Corstorphine Old Parish Church

Sunday reflection

Our readings today are from Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20 and Luke 3: 7 - 18

We have a friend who is an accident and emergency doctor in New Zealand. The hospital where she works is close enough to both the ocean and the mountains so that you can go surfing in the morning and skiing in the afternoon, and you can imagine that brings all sorts of injuries and upset to her department. She comes home to Scotland very three years or so and we tend to keep our minor ailments for her to look at when she is home – nothing serious obviously, just the odd ache or pain or rash. The last time Jenn was home my husband said to her: my thumb hurts every time I do this, as he pushed his thumb up and down. And Jenn replied, without much thought it seemed – stop doing that then. So he did, and his thumb hasn’t hurt much since. Who would have thought that five years of medical school, three years of house jobs and medical rotations, more specialist training in first oncology and then accident and emergency medicine could have led to such a simple answer – just stop pushing your thumb – but it worked.

When a whole array of people went to see John the Baptist as we read about in Luke’s gospel, they asked him ‘What shall we do?’, and John gave some very simple answers: He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise. Really? Is being part of this new beginning, this kingdom of God, as simple as that? To the tax collectors who came to John seeking guidance, he said: collect no more than is appointed you, and to the soldiers who came he said: rob no one by violence or by false allegation, and be content with your wages. Can such simple advice really have been what they waited for all these years? No big words or profound comments, no hoops to jump through or penance to pay. John was simply stating the obvious, the right, the good – and perhaps that is where his wisdom lay, because if sharing your food or coat with the cold or the hungry was something that came naturally to us, then we would surely have been doing that already. And if tax collectors needed to be told that they should only take what was owed to them, and soldiers asked to be fair and honest, then there must have been many who were doing the opposite of all those things.

The, like now, people had become caught up in a culture, an expectation of sleaze and dishonesty, of exploiting the vulnerable and living every man for themselves. And John’s advice was to stop that and to behave differently – don’t hide behind excuses or plead ignorance or blame someone else or shrug your shoulders and say everyone does it – stop and change and begin again. Its that simple. We might have be honest, be open, admit our mistakes and when others admit their mistakes, give them support and thanks, because none of us is innocent of the same excuses or temptations to one extent or another, but that is a refreshing and renewing way to live lives that have become burdened with excuse or fear, heavy with shame or worry.

There is a point on Christmas Eve when the shops have shut and the pubs are closing and the world – or certainly Corstorphine – has settled in for Christmas, when stockings are hung and sprouts are prepared and Christmas tree lights are flashing and perhaps the wine has been poured and people after all the merriment and busyness and festivities are affording themselves a day of relative rest. I say relative because you might be up very early on Christmas day with excited children, or face a morning of slaving over a hot stove, or of running around picking up elderly relatives and trying to keep peace at home, but there is a moment for many people between the busyness of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when we take stock and perhaps get a little teary and are transported however briefly to the little dark stable where a child is born. And although that setting is rough and ready and far from ideal, it is a place where our eyes focus and we celebrate new beginnings – life thriving despite difficulties and light shining in the darkness. And there is a moment of quiet when we are invited to share in simplicity and treasure the ordinary, to find our lives blessed and enfolded, to hear again the offer of peace and goodwill.

And it comes every year. It is that simple, so simple that we might try to dress it up, to put it out of our reach, to make it inaccessible for others and ourselves, but John the Baptist brings us back down to earth: share what you have. Collect no more than is appointed you. Rob no one by violence or false negotiation, and be content with your wages. Words that are as true in the 21st century as they were in John’s day, yet are just as hard to follow, despite their simplicity. And one of the many blessings of Christmas is that we are offered a new beginning, a new start, a chance to start again year after year after year – we find n the quiet of the stable, the simplicity of the nativity scene, an honesty about what and who is important, and find ourselves welcome there, despite, or perhaps because of our silly ways and our selfish ways and our excuses. Isn’t that a beautiful moment, a beautiful offer, a treasured moment?

The prophet Zephaniah – who along with his fellow prophets Zechariah and Haggai and Habakkuk we probably don’t hear enough of – Zephaniah manages to put his finger on some of our fears and embarrassments which weigh us down and hold us back: I will save the lame and the outcast, I will change their shame into praise . . .I will bring you home at the time when I gather you together . . .I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.

The people of John’s day expected something profound but were offered instead something very simple. Here was the fulfilment of a promise, shame into praise, a gathering together, good news indeed. I pray that we all hear that good news, and recognize the offer made by John, and enjoy the quiet peace of hope and new life he brings.

Let us pray:

Loving God,

In the simplest of words, in the easiest of ways,

You offer us a part to play in your kingdom.

Take from us we pray, the worries that weigh us down,

The shame we carry,

The fears that hold us back,

The grudges we bear both with others and with ourselves,

And remind us instead of your ways of kindness and wholeness,

Sharing and care.

Help us to celebrate everyday kindness, simple pleasures,

Possibilities in the commonplace,

And hopefulness in our times,

Knowing that we live and work and worship in your company and the company of one another.

Be near those for whom this time of year is a trial,

Where busyness and stress prevent peace and celebration,

Where loneliness or sorrow mean ce;erbation is difficult,

And invite us all once more to the stable,

To find a place of peace and life, of light and hope and joy.

Help us to be people of peace and reconciliation,

Of rebuilding,

And where there is fear or injustice, where war is a position of habit,

Where many are hungry and others are homeless,

Open our hearts to help and our hands to bring change.

We pray for the land where your son was born, 

That rather than faith bringing fear, it brings understanding,

And a celebration of your image in every one of us.

And let us hear the words of John the Baptist this day and every day, to share and be content, to love our neighbour.

In Jesus’ name we ask this and we pray together in the words he taught us, saying:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever. Amen

In church today our 9.40 families are performing their annual nativity and although we haven’t managed to capture that on film, I hope you’ll enjoy this wee clip of last week’s rehearsal of Little Donkey played on handbells!



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