Old High St. Stephen's, Inverness

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Month: December 2019

An undeserved gift: sermon for Christmas Eve 2019

Scripture Readings: Luke 2.1-20

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘…there was no room for them to stay in the inn’.

Those last words of the first part of our Bible reading tonight are terrible words. There is no room at the inn for a woman, who has travelled a long way, and who is about to give birth. No room for her faithful husband, who has come all from Nazareth with her, because the Emperor Augustus demanded it. No room for the child who is born, not even a place to lay him- just an animal feeding trough.

It’s nice to romanticise the Christmas story. We like to imagine Mary might have had a donkey to ride, but the story doesn’t mention any little donkey for Mary to ride along dusty roads. We like to imagine the baby snug in the straw, but a manger is hardly the cleanest place to put a new-born child. We like to imagine animals kneeling to worship, but if there were any animals at the back of the inn, they were likely grumpy at being disturbed, smelly, liable to bump into the new mum and dad and their baby at any time.

‘…there was no room for them to stay in the inn’.

Here is the creator of the universe coming to earth in human form. But there is no room for him. He is laid in a manger- no nice government Scandinavian baby box for Jesus and Mary. He is shoved round the back for the inn is full up.

But maybe that is the point. No room at the inn tells us that this Christ is going to be the one for all for whom there is no room. For in any country, in any community, there are people who feel as if there is no room for them. The people for whom the rest of us are too heartless to make any room.

No room for the rough sleeper, who for whatever reasons, we can’t find a place for anywhere. No room for the families with children who we cannot seem to find houses for, just bed and breakfast accommodation. No room any more for the immigrants from the European Union, who came here to make a home and contribute to society, but who are now made to feel unwelcome in a country they had called home. No room for the refugees, traumatized by war and dangerous journeys, treated as a threat by many people when they thought Britain would be a safe place to come to. No room at the inn for them, and for many others who need a place to stay, because we will not make room for them.

In the Christmas story, the Christ child is one of those for whom there is no room. In the Christmas stories of Matthew’s Gospel, this becomes even more the case. That’s the version with King Herod murdering all the children in the town of Bethlehem, causing Mary and Joseph to flee into Egypt until it is safe to return- so Jesus spends the first few years of his life a refugee in a foreign country. And as he grows, he will always be an outsider. His preaching upsets the religious establishment. He isn’t a Pharisee, or a Sadducee- he doesn’t fit into any party. Eventually, he becomes the ultimate outsider- a criminal, executed because he seems like a danger to the peace. There was no room for him.

In Christ, God identifies with all find themselves as outsiders- those for whom there seems to be no room for them. And so Christmas is a time for us not just to celebrate, but to be challenged. Are there people we have no room for, people we send into the shed, while we are cosy and comfortable in the inn? Can’t we treat other fellow humans better than that? And why do we treat them as a burden anyway? What if the stranger, the homeless, the refugee, the immigrant are not threats to us, but gifts to us. People whom we can get to know, who will bring us new ideas and experiences, who will bring much to the places they have travelled to?

And when God comes to us- do we make room? This is the point at which we preachers make an appeal to you to make some room in your lives for Christ this Christmas. And preachers complain that our increasingly secular culture, and our increasingly busy lives, people squeezing God out- you’re not making room for God. But, in fairness, it’s hard. We are not living in an age or a place which takes God seriously. We don’t talk about God much, we pretend that we think the concept of God is no longer important for art, culture, politics and morality. God really is an outsider now- strange, troubling, and often unwelcome.

And yet- in our culture, where we will not make room for the God who was born in a stable, is it any wonder that hatred and abuse towards those who are different from the majority is on the increase? In a world in which the God of Jesus Christ is pushed out, is it any wonder we have to fact check what our politicians say? In a world which has forgotten the Christian Christmas story, is it any wonder that greed, excess, selfishness and hatred seems to be squeezing out love?

At Bethlehem, God came to us from glory, before time and space, eternal and almighty- but born in a stable, for there is no room for him in the inn. And the One for whom there was no room at the inn is bound to ask us- what about the people today for whom there is no room? What are you doing for them? Do you even think about them? And- this is the really hard part- are you willing to give up some of your comfort to make room for them?

And so, in a way, the coming of Christ is a judgement on us, and our selfishness, and our lack of love. But Christmas is primarily a gift to us, if we will let it be so. For surely only a God who loves us dearly would go to the trouble of coming among us, sharing our joys and sorrows, living and dying as we do? And the good news is that the Christ who was born and lived and died among us also rose from the grave. He came as an outsider, and we often make no room for him. Yet he offers us the greatest Christmas present of all time: forgiveness, a new start, and a faith to live our lives by. And a message of love- love for our neighbours, whoever they may be. Love for those we think of as strangers, love, even, for our enemies.

Because at Christmas, God offers our broken, frightened, suspicious world the gift of love. Into our dark world, when we do not deserve it, has come light, in the form of the free gift of the child in the manger. He offers us God’s grace and love, but also the gift of being able to love other people. This Christmas, will you let God’s love flow through you, to those who really need it? For in our dark world, where the forces of evil are so prevalent, we need some love, love which will shine like light in the darkness.

Ascription of Praise

Glory to God in highest heaven,

and on earth peace to all in whom God delights!

Amen.

Luke 2.14 (alt)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2019 Peter W Nimmo

OHSS Winter 2019 Magazine

You can download a copy of the latest Magazine here

“I am the Lord’s servant”: A sermon on Mary for Advent: 15 December 2019

Scripture Reading: Luke 1:26-55

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

If you have taken a walk past Crown Church recently, you will see that they have a wonderful bit of public witness happening in their wee church garden just now: a crib scene. Mary and Joseph are standing at a stable, awaiting the arrival of the baby Jesus. Meanwhile, out on the lawn, the wise men are approaching (I think they get nearer every day). No doubt there are shepherds and angels still to come. You should go and see it if you haven’t yet.

Read More

Old High Development Project Exhibition

We now have a small exhibition about our proposed redevelopment of the Old High Church, based on a report by architect Alan S Marshall.

You can visit the exhibition when the church is open to the public:

Sundays after the 11.15am service (that is, from around 12.15am)

Fridays in Advent, 12 noon to 2pm.

We hope to open the church on further dates in the New Year.

Documents

The reports we comissioned are available to download:

Architect’s Report

Congregational Meeting March 2018

Architect’s Report Appendices

Indicative Cost Summary

Appendix C Indicative Cost (detailed)

For more information, please call 01463 250 802, or email invernesschurch<a>gmail.com (replace <a> with @)

Time to wake up! Sermon for The First Sunday of Advent, 1 December 2019

Scripture Readings: Romans 13.8-14.4

Matthew 24.36-44

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today’s Bible readings mention, among other things, drunkenness and debauchery, flooding, burglary, and people who disappear unexpectedly. For it is Advent, and strange things happen in the Biblical texts we hear at this time of year.

As the Christmas party scene gets into its swing, I wonder how many people will heed the words of St Paul which we read this morning:

Let us conduct ourselves properly, as people who live in the light of the day- no orgies or drunkenness!

Yes, it’s hard work being a Christian on a night out! The run-up to Christmas is really now part of Christmas itself, for all the preparing for ‘the big day’ is part of the process- indeed, it is part of the fun, if you like shopping or baking Christmas cakes. Christmas may be commercialised, but Advent hardly registers on the consciousness of the general population. We have Advent calendars for the kids, which are hardly more than countdowns until Santa comes. But we preachers will witter on about Advent for the next four weeks, and I wonder if anyone is taking much notice? When Christmas starts in mid-November, what can Advent possibly mean?

The Church season of Advent season of Advent is a strange sort of time. It’s supposed to be about looking forward to Christmas, to the day when we will remember the birth of the baby of Bethlehem. But how can you look forward to something which has already happened?- how can we be expectant about a birth which happened 2,000 years ago?

Yet all this confusing of past, present and future shouldn’t be disconcerting for Christians. For we Christians know what we are living in an in-between time in history. In Jesus Christ, God has come among us, in the child of Bethlehem. But the risen and ascended Christ is, in a mysterious way, still to come. And that should make a difference to the way we live.

We see this in the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans. In the first part of the reading, Paul is trying to encourage the Christians of Rome to lead good lives. He reminds them of Christ’s command to love, so that they fulfil the Law of God:

The commandments… are summed up in the one command, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself”. If you love someone, you will never do them wrong; to love, then, is to obey the whole Law.

And then towards the end of the passage, Paul speaks of a practical application of the command to love: how to deal with disagreements.

But between these two sections, in the midst of all this discussion about ethics (about how we are to live), we have some verses which tell us something about why we should love one another. It is because, he says, we are living in in-between times. At this point, Paul sounds like someone who feels that time is passing quicker than other people realise. He tells the Christians of Rome,

You must do this, because you know that the time has come for you to wake up from your sleep. For the moment when we will be saved is closer now than it was when we first believed. The night is nearly over, day is almost here.

There is an urgency here, and urgency which we also find in the preaching of Jesus. Consider this strange wee parable, which Jesus tells in our Gospel reading today:

If the owner of a house knew the time when the thief would come, you can be sure that he would stay awake and not let the thief break into his house. So then, you also must always be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you are not expecting him.

I’m sure you can think of many things the Bible says about Jesus- Prince of Peace, Son of God, Redeemer, the Word made flesh. But Jesus as a burglar- had that ever occurred to you before? But there it is, that’s what he apparently said. Not the most obvious thing to say about Jesus, but here he is, saying it about himself: I’m like a thief in the night!

Even odder is this strange passage- words which, again, are said to be the words of Jesus:

At that time two men will be working in a field: one will be taken away, the other will be left behind. Two women will be at a mill grinding meal: one will be taken away, the other will be left behind. Watch out, then, because you do not know what day your Lord will come.

