For most of us, though not all, Christmas is a busy time.
For some it's our jobs, for others family or social activities or, dare I say it, church.
On a bad day, Christian faith can add to the pressure. We feel we ought to be inviting people to carol services or delivering invitations. And we feel that our celebrations ought to be different, when we are caught up in the same rush as everyone else.
So this Sunday I want to focus on one phrase from the Christmas story. It's the bit that says Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Mary didn't go rushing around. She didn't, as far as the story tells us, tell everyone in sight. I guess she had enough to do with a young baby. Or maybe she grasped that what had happened was so wonderful, that she couldn't help turning it over and over in her mind.
A virgin birth.
A king in a manger.
The power of the Holy Spirit.
And yet, nothing had changed. The Roman Empire still had the people under its thumb. The job of raising a child hadn't changed.
Only those who ponder will really get it. Treasuring and pondering may be the most important things to do this Christmas time. Take a deep breath and try it for a few minutes.
Many years ago my head teacher told me that the age of the computer was coming. This would free us up from having to do menial jobs so we would all have more leisure time and time to be creative.
I have been known to say that this was the biggest lie I was ever told. But that would be unfair - he thought he was telling the truth and maybe he could have been right.
I've recently seen Ken Loach's film about working in the gig economy, 'Sorry We Missed You.' I wish it were inaccurate.
This week - we look at Genesis 3 where God warns the first man that he will eat his food by the sweat of his brow. It seems that little has changed since Genesis was written. No technology can rescue us. Sometimes technology makes things worse.
So what's the problem? Genesis 3 says that it all went wrong because we wanted to be like God. We didn't want to live simply before him. We chose to grasp for more. And we still do, and it still keeps going wrong.
And what's the solution? Well, there was a man who was in nature God but didn't consider equality with God something to be grasped ...
Genesis chapter 2 retells the creation story. Here we learn what it means to be human.
We are here to live. Life is an amazing gift from God to be lived to the full. Somehow the dust of the earth has become a living creature. It's crazy and it's wonderful - and it is us.
We are here for responsibility. We are here to tend the earth. not to exploit or to destroy it but to nurture it.
We are here for relationship. It is not good that we should be alone. Genesis 2 tells us that God solved this problem in an entertaining way. We'll think more about this on Sunday.
It is a privilege and a responsibility to be human.
More on Sunday ....
"I believe that God made the world in six days. If I don't believe that I have no right to say that I believe any of the Bible."
"I tried to believe that God made the world in six days but I'm a scientist and I just couldn't do it. For a while it seemed that my faith was in jeopardy."
These are Just two of the things that people have said to me about the creation story in the first chapter of the Bible.
Sixteen hundred years ago a man called Augustine was concerned that we would put people off faith by talking nonsense about scientific things. He thought that this was dangerous. I agree with him. My scientist friend almost lost her faith, until she discovered that there was another way to read the Bible.
So what about those of us who do hold to a six day creation? Well, let me say this as gently as I can. Many Christian writers across the centuries have disagreed with you. This wasn't because they understood modern science; it was because they looked at Genesis 1 and they thought that it didn't look like a historical account. How, for example, are we meant to understand day and night existing before the sun and moon?
The point of Genesis 1, I believe, is that it raises issues. How should we treat our environment? Should we be vegan? What about gender issues? Why are we so stressed? We will have a look at this chapter in Sunday..
Whatever you want God to do, I suggest you ask him. Right now.
He might say yes. He might say no.
It might also be a good idea:
* to get some wise advice
* to get to know the Bible a bit better
* to ask whether the thing you want is really the best idea
* to wonder if God's plan is bigger than the thing you want
* to think about anything that God might be saying to you
* to be quiet for a while and savour God's presence without asking for anything
But I still suggest that you simply ask God for what you want. Jesus would ask people, 'What do you want me to do for you?' He still says the same to us.
Some people got a big 'yes' from Jesus; others got told off. The important thing is that the conversation happened.
Saul had always been a religious man. It didn't do him much good. In the end he admitted it. His religion had been a disaster, just a cloak for a lot of foolishness and disobedience. Slavery, not freedom.
He then met God for real. It was a new birth. He was still Saul but he was changed. So changed that a change of name seemed appropriate.
