Nativity 3: Myth, Mistake or Mystery?


In a vain attempt a couple of weeks ago to enter into the Christmas spirit I forced the family to watch Nativity 3. It met with mixed reactions. The strongest of which came from one of my children who said, ‘well that’s two hours of my life I’m not getting back’. He had a point.

But how do you explain the events of the nativity? Not the film this time. The actual events of that first Christmas?

The shepherds, the wise men, the star, the angels and a baby born without the involvement of a human father. We’ve got to have an explanation haven’t we? This is not something that we can simply leave and push to one side as though it was unimportant. It’s not. We’ve got to be able to explain it, surely? I reckon there are four typical explanations to the events of that first ever Christmas. Four attempts to explain what happened.

It’s a myth

What I mean is that some of us think that there’s no truth in it. It just didn’t happen. In other words, it’s invented. Someone one just made it up. If that were true, it wouldn’t be the only invented thing accepted at Christmas, now would it?! It’s like ‘The Snowman’, the book by Raymond Briggs that was made into a film in 1982. The Snowman comes to life and takes a small boy on an adventure to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. We all know it’s not true. It didn’t happen. The Snowman doesn’t actually exist. But we’re happy for him to reappear every year at Christmas. The problem with thinking that Jesus is a myth is that the historical evidence leads to a different conclusion. He really did exist. No serious contemporary historian really doubts that. The writers of the gospels are keen to locate the events in human history. For example, in our reading from Luke’s Gospel this morning he wanted us to know that Jesus’ birth took place in the time of the Roman Caesar Augustus during the census that he instigated when Quirinius was governor of Syria. That’s a whole heap of historical data that precisely locates Jesus’ birth.

No, we can’t say that these events were invented. Whatever it is, it’s not a myth.

It’s a mistake

What I mean is that some of us think that it probably did happen but that the details have been exaggerated. In other words, it’s inaccurate. There’s some truth in it but it’s been embellished. It’s like Robin Hood. In popular folklore he was an outlaw who stole from the rich to feed the poor, operating in Sherwood Forest near Nottingham during the reign of King John II. Historical documents record several men called Robin Hood. It was a common name. And many of them were on the wrong side of the law even if they were on the right side of the people. But about a century or so later folksongs and ballads began to make reference to the supposed antics of him and his merry band of followers. But the Robin Hood of folklore and the Robin Hood of real history are very different characters. The problem with thinking that our understanding of Jesus is mistaken is that anyone who’d exaggerated any of the claims that Jesus made or exaggerated the things that he did would have been immediately discredited. They’d have been shouted down and shown to be fraudsters by the people who heard Jesus say what he said and saw him do what he did. Those eyewitnesses wouldn’t have let people be mistaken as a church grew through the proclamation of something that they knew to be a lie.

No, we can’t say that these events are inaccurate. Whatever it is, it’s not a mistake.

It’s a mystery

What I mean is that some of us think that it certainly did happen but that we can’t know for certain what it means. In other words, it’s inexplicable. It’s like the Malaysian Airlines plane MH370 that crashed a couple of years ago. We all know that it happened. The plan never landed. Bits of the plane have been found in the southern oceans. But no one knows for certain what took place. It’s an unsolved mystery. And we can think of Jesus’ birth like that. It’s a mystery. We just don’t know what it means. We can’t know what it all means. And we just say that it’s profound. It’s deep. It’s beyond our understanding. But the problem with thinking that we can never know the truth is that the rest of the Bible spends most of its time telling us what the truth is. It helps us to make sense of these events.

No, we can’t say that these events are inexplicable. Whatever it is, it’s not a mystery. So what is it? Honestly.

