Friday, December 27, 2019

Joseph the Carpenter - a pivotal role

A sermon for the first Sunday of Christmas

Last Sunday was a long time ago, wasn’t it?  Since then we’ve all we’ve attended overflowing carol services, celebrated the midnight Mass, feasted on TV programmes galore, and, if you’re anything like me – promised faithfully, again and again, that the diet will start after Christmas!

But if you can cast your mind back as far as last Sunday, you might remember that I sat on a chair, and read a story of Mary being visited by the Angel.  In my words of introduction, I explained that even though Matthew’s gospel reading focused very heavily on Joseph’s role in the annunciation, I felt that, being the fourth Sunday of Advent, we should properly give attention to Mary.  Which I then did. 

I also said that it was a curious fact of Matthew’s Gospel that his focus is pretty-much entirely on Joseph. I suggested that this was because Matthew himself was a Jewish man, who tended to view life from a patriarchal perspective.  Luke, on the other hand, appears to us as more of a gentile, and certainly his Gospel seems aimed at gentile Christians – and that women feature much more strongly in his narrative.

But after our service, I was gently chastised by one of my very good friends in this congregation, who rightly implored me not to overlook Joseph’s pivotal role.  (He also told me that he had enjoyed the re-telling of Mary’s story – so he wasn’t actually cross with me!).

And of course, he was right.  As today’s Gospel demonstrates very well indeed, Joseph’s role in the birth of Jesus was absolutely front and centre.  It was Joseph who could have (in the words of the King James Bible) ‘put Mary away’ in disgrace when her pregnancy became obvious.  But Joseph trusted what he had been told in a dream, and stood by his wife-to-be.  It was undoubtedly Joseph who negotiated a safe place for the birth of Jesus from a reluctant innkeeper.  It was Joseph who responded to another dream, and led his new family to safety, as refugees from Herod’s power-crazed murder of Bethlehem’s children.  It was Joseph who carefully shielded Jesus in Egypt, and then, when the time was right, settled his family in Nazareth.

Incidentally, it’s a little-noticed fact that Matthew’s account of the Nativity, unlike Luke, doesn’t describe Joseph travelling to Bethlehem from Nazareth.  In fact, if we only had Matthew to rely on, we could quite easily believe that Joseph was already a resident of Bethlehem (just as the prophets had foretold).  According to Matthew, Jesus only became a Nazarean because of the threat to his life as a child of Bethlehem.  According to Matthew, the Wise Men visited the baby in the ‘house’ where Mary and Joseph were living, not in a stable at all.

But those are just fun facts for bible nerds!

The important, underlying emphasis of Matthew’s narrative is the vital importance of Joseph doing what God asked him to do.  As the head of his brand new family, it is Joseph’s faithful obedience to God which saves and preserves Jesus for the ministry that is to come.  Joseph does not do what we might expect a man in his position to do.  He does not divorce his wife for shame.  He does not ignore the messages he receives through his dreams.  He doesn’t act all macho and try to protect his son from Herod’s soldiers with his own strength and cunning.  No, he simply trusts and obeys what God tells him to do.  He welcomes the new born king, and then safely shields him from harm until the danger of Herod is past.

There are two heroes in the Nativity story, therefore.  Mary is a hero for accepting her fate to be the unmarried mother of a heavenly child.  And Joseph is a hero for welcoming and then protecting the fragile baby Jesus, even at the cost of a massive journey into Egypt.

In the Bible, consistently, the heroes are always the ones who do what God asks or expects them to do.   It’s one of the central, over-riding themes of Scripture, that God always has a plan for his people.  Only by following the plan – doing what we are told – can we ever hope to establish God’s lasting rule on earth.  The trick, of course, is to understand what God is, or isn’t, telling each of us to do.