He discovered the kindness and love of God. His life became productive. He tuned into God's generosity and gave it away to others.
The people of Crete had come from a very different background but they had the same needs, so Paul decided to stress some things.
1. It was in Jesus that he discovered who God really was.
2. The Holy Spirit had changed him, so much so he calls the experience a rebirth.
3. He was now in a right relationship with God, in a way he never was before.
4. He now wants to live the new life God has given him, and to get others to do so.
The key to it all is that God has in Jesus revealed his love and kindness. The truth, then, leads to real godliness, not the fake sort that Saul used to practice.
Jesus is the source of real productivity. We are not all like the old Saul but there is still one person like no other in whom God has shown his love and kindness. He is the one to follow.
The task of the church is to make God attractive.
If the church is attractive then people will probably think that God is.
I sometimes find it hard to believe that God trusts us with that task, but he does.
That's what Paul is getting at in Titus chapter 2. He tells people to do a lot of things "so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive." (Titus 2: 10 NIV)
He wants the church to behave so that people will have nothing bad to say about us. (verse 8)
He wants us to be eager to do good.
He says that's why Jesus gave himself for us.
Paul wrote almost 2000 years ago. Some things have changed. To my taste this chapter seems rather sexist. I find it uncomfortable that Paul has nothing to say about slavery. I'm pretty sure that Paul would write some things differently today. But not much.
So here's today's big question: what can I do today that will make the faith I represent attractive? The best answers will probably be drawn out of Titus chapter 2.
I guess many of you have already said 'no,' but stay with it ...
Church leadership is about a lot of things, but mostly it is about setting an example. When you become a leader you get an invisible badge that says 'copy me.'
Scary, isn't it? Leaders set themselves up as the people that others should follow.
The good news is that leaders don't need to be perfect. A bit of honest imperfection actually helps.
So here, from Paul's letter to Tutus, are some areas where leaders set an example:
* in their marriages and other relationships
* in parenting, whether that is with their biological family or others they support
* in avoiding any trace of bullying
* in managing their temper
* in not getting drunk
* in not being violent
* in financial integrity
* in hospitality
* in holding fast to the good news
Quite a list, isn't it? There are technical skills too, but they are secondary.
The more you have these qualities the better you will lead. Anyone feeling brave enough to volunteer?
One more thing - if the correct people don't step forward the wrong people will. The second half of Titus 1 will show you what I mean.
I've got a few. I won't say too few to mention, but I will tell you one of mine.
I regret that I didn't work out how to brush my teeth until well into adult life. Don't rush to me with sympathy; my teeth are ok, but there's been a lot of work in mouth that predates the dentist carefully explaining the best way to brush and floss. When my children were young my catchphrase was 'every bit of every tooth,' a lesson I learned the hard way.
This week is our harvest service and we are supporting a project organised by Operation Agri in Nepal. They do a lot of things; one is that they teach children to take care of their teeth. They also teach them what they should do in an earthquake and many other things.
I didn't know that I was brushing my teeth incorrectly, but boy did I notice the difference when I started getting it right.
Jesus tells us to come and learn from him. I wonder what else I'm doing wrong. I wonder what I need to hear from him. Maybe the work of Operation Agri will help me find out.
If you want to pray there are lots of helpful resources. I would especially recommend the 24-7 prayer site: www.24-7prayer.com/helpmepray
I've often heard that prayer is the key to everything, that the secret is to spend a lot of time on our own seeking God. Jesus did it and we need to do the same. It's hard to disagree, but maybe it's not the whole story.
This week I've been reading John 15, where Jesus makes an astonishing promise about prayer: ask whatever you wish and the Father will give it to you.
It sounds great, but how are we meant to get there? Jesus' answer is straight forward and perhaps surprising. He commands that we love one another. Then answered prayer will follow.
Love comes first.
If we want to pray like Jesus prayed we must learn to love as he loved.
We pray alone, but we qualify to pray alone in community.
Why is this so? Because only those who love like Jesus loves will pray the prayers that Jesus prayed. It's when we learn to lay our lives down that we get released from selfish prayer and pray in line with the prayers of Jesus, as his friend.
More on Sunday ...