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Sunday 20 December 2020: Advent 4

Dare to follow

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:26-38 


By Janet Wootton

Former Director of Studies for the Integrated Training Course, Congregational Federation

Context: morning service, or online worship. Children’s activities could include a ‘follow-my-leader’ dance, or following the star or angels – lots of movement

Aim: to reflect on some of the freedoms discovered in the lockdown period

The radical singer/songwriter, Sydney Carter, is best known for ‘Lord of the dance,’ which became a great favourite in churches and school assemblies. In it, Jesus dances through people’s lives, inviting them to join him.

He wrote another immensely powerful song about this dancing God, and the danger of trying to trap him, or keep him still. It’s called ‘The bird of heaven,’ and it tells us that if we try to hold God down, to contain, or control him, we will ‘look again tomorrow, and he will be gone.’ We must be prepared to ‘follow where the bird has gone,’

During the corona crisis, we have proved the truth of this. Quite suddenly and unexpectedly our places of worship had to close. Our parish churches and chapels, our great Victorian preaching houses, and our cathedrals, stood empty. And this all happened at one of the greatest Festivals of the Christian year. The buildings which would normally have resounded with the poignancy of Good Friday and the Alleluias of Easter Day, were silent.

But the ‘bird of heaven,’ the Holy Spirit, who fills our lives and inspires our worship, was not trapped alone in the echoing building, but free, out in the world, and among God’s people. This has been the amazing experience of Christians, old and young, conservative, radical, and evangelical (and the rest), all over the country.

Jesus’ call has always been to ‘Follow,’ to let go of whatever holds us back, or holds us down, and follow him. He calls us to a great adventure, and maybe when our faith is new, we respond. But, as time goes on, life happens, things get in the way: family, career, happiness – or disappointment. These things, which could be part of the adventure, can box us in. Where is God in this?

Our reading caught up with King David, at exactly this point in his life. The young David was an adventurer, ready to hear God’s voice and follow his calling. Remember when he took on the giant Goliath, armed with nothing but his shepherd’s slingshot? But nobody is perfect, and David was also ambitious and manipulative.

We meet him when he has achieved his greatest ambitions. He is living in Jerusalem, the city captured by his own elite troops, beholden to no-one. There he has built a royal palace, where he can live in magnificent splendour, and from which he can rule over God’s people. He has everything he wants. And now he wants God.

He has brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, and is planning to build a sumptuous Temple, cedar and marble and gold, a Holy of Holies where mighty carved statues will lift their wings over the throne of God, where God will live, from now on.

Sydney Carter warns:

‘Temple made of marble,
beak and feathers made of gold,
. . .
but the bird has gone.’

Yes, God has other ideas. His response to David is quite simply that he doesn’t require a Temple but prefers to be on the move. Never mind David building a house to contain God; God is going to do the building, and intends to create a house made of people, descendants of David, until the one comes who is the true Messiah. Not marble and stone, but flesh and blood.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that, when the Messiah comes, it is not to Herod’s Palace, or the Temple, but to an ordinary family uprooted in a complex political landscape: hard to find, if you want to control, or kill; but if you want to worship, the path is easy, marked by angels and a star.

Mary couldn’t be less like King David! God comes to her unexpectedly, through an angel, who greets her courteously, and answers her questions. She responds simply: ‘Here am I.’ She will bear the promised child, her own flesh and blood, and she will watch him dancing through people’s lives, calling them to follow him through life and beyond. And that is all that matters.

It doesn’t matter if this Christmas is not the same as all the others we have known: if some of the usual trimmings are missing, and life has changed. God doesn’t require all that.

‘Lock him in religion,
gold and frankincense and myrrh
carry to his prison,
but he will be gone.’


Instead, God calls us to follow Jesus, to let him guide our steps into the unknown future. If we dare to do that, to open our hearts to God, and to the world around us, to the difference God can make in people’s lives, the dance will go on.

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