The Gift of Today


Today it is Thanksgiving. Perhaps the best day of our western holidays. A day of thanksgiving and gratefulness, of joyful reunions and family gatherings. And too much food, probably. But without the necessity of overgiving of unnecessary gifts, or the vast decorating of every nook and cranny, or the overly high expectations we often seem to place upon Christmas.

And Michael Hyatt's post arrived in my inbox - reminding me of this:


"You think this is just another day in your life. It’s not just another day. It’s the one day that is given to you today…. It’s the only gift that you have right now. And the only appropriate response is gratefulness." (quote from Brother David Steindl-Rast, a benedictine monk)


Michael Hyatt's post gives us four ways of practicing gratitude and thankfulness. He writes:

Here are four ways you can transform today, taking it from ordinary to extraordinary:

  1. Notice the gifts around you. Whether it is the natural beauty that surrounds you, the interesting people you encounter, or the simple beating of your heart, everything is a miracle—if you have eyes to see it.
  2. Open your heart to receive them. It’s so easy to feel entitled and become cynical when we don’t get what we want or feel we deserve. But if we receive everything as a gift, designed for either our enjoyment, our transformation, or both, we open ourselves to new possibilities.
  3. Express your gratitude for them. This is one of the things that makes humans unique and sets us apart from the animals. But we have to speak it to experience the power of it.
  4. Bless someone else. Let your gratefulness overflow into the lives of those you encounter today. It doesn’t have to be fancy—just offer them a smile, a touch, or the simple gift of your presence. (You could also share this post with them!)

Today will never be repeated. It it is unique among all the days of your life. Gratitude can transform into something to be remembered.


We sang this in church on Sunday (at St Michael's in Charleston)





How will you give thanks today?

What are you most grateful for?




Rest, recent photos and reality

There is something very special about total rest. A not doing.

An enjoyment of being. Of taking time to be, to rest, to notice.

Last week I decided to begin taking a total sabbatical each week. A twenty four period of rest and refreshment, of not doing what I normally do. I blogged about it (HERE) and received comments, emails, tweets and even a note from others who perhaps already practise this, or want to, or hope to.

All I can say is - it works! For two weeks in a row, I have enjoyed a twenty-four hours refreshment, relaxation, rest. From 6pm Saturday until 6pm on Sunday. Last night, I slept for just over 10 hours. There was nothing to prevent me and I was relaxed from a pleasant evening which we had enjoyed with friends, eating al fresco in the walled garden. Today, as last week, there was church at 11am (informal this morning, led by the Licensed Lay Ministers, nourishing my soul). I was given bags of gooseberries - so there will be gooseberry fool or gooseberry pie for the retreatants who are coming next weekend!

Ah - next weekend.

Next weekend I start work! Yes, the first retreatants arrive for the weekend, the second retreat starts on the MOnday. So I will not be able to have my twenty four hour sabbatical from Saturday evening. Now what?

No problem, I have already put it into my diary - from 4pm Sunday to 4pm Monday. When is YOUR sabbath rest? When do you have to work and when can you rest?

This was Tricia Goyer's post on Facebook last week:

 5 questions

Good questions! I nearly missed out on a really great thing today because I forgot I had no schedule. Friends rang just after lunch to ask if they could come for tea and see the house.

The old me began to panic. No tea-type food, too much dust, things to do ....

The new me relaxed.

Sure, why not? I've nothing scheduled, come on over.

They brought cake. We had champagne in the fridge and smoked salmon.

We had an impromptu party in the walled garden. (which was much much happier than they all appear in this photo!)

H-S's and paynes

One of these friends designed my new kitchen - which was installed yesterday.

I am blessed. I am refreshed. I feel as though I have had a retreat for twenty four hours.

Which is just as well, with our first retreatants arriving at the end of this coming week!


And here is a sneak preview of some of what they will find when they come - the house is coming together all of a sudden! This new ministry is about to be born.



Come soon? There's a quiet space waiting for you. And the countryside  is stunning.


What are you waiting for?

