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.
Jesus looked up to Zacchaeus.
No one had looked up to this man. It wasn’t just his lack of height or that fact that he didn’t usually climb trees. People had no respect for him. They did not expect Jesus to invite himself to Zacchaeus’s home.
Imagine the moment. Place yourself in that tree. Jesus is looking up at you. He is respecting you. Honouring you. The people who don’t respect you are looking rather foolish.
Now hear this: he wants you to practice looking up at other people. Those who humble themselves will be lifted up. Those who make themselves great will be torn down. That’s how God’s kingdom works.
The story of Zacchaeus comes after other stories that make the same point:
In the middle of these stories Jesus talks about himself. He was mocked, insulted, spat at, flogged and killed. But he was also raised to life. Jesus is there for those who are rejected because he is a rejected one too.
In the kingdom of God we can look up at people because we know Jesus is looking up at us.
First of all, if you want to stay free in Christ don't try to do it by keeping the rules. It won't work. You are not under the law.
And please don't go through the Bible trying to work out what is allowed and what isn't allowed. That won't work either.
Here's Galatians 5:19 in a few translations:
"Now the works of the flesh are manifest ... " (Authorised and many other versions)
"The acts of the flesh are obvious ... " (NIV)
"When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear ... " (NLT latest edition)
If you want to stay free in Christ try to avoid the stuff that is obviously wrong and do some things that are obviously good. Paul's list of 'acts of the flesh' isn't there to be studied in detail; It's a list of things that are obvious. It's a list of things that hurt others. It's a list of things that are not like Jesus.
And then Paul gives a list of good things: love, joy, peace etc. He says there is no law against them. So here's how to stay free in Christ. Do something loving. Do something that brings joy. Do something that brings peace.
What matters is the new creation that began when Jesus rose from the dead. We get free through faith in Jesus. We stay free by keeping in step with the Spirit, who is all into love, joy, peace and the rest of his 'fruit.'
More on Sunday ....
"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1, NIV)
Paul is worried about these people, that they could lose everything they have gained through their faith in Jesus. The stakes are incredibly high. These free people want to act like slaves. Paul will have none of it.
So what's going on? Think of the Law of Moses as a pair of stabilisers on a bike*. They stop you from falling over, up to a point, but they don't teach you the skills you really need to cycle properly. You don't see cyclists using them at the Olympics. If you want to cycle round sharp bends, quickly, or on uneven ground stabilisers will do more harm than good.
These people were carefully keeping special days, months, seasons and years because the Law of Moses told them to. The word that Paul uses suggests that this was an obsession. But that's not the point of believing in Jesus; the point is that faith should express itself in love.
Freedom in Christ is not about obeying the rules. To be Christ's followers we have to remove the stabilisers.
More on Sunday ...
* I'm grateful to Richard Rohr for this idea.