Advent 4: Liberation!

The Advent of our God
Our prayers must now employ,
And we must meet him on his road
With hymns of holy joy.

The everlasting Son
Incarnate soon shall be :
He will a servant’s form put on,
To make his people free.

Rev. John Chandler, The Hymns of the Primitive Church (London: John W. Parker, 1837), Number 36, pp. 39-40.

In this mini Advent series we’ve reflected on three themes of advent encapsulated in this hymn: Advent as ENCOUNTER, Advent as SERVICE  and in this final post I want to consider Advent as LIBERATION.

The theme of liberation or becoming free runs through the scriptures like a river course and is inextricably linked with what the Old Testament prophets identified as the justice and righteousness of God which manifests Shalom (wholeness, flourishing and peace) and what the New Testament writers identified as the saving and wholeness-making love of God which manifests liberation, restoration and peace- equivalent to the Old Testament concept of Shalom


The prophet Isaiah says this of the re-ordering, restoring and liberating hope which was to come in the person of Jesus Christ (Isaiah 11):

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;

from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—

the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

the Spirit of counsel and of might,

the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord

and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,

or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy,

with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.

He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;

with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Righteousness will be his belt

and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,

the leopard will lie down with the goat,

the calf and the lion and the yearling together;

and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear,

their young will lie down together,

and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

The infant will play near the cobra’s den,

and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.

They will neither harm nor destroy

on all my holy mountain,

for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord

as the waters cover the sea.

Mary’s Magnificat prayer-song as she anticipates the birth of Jesus echoes this liberating theme (Luke 1:44-56) and in the eye-witness account of Luke, Jesus Christ himself describes his purpose in his reading of the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue (Luke 4:18-19):

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

So, this ancient hymn of the primitive Church enjoins us during this season of Advent and beyond to continue to encounter, serve and live in the fullness of liberation which brings hope to our worlds. This year saw the publication of a new edition of the Bible which aims to highlight the river of liberation which courses through biblical scripture, to which we were privileged to make a contribution-it is called God’s Justice Bible and is well worth looking at if you have not already got or seen a copy.

It is thrilling to be part of a world wide family which is called to love beyond borders and to seek a kingdom or a way of life which is radically inclusive and governed by a God whose loving justice restores and brings wholeness to those who seek… I’ll leave you with another old song which I remember singing with gusto as a child which is based on Jesus’ invitation to all of us who want to follow him (Matthew 6) .

Warmest greetings to you this Christmas from Andy and I at the jusTice initiative!


Advent 3: Himself a servant’s form puts on



The everlasting Son
Incarnate deigns to be;
Himself a servant’s form puts on

(Charles Coffin, The Advent of our God, Hymns of the Primitive Church, 1837)

The second theme highlighted in the Advent hymn is the servant nature of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

The above quote, attributed to the Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila,  connects the intrinsic dignity we share as humans created in God’s likeness with the dignity of service modelled by Jesus. For many of us it can be difficult to see dignity in service because we have often encountered, in either subtle or flagrant form, coercion, domination and fear. We also live in a world which prizes independence and self-actualisation and scorns vulnerability or perceived ‘neediness’. These cultural imbalances and misuses of power have sometimes distorted how we understand what it means to serve each other in love.

Yet at the heart of the gospel is a call to entering in, like a child, full of curiosity and openness to the way of living together which Jesus modelled.

Lee Loun-Ling, training director for CMS Asia importantly links the nature of leadership and service in her recent summary of the impact of Asian women in the growth of Christianity:

Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922) One of India’s most revolutionary thinkers of her time, she was known as a pioneering social reformer, defying the caste system and overcoming barriers to rescue outcast children, widows, orphans, and destitute women.


The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Internally displaced girls, who fled a military offensive in the Swat valley region, help each other wash hands at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) Sheik Shahzad camp in Mardan district, about 160 km (99 miles) northwest of Pakistan's capital Islamabad June 18, 2009.   REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro   (PAKISTAN CONFLICT POLITICS SOCIETY)
Internally displaced girls, who fled a military offensive in the Swat valley region, help each other wash hands at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) Sheik Shahzad camp in Mardan district, about 160 km (99 miles) northwest of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad June 18, 2009. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro (PAKISTAN CONFLICT POLITICS SOCIETY)

Advent 2: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road?’

Georges Rouault-The appearance on the road to Emmaus

The Advent of our God
Our prayers must now employ,
And we must meet him on his road
With hymns of holy joy.