As a priest, I quite often find myself being asked the question ‘what does God expect of me?’, or ‘what should I do in this or that situation?’.  I honestly think that the questioners think that I must have a unique way of contacting God and asking for his opinion!  Should I take the drugs my doctor has given me?  Should I apply for a new job?  Should I have another baby?  How should I vote in the general election?  How should I know?!   You see, unfortunately, I don’t have a hot-line to God – and frankly I’m rather suspicious of anyone who tells me that they do – although the Bible certainly bears witness to the idea that from time to time, at pivotal moments in history, God will speak directly, or through an angel.

But in the every-day business of living, God actually leaves us alone, most of the time.  He has already stated, abundantly clearly, how we are to live our lives.  He then gives humanity the free will to decide whether we will choose to live as we’ve been called. 

We are to love God, and love our neighbours.  Or, if you prefer a more poetic phrase, we have been instructed through the prophet Micah, to “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.”  Say it with me – ‘Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God’.

These were, in fact, the precise attitudes of Joseph.  Doing justice meant that he could not ‘put away’ a young woman whose unplanned pregnancy was not her fault.  Loving mercy meant that he needed to give her the protection she and her baby needed.  Walking humbly with God meant trusting that God’s plan for the baby were far superior to anything that Joseph himself might have tried.

Jesus too had to follow that plan of doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.  It was that plan which ultimately led to his saving death on the cross, as the writer to the Hebrews reminded us earlier on.

So, as a new decade comes into view, you may be someone who is wondering what God is asking of you.  Perhaps you are facing one of those decisions which comes along in every life, from time to time.  I cannot make that decision for you.  What I can do is invite you to consider whether the choice you have to make will extend God’s kingdom of Love, or crush it.  All I can do, with the full weight of Scripture and God’s story behind me, is invite you to carry on doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.  Just as Joseph did.  Perhaps that’s the greatest new year’s resolution any of us could make.  Amen.

The Innkeeper's Tale

4pm Carol Service

The Innkeeper’s Tale - An imaginative re-telling of the Nativity story

Hello everyone.  My name’s Matthew. And I have the honour of owning a little pub in a town called Bethlehem, in Judea.   It’s a pretty famous pub, actually.  People come from all over the place to see where something very important happened - about 35 years ago.  In fact, I’ve even been offered a LOT of money by a group of wealthy religious-types to sell my little pub to them.  They want to build something they call a church, right on the site where this important event happened.

Would you like to hear the story of what happened, that night, 35 years ago?

You would?

Ok then. 

It had been a really busy day at the pub.  The Romans, who are in charge at the moment, had started this thing they called a census.  They wanted to count how many people were living in the land.  And, for some reason, they insisted that everyone had to go to the Town they were born in, to be counted for the census.  Don’t ask me.  It didn’t make any sense to me either.  Anyway, that meant that there were lots of people coming home to Bethlehem for the census.  My little pub was full to bursting.  I had people sleeping under tables, and on the roof.  We were jam-packed!

When evening came, everyone settled down to try to get some sleep.  Me and my wife were tucked up in bed, nice and warm.  Suddenly, in the middle of the night, there was a pounding on the door.  Someone was shouting “Let us in! Let us in!”. 

So, I pulled my coat on, and went down to the front door, where the man was still pounding away – “Let us in! Let us in!”

“Alright, alright”, I said.  “I’m coming!  Hold your horses!”

“I am holding my horse!” said the man on the other side of the door.  “Except it’s actually a donkey”

I opened the door, warily.  This midnight visitor sounded a bit bonkers to me!  And there, just outside the door, was a tall man, holding a donkey, with a woman sitting on that. 

“Please!”, said the man.  “You’ve got to help us.  My wife is pregnant, and she thinks the baby is on the way!”

I looked at the poor girl on the donkey.  She certainly didn’t look very comfortable.  Her face was all twisted up in pain.  I could see that this was going to be tricky.  I couldn’t really just slam the door in the face of a woman about to give birth could I?

“Please!” said the man, again.  Isn’t there somewhere we could stay? We’ll stay on your flat roof, if you like.”

