SAVING (THIRD WEEK IN ADVENT)
THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT
A giant white radish broke through asphalt to grow fruitfully on a road in the Japanese town of Aioi. Local residents nicknamed the vegetable “Gutsy Radish”. Asked why the radish had so many fans, a town spokesman said: “People discouraged by tough times are cheered by its tenacity and strong will to live.”
So imagine the outrage when the radish was decapitated by an unknown assailant. In fact so great was the furor that the culprit the next day replaced the top half of the radish near the site where it had been growing. The repentant attacker had placed it in water to try to keep it alive and in the hope it might yet flower again.
There are a number of possible reasons why we might come to regret an action we’ve taken or something we said. One is the realisation, like the one experienced by the radish-slayer, of the effect we’ve had on others. Another is an internal awareness of the wrongness of the action, perhaps one that was already there before it was done but which we chose to ignore. Then there’s that sinking feeling that comes when a friend, even if ever so gently, points out a way we’ve let ourselves down without realising it.
John the Baptist’s admonitions were far from gentle but he seems to have struck a chord with his contemporaries. He had no suggestions to make about how to make restitution – indeed in the majority of situations, attempts to undo or make up for what’s been done are as futile as replacing the radish. He recommended repentance, expressing regret and determining to behave differently in future, and promised one would come whose life and work would transform the way we view our wrongdoing.
Read: John the Baptist proclaimed: “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near” (Matthew 3.2)
Rejoice: that God doesn’t leave us with a sense of having failed but comes to offer us a new way forward.
Reflect: Are there any actions or words of mine I’m still trying to make up for when really all I can do is to express regret and behave differently in the future?
Remember: other people are sometimes more forgiving of us than we are of ourselves.
Resolve: to be generous in offering my apologies…and in receiving them.
Road works which cause long diversions can cause frustration, particularly at this time of year. In Shepherd’s Bush, West London, on one occasion, 300 yards of roadworks led drivers to be taken over flyovers, along the North Circular, through the perpetual gridlock of Hanger Lane and back through industrial estates – 12 miles in all. “It is a lengthy diversion,” said a representative of Transport for London, “but we would not be behaving sensibly if we sent this traffic down roads which could not cope.”
Sometimes, as we reflect on our lives, we feel we’ve gone a long way round to get to where we are now. Perhaps it was because we couldn’t see the direct route at the time; perhaps we weren’t even sure where we wanted to get to. We just muddled through doing what seemed best or simply letting events lead us.
The Christmas story describes the travellers from the east as having been guided by a star. They were diverted from the most direct route and went via Herod’s palace but in the end they arrived safely at their destination.
Maybe just now we’re not aware of having arrived anywhere. We’re not sure where we’re going. But sometimes, looking back, what seemed frustrating diversions at the time turned out to be significant in bringing us to where we are now. Perhaps the route, though long, had its compensations as new discoveries were made on the way; or delay was required so that the timing of our arrival was right; or going the way we did, avoided experiences we couldn’t have coped with. The journey doesn’t seem so long if we feel we can trust the creators of the diversion to get us to the right place in the end.
Read: In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. (Exodus 15.13)
Rejoice: in those times when I’ve been conscious of God leading me.
Reflect: Am I willing to let God guide me….or do I feel I always know the best route?
Remember: Just because I don’t know where I’m going, it doesn’t mean God doesn’t.
Resolve: to look out, when I’m not where I want to be, for good reasons for being where I am.
Recently an unusual kind of present apparently became fashionable. “Demand is up about 25 percent,” reported a plastic surgeon one Christmas. “I am operating from morning to night. People want to be able to stand under the Christmas tree with their new car, new sofa and new lips or breasts.”
Much of what happens at Christmas is traditional. Part of the point is that it doesn’t change. But the increasing number of lifts, tucks and implants being given as presents by those who can afford it suggests that for some at least there is a desire to be different.
