Here's a question and I don't want you to tell me the answer. If you were at Mills Hill a couple of Sundays ago, did you try my suggestion, that you take time alone, talk to the Lord and tell nobody? You can see, I hope, why answering that question would not be a good idea.
But if you did, keep going. And if not, it's not too late. Your Father in heaven will reward you. That's what Jesus said.
On a related note, Monday is Holocaust Memorial Day, a day to remember the Holocaust, under Nazi persecution, and the later genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Monday is 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. The world is not as it should be, and we do not seem to be learning.
It's the job of the church to cry, 'Your Kingdom Come.' We are here to express our frustration at the way the world is. We are here to believe in something better. And here to listen to God as he, maybe quietly, tells us the work we have to do.
We are here to cry out that God's will should be done on the earth.
This is the essence of prayer when the church comes together. So let's gather together on Sunday, ready to pray together for God's world.
Just remember, though, that the reward is for those who take time alone, and seek God when nobody else is looking. We may act in public, but we are shaped in private.
If we are going to pray well, we need to know something about the one we are praying to.
So here's the first lesson in prayer: God loves to reward us.
Do you mind if I say it again? God loves to reward us.
I repeat myself, because the first lesson of prayer is that God loves to reward us.
"Anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." (Hebrews 11:6, NIV.)
Look a few verses around the Lord's Prayer and you will find the word 'reward' seven times.
Some people might object to this: isn't it better to serve God without looking for a reward? Well, I guess it depends on the kind of rewards that you are looking for.
Jesus starts his famous sermon by listing people that God will reward .... people who will be called God's children, people who will be filled, people who will see God.
So here's the second lesson in prayer: do it to please God. Don't try and impress others, for God won't reward you for that.
Try it now, or soon. Take a few moments to pray. Make it your sole aim to please God. Tell him you want his rewards.
As the season of Christmas comes to an end, one more thought about angels.
Angels get a lot of press in the Christmas story. They are the news announcers, telling people what God is doing and telling them the right way to respond. You are going to have a baby ... don't be afraid to marry her ... go to Bethlehem ... flee to Egypt etc etc.
And they don't stop their work when Jesus grows up. They help him at the hardest times. They are there at the resurrection. But they are not just there for the big events.
Jesus tells us not to look down on the little ones who believe in him. He means the people that others don't notice, the people we think are not important or significant. Don't despise them, says Jesus. Their angels in heaven always see the face of the Father in heaven.
Do you feel insignificant? There are angels looking after you who always see God's face. Do you look down on others? They have angels who always see God's face. When Jesus was reduced to nothing, the angels were there. He has now approached the Father with the holy angels.
I believe in angels. But it's not just about believing in them. It's about believing they are there for the ones that are written off. And for the ones who are under attack. I need to hear their message again.
The New Testament begins with a list of names, then quickly moves on to the story of a man who thought his fiancee had cheated on him. The man's response is exemplary.
He lived in a culture where engagement (betrothal) was legally binding and adultery, in theory, carried the death penalty. Yet here she was, pregnant, and there was no doubt that the baby was not his.
Joseph, we are told, was a righteous man. He still cared for Mary. He did not want to expose her to public disgrace. So he made plans to divorce her quietly. This meant that he would give her a certificate that would allow her to marry someone else. When adultery is a criminal offence you need to be very sure before you before you marry a divorced woman*. The certificate was all-important. Joseph would give her the certificate with the minimum of fuss.
And this matters. Matthew's gospel tells us that Jesus has a lot to say about righteousness. Here, right at the beginning, we get a glimpse of the righteous behaviour that Jesus is looking for. Maybe Jesus was influenced by his dad.
We can only guess how Joseph felt.
The story goes on to say that things were not as they seemed. It's a wonderful story. But let's not miss the wonderful character of Joseph, a man who embodied the teaching of Jesus, even before it was given.
* If that sentence sounds sexist, that's how the law was.
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.