"I felt awful in church last week. Everyone was singing happy songs to Jesus and I felt lousy. I'm the only one who didn't feel joyful. I'm a rubbish Christian."
No, that's not a quote from me. But I've heard it often enough. This feeling that as followers of Jesus we ought to be joyful and if we are not we are second-rate Christians.
Last year i asked our leadership team to tell me about their awkward Bible texts, the ones that sometimes made them feel worse rather than better. We are going to look at some of them over the next few weeks, starting with texts that tell us to be joyful.
The problem is that when we feel bad, texts like these can make us feel worse. They add a pinch of guilt to our lack of joy.
So here goes ... when the Apostle Paul tells us to do anything, he doesn't expect us to be perfect straight away. He sees our growth as a long term project. Joy is something we work towards, not a gift from God that we unwrap on the first day that we believe. Joy is linked to hope and hope is the outcome of a long process that starts with suffering and perseverance. A process in which the Holy Spirit is deeply involved.
More on Sunday ...
Injured sports stars have to take a break. So do injured soldiers, office workers who are sick, and anyone who has been knocked out of action for a while. There's nothing wrong with this; it just happens sometimes.
So if I start this year with a call to stand firm, please don't think I'm asking you to be a superhero who bounces to their feet no matter what hits them. It doesn't work that way.
But I am asking you to remember that there is a spiritual battle going on and you are part of it. There is a devil and he schemes against us. Sometimes he seems to be quite accomplished at this. Did I say 'sometimes'? Maybe I should have said 'often.'
The Bible (Ephesians 6) tells us to stand firm with the belt of truth buckled around our waist. By 'truth' it means first of all the truth of the gospel. Jesus is alive and we belong to him. His resurrection power is at work in us. We are God's workmanship, created in the Messiah Jesus to do good works. Standing firm isn't first of all about doing anything. It's about, well, standing. It's about making a decision to believe the truth of the gospel.
So let's speak the truth in love to each other. The truth of the gospel. So we can stand firm in it.
The Christmas story tells us about a God who comes to us, not in dazzling light but in a cattle trough. Sure, the angels do their pyrotechnics, but they are only there to point to the real sign, some strips of cloth and a manger.
We often find it hard to get our heads around God. The Christmas story makes it both easier and more difficult. Easier because it is a sign that says ‘look here’. Harder because what we see is not what we expected to see or what we want to see.
People ask me why God doesn't show himself more openly. We human beings seem to want blazing lights that show us everything. But on that first Christmas Day the blazing light wasn't shining over Bethlehem. It shone over the hills . It helped the shepherds but it was a sign about a sign, not the sign itself.
Sorry if that last sentence confused you. But the real sign is the strips of cloth and the manger. God doesn't come to us in blazing light. He comes and lies down in a dark, cattle trough. Try and get your head around that this Christmas. It changes everything.
A little quiz for you today. Who said this?
‘God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.’
Got it yet? I’ll give you a clue. You probably didn’t hear it in a nativity play, but you should have.
The answer is Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Mary also spoke about God scattering the proud and bringing down rulers from their throne.
To Mary the birth of Jesus starts a revolution. Mary lived in an oppressed country. She was ruled by the (as she saw it) arrogant, bullying Roman Empire and their evil puppet King Herod. It was time to change and she was going to have the baby who would solve the problem.
As I write this our country is in a political storm. The ‘meaningful’ vote in parliament has been put off. Who knows where our country will be when Article 50 is scheduled to expire in March?
Yet for many there are more important things than Brexit. People do not have enough food. They are homeless. They are ill, physically, or mentally or spiritually. They are on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination. Surely it is time for God to act and fill the hungry with good things once more.
Mary never thought that Jesus would do this be waving a magic wand. He would achieve it by being a different sort of king. The promise to Abraham, that God would bless the world through his family, would at last be fulfilled. When we come under his rule great things happen. The hungry are fed. The homeless are housed. People who seemed insignificant are honoured.
God has done great things. Honour his king this Christmas.
Mary hurried to visit her older relative.
She had just heard two pieces of news. The first was that she was going to conceive a child by the Holy Spirit (I know, it sounds daft, but that was Mary’s first reaction too.) The second was that her elderly relative, Elizabeth, was already pregnant.
No wonder that Mary rushed to Elizabeth. She was running to the proof that the angel had spoken the truth. And perhaps to the one person who could truly understand her.
There were no phones or social media in those days. Maybe the only way to check out Elizabeth’s pregnancy was to go and visit. I imagine how the scene might have been. Would Elizabeth’s pregnancy be obvious? Would Mary have to ask and risk looking foolish? Or would Elizabeth blurt it out: ‘You’ll never believe this, but … .” What would Mary expect as she arrived at Elizabeth’s house?
I guess she was not expecting Elizabeth to shout, an ecstatic shout about Mary and the baby she was going to conceive. I mean, how crazy can this story get? The scene is excitement to the max. Even the baby in Elizabeth’s womb is leaping for joy. Elizabeth knows that the baby to be born to Mary is her Lord. The gospel writer puts this down to the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who is going to come upon Mary so that she can conceive.
And the thing that excited Elizabeth the most? Mary’s faith. Nothing is impossible for God, but Mary’s faith matters too. As does yours. And mine.