(Charles Coffin, The Advent of our God, Hymns of the Primitive Church, 1837)

It may seem strange to insert a piece of  art depicting a scene from the post-resurrection story of the meeting on the road to Emmaus during the season of Advent, but there is a reason…

Revelation and encounter with truth sometimes come when we least expect it. In spite of hearing reports from women who had seen the resurrected Jesus these disciples were not expecting to encounter Jesus on the road, but that is exactly what happened:

Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures? (Luke 24:32)

That disreputable shepherds and foreigners were led to and encountered Jesus in the lowly byre before those who were the official truth-holders of the tradition should at least make us stop and reflect…

Do we remain open to encountering Jesus ‘on the road’, in unexpected places, through or alongside unexpected people…?

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you… (Ephesians 1:17-18)

Advent 1: The Advent of our God


The Advent of our God
Our prayers must now employ,
And we must meet him on his road
With hymns of holy joy.

The everlasting Son
Incarnate soon shall be :
He will a servant’s form put on,
To make his people free.

Rev. John Chandler, The Hymns of the Primitive Church (London: John W. Parker, 1837), Number 36, pp. 39-40.

Advent invites us to both remember historical events leading up to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and to anticipate and participate in the continuous incarnation and encounter with God.

The above hymn encapsulates in just these two short verses key themes for this season:

  • As God moves towards us we also ‘must meet him on his road’
  • Incarnation is about service within a specific context
  • Incarnation brings freedom within a specific context

…more anon…

Birth Pains


…When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?

Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:3-14)

‘Birth pains’ are signs of impending birth and they reference the considerable anguish and labour which gives way to this new birth.

I was recently struck by the words of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian theoretician whose analysis ranged from linguistics to sociology to political theory. He made the following observation:


…the old is dying and the new is not yet ready to be born, in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.


Whilst his reflections were based on a specific period of Italian political history, they resonate deeply with so much  we observe in our world today; there is much struggle and anguish to produce peace.


It is clear that the sour fruits of history- the abuse of power, political corruption, greed and fear amongst others, have produced enormous conflict in our world which is robbing us in so many ways of the joys of our shared humanity. There indeed arises in our time ‘a great diversity of morbid symptoms’; our world is sick and struggling in so many ways. In the prescient words of  the apostle Matthew, the love of many does indeed seem to grow cold in the aftermath of divisive wickedness and evil of all kinds. We may well ask ourselves, as Gramsci did for his generation, if the new is ready to be born in our time?


Are we present in the sufferings of the world and is that suffering seeding something new in us or are we immutable and unchanging? Are we so sure of our rightness of formation that we refuse to go through the dying stages of the chrysalis, letting go of our fixed identities to enter the womb of growth and transformation in the hope of the emerging newness?


Jesus observed in Nicodemus, a learned teacher of the Jewish Law, a Pharisee, a profound need to enter the ‘womb of transformation’; even with his great learning and wisdom Nicodemus needed to be changed, transformed, re-birthed; to risk the travail of self-giving Love in order to enter into a new quality of Life.


The call to love even as we have been loved by God, is the call to hope in the promise of that love to birth a newness in the material substance of our lives. The fruits of this newness, this peace-in-the-material-substance, is what Gramsci and many others seek.

Christmas cry: ‘come Lord Jesus’

hands (1)

On Sunday at my local church we sang the Noel Richards song, ‘Great is the darkness…come Lord Jesus…’. Whilst obviously not a Christmas carol, it struck me how apt it was for the season we are in. For most of us Christmas is a mixed time; of joy and celebration as well as sadness, and even grief. A few days ago I wrote about ‘Broken Britain’, and then the tragic events in Glasgow hit our screens. I read the heart-wrenching story of the Catholic Archbishop comforting a mother whose parents and daughter were killed in that accident…what an incredibly painful experience. I wondered, what message can we possibly share with those whose lives have been shattered in the blink of an eye? Sorrow and pain are very real for many as they gather this Christmas time without the loved ones they shared last Christmas with.