“No room!”  I said.  “Already stacked with travellers”

“How about under a table?” the man asked.

“No room!” I said.  “There’s already four people under the tables, and one of them has a goat too!”

“So where can we go?” said the man.  “Look at her.  She’s going to pop, any minute!”

Suddenly, I had an idea.  “The stable!”, I said.  “How about the stable?  It’s a bit smelly, and it’s full of animals.  But it’s got a roof on it, and some warm hay.”

“Oh thank you!” said the man.  “That’ll do nicely.”  He turned his donkey around, straight away, and led his heavily pregnant wife over to the stable.

I left them to it, and went back to bed.  After all, what do I know about giving birth?  ‘They’ll be alright now’ I told myself, as I went back to sleep.

A couple of hours later, there was another commotion outside.  I could hear lots of voices, whispering to each other, in the night.  “Where is it?”  “Over here, I think”.  “Look at that star!  It’s shining right onto the stable!”

Clearly, I wasn’t going to get any sleep at all.  So I pulled on my coat again, and went outside to see what all the fuss was about.  There, to my astonishment, I found a whole pile of Shepherds, standing around in my courtyard, and peering into the stable.  Shepherds!  Just what I needed!  Shepherds are a dirty bunch.  They live outside of the town, out on the hillside, looking after their sheep.  And they don’t have a bath very often.  Very pungent, I can tell you.

“Oi!”, I shouted to the Shepherds.  “What are you lot doing here?  Get out of my courtyard!”.

“But sir!”, one of them turned to me.  “We’ve been told to come here”

“Told?” said I.  “By who?”

“By some angels, sir!” 

“What?!”  (Clearly, these Shepherds had been out on the booze! They must’ve been drunk, I thought).

“Honestly, sir!” another Shepherd said.    “We were out on the hillside, looking after our sheep, when suddenly an angel appeared in the sky.  He told us that he had good news to tell us.  He said that today, a baby had been born who was going to save all the world.  And that we would find the baby, wrapped in some old cloths, lying in a manger…an animal’s food trough”

“I know what a manger is, young man!” I said to the Shepherd.

“Sorry, sir,” he said. “But then, after that, the whole sky lit up, with thousands of angels, singing praise to God, and singing ‘Glory in the highest heaven, and peace to people on earth!”.

There was something honest about this Shepherd.  He seemed so convinced of what he was telling me.  And all his mates were with him too…so perhaps there was something in it, after all.

“And you think,” I asked him, “that this special baby has been borne in my stable?”

“Yes sir.  That’s why we’re here sir.  Come and see for yourself, sir”

Tentatively, I made my way through the throng of Shepherds, crowding around the door to my stable.  And there, right in front of me, I saw something that took my breath away.  I saw that bloke, who had the donkey earlier, standing over his wife who was kneeling on the straw.  In front of her, was one of my mangers – only this one had a baby inside it.  But strangest of all, there was a strange, heavenly light shining all around the manger.  I looked up, through a hole in the roof, and there above us was the most brilliant star I’ve ever seen.  And it was shining right onto the baby.

Somehow, something in me knew that this was an incredibly important night.  Something wonderful had happened, right there in my stable.  I knew even then, that the world had changed.  Tomorrow, was going to be a brand new day, and nothing would ever be the same again.

Well, that’s my story.  I know it’s a bit hard to believe.  But that’s the way it happened.  And 30 years later, that baby had grown up into a man we called Jesus.  He went all around our country, telling everyone that God had a new plan for human beings.  He told us that God wanted us to learn how to love one another, and that love would bring peace on earth, just the way that the angels sang.  Eventually, the powerful people grew afraid of him.  And they killed him.  But three days later, another miracle happened, and he rose up out of his grave – to prove to everyone that God is actually in charge, not the rich and powerful.

Yes, my friends.  Nothing’s ever going to be the same.  Tomorrow really is a brand new day!

