Sunday, 28 December 2008

A Walk from Aldbury

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The countryside around here is full of walks. You can see birds on the reservoirs, three canals, woods and fields, lovely views, and paths criss crossing the countryside.

This walk starts and finishes in Aldbury.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Mary the Mother of Christ

Cheddington Sunday 21 December 2008

On 4th Sunday Advent, we traditionally remember Mary Mother of Christ. Mary who said “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary who willingly co-operated with God’s plan for her. Mary, who was given a choice but was not coerced. Mary who sang the Magnificat – a song of praise to God and obedience to his will. The same Mary who was at the foot of the cross, when all seemed hopeless and lost, when all the promises seemed to have gone for nought.

Mary the Mother of Christ has been treated very differently by the various traditions of the churches throughout the ages. On the one hand, she is depicted as the Blessed Virgin Mother of God. As Queen of Heaven she is painted with a crown on her head. Some parts of the church believe she was conceived without original sin, and that when her earthly life was over, she was assumed bodily into heaven. She has her own branch of theology, called Mariology. Mary holds a venerated position in Islam. Narratives of her life have been further elaborated: her parents were named as Joachim and Anne, and there has grown up over centuries a vast body of doctrine and veneration which overshadows the few but important times she appears in the gospels. On the other hand, all these traditional but non scriptural accretions have resulted in an opposite reaction and meant that other parts of the church have been reluctant to refer to Mary in any meaningful way at all.

The truth is that little is known from the New Testament about Mary’s personal history or life. What we are told is this: she was a relative of Elizabeth, wife of the priest Zechariah. She lived at Nazareth in Galilee, and was betrothed to Joseph. This was the first stage of Jewish marriage. A legal contract with her parents had presumably been drawn up, and she would have moved from her house to that of her future husband’s family. The marriage would not be consummated until sometime later – possibly as long as a year or more, depending on her age when she was betrothed.

Luke in his account says she was a virgin. He uses the Greek word Parthenos to describe her. Many people have argued this is a mistranslation, because the Hebrew word almah that appears in Isaiah 7.14 can just mean a young woman, just like the English word maiden, rather than a virgin, and it is the Hebrew word almah which is translated parthenos. Isaiah 7.14 in our bible says Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel. That’s the NRSV, and there is only a footnote that says Gk: virgin. The gospels of Mark and John, and the rest of the New Testament do not specifically mention the virgin birth at all.

Mary appears throughout the infancy narratives of course, but apart from that she is only mentioned once when Jesus was an adolescent – that was when Jesus was found debating with the teachers in the Temple at the age of 12. She may have been widowed, because after the infancy of Jesus Joseph is never mentioned again.

Mary then takes a part in the wedding that Jesus attended in Cana. This is where she persuaded her son to perform the first miracle, that of water into wine. Subsequently there are events when Jesus’ brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas are with their mother Mary and their unnamed sisters. Mary is also of course at the crucifixion, and at the beginning of Acts is in the Upper Room with about 120 people after the Ascension.

No one should have any doubts about the special place she occupies, whatever our tradition – and today we have the chance of celebrating her unique position and her example of unquestioning obedience to God, whatever the cost to herself as a person and a mother.

In today’s reading she is hailed by the angel Gabriel as the favoured one of God. Gabriel tells Mary she will bear a son and call him Yeshua – the LORD saves. This name became Ἰησοῦς in Greek, and Jesus in English. Mary is told her son will inherit the throne of David. He will be the Messiah – the anointed one – in Greek Χριστός. Joseph, you will recall, is also of the family of David from the tribe of Judah. When Jesus inherits the Kingdom, Gabriel says, it will be forever. There will be no end to the kingdom from that point on.

Gabriel goes further, and says Jesus will be Son of the Most High. This makes clear his special relationship with God. In calling Jesus Son of the Most High, rather than Son of God as many kings were titled, Luke stresses Jesus’ divinity.

Faced with the same apparition, Zechariah the priest had doubted Gabriel and disbelieved. Mary on the other hand had stated the obvious, but acted with greater faith. Mary is told she will be ‘overshadowed’ by God. So, unlike John the Baptist, Jesus will be special and unique. He will be holy.

