew the Christmas story - in my generation who didn’t? We may not all have believed it, but we knew it. Mary the sweet young girl, all dressed in blue. Jesus the smiling baby boy with blonde hair and blue eyes, and Joseph the understanding and meek husband who takes care of his family but doesn’t get any lines to say.

I wish someone had properly introduced me to Mary’s story back then because just maybe I’d have appreciated something about God that we don’t tell new Christians because partly we don’t want to scare them and also because, well frankly it would be bad PR. You see we like to give the impression that when God comes into our lives he fixes it all, but I don’t think that would have been what Mary said.

Picture it if you can. When Gabriel went to see Mary she was betrothed but not yet married to Joseph. That would suggest, given what we know of the customs of that time and place, that Mary would have been twelve. Betrothal tended to last a year with a girl being married soon after she was thirteen. It was a whole different world to ours.

So Mary was inside, with the Greek making it clear that the angel went in to her, minding her own business, perhaps doing some household chores for her family. At that point in time maybe she would have been daydreaming about her life to come, about becoming married to Joseph, a skilled builder and craftsman, and bearing children with him.

For a peasant girl in the middle east at that point that would have been the general direction of her life, as a good Jew living in the northern reaches of the country. Her life would simply have been ordinary, and if it had continued as expected then she would have been like the thousands of other girls of her time and place, and we would never have known about her.

But that wasn’t what happened. In that one instant, when Gabriel arrived in her room, everything changed forever. But, and this is my key point, I think we would be hard pushed to say that in real terms it changed for the better. But this is what God does when we get serious with him. He changes lives, and sometimes it feels like he messes it all up for us.

Mary was one the cusp of womanhood. Think of the teenage girls you know. We may think that they have grown up a lot quicker than in the past, but trust me, even they are a long way behind Mary’s generation. Most of the people I marry are at least in their late twenties with many more being in their thirties and forties. She was just about physically capable of bearing a child.

And so that is what God asked her to do, to bear his child. But she wasn’t yet married. And this is what I mean about God messing it up for us.
You see for a twelve or thirteen year old to be pregnant in our age still makes the tabloid headlines, but for Mary the threat was more potent because you can’t hide pregnancy, and for an unmarried woman to be pregnant risked her being stoned. At the very least she would be shunned. And think of poor Joseph.

Even if he believed her about Gabriel he would either have to live with the stigma of people thinking he had married an adulterous woman, or letting people believe that he and Mary had had sex before they were married, that he was incapable of self-control. Whatever happened, Joseph Mary’s betrothed, was also going to have to live with the consequences.

Rick Morley (who inspired some of this) asks the question of what must have been going through Gabriel’s mind before he pushed open that door. He must have known what he was going to ask her to do, and what the implications of that were likely to be. This poor young girl whose life had barely started was about to have its course radically redirected by the message from God he was about to convey.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing is that she did agree with what God asked of her. No ifs, buts or excuses. She simply said yes. Her assent to God meant that she faced the ignominy of being pregnant outside of wedlock, a long and harrowing journey to Bethlehem in the south, an even longer journey to Egypt to escape from the horror of Herod’s massacre, a lifetime of rumours about the background to her firstborn’s birth, and the awful witnessing of his cruel torture and death by crucifixion.

That was what God asked of her. But what does it have to say to us? What can we learn from this? I guess the first and most important point is that God is not some distant deity, but is instead active in our lives. If we give ourselves to him as Christians we should be prepared for him to ask things of us, and when he does so, it will be because he thinks we are the right people for what he wants.

A vocation isn’t just for the clergy; it’s something for all of us. It’s not very easy to tell people that though, particularly when you’re trying to explain why the Christian faith is Good News. So we tend not to. But if we’re honest, what we should say is come to God through Christ, but be aware that if you take him seriously, then he will take you seriously, and he may ask you to do something that you could never have imagined doing.