A Sermon for St Nicholas

Christmas Sermon for St Nicholas’ Chapel Langstone

I’ve been taking a bit of a risk, this year.  I’ve been enabling St Nicholas, or Santa Niclaus—Santa Clause—to play a part in our Christmas celebrations across the parish.  At our Little Seeds group, for toddlers, on Friday, Mother Christmas and Grandma Christmas were present.  St Nicholas set up a grotto in the Pallant Centre Play Café.  He visited the Community Carol Service last night at St Faith’s, and even parked his sleigh outside the church with the help of Havant Rotary.  Tomorrow night, I understand, there’s a chance he might appear out our Family Carol Service at 4pm!

St Nicholas is of course a real person...very real.  He was a Bishop in modern-day Turkey, in a town called Myra, around 300 years after the birth of Jesus.  He was a wealthy man - having inherited his fortune from his parents.  Once he became a priest, and then a Bishop, he used his personal fortune to help as many people as he could.  The two stories we’ve heard today are perhaps the most famous, but there are others too.

St Nicholas was especially known for his miracles, and for the power of his prayers.  For centuries, he was especially loved by sea-farers, because of a couple of stories about his connection to the sea.  In one story, he was travelling by sea to the Holy Land, when a great storm blew up.  One of the sailors was killed while tightening the rigging - he fell to the deck, quite dead.  But St Nicholas prayed for the man, and he came back to life, completely restored, and in no pain from his fall.

In another story, the town of Myra was experiencing a great famine.  A ship was in the harbour, full of wheat, bound for the Emperor.  Nicholas invited the sailors to unload a part of their cargo to help the town - which at first, the sailors refused to do.  But Nicholas persuaded them that they would suffer no loss if they did as he asked.  His reputation as a holy man was sufficient for the sailors to trust him - and sure enough, when they eventually arrived in Rome, they found that the volume of their wheat had not changed.  Somehow, the wheat they had given away had increased miraculously in the hold.

Of course it is precisely because of these links with the sea that our chapel here in Langstone is dedicated to St Nicholas.  As boats come and go through our harbour, we ask St Nicholas to continue to watch over all sailors, and to lift them up to God for protection.  In other countries, especially in the Orthodox world, his status as protector of sailors is even greater.  In Greece, for example, he is known as ‘The Lord of the Sea’, and he is the patron saint of the Greek Navy.  Sailors in distress all over the globe are often said to cry out to St Nicholas for help.

St Nicholas is also, of course, the patron saint of children.  And that’s because of a rather grisly story….

Around the time of the same famine we just heard about, a malicious butcher is said to have lured three children into his house, where, tragically, he killed them - placing their remains in a barrel to cure - planning to sell them off as ham!  It sounds like the legend of Sweeny Todd, doesn’t it?! Somehow - we don’t know how - St Nicholas learned of this terrible scheme - and he confronted the Butcher.  He then prayed over the barrels, and the three children came back to life, miraculously.

All of these legends - and many more - have grown up around St Nicholas.  His name sounds different in other tongues.  The Dutch, for example, called him Sint Nikolaas, which overtime became Sinterklaas. It was the Dutch settlers who brought the legends of Sinterklaas to America in the 1700s - and it is from America (and especially the Coca-cola company) that we now have the legend of Santa Claus - the enduring notion of a saint who continues to bring gifts at Christmas time - especially to children, whom he loves.  In fact, St Nicholas doesn’t only deliver presents to children at Christmas time.  In many Orthodox countries, he actually delivers them about a month earlier, on the 6th of December - which is his feast day.  Which I suppose helps him with the task of delivering presents all around the world!