The dissatisfaction some feel with how they look reflects a sense of unease experienced by many more of us about how we are or what we’re doing. We’d like to stand under the Christmas Tree as new people, proud of who we are, at peace with ourselves and those around us because the less attractive parts of our personalities and lives have been ironed out.
A Christmas song says: There’s a new world beginning from tonight. What sets it going is the new insight into God’s love brought by Jesus’ birth. God loves us enough to come and share in the struggles and joys of being human. Not only that but he doesn’t wait for us to be worthy to receive him – he comes to us as we are.
We don’t need to change to be loved. We can stand tall, approaching this Christmas with that new confidence and peace for which we long, not because the parts of us we don’t like have been surgically removed but because we know that they, like the rest of us, are loved.
Read: God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5.8)
Rejoice: in the encouragement God gives me to accept myself as I am.
Reflect: What aspects of my life and myself give me pleasure?
Remember: putting pressure on myself to be different can be counter-productive.
Resolve: to remember to remind myself regularly that God loves me .
A few years ago Brad Meltzer wrote a short series of comic books and they were published by the firm that features Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and many other well-known heroes. The comic book world was thrown into turmoil because in these stories, Batman is in despair, Superman is questioning his abilities and Wonder Woman has lost her wonder. The story began with a brutal murder for which they all felt partly to blame. Superman even shed a tear. Guilt, grief and remorse didn’t seem consistent with the usually heroic behaviour of these characters and there was concern among fans about these long-invincible characters experiencing such dramatic identity crises.
Self-doubt and distress in one of our heroes or heroines can be unsettling. Seeing even them struggle with pain or worries reminds us how potentially destructive such feelings can be – if they have this effect on them, how will I manage? Part of us would prefer the reassurance of someone unshakeable to lean on. But another part finds strength in recognising that all human beings experience such emotions and from seeing the heroic way they often deal with them.
In the birth of Jesus, God offered the world a hero about whose inner life we know virtually nothing. But he did display sadness, disappointment and inner turmoil. He was far from the invulnerable and invincible hero the popular imagination often seeks.
Brad Meltzer said he was trying to give these characters a new ‘human’ side. Jesus’ life affirms the human side of God. Being tested, facing struggle and frailty, were all part of his life as they are part of ours. A hero who helps us acknowledge our human weakness will be much more helpful than one who pretends that our salvation is in invincibility.
Read: When I am weak, then I am strong (1 Corinthians 12.10)
Rejoice: in those whose way of dealing with struggles in their life has inspired me.
Reflect: Am I leaning on anyone?
Remember: God wants me to lean on him.
Resolve: to find people’s vulnerability inspiring as well as their strength.
The memorial service for Ginny, a schnauzer-Siberian husky, was attended by some 300 cats. Ginny died, aged 17, after a long career as a one-dog rescue party for cats on Long Island’s South Shore. Cat lover, Philip Gonzalez, used to take the dog out every night to feed stray cats in the area and over the years, Ginny saved hundreds of cats who were abandoned, injured or in harm’s way. She once ignored the cuts on her paws as she dug through a box full of broken glass to find an injured cat inside. On another occasion, she threw herself against a vertical pipe at a construction site to topple it and reveal the kittens trapped inside.
Dogs are renowned for their loyalty to their human owners but such concern for another animal species is remarkable. In human beings too, care for our own families and those like us comes naturally. But people whose lifestyle or assumptions are totally unlike ours or who have a very different cultural background present more of a challenge. It’s when care is offered across those kinds of boundaries that a deeper humanity is revealed.
Jesus’ life was distinguished by such caring. His loving for people Jewish society thought of as beyond the pale – prostitutes, tax-collectors, non-Jews – crossed boundaries and challenges us to check again whether our loving extends to people whose difference from us might deter us.
Indeed, the very existence of Jesus reveals how God too crosses that kind of boundary. Without his coming, what’s human and what’s divine would have continued to seem very far apart. But God wanted to save us from that narrow-mindedness which limits our capacity to love. He showed the way in Jesus when he embraced our humanity with his divinity.
Read: He is our peace…he has broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2.14)
Rejoice: that God’s not put off loving me when I’m being ‘all too human’.
Reflect: Is there anyone – or any group of people – I’m not reaching out to because I’m put off by their difference?
Remember: there’s much to be learnt from loving people who initially seem very different from me.
Resolve: to take the next opportunity I have to cross a social barrier.
At a secret summit of Santas new guidelines were agreed. Father Christmas must have a bushy white beard no more than six inches long and a girth no greater than 48 inches and no less than 46 inches. “We are trying to eradicate shoddy Santas,” said a spokesperson from the Ministry of Fun agency which fills 500 Santa positions a year. “I even saw a Santa last year wearing trainers.” The hope is that under the new directives, every Santa’s grotto will be adorned by a neatly presented Santa and a properly resonant ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’.
It’s unlikely that there will be any reciprocal gestures from those responsible for that other favourite Christmas scene, the Crib. It might be tempting to raise standards there too. The baby really should have a proper crib, not an animals’ feeding trough. The walls should be draught proof. The family should have its own space, not be cheek by jowl with cows and goats.
But to tidy up that scene would be to take away its meaning. Jesus was born into a chaotic, confused world. The point of the Crib is to remind us that when God chose to come and be part of our lives, he did so in a manner that showed us he didn’t expect VIP treatment. He came to be part of human experience at its toughest and most demanding.
Few of us have lives which go to plan and leave us untroubled. The fact that Jesus experienced the same kind of messiness and struggle as we do gives us confidence that when we seek God’s support in dealing with our troubles, he knows what we’re on about. Tidying it all up is not usually what he does, but the Crib guarantees that he will be with us in our confusion and help us through it.
Read: For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted (Hebrews 2.18)
Rejoice: that God embraced the challenge of being human.
Reflect: When am I aware of having experienced God’s support?
Remember: that God is backing me up even when I’m not conscious of it.
Resolve: to try living with, not struggling against, the bits of my life which feel chaotic or messy.
Walking fully grown tigers on a leash is all part of a day’s work for a group of Buddhist monks in Thailand. They take in tigers which have been injured but not killed, sometimes by hunters and sometimes by people who didn’t want the tiger near their village but also didn’t want to see it die. “We are a big family here,” said the head monk, sitting cross-legged on a rock surrounded by five large tigers who take turns to nuzzle up affectionately to their saffron-robed master.
The monks live with the possibility that an outburst of aggression and potentially destructive violence may occur suddenly and without warning. So do most of us. Hidden deep within most human beings is a well of frustration and anger. We become aware of it particularly when we feel provoked or threatened. It can seem powerful. Indeed so strong does it sometimes feel that we may worry that one day we’ll be unable to control it.
The child born in the stable died on the cross as a result of that violence. Throughout his life, he met it – in the violent behaviour ascribed to evil spirits, in the anger of his opponents, even in the misunderstanding of his disciples and his betrayal by one of them. But like the monks, he befriended those who expressed it. By coming into the world and living with gentleness alongside confused, destructive and aggressive people, he defused the power of their anger.
As we prepare to celebrate a festival of peace, let’s be confident in what the Christmas story says about God coming into our violent world and overcoming its power. It can give us the courage to live at ease alongside any potential for violence or anger within ourselves and know that ultimately, there’s a power that’s stronger than it is.
Read: Jesus met a man ‘whom no one could bind any more…..chains he wrenched apart, fetters he broke in pieces’ but Jesus sent the unclean spirits into the pigs and the man found ‘his right mind’ (Mark 5.1-20)
Rejoice: that in the manner of his dying and in his rising from death, Jesus defeated the forces that killed him.
Reflect: What do I normally do with my anger?
Remember: when I’m inwardly raging God’s arms hold me firmly and lovingly.
Resolve: to befriend my anger, not criticise myself for it.