The first verse of the song reminds us of the context in which we live. We may not tangibly experience this level of darkness in our own community, or even nation, although many around our globe surely do:

‘Great is the darkness
That covers the earth
Oppression, injustice and pain
Nations are slipping
In hopeless despair
Though many have come in Your name
Watching while sanity dies
Touched by the madness and lies’

Of course, Christmas is also a time of great joy and hope. A 33 year journey lived a long time ago reminds us as Christians that our faith is based on the reality that God loved His creation so much (and felt the deep pain and injustice in it) that He intervened by sending His own son to be born amongst us; to live a life of sorrow and pain as well as great joy. This was a journey that took him to the cross, suffering the cruel death of a Roman execution. Jesus’ 33 year earthly journey did not end there, however. His resurrection gives us the hope to believe, trust and know that we too can share in that resurrection hope. Hope is the powerful transforming message that the church now bears. Verse 2 of the song exhorts the church to engage in God’s mission of saving love, which is the source for such hope:

‘May now Your church rise
With power and love
This glorious gospel proclaim
In every nation
Salvation will come
To those who believe in Your name
Help us bring light to this world
That we might speed Your return’

That saving love has already been set in motion. It is an unstoppable force that cannot be quenched, diminished or destroyed in any way. That saving power, manifest so humbly in the incarnation and demonstrated so powerfully in the resurrection, means that Christmas, like Easter (the two greatest events of human history marking the beginning and closing moments of Jesus’ life) is a season where our sorrow and despair can be transformed into hope-filled expectation of what is to come:

‘Great celebrations
On that final day
When out of the heavens You come
Darkness will vanish
All sorrow will end
And rulers will bow at Your throne
Our great commission complete
Then face to face we shall meet’

I trust and hope that amidst the mixed emotions you may be experiencing this Christmas time, your heartfelt cry will be one of longing for the presence of Jesus to be experienced in your own life, in the life of your family, and throughout your community, town, nation and in our world this very day!

So, let’s be reminded this Christmas time to invite Jesus to be present amongst us through the power of His Spirit, that our Christmas cry might be:

‘Come Lord Jesus, come Lord Jesus
Pour out Your spirit we pray
Come Lord Jesus, come Lord Jesus
Pour out Your spirit on us today’.

Advent reflection: a season of coming and going

The season of Advent invites us to make a journey towards a humble crib in a stable and to ask God to connect us to the enduring, hope-filled experience of becoming part of his unfolding New Creation.

Each and every human makes a journey to and beyond a crib and yet each crib is situated in a particular context which shapes and is shaped by them.

To engage with how Jesus’ context shaped him we need to imagine what it is like to be born into relative poverty, under the shadow of a political power which threatens our very life even before we can crawl. We need to wonder what it would be like to be forced into exile and to live with the ensuing instability and fear that that produces in the family. But we also need to imagine the affirmation of the shepherds (who were so despised by the Roman imperial powers as to have no voice in court), and, of course, to receive the gifts of wise men beyond the limitations of our immediate context. For some of us, we would need also to imagine what a life with a loving mother and a father would be like.

Aspects of Jesus’ context might be very alien and hard to imagine for some, but for many, there is resonance in the gritty reality of our own lives across the world in the 21st century…

Beyond the crib, Jesus grew up and began to teach. Through his teaching and his lifestyle he demonstrated how he could speak relevantly into his context without being blind to the injustices which affected not only himself but also others he saw suffering around him. It appears clear that he carried a vision of  how life should be lived which not only informed his teaching but ultimately led him to refuse to be defined by the powers which dominated and shaped his context… we know the end of that story.

Advent is a season of moving towards Jesus in his crib…but more than that, it is a powerful reminder that to go with him beyond the crib is to engage ourselves in a life which is inextricably connected to the vision of the well-being and justice of all of creation which Mary alludes to in her song of praise, before Jesus’ birth:

…He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
 and exalted those of humble estate;
 he has filled the hungry with good things,
 and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)

In a very real sense we cannot celebrate Advent, without at the same time celebrating Easter…for to come to the crib is to also go to the cross and say, as have many Wilberforces, Kellers, Bonhoeffers, Fry’s, Luther Kings, Wollstonecrafts, Parks and countless other ordinary people across the world, “not on my watch” to the destructive powers which disfigure our contexts.

The particular joy of approaching the crib lays in the assurance that Emmanuel, God is with us and that his love is a love stronger than death. It is this love which promises to reshape our context as we go faithfully with Christ, beyond the innocence of the crib into a world in pain which is waiting, in eager anticipation, for the advent and revelation of the lives of those who walk in the footsteps of Christ. (Romans 8:19)

Oh Come Oh come Emmanuel!

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,
That moans to lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, dear Lord, with mercy and grace,
Make strong the weak and heal the human race,
The hungry feed, the needy clothe
That by example we will learn to love.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel!