December 2007: Nine
See the archive for December 2006 for explanation.
The creation -- Genesis 1, vv 1-5, 26-8, 31
God said "Let there be light", and there was... what, exactly?
If I tried to give a comprehensive answer to that question, I would certainly be in trouble for taking too long, so I will restrict myself to a small part of it, beginning on the third day.
I have here something so small that you probably can't see it at all. It is an apple pip. If I planted this pip, all being well it would grow into an apple tree, which would produce apples with more pips in them, and the cycle would continue. We all know that.
We all know that, but do you ever stop to think about how remarkable it is? This tiny pip carries the blueprint which enables it to grow into something much greater, and to reproduce itself. And God, with characteristic lavishness, enabled it to produce many other things along the way -- not only apples, which we can ourselves eat, but flowers and leaves, which feed insects and support other parts of the ecosystem, as well as looking beautiful. I could go on -- a single tree forms part of the elaborate system of life which covers the whole planet. It is only recently that we are discovering just how complex and fragile it is.
Let us not dare to damage it, for it is very good!
And that moves us onto the next day, and the stars. If it is clear and you have good eyesight you can see thousands of stars, but of course there are many more which we can't see. How many are there altogether? Here is an informed estimate: 10000000000000000000000. Astronomers and physicists like numbers with lots of zeros -- either that, or they are coming up with strange terms and you are left not quite sure what exactly it is they are measuring. Has anyone counted the zeros yet? There are twenty-two. So this number is ten sextillion.
It is difficult to grasp the magnitude of a number like that, but perhaps the apple pips can help us. I have a small number here, but suppose I had ten sextillion apple pips? What would they look like? If they were spread out on the ground, what area would they cover? Would anyone like to hazard a guess?
They would cover the entire earth's surface to knee deep (this sounds like a doomsday scenario!) And while you're at it, they would cover the surfaces of Mercury, Venus and Mars as well.
But we're not talking about apple pips here. Every one of those pips represents a star, all with their own unique characteristics. Another example of lavishness in creation.
Have I blown your mind yet? If not, maybe this will. Out of all the vastness of space, God has singled us out for special attention, and even decided to pay us a visit. Why was that, and what happened? That's what the rest of the service is about. It's over to you now.
Music: Pavane by Fauré
The people walking in darkness... -- Isaiah 9, vv 2, 6, 7
Please make yourselves very comfortable and place your blindfolds on.
I am going to lead you where we have no God to shine upon us, no Jesus to comfort us.
We are all very small. We have no body, yet we can feel. We have no eyes, yet we can see. We have no ears, yet we can hear.
In the Darkness we are alone. The walls are black, cold and covered in slime. We can see no exit that we may leave, only continued walls, yet this space we entered by choice. We can hear the burden breathing and mourning of despair. We are without anything that can make sense of this madness. This is the time spent living and walking in darkness -- we are lost, alone and meaningless.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will rein on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.
Please take your blindfold off, when you feel ready.
Music: Movin' on up by Primal Scream
The shepherds -- Luke 2, vv 8-16
Thin places by Ben Cohen
Connie was a lovely old lady. But by most people’s standards, stuff seemed to happen to her that didn’t really happy to the rest of us. When I was a good deal younger, my whole family were into yogic flying.
I never left the ground. At least not long enough to trouble the laws of physics. Or Richard Dawkins. But Connie told me she had done once – in a hotel room.
“Go figure” as the Americans say.
As well as a yogic flyer, she was also a devout Catholic, and went off to Medjagore. It’s a village in the former Yugoslavia where some young children had a vision of the Virgin Mary.
Well, we were keen to find out – “did you see the Virgin Mary?”
“Oh, no; only the children get to see that... I just got to see the sun dance around in circles in the sky”
Now what she did and didn’t really see and do, I’m not going to speculate. But Connie was one of those people for whom this World and the next seemed to be joined by a rather thinner curtain than most of the rest of us. Or maybe she had a wardrobe...
Reading this passage got me thinking about Connie – I think it’s all those paintings of the shepherds looking up at a sky ripped open, with angels blowing trumpets and singing praises behind it.
The early Celtic Christians had a word for something a bit like this. They called certain places “thin places”.
It’s somewhere where that thick fortressy wall that seems to separate Heaven and Earth – God’s thoughts and your own, narrows down to a papery thinness.
You may know one yourself
It could be a holy site
Or maybe a retreat house steeped in years of continual prayer and worship.
You could swear you heard God’s gentle voice.
Saw him casting a shadow on the ground.
Sometimes thinness is just there for a brief spell and then it’s gone.
It can be a person.
I’m not sure you can trap thinness or bottle it.
And I don’t think we should get too obsessed with chasing after it.
Every new revival meeting or magic Christian...
Like size zero, it’s not always healthy.
And thin places can be scary too. Look at the shepherds.
But when you find one, make the most of it... Heaven isn’t so far away after all...
Dear God, show us the thin places where we can seek and find you more effectively
When we encounter the thin place, help us be sincerely and radically open to you.
And we thank you for Bethlehem, the thinnest place of all.
We pray in the name of Jesus Christ
... so be it ...
(Sarah presents me Samurai sword. I tear muslin screen open leaving white light to bleed out to music – O Come O Come Emmanuel)
The Magi -- Matthew 2, vv 1-12
A recitation of T.S. Eliot's Journey of the Magi over Indonesian instrumental music -- Jeruk Manis by L.S.Gelik