‘Family is Everything’ – you can’t have failed over the past few weeks (if you watch BBC TV), to have seen this headline for Eastenders. And if you’ve ever seen it, you will know that their family relationships are very complex and dysfunctional! It is taken for granted in non-western societies that whole families are units, but it is not so obvious in the West where the family has been reduced to ‘nuclear’ size, and tends to function as a loose collection of individuals. We need to think in a different way in order to grasp what Jesus means when he speaks about family. It is he, actually, who ‘chose to bring many children into glory’.  He and we are children ‘of the same family’, we ‘have the same Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters.’  He is both our elder brother and alongside us with God our Father. But not only does Jesus call us his brothers and sisters, he calls us his friends  . Friends trust and talk: Jesus wants his disciples to understand the world the way he does, and to share the insight his Father has shared with him. Friendship thrives on generosity: Jesus gives himself, dying for those he loves. Friendship brings responsibility too: I must love the people whom Jesus draws into his circle of belonging, and this may be a constant and costly duty. Not all Christians are likeable, yet loving them is a command, not an option.
 Hebrews 2:10,  Hebrews 2:11,  John 15.14
The church is often seen as a home for people, which is true, but before we can speak of it as a home for people, we need to begin with God. The church is God’s dwelling place, a home for God, a Holy Temple. What we do flows from who we are, who we are flows from whose we are. At the start of Lent we remember Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3.13-16. His ministry is launched with his baptism and the public encounter with the God the Father and the Holy Spirit. His ministry flowed from knowing who he was and whose he was. This encounter was critical for Jesus and his ministry, so how much more so do we as the body of Christ need to experience the dwelling of God in our gatherings. At his baptism Jesus experienced three things:
1. Affirmation of identity
2. Intimacy with the Father
3. The empowering of the Holy Spirit.
As a holy temple or home for God, we can and should expect to experience these three things when we meet. Is God at home in your midst? Do you experience his presence in these three ways? How open are you to encountering Him?
How do you see yourself?
Today we begin a new series of Sundays under the title ‘Living as His Church’. We will be looking at who we are as we seek to follow Christ, not just what we do. Truly, what we do always comes out of who we are – for better or for worse as we all know so well!! So some Sundays, will be very practical yes. But our first weeks will be about trying to understand something of just who we are as we place our faith in Jesus Christ – to get this identity deep inside us.
The first image, one little spoken of to be honest, is how the Lord Jesus sees us as His Holy Bride. Revelation, the last book of the Bible, has these words: ‘I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.’ 
It’s a famous passage, you’ll know it when you hear it, about the day when ‘he will wipe every tear from their eyes’. But have you also heard in your heart when it says how God’s people will be presented to him as a pure and holy bride….? Today we’ll explore the truth of this image, and I pray it will affect you deep inside as to how you see yourself.
 Revelation 21.2  21.4
Today we will see many pictures, hear many stories from Jane who has come on behalf of TearFund to share with us. Looking beforehand at the images raised many questions for me. Yes, how can we help?
But deeper than that. How can the situations we see be changed longer term?
What creates the problems in the first place?
And perhaps above all, what place does faith in Jesus Christ have in all this?
What difference does that faith make?
Some of our own experiences in Tanzania in East Africa tell us that the answer to those last faith questions is – ENORMOUS! And we have heard tell of recent fresh initiatives by TearFund and others inviting Christians from these countries to call on the Lord by faith in their own situation to find ways forward…..
All 4 Gospels record the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. Why one wonders?
Perhaps because all those Gospel writers had seen for themselves the powerful works of God, of Jesus ’feeding many people’ – as the last verse of one of our songs today goes: I, the Lord of wind and flame, I will tend the poor and lame, I will set a feast for them – My hand will save. Finest bread I will provide Till their hearts are satisfied; I will give My life to them. But the final line is even more challenging as the Lord asks: ‘Whom shall I send?’
Jesus – come for us
We read today of a special moment – when Mary & Joseph bring the baby Jesus up to present him to the Lord, indeed to dedicate him, in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. You may see yourself in the story we read, for there are people of all sorts there: the older generations, the parents, the tiny child…, the rich, the poor (Mary & Joseph bring the least expensive sacrifice as they can’t afford more). And why special? I’ve been asking myself that question. Perhaps because God is not seen, but is holy and with us nonetheless; perhaps because he has different people’s lives in his hands, even if they and we don’t understand. But above all because Jesus is come, brought by the faith of his parents yes, but as a gift to all of us – God with us, offering himself for us. Now, thinking honestly, do you find it easier to give or to receive? Truth be told most of us often find it more difficult to receive than to give! And yes, we will ask you today what you feel you can offer to the Lord of yourself; but in the first place Jesus has come for you so will also ask if you will receive from him – for he still longs to give to us, even if we find that harder. Yes, what we give to him delights him, but His gifts to us are treasures beyond measure, given at great cost by him, the Lord of love.
On Christmas Day we looked at how we all long for peace in our lives. We have now reached the point in our series, ‘From Longing to Finding – a Journey’, where we can now look at where we can find that peace. In John 14.7 Jesus says “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.” Jesus is telling us that we can only get real peace from Him; anything that we can get from the world is not real peace, it comes and goes. My personal experience bears this out: when I first encountered Jesus I found a peace I had never experienced before. Many times since, when life has been full of trouble and pain, I have also found that peace to help me carry on. Sheila Walsh said, “Peace is not the absence of trouble, but the presence of Christ.” This peace is something we can pass on to each other, by prayer, it is something we can continually ask the Father for. After all it is a gift to all of us and who doesn’t want to use and share the gifts they are given? This peace comes from being in a relationship with Jesus and through Him the Father, it comes from knowing we are loved deeply. It comes from being seen as whole, complete and perfect, which only comes from our relationship with Christ.