Spaces available from September onwards. Make sure you have your time booked in soon.


for retreats, quiet days, quiet spaces,

Spiritual Direction
leadership training
& mentoring
come alone
come with a group
bring your friends
your small group
your leadership team


Take a Break!

SO when do you have some down time, she asked. When do you have a whole 24 hours off, doing something entirely different? I think I may have flushed in shame.

It's busy, I told my Spiritual Director, there's so much to be done. And Sundays are not working days right now. Not really. But I do need to write and post a blog on Sunday evenings. It's my main time to post, the time I have the best readership hits, and the only time I have right now to post. So Sundays are sort of off, just not completely.

So you are better than God? You don't need to rest?

I think I flushed again.

God created on six days. Then He rested on the seventh day - and made it a special day. A day of rest. (my loose translation of Genesis 2:1-2)

Yes, I know that. In theory.

Well, she said, and what about Hebrews?

Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. (Hebrews 4:1)

I think I sat in silence.

But she was gently kind with me.

You need 24 hours off.

I nodded. I know that. In theory.

And you need to write and post a blog on Sunday evenings?

I nodded again.

So you need a Jewish-style sabbath. From Saturday late afternoon until Sunday late afternoon. How does that sound?

Relief flooded through me. YES. Yes, of course. Hadn't I taught and praught that exact same thing, some years ago, when I was ministering in a busy church in the States? And it had seemed to help a number of  people then.

My mind leaped into overdrive.

A sabbath.

Starting with supper and time with those I love best, on Saturday evening.  A good night's sleep. Worship and praise, a walk, a relax.

And then, after proper Sunday tea, time to gear up again -  after twenty four hours of creative relaxation.  YES.


But what about those times when Saturday to Sunday would not be possible?

She considered. How many of those will there be this summer, over these next six or seven weeks?

Two, I worked out.

SO. Twice it has to be a different day of the week. Schedule it in now, put it in your diary. And otherwise, use the Jewish Filofax and have a real sabbath from six on Saturday to six on Sunday. And when we meet again in early September, I shall ask you about your Sabbath rests.

* * * *

This past twenty four hours has been the first of my summer sabbaths.

Excitedly, when the clock showed 6pm last night, I knew I had twentyfour hours of sabbath. Of real rest. No need to DO. Time to BE.

And I have to say it has been a wonderful time!

Of course, it has included -

- a wonderful outdoor party:  our neighbours were celebrating 20 years of marriage with a hog roast for 150 people, a live band, dancing

- a deep sleep with the windows wide;  warm country air wafting in

- gentle awaking, an hour's walk with dog and husband in early morning sunshine, wild flowers, summer fields

- Holy Communion, ancient words and worship in an ancient village church, warm friendly smiles and coffee, friends new and old alongside

- impromptu lunch under old trees with friends in their garden, looking at their mediaeval court house

- tennis. Need I say more?  WE WON! Or, at least, he did. We shrieked with excitement, drank Lapsang, exhaustedly triumphant

- took friends around our home to see what's been done this past week or two;  watered the polytunnel bursting into life, watched the swifts swirl around the roof top and skim into the garden

* * * *

And now. Now it's time to gear up again. After rest and love and fun and worship. After down time and up time, time with the Lord and time with friends.

All is gift. And I am rested and relaxed and restored.

My sabbath rest has been all that I hoped and much much more.

A good start.

Thanks to my Spiritual Director.

And God's good example. 

* * * *

When do you have a proper sabbath?  What works best for you?






The end is in sight .... probably!

Exciting news: Kitchen floor tiles are down.

Bifold doors for breakfast room are in.

Showertrays are being fitted.

And the Preview Retreats, all 6 of them. are just about full - ONE space still available for the August walking retreat, if you still haven't signed up! (details HERE) Lots of lovely people coming for some space and time with the Lord, a little helping out (decorating, gardening, tidying...)