It’s mind blowing

What I mean is that when you get your head round the truth of it, it’ll blow your mind. Nothing’s ever the same once you’ve got it. In other words, it really is an incarnation. That’s not a word that we commonly hear. But it’s the word used to describe what was happening when Jesus was born. Incarnation literally means ‘taking on flesh’ or ‘becoming embodied’. The Bible’s take on Jesus’ birth is that he is God made flesh. As Wesley’s unsurpassed carol ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ puts it ‘Veiled in flesh the godhead see, hail the incarnate deity, please as man with man to dwell Jesus our Emmanuel’. The angels in Luke 2 put it this way, ‘Today in the town of David (that is, Bethlehem) a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’. And just so that we’d be absolutely clear who they were talking about they include this line, ‘this will be a sign to you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger’. Jesus is God with us. He is the Lord of all shrunk down into a body just like ours. But why? Why would God go to so much trouble? The clue is the other two names given to him by the angels. First, he is the Messiah, the much promised long awaited anointed king for God’s people.  And so secondly and perhaps more clearly, he is our Saviour. God sent his son to be born as a man so that he could save us. To understand the baby in the manger we must remember that he became the man on the cross. There he swapped places with us. A sinless substitute taking the just punishment for sinners. He was born so that God would treat him as though he were me so that God could treat me as though I am him. It is the most mind blowing exchange that has ever or will ever take place.

It’s not a myth. It’s true truth. It’s not a mistake. It’s plain truth. It’s not a mystery. It’s open truth. It’s mind blowing. It’s transformative truth.

What’s your explanation for the events of Christmas? What are you going to tell your kids? And what are you going to tell yourself?

Should I bother with Advent?

advent-candlesMany churches lit their first advent candle last Sunday. We didn’t. We don’t have any. And it’s not that the apprentices forgot to go shopping. We just don’t do that sort of thing. Advent, I mean. Not shopping. Or forgetting. Let’s move on.

Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter. A well intentioned non-biblically mandated Early Church addition. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not without value. Because both Lent and Easter are intended to get us ready. However, you’ll search the scriptures in vain for a helpful steer about how to use the period before Christmas Day.

And that’s important. Not because we’re therefore forbidden from observing it. We’re not. We’re free to do things that the Bible doesn’t prohibit. And so it’s a matter of glorious freedom. In Colossians 2:16 the Apostle Paul warns us against those who would condemn us for our non-observance of a religious festival. The gospel has freed us from all that! And so, we’re at complete liberty to ignore the season of Advent (or Lent for that matter) if we want. Whether we observe it or not makes not one iota of difference to our standing with God. But having said that, I do think we might miss out on something useful to our Christian and congregational life by our neglect of it.

So what are we to make of advent?

First, the history. Advent comes from the Latin ‘adventus’ which translates the Greek word ‘parousia’. It means arrival or coming. And it was used to refer to the forthcoming arrival of the then recently fixed Christmas Day. Biblically, the ‘parousia’ refers both to Christ’s first coming in the flesh and his second coming in glory.

Secondly, why observe it. You don’t have to. But, it is all about preparing ourselves and getting ready for the arrival of the Messiah. Initially it has to do with the arrival of the Messiah in human flesh and then eventually it has to do with the arrival of the Messiah in his heavenly glory. If in the first place it looks forward to the arrival of the incarnate Son of God it then also looks forward to the return of the resurrected Son of God. It’s a helpful time then to attune our hearts and minds to the imminent arrival of the Lord Jesus.

Thirdly, what could we do to cultivate this sense of anticipation?

This, from Tim Chester, is worth a look. It’s called ‘The One True Story’. He sent me a copy earlier in the year hoping that I’d find time to review it. I failed him. But I think we’re going to use it as a family over the next months. Containing a selection of short meditative readings, it’s designed to help you prepare for Christmas. Perhaps get the kindle version for your phone this very day.

In the past, when the kids were a little smaller, we constructed a Jesse Tree, which was fun and not too much effort.

I recently discovered that there are advent readings, a guide and a calendar for the brilliant Jesus Storybook Bible available here. And it looks absolutely brilliant for families with primary or pre-school aged children.

I haven’t done it this year. Or any year for that matter. But I wouldn’t rule out lighting an advent candle in subsequent years at CCB!


