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.
Have you ever read the Bible from cover to cover? Many people who try it start off enthusiastically until they reach the second half of Exodus where the exciting story shifts into a detailed list of rules and regulations. They find it hard to keep going and they struggle to see the point of it all. If they persevere they are often glad that they did, but the Psalmist's enthusiasm for the Law still seems strange.
The Old Testament, as Christians call it, starts so well with God creating human beings in a wonderful earth. But it soon goes wrong. Twelve chapters in God makes a wonderful promise to Abraham that all nations of the earth will be blessed through his family. But this family seem unable to be that blessing, no more than any other family would be able.
So God sends Moses, the great Law-giver, and a Law which tells these people how to live. But they can't and don't keep it. That's the story of the Old Testament: a book in which hope never dies but reality keeps striking.
Paul, who wrote Galatians, was once an enthusiast for the Law. He saw it as the word of God and the thing that marked out the people of God. It's provisions like circumcision, food laws and Sabbath keeping, mattered to him. Then he saw Jesus, and the Law paled into insignificance. Paul's hero became Abraham, not the Law-giver but the man who believed God and who was declared to be righteous. Paul announced that God's promise to Abraham was being fulfilled, in those who believed in Jesus.
So why are there two testaments? To put the question more precisely: why this story that lasts hundreds of years about a law and a group of people who couldn't keep it? Paul's answer, in part, us that the people of God needed a childhood. And as children they needed a list of rules because they weren't yet ready to live in a grown up sort of way. When Jesus came the emphasis went back to faith, through which people could learn what the Law really pointed to.
More on Sunday .....
A GCSE student told me that the Bible was an old book, which had been copied and translated many times. No way could we be sure that what we have is the original.
Well, the version you have in front of you is a translation from three ancient languages. But most modern translations are not translations of translations, they go back to the earliest manuscripts we possess and they have only been translated once. When we compare translations we find that there a few serious differences between them. But, yes, if you are really serious about learning the Bible it would help to learn the original languages. I'm a fan of that.
This week we start to look at Paul's letter to the Galatians. Most people who study these things think it is genuinely the work of the Apostle Paul, the first century missionary.
Paul has a lot to say but first he spends a lot of time arguing that he does have the right to say it. He talks about the way God called him and the way his gospel agrees with the gospel of those who met Jesus after the resurrection.
We've just looked at Peter's second letter. We saw that he knew the Lord and he claimed he wasn't making up stories. He also said that Paul was preaching the same message. Peter and Paul are keen to say that they are on the same side.
So we need to take Peter and Paul seriously, if I may use the jargon word, as apostles of Jesus.
Next week Paul will really get going, but this week we are introduced to a lot of his themes: the resurrection and the new age it launches, God's one family, grace, peace, God our Father and of course the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
This letter has a lot to say to us. Let's start it with the conviction that it is worth reading.