And don't forget that EVERY SATURDAY from now on is an open invite to come, enjoy the countryside, lend a hand with painting and decorating, have some fun helping out. This Saturday we especially need YOUR HELP - because we have furniture which has to move in next week! Might you please come and lend a hand? Much as I hate asking people for things, even I am happy to ask you to come and help us this week especially! (Details HERE  Please RSVP if you can come - we are providing lunch and so an idea of numbers coming would be a great help!  Thank you, dear friends. We are counting on you!

A few photos to whet your appetite ....










Above all - please might you pray? For this place, for those who come, for it to be a place of spiritual sanctuary for all.




Interior Design

Exciting news this week from Mays Farm - the decorating is about to begin! Not everywhere, but a few rooms are ready for their paint. Bookroom red in the Library, lime white in the Drawing Room and bedroom two, whitewash in the Chapel. The reason? Apart from the obvious ...

The reason that these four rooms MUST be decorated is that all the furniture is arriving during the last week of June and will need to be stored in those rooms until the rest of the house is ready. We have been really blessed that we were allowed to leave all our stuff in the London Vicarage, and not have to pay for storage. But now the Vicarage needs to be emptied and so the Removal Men are booked and we will be reunited with our belongings.

It took FIVE HOURS (on a flight from DC to Heathrow) to go through each of the new rooms and decide which furniture will go where. What a blessing this new calling of our ministry this is proving to be; I was SO excited I could barely sit still even with the seatbelt sign warning on!

But we can't put the furniture into most of the rooms just yet and so it will be stored in one of four rooms - and those need decorating before it is unloaded! Might you like to come and wield a paintbrush with us and others?  Come and enjoy a day in the country at Mays Farm - each of the previous work days have been great fun and we have loved having others around who have blessed us, enjoyed the work, been blessed, eaten lunch together in the Walled Garden. And prayed. We want to pray over this Retreat House, again and again and again.

If the LORD does not build the house, it is useless for the builders to work on it. Psalm 127:1 (God's Word translation)

We pray that The Vine @ Mays Farm will be "auspice Christo" (built with the help of Christ)

Here is your own special invite, to come and be part of this:



9.30 - 5.30 (or whenever you can be here within those times!) 

Painting and decorating party

Bring a paintbrush and wear clothes suitable for painting in!

And if you hate painting there' s lots of garden work to be done too.

RSVP - we will provide lunch so need to know numbers.

Don't be a stranger, see you real soon, as our Southern friends would say!

Latest photos of Mays Farm - they may look as if it is still a building site (it is!) but the developments in the two weeks we have been away are amazing to us.  Kitchen floor will be tiled this weekend too. We're getting there!







POST SCRIPT: One couple are having to cancel their places on the Italy Pilgrimage - so there are 2 places available if you would like to join us Sept 7-14, walking the Via Francigena from San Gimignano to Monticello. Get in touch if you would like more info!  

The best things come in small packages

So this is a total departure and I promise to be back to normality soon. But we are in the USA and reality has to some degree been suspended - temporarily. And the anticipation of a small package arriving has been enormous.

Some weeks ago, my younger daughter, who lives in the USA, signed up for a small package. A fix. But not of the kind you might be thinkingI mean. This is a parcel of dreams, specially selected, beautifully wrapped in tissue, chosen with you in mind - after you have filled in your styles and your preferences and your selected sections. I was signed up by this same daughter, filled in my size (6; you have to love USA sizing, that sounds so small!) selected my style (classic casual) and my favorite (we are in America, remember) color - blues and navies. And sat back and waited.

She and I skayjuled simultaneous deliveries.  We checked online yesterday and discovered that our little parcels had left San Francisco. Could they, would they, arrive in Virginia today?

They could and did.  My happiness levels soared. A little box, a true STITCH FIX, of 5 articles I might like. A box for her and a box for me.


I could hardly contain my excitement.

opening the box

Wearing a very inexpensive supermarket teeshirt, (thank you, Sainsburys! My summer clothes are all in store in London)  I opened up to beautifully wrapped and folded white tissue paper. Giggles from excitement and anticipation  - what would I find inside?

Opening my very first Stitch Fix box

There were to be five items, each specially selected by my stylist - Joyce, according to the note inside.