2016-04-29 14.27.01It was my very great privilege to be asked to speak this past Bank Holiday weekend at a small missionary conference for the Church Missionary Society of Australia (CMS). I travelled first to Slovenia to catch up with the organiser, an old friend and occasional visitor to CCB, Kingsley Box. He, his lovely and lively family and I travelled to Austria where we met with others who are working in Central Europe. There were missionaries and their families from Italy, France, Austria, Germany and Slovenia.

The conference was an opportunity to meet up with others doing similar things, to reflect on life and ministry and to encourage one another to persevere. I was asked to teach the Bible each of the three mornings. The rest of the time was spent listening to their stories and praying in response, participating in seminars and generally engaging them and their (many, many) children in conversation. We stayed in a self-catering ski hostel in the snow topped Alps. As you can see from the photo, it was idyllic.

As you might expect, I spent some time reflecting on the missionary experience. On the plane on the way back I scribbled down some common themes that characterised what I’d learnt. They’ll be familiar from conversations with other missionaries. But they’re worth repeating.

  1. Their lives are purposeful. Although doing life in a foreign culture is complicated there’s also a beautiful simplicity to what it’s about. It’s tied up with why they’re there. They’re there to serve the Lord Jesus Christ and the progress of the gospel. They’re doing that in different ways; with university students, with churches or with seminary students. But they’re all about the gospel. They’re on mission. They’ve got that front and centre. They have loads of other things to do; personal admin, family logistics and so on. But they see everything through that one lens. And there’s something to be said for getting that clear in our own lives.
  1. Their existence is lonely. One of the seminars was entitled ‘Living Between Two Cultures and Having Both on my Screen’. They thought about how to cope with trying to land in one culture but feeling split between two. That’s not helped because of the proliferation of social media. Unless you resolve not to use it (or somehow change the settings), it’s hard to avoid what’s going on back ‘home’ through the Facebook feed. And even though Skype provides brilliant opportunities to stay in contact, the ready availability of friends and family back home can mean that though you’ve physically left one continent, emotionally you never really leave. And that’s not good. There’s a sense of isolation that’s intensified by seeing what your mates are doing.
  1. Their ministry is costly. All genuine ministry is costly. It’s cross shaped. It’s marked by hardship and hostility now. But vindication and victory are saved for the New Creation. And so missionaries know that it’s going to be tough. No one’s hidden that from them. But there’s a difference between knowing that in theory and knowing it from the inside. It’s probably true that missionaries don’t really fit in anywhere. They don’t fit into their new culture because they come from another one. And they no longer fit into their old culture because they’ve been living in a new one. That’s especially true for the kids of missionaries. It’s pretty hard to feel that you never quite fit in. It’s much harder doing it to your kids.
  1. Their progress is slow. For some it’s painfully slow. One missionary family has been in Slovenia for nearly eleven years. And there are times when he asks what he has to show for his labours and their sacrifice. My friend and fellow Co-Mission colleague Andy Mason talks about having not only a ten year plan but a hundred year plan – to remind us that the Lord is the one who grows His church. And His timescale for fruitful ministry outlives ours and our plans. That’s perhaps a helpful way to think of things. CMS tell their European missionaries that in their first three year stint they need to learn their new language and culture and make sure that the family wants to go back after a brief break in Australia. I get that that’s vital, it’s just not a lot of ministry. And for task orientated people that’s hard to swallow. Progress is slow. But if it ends up being real then they’ll take that.

Is there anything that we can learn from their example?

I see no reason why our lives as missionaries to wherever the Lord has put us (for me it’s London) shouldn’t be marked by the very same characteristics.

  • We ought to be purposeful about reaching our networks with the good news of Christ.
  • We ought not to expect to fit in entirely with those we’re trying to reach, after all we’re exiles and heaven is our home. And if we live for Christ, we’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
  • We ought to expect it to be costly if we’re serious about serving the cause of the gospel.
  • And we ought not to be surprised if our progress is slow. But if it’s real then it’ll be worth the wait.