So those are the facts from scripture – and anything else people believe about Mary is in addition to what it says in the Bible. It may be passed down through the early church. It may be oral tradition, but it’s not scriptural. What position you take is a matter for you yourself, and I am not going to be the one to tell you what you should or should not believe.

What I do think, however, is that Mary is a supreme example of obedience to the will of God, and never seems to have doubted even when faced with the gory death of her son and the seeming failure of all her hopes, and everyone else’s too. At the very outset, she said:

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. Then far from being overwhelmed by the enormity of what was happening to her, she sings one of the greatest hymns of praise anywhere in our liturgy, which is still repeated daily and has been set to some of the most sublime music ever written. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on his lowly servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

It’s this example to us of Mary’s simple acceptance of God’s will that we want to celebrate this morning, as we pause once again in our season of expectant waiting for the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas. We wait, just as Mary waited. We will rejoice as she rejoiced, and sorrow as she grieved at the impact of the world’s brokenness on her son. We live in the same hope that Mary hoped – the full knowledge of our salvation through his one sacrifice made once for all on the cross, and his resurrection to the new life of the Kingdom of God, both now and at the end of time. So this Christmas, we pause to give thanks for Mary’s quiet obedience and steadfast determination. Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. May we this year and from now on be able to emulate Mary and do likewise. Amen.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Joseph the Just

Cheddington ~ 18 December 2008

Joseph is described as a just man. The word ‘just’ means a man who obeys the law and applies it fairly to all, regardless of the circumstances. At least, that was the prevailing view. But something has happened to turn Joseph from being a just man towards a man of justice.

The strict application of the law was not in doubt. Deut 22:23 says:   23 If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, 24 you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man's wife. You must purge the evil from among you. So why did Joseph the Just not publicly and openly apply the law as he should have done? Notice it was not as a result of his dream. He had already decided to divorce Mary quietly before the angel appeared to him in a dream. After the revelation by the angel, Joseph considered and determined to marry Mary. Before the dream, as he considered, he had already decided to protect her and hush up the unplanned pregnancy.

There is a big difference between someone who is stern and just, and someone who is prepared to show justice. Justice, in other words, is more than the equal application of the law. It’s tempered with mercy. It takes into account the circumstances. It accepts explanations honestly given if they mitigate the crime.

The Victorian theologian Kirkegaard wrote a book called Fear and Trembling in 1843. In it he gives examples of those who stand in fear and trembling before God, stripped of everything, and with no rules to stand between them and their maker.

He gives examples. Abraham, who was prepared to sacrifice Isaac, even though he knew child sacrifice was against any law. Mary was obedient to God even though she must have known she risked a horrible death by agreeing. He could have added Joseph, who went beyond the strict application of the law in order to pursue his own form of justice. Was this through love of Mary? Was this because he was not prepared to dismiss her explanation for her pregnancy out of hand? Was it to save his own reputation as well as hers?

Maybe there was a higher motive. The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 42 is a man who is a bruised reed that will not break. A dimly burning wick that cannot be quenched. One who will faithfully bring forth justice. And that justice is not the retribution of the law, but something altogether fairer and kinder. Mary was, to Joseph, that dimly burning wick, and he was not going to be the one to quench it. Mary was the bruised reed, but Joseph would not break it.

Justice in Isaiah shows concern for the downtrodden and outcast. It shows compassion for the weak even at the risk of ignoring the law. This form of justice is rare in the Hebrew scriptures, but is the justice that suffuses the attitude of Jesus towards the poor, the marginalized, the dispossessed, the outcasts of society. And in the end, it was that Christian form of justice that saved the life of a mother and her unborn son.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Sunday, 7 December 2008


There were about 100 people at today’s Christingle service in Cheddington. About half were children. The church was well filled, in spite of the very cold weather.

We are now in the season for carol services, with a school service at St Giles on Friday 19 December at 10.00am, 9 Readings and Carols at Mentmore on Saturday 20 December at 4.00pm, and at St Giles on Sunday 21 December at 5.00pm.