And by the light of that same star three wise men came from country far; to seek for a king was their intent, and to follow the star wherever it went. So goes a verse from the famous carol ‘The First Nowell’.
Many indeed find they need to travel far to find the Lord of Glory. But when He is found, ‘they were filled with indescribable joy’ as one version puts it about the Magi. Those who have bowed the knee in worship to the King of kings have found He is the One who brings joy beyond words. Those wise men had travelled long, met much difficulty and disturbance on the way, but finally found this joy.
There are many who have travelled far but then found Jesus Christ to be the joy-bringer: joy brought to those suffering, joy for those bereaved, joy in worship and finding His Presence with them, joy like no other. In Advent we spoke of our longings, including longing for joy. This Epiphany we speak of finding what we have longed for, finding in the person and presence of Jesus Christ. Perhaps you too will resolve to ‘follow the star’ leading you to Christ, wherever it goes. May you too then find His joy.
The Vicar’s Christmas (and New Year!) thought ‘
…..to guide our feet into the way of Peace’ 
This Advent at Ascension we have been speaking of our longings – for many things, for joy, hope, love, truth. As we come to Christmas, and indeed think of our ‘steps’ into the new year beyond, we turn our thoughts to our longing for peace – and celebrate the coming of the One who was called ‘The Prince of Peace’  . The thing is, many have not only longed for, but through faith in Him have found the Christ-child to be the source of deepest peace. Over Christmas we’ll read about the ‘light in the darkness’, the one who is called the ‘Morning Star’, dawning with new hope for our lives. Glory be to God in the Highest for this Good News, which the angel said to the lowly shepherds, was ‘for all the people’. But my particular prayer for everyone who hears this good news this Christmas, is that you will find the ‘steps’ God himself is guiding you to take as you travel on from here. That you may discover the faithfulness and love of the Prince of Peace who really does want to guide you into his deep peace, whatever life throws at you. Will you listen to His voice, take the steps he is asking of you, and discover for yourself by putting faith in Him that this is no empty promise? The Lord God himself is calling out, and wants ‘….. to guide your feet into the way of Peace’.  Luke 1.79  Isaiah 9.6
Something most people want is to be loved and to have someone to love. Films like ‘Love Actually ‘ are popular because they show that anyone can find that love. In Genesis we find Jacob who searched for the right person to love (1), but the trouble is for a lot of us we do not feel that anyone will love us or even want us. Then there are people like the Samaritan woman (2) who is on her sixth man, sometimes we are just not happy with our choice of partner… Finding the love we long for isn’t easy and often very difficult, however there is one who has always loved you and always will. Jesus showed how much He loves you by giving up all he had and was, God-hood, so He could die for you. This is true love, the love we were all made for, it fulfils us, fills the hole in us by giving us someone to love as well. Romans 8.35 asks, ‘Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?’ I have found that when you know Christ’s love then you can find human love as well, because you are no longer driven to fill that hole.
(1) Genesis 28 and 29 (2) John 4
Longing for Hope
Where does your hope come from, where does it lie? Or have you even given up on hope?
I hope not! They say hope is one of the things that eventually springs up in the human heart, even after years of being squashed down – rather like a dry seed that germinates after years of lying in a dark corner! The reason? I believe God has put hope in the human heart. But also that it is hope for something. I suddenly noticed, reading the famous Christmas passage again ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…’  , how many hopes then get a mention! Hopes of: ‘enlarging’ of the people, of rejoicing, of harvest, of yokes being broken and burdens lifted, of oppressors being destroyed. This list of hopes speaks to my heart, I expect it does to yours too. But here’s the thing, the promise is that all those hopes rest on, yes, a child: ‘For unto us a child is born’  . And a child through whom, God is with us no less (the meaning of the word ‘Immanuel’ as the angel explained to Joseph). This seems impossible. But I have found that a hope resting in this child Jesus is immensely powerful. As his Spirit moves among us, comes into our lives, we find genuine, deep steadfast hope arises – and then peace comes upon us sometimes even in the middle of great darkness (the bringer of peace will be at the centre our Christmas celebrations this year – so of this more later!). St Peter wrote, ‘pay close attention to what the prophets wrote, for their words are like a lamp shining in a dark place—until the Day dawns, and Christ the Morning Star shines in your hearts.’  May He rise in your heart and so re-fire your hope.  Isaiah 9.2  Isaiah 9.6  2 Peter 1.19
This Advent and Christmas, and then into the New Year through Epiphany, we will be speaking under the heading, ‘from longing to finding – a journey’. There are many things all of us deeply long for, but then many of us have discovered moments when in Christ we find we can say, “We found!” The full set of themes is set out inside, but we begin Advent with ‘Longing for Joy’. Every now and then Margaret and I say, “I feel like prince, like a princess!” Jesus speaks over and over again of inviting us to his feast, his table of joy. And it seems his favourite was a wedding feast. In some ways it’s only hinted at (as in today’s parable) but by the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, it’s full scale:
‘And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem,
coming down from God out of heaven
like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.’ 
Life seems tough, there’s a lot of waiting, a lot of persistence, a lot of faith required. Joy may sometimes seem far off, but God in his love has made our hearts for joy, and we long for it to ‘come up through the cracks’ as several Christian writers have put it. I long to know that joy of Christ, his joy over us indeed. May His Joy come to us. Amen Lord Jesus. Come!
 Revelation 21.2