What I can tell you is, despite how it can sometimes be a difficult path to tread, I have never felt so fulfilled and so in the right place as I have being here as a priest, and I wish someone had had the foresight to ask Mary what it felt like to see whether, at the end of the day and with all the difficulties she had been through, did she feel it was worthwhile. I suspect she would have said yes. Despite everything she went through, it was still worth letting God mess up her plans.

You see I think that there is one thing which is far more important than happiness and that is that we should be able to say that our lives counted for something, however hard it may have been, and I think that’s a really important part of the good news. God wants to be involved in our lives, and if we let him then he may ask things of us, small or big, and if we do his will then something is changed in the world. May we learn to echo Mary’s words; let it be with me as you have said.’ Amen

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Third Sunday of Advent : Praying all the time?

1 Thess. 5:16-24
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

John 1: 6-8, 19-28
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’
And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

A couple of months back one of the members of Rhythm of God, our monthly drumming service, brought along a friend who was staying with her but who lived some distance away. She joined in and really enjoyed this way of praying, and after the service, as is our usual practice, we adjourned to the Bell. She and I struck up a conversation and after a while she asked me if I used to live in Welwyn Garden City.

I said that yes, that was where I was brought up. ‘And did you go to Crusaders?’ was her next question. (Crusaders was a non-denominational youth group in the days before political correctness changed the name). I replied that I did, and then she asked me if I remembered her, and after a few moments the penny dropped.

She was three or four years younger than me so as teenagers we hadn’t quite moved in the same social circles, but yes, I definitely remembered her, particularly the way in which she spoke which, strangely enough, had changed very little in the intervening twenty seven years since we last saw each other. But for both of us, that was more or less the only thing that hadn’t changed.

She had had an amazing life so far, doing things I would never have had the courage to do, and she was now married with children. As a teenager I don’t think I would have imagined the kind of life she would go on to have, but it was so nice to catch up and so she came back to the vicarage and we dug out my old photos from that era and compared notes.

I guess that all in all we probably spent two hours catching up that evening, and even then we barely scratched the surface. It would all have been so very different if, instead of allowing the vagaries of chance to bring us back in contact, we had stayed in touch throughout. I would know, for instance, the name of her children and her husband. I’d know how the Lord had called her from one place to another.

I’d have been able to rejoice with her in the joyful times and pray for her in the darker times, but none of that had happened simply because we hadn’t kept in touch. Quite simply we weren’t in tune with each other’s lives.

Now on the other hand I have some friends who I’ve had for years and who I still see very regularly. I know them and they know me. When we’re together they barely need to ask how I am, nor I them because our very demeanor gives us away, such is the depth of our knowledge of each other.

I might wish to ask what had happened to buoy up their spirits, or what had taken place to make them downcast, but as to how they actually are, by and large it’s written all over them simply because I know them, much as they know me and can always see how I’m feeling even before a word has been spoken.

And that brings us to our reading from 1 Thessalonians. Now those opening words are ones that I might wish to take issue with St. Paul over. We might wish to make the excuse for him that this was the first ever letter he wrote, which we think it was, and maybe he hadn’t seen enough life as a Christian to have got the wisdom of suffering, but I don’t think that’s true. So when he says, ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ I think we should take him seriously, provided we understand the whole of the message and don’t just think of this as an isolated verse. You see if we were to take it on its own it would be an unjust, unfair and impossible command.

The only part of it I can imagine being remotely something I could comprehend is to pray without ceasing. I’m not for a moment suggesting that I do, although in fits and starts I feel like I’m being drawn in that general direction. But to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances, well that’s an impossible and unfair thing for any Christian leader to command. Life’s just not like that.

As I’ve sat with friends going through divorces, or at the bedside of a dying loved one, how could I possibly tell them to rejoice or to give thanks? It would be unethical to that, although I have been exposed to Christians who have done precisely that and caused untold psychospiritual damage by demanding people try to be happy in the midst of abject misery.