This year, in the wisdom of film distributors, The Grinch was released in November. As the tag-line says, it’s never too early to be annoyed by a Christmas film. One reviewer suggested that on this trend Christmas 2025 will begin in August.
Let’s step out of the rush for a few minutes and turn to an ancient document: The Gospel According to Luke. The book claims to be based on eye-witness accounts. It tells us that an angel named Gabriel came to a young virgin woman called Mary and told her she was going to have a child.
Here’s what the angel said about this child:
He will be great.
He will be called the Son of the Most High
His kingdom will never end.
For those who don’t know, The Grinch is the third screen adaptation of a book by Dr Seuss, which tells the story of a creature who attempts to put an end to Christmas by stealing from people’s homes on Christmas Eve. Luke’s gospel is the story of Jesus, the unexpected and strange king who was born in Bethlehem. He was born into a royal line with a supernatural birth and he became great in a way nobody could have expected.
It’s never too early to be annoyed by the story of Jesus. He confounds our ideas of greatness. He changes our ideas about God. He offers a kingdom like no other. Don’t let anyone steal this Christmas from you.
Jesus is the ultimate surpriser. If we say 'we've done this so Jesus will ...' we may soon have to admit that we are wrong.
Actually, everyone I know can surprise me. We my be predictable most of the time but none of us are predictable all the time. The people I know best can still surprise me.
Let me ask you a question: If I have faith will Jesus heal me? Got your answer? Here's mine: it's up to him. Sometimes Jesus rewards faith in this way. Sometimes Jesus heals when there is no faith. Sometimes he does not heal when there is plenty of faith. That's how it worked in New Testament times and that's how it still is.
What I do know is that Jesus has compassion.
Someone wisely said that faith is not a slot machine. It's a real relationship, with someone who is wonderful and gloriously unpredictable. When God revealed himself in human form he was nothing like the thing we expected him to be. When we get to know him now he amazes us. He disappoints us. He leads us to places we could never have imagined.
Marriage is an adventure. Friendship is adventure. You never know where they will lead. Faith is the most wonderful adventure. Just when you think you've 'got' Jesus you find that you haven't.
Give Jesus permission to surprise you today.
A quick request: I’d like you to sum up the life of Jesus in one sentence, no more than ten words.
OK. What have you got? Here’s my answer for today. It’s from Luke’s gospel, chapter seven.
The Son of Man came eating and drinking.
You may think that your answer was more important than mine and you may be right. But please do hear me out. Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus ate meals with people. There are nine recorded meals in Luke’s gospel and many more we don’t know about.
Jesus loved to eat with people. He didn’t care whether they were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people. He wanted to be with them. And he liked to be welcomed properly. He accepted a half-hearted welcome, but it was better when people showed that they really welcomed him.
The award for the best welcome goes to a woman who was known for being ‘sinful.’ She gate-crashed the meal. Her welcome was outrageous and extravagant, much better than the welcome from the official host.
She did this because she knew she’d been forgiven. A lot.
More on Sunday ….
Jesus reveals things to little children. He hides things from those who think they are clever.
According to Jesus it’s the little children who offer perfect praise. It’s the little children we must copy if we want to enter God’s kingdom. We are never to look down on a little one.
We have so much to learn from little children. How much more did Jesus have to point this out in his generation, when his disciples thought that children were a nuisance and tried to send them away.
Last week I was with a small child, who cannot yet stand, walk, talk or crawl. It will be a while before she can do any of these things. But she knows how to concentrate. She looks at everything around her, trying to take it in, trying to understand. And gradually she is getting it. Amazing things are going to happen.
People walked around Jesus. They spent years with him, learning from all he did. It took a long time for them to understand. They were like little children who at their best knew that they did not know very much.
I’ve tried to follow Jesus for many years. I’m still a little kid who barely understands how wonderful he is. He surprises me. He isn’t who I expected him to be. Sometimes I understand something new and I rejoice in the wonder of it all, still amazed at how little I know.
The ‘clever’ people had a problem with Jesus. He wasn’t what they thought the Messiah should be. Those who were like little children found that Jesus was revealing God to them.
There’s a story doing that rounds that Christians should never be anxious. We should always be calm and full of faith. We should always serve other people and always have a smile on our face.
Nonsense. No real believer is like that. We follow the one who cried, ‘My God my God why have you forsaken me?’ We follow the one who was troubled, the one who offered loud cries and tears to God. Why should it be any different for us?
I’m saying this because I want to be real. I’m saying this because I want us to recognise Jesus where we are most likely to find him.
In our Bible reading today Cleopas and his friend thought they knew what the Messiah should look like. Jesus was walking with them and they didn’t recognise him. They couldn’t recognise him until he broke bread.
The best place to see Jesus may be in something that’s broken. That’s how we tells us to remember him.
Jesus turns up in this story, not as someone who serves other people but as someone who needs a welcome, someone who needs hospitality. His followers will often find themselves in the same position. And like Jesus we will find ourselves feeling insecure and anxious. We sing our songs of faith to help us fix our eyes on Jesus, not because we feel great all the time.
Cleopas and his friend expected the wrong sort of Messiah. Let’s tune in to the Scriptures, for they will tell us what Jesus is really like.
By the way, he is alive.