Three Ways to Stifle your Brotherly Love

i-love-my-churchThrust into the middle of his main exhortation to love the church family, Paul gives three somewhat unexpected commands. Have a gander at what I mean. In 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 he writes,

Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. 10 And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, 11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: you should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, 12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

It’s not immediately obvious how those three commands in (11) are related to the pursuit of brotherly love. Is it? Is brotherly love really only possible if we become rural reclusive manual labourers?

What did he mean?

  1. ‘To lead a quiet life’ doesn’t mean that we should retire to the country and settle into our forever house. Our forever house is in glory not in Glyndebourne, Glenridding or Guildford. A quiet life is the opposite of a noisy one. It’s not one in which we draw attention to ourselves by making a lot of noise. Contemporary culture is a celebrity culture in which people do precisely that so that we notice they’re there. It’s all about gathering a following. And social media now allows us to do the same. But who wants to be a minor celebrity when we could love our church family. We do judging by what we post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Isn’t much of what we post on there the virtual equivalent of being a ‘show-off’? If we did what we do online in real social situations it would be painfully obvious just how noisy and attention seeking we are. But we can’t love our church family if they’re simply our audience. We can’t serve them if what we’re really interested in doing is getting them to focus on us.
  2. ‘To mind our own business’ doesn’t mean that we can’t be meaningfully involved in others’ lives. We can. What Paul is prohibiting is meddling in other people’s affairs not providing them with the support, encouragement and occasional correction that we all benefit from. Minding your own business is about keeping other people’s private stuff private and not making it public. It’s about not gossiping or trying to get to the bottom of every rumour that comes your way. We need to be involved in each other’s lives for sure  otherwise how else can we know what people need in terms of help? But we can’t love our church family when we’re little more than a nosey parker!
  3. ‘To work with our hands’ doesn’t mean that we need to become a potter, a chef or a horticulturist. Though you could. And that would be fine. The issue is working hard. It seems as though some of the enthusiastic well-meaning men of the church family were so captivated by Jesus’ imminent return that they decided to down tools in eager anticipation of that event. That’s fine, except that the rest of the church family had to compensate for their spiritual zeal by using their wages to put a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs and food on their tables. And that didn’t seem fair when they could work but wouldn’t. Working hard when we can to support ourselves and our families if we have one is good and godly. And working hard to have money to support those in our church family who can’t work for whatever reason is also a good and godly thing to do. But we can’t love our church family when we’re sponging off their generosity!

So there you go. Paul was right. Transgress over any one of these three boundaries and we stop loving our church family; whether we’re an attention seeking self-promotionalist, an interfering busy body or a work shy dosser. But keep within the line and we’re in a position to love our church family in a rich diversity of ways.

The Silver Bullet of Gospel Growth – Not Having a Building

centrifugal-vs-centripetalI’ve been putting together the preaching programme for next term. And we’re heading back into the book of Acts. We won’t finish it this time round. But it’ll take us into uncharted territory as we progress through chapters 14-20. And some of that will be hugely encouraging as we trace the spread of the gospel through 1st Century Europe.

One of the things that I’ve had my eye on as I’ve read through these chapters is Paul’s missionary strategy for reaching people with the good news of the gospel. It seems as though he had a twofold strategy. He went first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. In other words, for as long as he was able he preached the gospel in the religious institutions of the day. He ran Christianity Explored in the synagogue while he could get away with it. But sooner or later that became unwelcome. And he was kicked out. But it didn’t matter. Paul then concentrated on taking the gospel to the irreligious; the Gentiles. To that end he was forced to use other buildings. If the gospel wasn’t welcomed by the religious establishment he’d have to use secular space. In Corinth he made much use of the house of Titius Justus, a God fearing convert. And in Ephesus he hired the Hall of Tyrannus (a person not a place).

There are clear parallels with our own situation at Christ Church Balham (CCB). We do not have a building. Our gospel ministry is not welcomed by some of the religious establishment. Historically the Diocese of Southwark and some local churches find our biblical  convictions and patterns of ministry offensive and have refused us use of their buildings (even though some of them are dying on their feet).