But what if there is something deeper there? What if we were to think of those two apparent commands to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances to actually be the two ends of a perfectly balanced see saw that pivots on the command to pray without ceasing? Or what if we were to imagine that to pray without ceasing is the engine that pulls the other two along with it?

Praying continually is the one spiritual discipline that has the potential to change absolutely every other aspect of our lives and the reason for that is that is that it keeps us in touch with the One with whom we are communicating, contrary to what I had done by not seeing this old friend for twenty seven years. When we see friends regularly, we sense things about them that we simply don’t sense in people we haven’t seen for a long while.

The same thing is true of prayer. Now when I say we should think about praying without ceasing, what I don’t mean is that we should keep up a continuous internal dialogue with the Holy Spirit. What I mean is that we should practice a sense of awareness of God’s presence, of being mindful that he is alongside us and within us.

The more time we spend learning the discipline of becoming mindfully aware of God and our place within the Spirit and the Spirit within us, the more we are in touch with God and in tune with what’s going on around us and how the Lord feels about it. That, in turn, leads to a steadily deeper knowledge and awareness of God continually at work in the world around us and in the lives of the people with whom we share our time.

I should add that it is important to compare our experiences back with scripture because we’re complicated beings and it is easy for us to be misled by our feelings whereas scripture contains a far more complete revelation of God’s nature than any one of us on our own can know.

A classic opening line from many forms of traditional prayer is, ‘Open our lips’, to which everyone responds with something like, ‘And our mouths shall show forth thy praise’. But I’ve found in recent times that I also want to pray, ‘Open my eyes to see you at work. Open my ears to hear what you’re doing. Open my spirit to perceive you surrounding me and within me.’

And slowly, almost imperceptibly, I sense the Holy Spirit beginning to answer my prayer. I do not for a minute think that I am anywhere near being able to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances. I wear my heart on my sleeve to those who have got to know me, so there’s no point in me saying anything that might suggest I can rejoice always, because you all know that’s not true.

But in my years as a believer I’ve met and observed others who do seem to spend an awful lot of their time simply aware of God’s presence, and from that I think I can perceive where St. Paul was coming from, that with just the first glimmerings in my own life, and I mean the first, I can imagine that if someone becomes so wholly aware of God’s presence surrounding them the whole time, of not being continually distracted by that tv show or this whatever, then there would be space to rejoice in that sense of closeness.

And this, I believe is what St. Paul was actually driving at. We cannot force people to be rejoicing at all times and in all circumstances; that would be unethical. But, if we follow his command to pray at all times, to be aware of God alongside us in every aspect of life, then I believe it will reframe our experiences and shed new light on the paths we should tread.

Mindful awareness of the presence of God, in combination with holy scripture, helps us continually to discern how the Lord feels with respect to any given situation and this must surely be better at shaping us than the model of prayer where we occasionally talk to God and are continually trying to catch-up, as with an old friend we’ve not seen for a while.

All of which directs us to the Gospel reading and the person of John the Baptist. John, as he is portrayed by the Gospel writers, is a prophet who truly seems to be aware of his mission, his calling. I imagine that through living as an undistracted hermit in the desert, being in God’s presence by day and by night, he found a sureness of vision that we would find difficult to grasp.

If someone asked you about what God was calling you to do, do you think that your likely response would consist of a lot of ums and arrs? Or would you feel able to respond confidently? John, it seems, was so aware of his calling, through the prophetic life of prayer that would have been his, that when asked why he was baptising he was able to quote old testament prophecy with the words:
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord”’

How many of us might feel we could claim that? Yet John lived his life as a prophet who was in tune with God and so sensed what God was saying to him.

So today we have a call to pray. Not just in the morning or before bed, but to learn the discipline of becoming aware of God being present in every aspect of our lives. Out of that awareness may flow rejoicing because we will perceive the world differently. But for sure we will have a greater sense of what God is doing around us, and what he wishes to do with us, and within us. Amen.