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There is a refrain which runs through Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus: “Do not be afraid!” How we need to hear it. Read more

Let’s raise a glass this week to the people who…

…are making holes in oranges and assembling Christingles; to the wardens who open and close the church; to the volunteer cleaners who scrub candlewax out of the carpet and polish the brass; to the flower arrangers and ringers; to the choir soloists and their proud parents; to the organists playing Hark the Herald for the fifteenth time; to the thurifer caught up in the mystery of her first midnight mass; for the second violin in the church orchestra who only plays at Christmas; to all the volunteers who pushed cards through letterboxes in the first week of December;

…to the treasurers staying late in the vestry counting and bagging; to the PCC secretary who learned how to update the website; to the army of volunteer cooks turning out thousands of mince pies; to those who will read the Christmas story; to the new curate preparing his first Christmas sermon and the retired priest preparing her thirtieth and still finding new things in the story; to the sacristans ironing the linen and setting up the altar; to the young mums finding time to help in the toddler group nativity; to the lay minister taking home communion to the housebound and nursing homes; to the greeters at the church doors and the person on the sound desk who doesn’t forget to charge the batteries; to the clergy summoning their last bit of energy; to the lift givers and intercessors; to the ones who know where we stored the shepherds last year; to the pastors who listen and know just what to say.

Something extraordinary happens across the diocese in December. More than 260,000 people attend church, school and civic carol services in Advent. That’s around five times our normal worshipping community. Over 160,000 people attend services on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Every single one will find a smile and a welcome and hear something of the Christmas story as they come.

That takes an army of volunteers. Thank you. It’s worth it.

It’s worth it not because so many of our churches will be full (though that is lovely). It’s worth it because those who come will find in the beautiful, profound Christmas story new hope and strength for their lives. In the midst of the carols and Christingles, marriages will be renewed; families will find grace to forgive; generosity will be rekindled; strength will be sought and given; tears will be shed; silence will be rediscovered; the embers of faith will be rekindled somehow; seeds will be sown and begin to take root.

For some, this will be life saving. For some, it will be life shaping. For others another gentle step on a road back to God. For others a profound moment of rediscovery and hope and salvation.

Many will come confused and distressed at all that is happening in the world. The story returns us to the centre, to the meaning. We will be reminded together that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it. We will carry that light together into homes and workplaces and centres of influence: a Christ-like church for the sake of God’s world.

And at the centre of it all the one whose name means saviour and king: Jesus the Christ, coming as a child, changing everything.

Whatever part you play as part of this wonderful team, thank you. May God bless you and your families this Christmas.

 

 

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that each year Bishop Steven writes a new hymn. The verses of this year’s hymn are based on Colossians 1.15-20: praising Christ first for creation and then for salvation. The chorus sets this praise of Christ in a simple song of praise to the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I’ve invited the Diocese of Oxford to dwell in the Word this year in two passages from Colossians (1.15-20 and 3.12-17). We are exploring what it means to be a more Christ-like Church, contemplative, compassionate and courageous for the sake of God’s world. I’m really appreciating reading these texts with a variety of groups as the weeks go by.

One of the verses in the second part of the passage says this: “Sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God”.  The early Church catches the joy of the resurrection and creates new songs of praise. Some of these songs find their way into the New Testament.

Our first Colossians passage, 1.15-20 is one of those hymns or spiritual songs. It’s a profound and wonderful hymn to Christ.

I’ve tried to turn it into something that groups and congregations can sing together. Regular readers of this blog will know that each year I try and write a new hymn as the verse for our Christmas card.

The verses of the hymn are based on Colossians 1.15-20: praising Christ first for creation and then for salvation. The chorus sets this praise of Christ in a simple song of praise to the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The tune I have in mind is the Skye Boat Song. The chorus is meant to be sung to “Speed bonny boat like a bird on the wing”. The verses are sung to the slightly different tune of “Many’s the lad…”

I think it works best if you sing it fairly slowly. You are welcome to reproduce the words and have a go.

I have an idea it might work well as a piece sung in harmony by choirs as an anthem at Communion or at a quiet moment in the service. Let me know how you get on.

 

Praise to the Father, praise to the Son, Jesus our Lord and King
Praise to the Spirit, Holy and strong, lift up your hearts and sing.