Our situation here at CCB is not that dissimilar to that faced by Paul. We meet in many locations. We meet in a (currently) ropey but in the fullness of time shiny new school hall in the morning, we meet in a dark and occasionally distracting pub function room in the evening, we meet in homes midweek for Growth Groups, we meet in a drama studio for ‘Knowing God’ and we meet in a curry house for the ‘One Life Suppers’.  That’s terrific. It gets the gospel out of the four walls of a church building and into the local community. And I have to keep telling myself that. Because as a recent post has  revealed, I occasionally hanker after a building, convinced that it’s the silver bullet to church growth. But it didn’t seem to be in Paul’s day. The gospel seemed to get along alright without the church’s need to call a place their own. And I have to keep telling myself that too! It’s no secret that I’d love us to have a permanent base in Balham. There are things that I think we could do that we can’t do at the moment. For example, I imagine ‘Boppers‘ would be easier with our own space in which to store the toys and a kitchen from which to serve an arresting array of homemade baking options! But I strongly suspect that one of the things that we’d continually have to fight against is the building-centric dynamic that would very quickly become the norm. I fear that we’d fall into a pattern of centring everything on getting people to come to our building rather jettisoning people out into the community. Our challenge is to continually remind ourselves that we’re meant to be a centrifugal church rather than a centripetal one (see diagram above for Physics lesson). In other words not merely sucking non-Christians into our building and church life but spitting Christians out from our building and church life. We must never become a holy huddle that retreat to the safety of our bunker to escape from the hostility of ‘the world’. If we ever have a building it’ll be nothing more than a base camp from which we strike out to explore the community around us and hit them with the good news of the gospel of peace.

There are implications to not having a building, of course. We’re unlikely to reach those who are keen for church to take place in church buildings. Obviously. And that’s ok. We can’t do everything. There are churches near us that can provide for people like that. St Nicholas’ Church in Tooting is a Church of England one that I wholeheartedly recommend. And Trinity Road Chapel is an FIEC alternative. But CCB can reach people who wouldn’t normally darken the door of a church building.

And that’s our challenge.

‘If you’re not here, please raise your hand!’

absenteeismWhat’s the single most important question to ask of your small group?

Who’s not here?

I was once accused of keeping a register for church attendance from a Christian man in our church family who clearly thought that was a bad thing. I started to defend myself (it’s my default response). But I caught my inner lawyer mounting my defence and thought ‘why?’ It’s true. I do keep a register. It’s not actual. It’s mental. Mental in that I keep the information in my head not mental as in I’ve lost my head. Just to clarify. And it’s not so much concerned with who’s there but who’s not there.

And I’ve made sure that we ask the same question at our weekly Monday afternoon staff and ministry trainees meeting. We review the previous week’s events. We talk about what happened on Sunday; what went well and where there’s room for improvement. And it’s always exciting to ask ‘who was new?’ But one of the key questions is to ask ‘who wasn’t there?’ I’m not sure anyone should go to a church where the ministry team haven’t got their eyes peeled for who’s away each week.

Of course, the people in our church family are grown ups. They make choices. Each week they make a decision about whether to come to church or not. I can’t make that for them. And they’re responsible for what they do. But we don’t always make great decisions. Sometimes we make bad ones. And, from time to time, we need others to talk some sense to us.

There can be lots of reasons why people aren’t there. They’re unavoidably busy. They’re on holiday. But sometimes it’s an indication that something’s not quite right, or something’s wrong. Perhaps it’s an indication that they don’t feel part of the church family, or the small group. Perhaps it’s an indication that they’ve got their prioties mixed up and small group is only ever fitted around the social programme. Perhaps it’s an indication of the kind of drift that the writer to the Hebrews warns us about (Heb 10:25). We’re not meant to give up the habit of meeting together. And so every week we’re either reinforcing or undermining the formation of a habit. The habit of going to church. Actually we’re reinforcing one of two habits; that of going to church or skipping it.

Christ Church Balham is not a large church. It’s not a small church either. But we’re at that size where even the staff can’t quite keep an eye out for everyone. And even though my mental register is pretty much up to date, people get in under the radar. That is, they sescape detection. And that’s alright if the reasons for being away are good. But what if they’re not? What if people are struggling? What if people are failing? What if people need help, or correction or rebuke. Not being at church or small group week after week can be an indication of that. And so it’s a question I want our small group Bible study leaders to be asking. I think it’s what you do when you love your church family.