In many ways, I think it is a shame that - collectively - we have forgotten many of the stories about St Nicholas.  For St Nicholas is much more than a sleigh-driver with presents.  As a rich man, who used his wealth to help the poor, he stands as reminder to all people of wealth that we have a responsibility beyond our immediate families.  As the patron saint of sailors, he reminds us of the many merchant and navy folks who will spend Christmas away from their families this year.  As the miraculous resurrector of slain children in a butcher’s barrel, he reminds us that children all over the world are living in sometimes terrible conditions - as refugees or modern-day slaves - and he invites us to take action to save them.  As the reliever of famines in Myra, St Nicholas reminds us that we can all take action to relieve the suffering of others.

The church teaches that we belong to a Kingdom of Heaven, which is coming into being on Earth.  That Kingdom includes those holy women and men, like St Nicholas, who have lived on Earth before us - and in many parts of the church, it is quite normal for us to talk to - to pray to - such saints, and ask for their help.  For, we believe, such saints live with God.  It’s rather like sending a letter to Santa. 

So, this Christmas, perhaps all of us, old and young, might take a moment to pray to St Nicholas - to ask him to teach us more about what it means to love and care for not just our immediate families, but for the whole of humanity...for children everywhere, for sailors, for the starving and for the poor. 

Remembering of course the supreme example of poverty that we have been given - a child from heaven, who was born in a stable!

A Sermon for Midnight Mass and Christmas Morning

Midnight Mass & Christmas Morning

I had a strange experience a few weeks ago.  I was standing in my garden, in the early dawn, when suddenly I saw the face of Jesus looking back at me, from the grass.  Just his though someone had buried Jesus up to his neck on my lawn.  It was quite a shock, I can tell you - until I realised that what I was actually looking at was the remnants of a football which my daughter’s dog had systematically chewed pieces off, leaving just some bits of white leather hanging on!  In the right light, it looked just like the face of a bearded man, looking right at me.

My first thought was 'E-bay'!  I could make a fortune.  There have been faces of Jesus on pieces of toast, or in the core of a tomato that have gone for thousands!  The face of Jesus on a Vicar's football...that would be worth something!  But then, it set me wondering.  For a start, no-one actually knows what Jesus looked like.  There are no portraits of him by anyone who knew him.  We have a picture of him in our minds - long hair, beard, nice smile and so on.  But actually, the chances are that he would have had short hair.  And probably a typically Jewish nose!  So on reflection, I decided that pedalling dubious images of Jesus wouldn't be very appropriate.  So I booted the ball back up the garden!

I wonder whether you have ever tried to imagine the face of God.  It's impossible of course.  But I think it is possible to imagine God's expression, at least.  I imagine God looking, frankly, disappointed.  I imagine him looking at the mess our world is in, and being rather miffed, to say the least.  He must look at the wealthy bankers getting richer, while the foodbanks and hostels of Havant struggle to keep up with the demand from the homeless and poor.  He must weep over the battles in Syria and all around the Middle East.  He must be distraught at one million refugees who have sought refuge in Europe, just as Jesus himself sought refuge in Egypt.

As well as imagining God's expression, I wonder if we could try putting ourselves in God's shoes for a moment.  Given a world which is systematically ignoring your call to love God and love your neighbour, what would you do about it?  If you were God?

Perhaps you would be tempted to jolly-well sort it all out.  Perhaps you would appear on a thunder cloud, and start laying down the law with an iron fist, coupled with the threat of thunder bolts and lighting (very very frighteningly!  Galileo, Galileo...).  Perhaps you would use your almighty, omnipotent power to force people to be kind to one another. 

But, if you did might find that you have a new problem.  Instead of a human race which chooses of its own free will to love you and worship you, you would have created a race of puppets.  You would have reduced the beautiful thing that a human being is - filled with possibilities for ingenuity, music, science, art and creativity into something not much better than a toy.  Adam and Eve would be reduced to Ken and Barbie.  And any love or worship they offered you or one another would be a poor thing indeed.  A mere shadow, a fabrication.

So, what do you do?  How do you persuade human-kind that there is another way?  How do you speak a Word to them that they will hear, and to which they can respond with all their hearts?  Here's what you do...