Heaven and earth, land, sea and sky
Planets and stars and light
All things were made through Jesus Christ
Icon of love infinite

Praise to the Father…

All things exist in Christ the Lord
Christ was before all things
All things are held in Christ the Word
From Christ all new life springs

Praise to the Father…

Christ is the source, Christ is the head
The church is his body on earth
Christ above all raised from the dead
Calling us into new birth

Praise to the Father…

In him God’s life loves to abide
Calling the earth into one
Christ through the cross offered his life
Peace for creation is won

Praise to the Father, praise to the Son, Jesus our Lord and King
Praise to the Spirit, Holy and strong, lift up your hearts and sing.

Steven Croft, 2018
After Colossians 1.15-20
Suggested tune: The Skye Boat Song; repeat the chorus after each verse.

A set of three Bible studies for Lent is in preparation based on Bishop Steven’s addresses to the clergy conference earlier this year. We expect these to be available to order from store.oxford.anglican.org in January.

A very happy Christmas.

One of the best carol services I took part in last week was in prison. There were about 100 prisoners and staff and volunteers gathered for the service. The very ordinary dining room was turned into a chapel. The music came from an old keyboard.  There were no candles or crib scene or decorations.

But there was a Pentecostal gospel choir from Luton. And when they sang, somehow, joy filled that prison dining room. The joy was in the harmonies and the way they moved. But the joy came from their hearts and on their faces. The joy was infectious, it moved from person to person.

Nobody there forgot their sorrow or their pain or their questions. But through the choir, we were touched, somehow, by an even deeper joy. The gospel message became real in the music: glad tidings of great joy.

Joy is the accent of our worship this Christmas morning. We come conscious of the pain and grief of the world and our own sorrow. We haven’t come to escape. We come conscious of our weakness and frailty and the many imperfections of the church. We come mindful of all that stands in jeopardy in the world at the present time: war and greed; corruption and poverty. We are conscious of humanity coming to a great turning point.

Yet still the joy penetrates our darkness and lifts our hearts and reshapes our lives and burns brightly even in the midst of tears. “Joyful all ye nations rise” we sing.  “O be joyful in the Lord”.  “Joy to the world”.  How can that be?

It’s not the outer wrappings of Christmas which make us joyful: tinsel and turkey, paper hats and sending cards.  It’s not the time off work, or time with family or travelling long distances or particular traditions.  It is not sentiment or wishful thinking.

It is the remarkable truth at the heart of the Christmas story. Glad tidings of great joy. Almighty God is born a person. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.

“He will save his people from their sins”.

When you or I drop a stone in a pond the ripples are largest near where the stone falls and then gradually fade. When the Son of God is born, at the time hardly anyone notices. But then the ripples grow larger all down the years, spreading through time and space and human culture.

We celebrate and proclaim this truth in this place today and the ripples go out and affect even the most dry and cynical and secular parts of the season with rich echoes of joy.

God the maker has entered creation and has made a special study simply of being human. God stoops and bends and distils divinity into one particular child. By taking human flesh, moving to be near us, at one time and in one place God dignifies in every time and place each human life and every person. There is no-one now beyond the immensity of this love.

Left to ourselves we cannot see or imagine God who made the heaven and the earth. Even if we could imagine, we would not dare draw near. Left to ourselves humanity would have continued to manufacture gods in our own image: cruel and careless idols, tools of oppression, projections of our own tired fantasies, demigods with feet and hands and hearts of clay, or vast impersonal forces generating only fear.

Jesus, the sweet word of God, is the light entering the darkness, the force which shaped the universe taking flesh, the reason and logic and grammar of creation in flesh and blood and tears and laughter. The greatness of God’s power and majesty is not diminished by his presence in a tiny child. The child is able to bear and contain the vastness of God’s love.  God comes down to earth to lift us all to heaven.

God’s limitless power is voluntarily confined, God’s love beyond measure is concentrated, the wisdom of the ages is focussed, poured into a single life, the pivot of history. This is the moment the mending of the world began.

The entire story of the gospels is simply the unfolding of the truth of the incarnation. An acorn holds within its DNA the plans and life force to grow a mighty oak which will endure a thousand years. Today we remember that the fragile simplicity of this new born baby carries God’s entire plan of healing and salvation for the whole of creation, for as long as earth endures, for this world and the next.

In this our season of the world’s long story, the souls of men and women are parched and thirsty for meaning and for mystery and truth and joy and love. The message in the carols and the readings and the story of Christ’s birth are like water on dry ground.

For those of us who know the story, come deeper. See more clearly. Love more dearly. Follow more nearly in this coming year.

For those who do not yet understand, who catch a glimpse of something far away, whose hearts are strangely warmed, who catch an echoing of a knocking at a long forgotten door, come closer, look deeper, begin the journey, hear the call.  Let the mending and the healing which has come to all creation come to you.