Church with Life seeks Church with Building!

2015-12-24 09.34.08
Yours for £3.5 million!

Andrew Cinnamond’s Facebook post at Christmas pointed me in the direction of this BBC article.

It’s worth a read.

It’s an old chestnut. But this is the time of year for roasting chestnuts. So let me have a go!

For thirteen years Christ Church Balham, the church of which I am the Senior Minister, has operated as a church without owning a building. We rent. From Chestnut Grove School in the morning and from the Bedford Pub in the evening. For midweek venues for Balham Boppers, our Mums and Toddlers group and for Knowing God, our young workers Bible Study groups, for Christianity Explored or for our One Life Suppers (events at which we think about common objections to the Christian faith), we’re always on the look out for suitable venues. There are upsides and there are downsides to not having our own building.

The upside is that I never have to sit on any committee and neither does anyone else at CCB to discuss the maintenance of our buildings. And we’ll have a thermometer outside our church building. As upsides go, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The downsides are that we don’t have a building. And, after a while, that limits what you can do. And it can place a glass ceiling on your growth. It’s probably true to say that the churches that have grown most within Co-Mission are those that have been able to secure buildings. There’ll be other factors, of course. But it’s surely no coincidence. It’s true that churches like Hillsong and others have grown massive without their own building. But they’re trying to do something very different to us. We’re not trying to gather a crowd in quite the same way that they are.

For three glorious years we rented a light industrial unit in central Balham. It was used primarily as office space. But it was large enough to play host to Boppers. And our Friday night Primary School Youth Group ‘Dangerous Club’ could do their thing in it as well. And then the landowners decided to knock it down and build four flats in its place (because what Balham needs more than anything is more one and two bedroom flats at the expense of community space!) Balham is in danger of becoming a post graduate dormitory rather than a functioning place where people interact with one another outside of restaurants, pubs, bars or coffee shops.

The BBC article poses the question ‘should the church be into people or building’? It’s a fair question. And the answer is ‘yes’. We should be into both. But not in the same way and not to the same degree. We’d be naive to say that buildings don’t matter. And ultimately I think we should be into buildings because we’re into people.

There are things that we can’t do as a church because we have no building. ANd that affects people. It’s hard for us to run things midweek. And so it’s harder to have a presence in the community. We’re a congregation with lots of life but no building. Around us lots of churches have buildings but no life. And yet they keep going. They mask their unsustainability by hiring their space midweek to private nurseries. I have no issues with churches using their buildings to hire out to community groups. That can be a terrific thing. It can also be a useful source of revenue. One friend is doing the same with ‘his’ building so that they can fund an extra gospel minister on the team. That’s sensible. But they’re growing and they’re planning for growth. It’s adventurous entrepreneurial thinking. Too many churches round us are in decline. Probably terminal decline. And they’re simply delaying the inevitable. They may be arresting the closure of their church but it’s preventing them from facing facts and asking the hard questions. Their church is not growing, quite the opposite and there are reasons for that. And they may never grow again without fundamental and painful change. But one of the best things that a church like that could do for the gospel is give their building away to a church that’s growing. I can’t imagine it will be easy. But it’s been done before. And the gospel can flourish. Out of death, life. I read something about that somewhere!

I’m into buildings because I’m into people. I think we can better help people through a permanent presence. But I don’t have the foggiest how to get one! And though I keep a look out, although I’ll occasionally have frustrating and fruitless conversations with churches about their premises, although I pray on and encourage others to do the same it’s not going to stop us from our core business of growing disciple making disciples of Jesus Christ in and for 21st Century London. Securing that as a lasting legacy matters so much more than securing a building.

But it would be wonderful to see what God might do through us were He to give us a building. The one at the top is a deconsecrated Church of England building if anyone has a spare £3.5 million to give us! We’ll look after it, I promise!