[Normally various people at HHBC produce a daily Advent blog together, but that didn’t happen this year! Instead you will have to make do with just this post …]

The word compromise can be seen as positive (‘a great British compromise’) or negative (‘a compromising text’). There has been much comment on how the various sides in the big issue currently affecting our country don’t seem able or willing to compromise. Our nation, our Parliament and even our political parties, are divided down the middle.

Would compromise be a good thing, and is compromise even possible when views are so entrenched, and when each side dismisses the other as Brextremists or Remoaners? I don’t know.

But it made me think about whether compromise is something God ever does. The answer depends on your definition, but normally compromise is about making concessions in order to reach agreement – so both sides accept an outcome which is not their preferred position, but which they recognise to be better than ‘no deal’.

Compromise is not a word we find in the Bible, but is it what God in practice sometimes does? Take for example God’s great act of salvation through Jesus – his birth as a baby, his death as a criminal, his ascension as Lord. Was that a giant compromise on the part of God?

From God’s point of view, the ideal scenario would have been for humanity not to have collectively eaten the apple in the first place, not to have rebelled and broken the relationship God had planned for us. But that option was no longer on the table.

The no-deal scenario would have involved the current mess continuing for eternity – us being given over indefinitely to the choices we have made, with no prospect of reconciliation.

God’s solution was to become, in the person of Jesus Christ, a human and to take upon himself our broken-ness and the just consequences of our rebellion.

The trouble with the word compromise is that it suggests letting go of our principles – agreeing to something we know is not quite right. It’s a little too pragmatic. It’s a little too easy a path for God to take. Another problem is that it tends to suggest an agreement between two fairly evenly-matched parties. But real and personal though evil is, we should not place either it or ourselves on a level with God.

So compromise won’t really do to describe what we celebrate at Christmas.

Sacrifice would be a better word. God does not compromise his principles (especially his love and his justice) but he does sacrifice himself. He becomes human and then becomes obedient to death, even death on a cross.

So what? May I suggest the following responses:

  1. Let us thank God that he does not compromise, but that he does sacrifice. Let us worship him for the kind of God he is. A God whose commitment to love and justice means that he could not look the other way, but came, and at huge cost to himself, resolved the issue.

  2. In our relationships with one another, let us have the same mind-set as Christ Jesus. Perhaps this Christmas you will be expected to spend more time than you would like with people who have upset you in the past or who don’t share your values. What does sacrifice without compromise look like for you?

  3. Let us pray for our nation and those who lead it – that collectively we will be willing to sacrifice our own politics, preferences and pride. But that we will not compromise on those principles which we find revealed in the character of God himself.

Those two imposters

Last week’s announcement that Soul Survivor will close in 2019 took me by surprise. The festival has been a blessing to many people – including members of our own family and church. So the news was surprising mainly because Soul Survivor is so successful – why would you want to stop doing something which is going well?  The answer from their leadership was simple: this is what we believe God is telling us to do.

In most contexts, and sometimes even in church, success (usually measured by amounts of income or numbers of participants) is seen as a sign that things should continue. After all, however big we are, there’s always the opportunity to turn ourselves into a truly global brand!

How refreshing for Soul Survivor to show us a different way, to follow the example of John the Baptist who realised that his ministry was not about himself, but about Jesus – who in turn rejected worldly success for the path to the cross.

What a challenge to all of us to slay the counterfeit god of success in our lives and ministries – recognising the warnings in God’s word that success often leads to complacency and pride, and draws us away from God (e.g. Deuteronomy 8:10-18).

So if we need to be careful not to be seduced by success, how might we handle failure? What about the many people who throw their lives into faithful service over years and even decades – simply because they believe it is what God has called them to do – and yet they see little or no signs of success?

If followers of Jesus are to be people who avoid paying too much attention to apparent success, we should also be careful not to over-react to weakness and failure. The Apostle Paul had powerful experiences of the glory of God, but then he was struck by an acute form of torment – a thorn in his flesh. And as he wrestled with God about this, the message he received was:

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

Don’t mishear me: success can be good and failure can be a sign that we need to change tack. After all, our God is a God of victory. But the point is that our perspectives of success and failure are not necessarily God’s. Our job is to listen to him (not to ourselves) and to be faithful to him (not to other people's expectations).

Is your life a triumph or a disaster? Actually, it's probably better not to ask that question. Treat those two imposters just the same, and recognise that the only assessment that matters is God’s.

That 14 minute sermon

I'm going to stick my head above the parapet and offer some reflections on Michael Curry's sermon at Harry and Meghan's wedding on Saturday. (You can watch it and/or read it here.)

Firstly, I think it is great that Bishop Michael has got people talking. The words 'sermon' and 'preaching' have quite negative connotations in popular thinking, but he showed a worldwide audience that preaching can be engaging, passionate and exciting. If that does something to alter people's perceptions of preaching specifically and church generally, then we owe Bishop Michael a debt of gratitude.

Secondly, the sermon was a masterclass in effective communication. I have a suspicion that it was a lot more carefully scripted than he made it look - but that in itself takes a great deal of skill.  For example, consider the sentence 'There's a certain sense in which when you are loved, and you know it, when someone cares for you, and you know it, when you love and you show it - it actually feels right'.  It's one of several places where he used the ancient rhetorical device of a triplet, but he also varied the third point (know it ... know it ... show it) and, to cap it all, the words rhyme.

And of course he also made very effective use of eye contact and non-verbal communication.  In fact, if you just read the sermon it can sound a bit flat and repetitive, but when you watch it, then it really comes alive.

To be honest, I think he did go on slightly too long, and possibly started to lose people towards the end in the bit about 'fire'. Which brings me to my third point (you see, I can do it too!): content.

This is where opinion has been more divided among Christians - was Bishop Michael preaching the Gospel, or wasn't he? I would say that, within the limitations of the occasion, he made a pretty good job of proclaiming God's good news.  He preached that God is love and that you can't have love without God. And he told us that the ultimate expression of love was when Jesus "died to save us all".

Yes, there are some important things which he didn't say - but rather than arguing over whether or not he should have included them, let's make sure that when we have opportunities to talk to people about 'that sermon', we are ready to bring those things into the conversation.

For example:

  • What do we do when we fail to live up to the standard of love which Bishop Michael so inspirationally described? We all know that, while love is a noble goal, it's something that as humans we seem unable to attain. The truly good news is that in Jesus Christ we not only find an example of love, but forgiveness for all those times when we fail to love as we know we should.
  • How do we become more loving people? Not ultimately through listening to stirring sermons or through resolving to do better, but through the work of God the Holy Spirit within us, who empowers God's children to love more like Jesus did.

On Sunday, the worldwide church remembered Pentecost, the occasion when an unknown preacher gave an extraordinary sermon and 3,000 people became followers of Jesus on the spot. When the crowd heard Peter's words and asked him how they should respond, this is what he said:

Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)

Understandably, Bishop Michael did not go that far on Saturday - but let's pick up his baton and talk to people about Jesus with renewed clarity and passion.