Now, this is really strange stuff. Jesus seems to be saying that, at some point in the future, we’re suddenly going to find our neighbours and friends disappearing round about us, as if they’d suddenly been dematerialised and teleported on the starship Enterprise? What are we supposed to make of stuff like this?

It’s all about urgency, the sense that anything can happen at any time. And throughout, Jesus is urging us to watch out, keep alert, look for the signs that the unexpected it going to happen. Otherwise, we will be like the folks in Noah’s day, whom Jesus said didn’t know what has happening until they were swept away by the flood.

So St Paul tells the Christians of Rome that they’ve to wake up:

…the time has come for you to wake up from your sleep.

We humans spend about a third of each day asleep. But sometimes it is as if we are asleep the rest of the time, too. We can be jolted when something apparently unexpected happens because we were not alert enough to see it coming: a health problem that leads to hospitalisation, the seemingly happy marriage which- to everyone’s surprise- ends suddenly, the discovery that we have friend who’s deeply unhappy, and we never really noticed.

It happens on a world scale, too: everyone’s asleep, until something wakes us up. In summer 1914, European culture was seemingly at its peak, but within a few months the nations were slaughtering because a royal was shot in Sarajevo. 1989: Communism in Russia and Europe seems monolithic, but a few demonstrations and it all comes tumbling down. In 2007, bankers and investors, who treated the markets like as a casino where they would always win, did not expect their game to quite suddenly unravel, as the world was pitched into economic misery. Britain was, what one might describe as a stable country, until the EU referendum in 2016 pitched our politics and economy into chaos.

Often, there are those who can see what is coming. They are more awake than the rest of us, see the danger signs that all is not as it should be. But the rest of fail to be awake enough, for we have not been alert. And we are taken by surprise when the unexpected- ‘the wake-up call’- finally happens, and we sleepwalk into disaster.

As Paul writes to the Romans about how to love, he reminds them to remain alert. In their waiting, they are not to be lulled by the false security of the darkness. Love your neighbour, he says; avoid the darkness- because the time has come for you to wake up from your sleep. Night is nearly over, dawn is breaking, and soon all will be light.

And so, says Paul, we are to live in the light which is dawning: live by Christ’s law of love. He’s reminding us that it is as if any day now God will bring to completion the work he began in Jesus. We are to love one another, and not to have orgies or get drunk or fight or be jealous- because thief in the night is about to surprise us!

Christianity is an historical faith. We look backwards to the story of God’s dealings with Israel, which come to a climax in the history of Jesus Christ. Yet our historical faith points us towards the future. Christianity isn’t nostalgia- it’s about looking forward with hope.

In the life of Jesus, God has intervened once more in the history of the Jewish people, but now this old story takes on universal significance. For with Christ’s resurrection, we are pointed to the day when death everywhere will be defeated. And no longer is this history just about one nation: now it is about us all, about the whole of creation, which God wills to bring into a loving relationship once more with him.

Looking back to the biblical story of God’s dealings with this people, we are given hope for the future: the history which is past is leading to the end of history. And we are caught up in that process, in God’s great plan for the future of creation. This is our Christian sense that we live between the times when God has done great things in the past and the day when God brings it all to completion. We live between those times, looking back, yes, but also looking forward with hope. This is what Advent reminds us about.

Christians are folk who have learned from the Bible what God did in Jesus Christ. Responding to God’s love with faith, we now have hope, because God, we know, is taking things further. Not everything is quite complete. In Jesus’ and Paul’s day, many people had a sense that the end of the age was nigh. They looked forward to a day when, all at once, God’s reign of peace and justice was established on earth.

But early on, Christians, such as Paul, saw that the end of the world was, in a way, already underway. From them we get this sense of living in an in-between time. We know that evil has ultimately been defeated already the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Darkness still lingers, but, like people waiting for the sunrise, Christians can see the light on the horizon. We know the sun will soon appear, but the end is not quite yet.

And so we wait. And as Paul acknowledges, the waiting can be hard. We might get drowsy, and even fall asleep. We might allow the darkness, rather than the light, to lull us, so that our selfish appetites and desires get in the way of loving as Christ calls us. The vices Paul lists- orgies, drunkenness, immorality, indecency, fighting, jealously- even if we manage to avoid these things ourselves, they are still around us, for many still live in the dark! And these vices can seem attractive, acceptable, desirable, so that we are tempted to leave the light and spend some time in the darkness ourselves. In the light, you love your neighbour. In the dark, you become selfish.

In Jesus Christ, the light of the world has come to us. And his light is still dawning, especially in the lives of those who choose to live in his way, his light. He taught us to love, not just by tell us, but by showing us how to do it. In Advent, we are reminded that God’s Kingdom is it hand, already appearing among us. ‘The night is nearly over, the day is almost here’, says Paul, which for me, conjures up an image of a sunrise: the dawn light beginning to banish the darkness. Dawn is coming, and so we have hope! So let’s live in the light, this Advent, and always.

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2019 Peter W Nimmo

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