For this is Jesus and he will save his people from their sins.

 

 

+Steven Oxford 

A sermon in Christ Church, Oxford

Christmas, 2017.

 

 

 

 

All six regular readers of this blog will know that I attempt at least one new hymn every year as the verse for my Christmas card.

I’m under no illusions that they will endure.  I love words and enjoy crafting them in different ways.  The satisfaction is as much in the writing as in the singing.

The text I have spent the most time with this year is Matthew 5.1-10: the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.  I’ve recently asked every community in the Diocese of Oxford to spend some time dwelling in this text and exploring what it means as we seek to be a more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous church.

A hymn is one way of dwelling in the text.  Each half verse takes one beatitude as its theme.  It’s not a translation of the words but a reflection on them and especially on the idea that the beatitudes offer us a self-portrait of Christ.

I’m not a musician so always write to a particular and well known tune.  The tune this year is Blaenwern, best known as the setting for Charles Wesley’s magnificent hymn, Love Divine.  Hum it to yourself as you read the words.

You’re welcome to reproduce the hymn and use it if it’s helpful.  Let me know how it goes.

Our new three session course for small groups on the beatitudes can be ordered here.

Gracious Lord, our hands are empty

Beggars seeking life and grace

Graft our lives into your own life

Gift your Spirit in this place

Hearts of stone we lift for blessing

Hearts of flesh we seek anew

Help our eyes see with compassion

Comforter, our joy renew

 

Servant Lord, you came in meekness

Stooping low to show our worth

Banish pride, restore love’s sweetness

Help us heal your wounded earth

Give us hunger for your kingdom

Thirst to see your ways prevail

Satisfy our hope for justice

Make us lights which will not fail

 

Living Lord, your name is mercy,

Love made flesh in life and word

Kindness shown to the unworthy

Grace which can be touched and heard

Pure in heart, you offer wholeness

Open eyes that cannot see

Win for all complete forgiveness

Come to set your people free

 

Son of God we seek your healing

Over this fragmented globe

Mend our lives, our homes, our nations

Making peace, one seamless robe

Help your church to be courageous

Joined in your eternal search

For the lost, the least, the helpless

Make us more a Christ like Church

Happy Christmas everyone.  This is my Christmas sermon from 2012, from the Midnight Eucharist at Sheffield Cathedral.

Christmas Sermon 2012 24th December, 2012 in Sheffield Cathedral Isaiah 9.2-7 and Luke 2.1-14

Some powerful words from our Old Testament reading and the ancient prophecy of Isaiah:

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”

One of the most memorable news stories of 2012 was the story of the unclaimed Euromillions jackpot.  Sometime back in June in the Stevenage area, someone bought a lottery ticket.  The numbers on the ticket came up. The holder was entitled to claim a staggering £63 million in prize money.  Think of it. But no claim was made.  Despite an extensive search, the ticket was never found.

It’s no use checking your pockets.  The deadline was 4th December.  Somewhere for six months there was a ticket in the back of someone’s wallet or down the side of the sofa or behind a fridge magnet which could have brought unimaginable wealth.  Perhaps one day, someone will find it and ponder what could have been.  Hold that thought for a moment.

What is that brings us together this evening in this ancient and holy place? What is it that draws people all over our land to churches at Christmas time? We are drawn, I hope, by more than the beautiful music, by more than a place of prayer, by more than the love of family and friends.

We are drawn by a longing for something, an ache, an emptiness, a void, a restlessness, a sense that life is incomplete.  It’s there all the time in different ways.  Often the noise around us drowns it out.  Sometimes when life is going well we forget it’s there for months on end.  Then suddenly it’s back again: like a voice calling from the distance, a thirst deep within us, a sense that we are incomplete.

In times of happiness, that joy we feel has nowhere to go.  In times of sadness, it’s a longing for comfort beyond ourselves. In times of confusion the ache becomes a cry for guidance.  In moments of darkness, a sense the light is there, if only we could see it.  In times when we do wrong it’s a sense of guilt and regret.  In the times when we are crushed it’s a desperate cry for help, a longing for someone to be listening.

Sometimes it feels like a distant memory of childhood.  Sometimes it’s an echo from a far away future.  Sometimes it’s a cry in the midst of the pain of the world. Sometimes it’s a glimpse of peace amidst turmoil and misery.  Sometimes it’s a gentle whisper in the silence of the night.  Sometimes a dis-ease for which we can find no cure.  Sometimes it’s a longing for someone or something we cannot name, something precious but just out of reach.