You send them your Son - a human being who is so filled with God that he can say with integrity "I and the Father are one".  You send them a Word clothed in flesh.  You show them what a human life can be like if it overflows with God. You send them a Word which reveals the full glory of God by living the kind of life that God calls all his creation to live.

You send them...a baby.  You send humanity the most fragile form of humanity that you can conceive, so that humankind might finally wake up to the idea that the glory of God is not shown in acquiring wealth, or looking after number one, or living in hate - but the glory of God is shown in the weakest kind of human being possible...a baby, in a stable; son of a poor unmarried woman in a backwater of the mighty Roman empire.

If you could stand in God's shoes today, perhaps you too would send humankind a Divine Word clothed in flesh.  For today, God comes to us as a human, to show us what it really means for us to be human.  By a life of selfless giving, total sacrifice, total love and compassion, Jesus shows us the heart, and the face, of God.

A Christmas Sermon - for Carol Services

Christmas Morning

What is it, I wonder, that captures us about the Christmas story?  It’s a story that never fails to warm our hearts, or make is tingle with excitement.    I think that’s because, like all great stories, this one has so many brilliant elements to it. 

First it’s a story with a journey at its heart.  There’s a journey from Nazareth, to Bethlehem and then on to Egypt and back again.  Everyone loves a road movie – from the Wizard of Oz to Thelma and Louise, we all recognise, deep down, that road movies are analogies of our own lives…with all their joy and pain.

Secondly, this is a story full of juicy scandal!  From Eastenders to tabloid newspapers, we all like a bit of juicy scandal.  In this case, it’s the scandal of a child born out of wedlock.  Much more horrifying, though, is the scandal of King Herod, who put the children of Bethlehem to death for fear of losing his throne.  This is a scandal about power.  And we recognise it, don’t we?  From scandals in Parliament, to the outrage of ISIS, or the fictional horror of Darth Vader and the Death Star, we recognise the real horror of people who try to dominate others through violence.

Then, thirdly, this is a story full of magic and mystery.  Everyone who has ever enjoyed a fairy-tale or a Harry Potter movie instinctively picks up on those mysterious Wise Men of the East who follow a star.  And of course, let’s not forget the Angels – mysterious beings whom we barely understand, suddenly appearing and proclaiming peace on earth.

Fourthly, there are the animals.  Sheep on the hillsides, cattle lowing in the stable, a donkey faithfully carrying Mary.   Anyone who thinks that human beings don’t like animal stories should check out the number of cat videos on Youtube!  We are all suckers for a baby lamb, or a gently moo-ing cow in a barn.  It brings out the ‘Aaah’ factor in us!

It’s a story rich with characters, too.  There’s the faithful Joseph, who stands by his fiancée even though he must have had great doubts about her story.  There’s Mary herself, forcing us all to wonder whether we could have had her faith to press on.  Or rushing along the road to Bethlehem, trying to get there in time for the birth of her son…just as we rush around , preparing for the same event.  There’s those rough shepherds, men of the hillsides, outsiders who are yet welcomed into the heart of the story.  There are those mysterious wise men; and the fictional inn-keeper, never specifically mentioned in the Gospels, who yet causes us all to wonder how we would respond to a stranger asking us for sanctuary. 

Perhaps we all love this story so much because we recognise ourselves in it.  We know that we are all capable of Mary and Joseph’s faith, or the Shepherds’ wonder.  We recognise that we are capable of being intelligent and thoughtful Wise Men and women.  We also know, when we admit it to ourselves, that we, like Herod, are capable of abusing our power – the power we hold over our families or our work colleagues.  Or, we recognise that we are the victims of such power, if others dominate us.  We also recognise that there are times when we fail to act with the generosity of Joseph or the Inn-keeper.  We know that we need help to be as faithful as Mary, or as brave as the Wise Men as they set out on their quest.

Ultimately, we all know that we can only journey so far through life on our own resources.  We recognise our own weakness in the babe of Bethlehem.  If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we need the help of others – just as he did at that time of his life.  We cannot live in isolation.  We cannot do this thing called life, alone.

Ultimately, this is a story about a god who saw the plight and the drama of human life, and who chose not to remain aloof.  This is not a god who sits on a cloud, demanding worship and dispensing favours in return for the right prayers.  This is a god who decides to engage with all the mess and muddle of human life.  He comes among us as that most fragile form of human life, a baby, utterly dependent on those around him, to show us that this is how we should live too.  We cannot live a life apart.  We need those around us, in our families, in our churches, as much as God needed Mary to bring him to earth.  We need others just as Jesus needed Joseph and the Shepherds, and the Wise Men and even the fictional inn-keeper to welcome him and warm him.

This is our God who dispenses not condemnation on our messed-up human world, but mercy and grace.  He enters into the human condition – he refuses to sit apart from it.  And by his life, his teaching, and then his death and resurrection he offers us a way out, he rescues us, he redeems us – from our solitary, fearful, chaotic lives – from what the old-timers called ‘sin’.   God enters our existence, as a Word – a word of hope, and a word of challenge…and he shines a light into humanity’s darkness.

Sadly, all too often, we are blind to the Light that he shines, and deaf to the Word that he speaks.  That’s why the third verse of It Came Upon A Midnight Clear is so powerful:

"Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;

beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong.

And man, at war with man hears not the love-song which they bring

O hush the noise!  ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing!"

My prayer for all of us is that this Christmas we will hear anew the power of the Christmas story.  May we open our eyes to the Light of Christ, and our ears to the Word who is God.  May we begin to recognise that the Christmas story is also our story – that it contains within it all the challenge we require to turn from our sometimes solitary, often fearful, chaotic, consumerist, self-focused lives – and to turn towards the Babe of Bethlehem, asking him – no, begging him -  to save us from ourselves.


Advent 4 - Mary Meets an Angel

Sunday Morning - Advent 4 2019

An imaginative re-telling of the Annuciation

Mary plonked herself down onto her bed.  "Crikey, I'm tired!" she said.  It had been a long day of household chores.  But now, Mary had one more important job do.  She reached down, under her bed, and pulled out an old basket.  Inside was her nearly-finished wedding robe...the one she had been working on for the past several weeks. Mary was engaged to Joseph, the old carpenter in the village.  No-one knew why Joseph had not been married before...perhaps he had been waiting for the right girl to come along. 

At that moment, unbeknown to Mary, something began to happen in the corner of her room - just over her shoulder.  A twinkle in the air.  Now a soft glow. Then, suddenly, a tall figure with wings on his back appeared in the corner.

"Greetings!" said the figure.

Mary jumped out of her skin!  "Where did you come from?", she demanded.  "You shouldn't creep up on people like that!"

The tall figure with the wings, looked a little surprised at her reaction.  People usually quaked in fear when he appeared.  He wasn't used to being told off.  "Sorry", he mumbled.  "Didn't mean to startle you.  Can I go on now?"

"Alright"  said Mary, thinking that this tall fellow looked a little bit like one of Mrs Jacobs's sons, from down the road.  "What's this all about....and why have you got those wings clipped onto your coat?  Are you going to a fancy dress party?"

"They're not clipped onto my coat." said the tall man.  "They're sticking out of my robe...they're my wings."

"Oh," said Mary who was beginning to realise that this wasn't Mrs Jacobs's boy after all.  "Who are you?"

"I'm an Angel", said the Angel.

"Get away!" said Mary.  "You're pulling my leg.  What's this...some kind of prank?"

"No, really", said the Angel.  "I'm an actual, real, Angel.  Sent by God.  I've got a very important message for you. You are really very favoured you know.  Not everyone gets a real Angel sent with a message from God."

"Ok," said Mary, sarcastically.  "I'm all ears!"

