Vines and vineyards feature often in the teaching of Jesus, provoking a question of fruitfulness. Whether we are assessing our own plans for 2019, taking account of the Brexit situation or forming vision for the future of the church, a good question to ask is: what kind of fruit is going to be produced? And to remember Jesus’ words: “I am the vine; you are the branches.”
John the Baptist once commanded the limelight in Palestine. Then Jesus came on the scene and John knew that he would henceforth play second fiddle. Willingly he accepted the role reversal – “he must increase and I must decrease”. He charted for us the pathway of faith. To be self-centred is the pathway to destruction. To be Christ-centred is the pathway to life. John made his choice. We must make ours.
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). He also said, “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14) The light that came with Christ needs to go on shining in the darkness. As we venture into a new year we can be confident that the light of Christ will go before us to lead and guide. And we are challenged to be bearers of that light, with a calling to dispel every darkness.
“He’s grown, that baby,” is an observation made by the poet Ann Lewin. Though the Christmas idyll tends to romanticise baby Jesus lying in the manger, the fact is that he soon grew up. And had to face the harsh reality of life as a refugee. He came to be with us in the grown-up world where often there is adversity to face and difficult decisions to take. As we enter a new year, whatever it brings, we do well to ask ourselves the WWJD question: what would Jesus do?
At the first Christmas it was Mary who discovered the surprising way that God chooses to work. She more than anyone grasped that God works from unexpected quarters and by turning the established order upside down. It was she who was on the sharp end of discovering that God was going to do something truly amazing for the world by giving us Jesus … and that this wonderful gift would ask a lot of us in return.
When the people of God were in trouble and God sent someone special to rescue them, it often began with a woman thought to be “barren” becoming pregnant. It is surely not just random that God works in this way, not just a coincidence that God’s appearance on the scene means that barrenness gives way to fruitfulness. In the vision of Isaiah, God will “grant to those who mourn in Zion – beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” (Isaiah 61:3) That is what is involved in the advent of God. Into situations of heartbreak, disappointment and fruitlessness comes the God who changes things.
A strong motif in the Bible is a woman unable to conceive, the appearance of an angel and the promise of a child. Mary, the mother of Jesus, stood in this line and she knew how to respond with faith and courage. She models a response that we are all called to make. Not that we will all be the mother of the Messiah but the purpose of God is long and wide, with a place in it for each one of us. We too are called to hear God’s promise, to receive God’s gift, to take our place in the fulfillment of God’s purposes in the world.
We can all identify with the excitement that is felt when the news breaks that a new baby is expected. It seems that God too sets great store by the arrival of a baby. When God is doing something new, the birth of a special baby is often the prompt. Christmas is the classic case. The fact that God chooses to work through a baby – fragile, vulnerable, dependent – tells us a lot about God; and about ourselves.
What do we hunger for? A revealing question. We are living at a time when life seems to be all about satisfying hunger – the age of consumerism. Whether we are talking about satisfying our bodily appetites or our yearning for experience, we are looking for ways to satisfy our hunger. But are we hungry for the right things? Jesus said:“You shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”