All down the ages men and women like us have felt this longing, this restlessness, this emptiness whenever we have tried to live without God.  However deeply we try to bury it, however much we hide from it, however difficult it is to face it, the sense remains that there must be more to life than there seems to be.  We know we are called to something deeper, more real, more meaningful than this world seems to offer.  We long in our hearts for more.

God is calling us all down the long years.  Christians recognize this inner voice, these questions, this restlessness as the voice of God calling out to each person in creation, to every one of us.  You were made with a purpose and a high calling, each of you, to know your creator and to live in friendship with God.

It is part of the great mystery of life that our friendship with God has been fractured by the evil which is in the world.  But even that broken friendship leaves its traces in that sense we have that life is incomplete, unfinished, hollow, unless we find the meaning.  From time to time we listen and know and understand that God is reaching out to us, longing to draw us home.

The story of Christmas can only be understood as a rescue mission.  Humanity is lost.  By ourselves we cannot find our way back to God.  So God sends to us his Son, born of a virgin, a child in a manger, to help us find our way.

Many people who celebrate this Christmas with turkey and tinsel will be like the owner of the lost lottery ticket.  They will simply not understand what they have been given.  They will not claim the treasure which could be theirs, the treasure which is worth more than they can ask or imagine.

So pause for a moment this Christmas and ponder again the wonder of the scene we know from cards and nativities all the world over.  See the stable, rough and ready, feel the straw under your feet and the chill night air.  Hear the animals, imagine the farmyard smells.  See Mary, a young girl, full of holy wonder.  See Joseph, kneeling by the crib.  See the fearful shepherds crowding in the stable door.

And in your minds eye see the child, wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.  See this child who is called by the prophecy so long ago wonderful counselor: the one in whom the wisdom of the ages rests.  See this child who is called Mighty God: the Lord of heaven and earth born as an infant, taking flesh becoming human.  See this child who is called in the prophecy, Everlasting Father: the one through whom the stars were made becomes a boy in a stable.  See this child, born in the midst of conflict, who is named the in prophecy Prince of Peace.

Come and see Jesus.  His name means God Saves and this Jesus has come to save us and all the world from our sins and draw us back to God.  According to Isaiah, his coming brings light.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  His coming brings joy.  “You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy”. According to Isaiah his coming brings freedom and peace and order and justice and righteousness such as the world has never known.

Remember as you look, this is the child who will grow into the wisest teacher, the most compassionate friend, the mightiest healer the world has ever known.  This is the child who when he grows will feed the hungry, calm the storm, drive out the demons and raise the dead – mighty works and signs of a greater reality.  This is the child who when he grows will call men and women to follow him and become a new community which will spread over all the earth.  This is the child who will grow into the man of sorrows, who for the love he bears us, will go to his painful death on the cross for our sins, who will again be wrapped by his mother in strips of cloth, and who three days later will rise again, the conquerer of death itself.

Don’t hurry from the stable.  Stay a while. Kneel with the shepherds and ponder. If God really came to earth as a tiny child, then that one truth changes everything.  It changes the way you see God.  For God is not distant waiting for you to come to him.  God is present longing for you to receive his gift.

It changes the way we see ourselves.  You are not just a number, a statistic, a grain of sand on the seashore.  You are infinitely precious to your creator.  You are meant to be here.  You are chosen and called and saved. Your life has meaning beyond itself.

It changes the way we see the world.  For every child is precious to God, loved, cherished.  God’s love does not change as we grow older.  God’s love is not affected by race or the place where we are born or the human family we are born into.  No-one is just a number.  Each is a person, unique, created in God’s image, loved and able to be redeemed.

Our world is meant to be different.  It is meant to be a place of peace not war, of fairness not inequality, of health not disease, of love not hate, of honouring one another, not exploitation, of truth not lies.

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”

Listen again at Christmas time to the voice of God calling to you down the ages and calling you home.  Come and kneel on the floor of the stable with the shepherds.  Receive the most precious gift of all this Christmas time: the gift of Jesus, the gift of life.

Amen.

Podcast

Welcome to the second edition of My (extraordinary) Family. In this episode Bishop Steven speaks with the Revd Felicity Scroggie, the Rector of St Mary’s, Kidlington and our new Bishop’s Advisor in Women’s Ministry. Hear about her journey to ordination, and the adventures of a live nativity, complete with a real camel and various other farm animals.