"Mary," the Angel started again, patiently, "I've got really good news for you.  You are to be given the greatest gift that any woman has ever been given."

"Gosh!" said Mary, all agog.

"Yes," the Angel went on, "You are going to have a baby, sent from God.  You are to name him Yeshua"

"What, like Yeshua who led the People into the Promised Land?"  Mary enquired...trying to take in what the Angel was saying.

"Yes," said the Angel, "Just like that.  It means ‘God Saves’.  Although years from now people will change the way they pronounce it, and will call him Jesus."  The Angel drew himself up to his full height, and started to proclaim, slightly pompously, "He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever."  (The Angel was really working himself up to a climax now...the big finish.)  "His kingdom will never end...and..."

"Erm...", said Mary, holding up a finger.

"What now?!" said the Angel - a little bit annoyed that he had been stopped in mid-flow like that.

"Well, you see, I don't think I can have a baby.  I'm not married yet”.  The Angel took a deep breath.

A little pomposity crept into his voice again.

"Nothing is impossible for God.  The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So the holy baby that will be born will be the Son of God."  Suddenly, he had an idea.  "Haven't you heard about Elizabeth?"

"What, my cousin Elizabeth?"  Mary said.  "What about her?"

"She's pregnant,” said the Angel. “Has been for six months"

"Never!" said Mary.  "But she's really old!"

"Nothing is impossible for God", repeated the Angel.

"Well," said Mary.  "It all sounds very unlikely, I must say.  I mean, why on earth would God choose a peasant like me to bear his son. Are you sure those wings are real?"

"I'm completely sure.  It's always been God's way.  Right back to the dawn of time. Don't you know your history?  Don't you remember how God rescued your ancestors when they were slaves?  God has always had a heart for the poor.  People whose lives are not cluttered up with stuff are so much closer to him.  You know, God said to me only the other day that Moses only become interesting when he had stopped being a prince.  God had been talking to him for years...but Moses only heard him when he had become a poor goat-herder up a mountain."

"Hmm," said Mary, still not quite convinced.  "Let me get this straight.  I'm going to have a baby, right?"

"Yep" said the Angel

"Even though I've not even kissed Joseph yet?"

"Even then"

"And my baby is going to be the Son of God...even though he will be born in this little hut?"

"Well," said the Angel cautiously, "He won't actually be born here..."

"Why not?" asked Mary, suspiciously

"It'll be a bit more rustic than this"

"A bit more rustic?  How much more rustic do you want it?" said Mary, pointing at her surroundings.

"Umm" said the Angel, with a worried look in his eye, "Think donkeys.  And cows"

"What!" exclaimed Mary.  "My baby is going to be born in a field?!"

"Oh no!", said the Angel.  "Nothing as bad as that.  More like a stable"

"A stable!" said Mary.

"Mary..." said the Angel, a little sternly.  "You've got to trust me.  You've got to trust God.  God knows what he is doing.  Yeshua has to be born somewhere that no-one would expect a king to be born.  He's got to be born in utter that God's priority for the poor and the humble can be made clear.”

Mary slid forward off her bed, until she was kneeling on the floor in front of the Angel.

"I am the Lord's servant", she said.  "May it be to me as you have said"

The Angel smiled.  Mary had accepted what he had told her.  She had tasted something of her future, and the future that would be shaped by her Son.  Satisfied that his task was complete, the Angel slowly faded from Mary's view. 

Mary's heart was full to bursting...and she sang...

"My soul is bursting with God's news!

I'm dancing the song of my Saviour-God!

God took one look at me, and look what happened -

I am the most fortunate woman on Earth!

He bared his arm and showed his strength,

And scattered the peddlers of lies and falsehoods.

He has knocked tyrants off their high horses

and pulled their victims out of the mud.

The starving poor sat down to a banquet;

the callous rich were left out in the cold..."

In the corner of Mary's room, the smile of an Angel hung in the air for a few seconds.  And was gone.