Joyce, you are amazing. How did you know? I suspect you are really a computer but even so, I am astounded at what I unpack.

First, a glimpse of navy and white stripes. One of my favorite combinations. Enthusiastically I pull it out and hold it up to me. Is it a dress? A tunic top? Beach wear? I love the red buttons on the shoulder - a nice detail. (Pronounced de-TAYLE)

Next, a shirt. Just a shirt. Blue, turquoise-y blue, with orange flecks. I would not ever have given it a second glance on a rail in a store.


My daughter pounces on it and tries it on. She looks stunning as usual.


What else? More navy.

A stunning little jacket, with pretty lace trim where there might have been pockets, and a sweet white-with-pink-spots lining.


And a necklace.

Each of the clothes has a useful tag, showing a range of clothes (which you probably already possess) that create outfits with this particular item. The turquoise shirt is shown with white trousers (sorry, pants, we are in the USA) and with a denim skirt.


Time to try things for size and style. I start with the stripes. And am horrified by the shortness of length and the sack-like fit. I hear my grandmother's derisory voice whisper in my ear - "Mutton dressed like lamb."

Leggings underneath? I suggest to the family. No way is what I think they mean in their laughter.


I opt for the shirt next. And team it with the jeans. The family all exclaim with delight. YES!

The navy jacket is tried with white underneath, as suggested on its style tag. It's good. But I have a very similar one already, and can't justify another. But Joyce got this right too.


So that leaves the necklace. It's not me at all. And I realise that jewellery is just too personal for me to want a stranger to choose it for me; and I have much-loved things already, usually given to me by my husband, celebrating and commemorating. I don't even try this on. Leather and mock gold? Definitely not me.


Of the five items sent

- One I would not ever have given a second look in a shop  but is highly rated by onlookers (shirt)

- One I love but I have its cousin already (jacket)

- One is just right and exactly what I need (jeans - my own much loved pair have worn out and have a hole!)

- One is totally not me (necklace)

- One is wrong size in that it is too short for my age and not fitted enough for my preference (tunic/dress)

Will I keep anything? I've paid a $20 stylist fee which I lose if I don't put it towards anything. Nothing is more than $90, so well within my specified price range. And the family love the shirt and the jeans.

I have three days to decide.

* * * * *

My happiness levels were dangerously high in anticipation of the small box arriving. There is a two week waiting list if you sign up (here if you live in the USA) which cleverly adds to the anticipation. There was enormous fun in daughter and me having boxes arrive together, trying things on, laughing and photographing,  entertaining our husbands with our looks and comments. And return postage is free.

Such a simple idea. So easily achieved.

* * * * *

Tomorrow morning a small "package" awaits me, as it does every morning.

God's Word, His gift to me. It's lifegiving and it's life enhancing and it's life transforming.

'Nuff said.

And the winner of the time capsule competition is ...

  A while ago there was a competition on here, asking for suggestions as to what should be included in a time capsule to bury in Mays Farm. At the time, I couldn't imagine there would ever be a floor under which anything could be hidden!

There was mud everywhere this spring. Rain and mud outside; earth floors turning to mud inside. It looked like devastation to me - and I found it quite depressing. Would there ever be progress?

Friends kindly enquired - how is it going? Can you move in yet? Aren't you excited?

And I looked at the mud on our boots and the dust in our hair and I despaired. It was an utter disaster.


But there IS progress. Suddenly, things are happening in a different way. Instead of everything coming down, being taken apart, dug up or demolished, there is a putting together, a creating, a movement of new beginnings.

Progress is seen at last - look at the little store rooms being made into a kitchen.









So it still doesn't quite look like the finished kitchen ... but it's definitely improving.

And there's a similarity with my life and its ups and downs.

Sometimes it has felt that everything is demolished, devastated, depressed. 

For I too am a work in progress. Sometimes God has had to dig deep to remove the edifices I tried to erect, to dig out the imperfections, remove my all-too-easily constructed walls of pride and passions and perceptions. And it's painful.

Our workmen have been digging and demolishing  in order to restore and renew and recreate. And so has God -  He restores and renews and recreates my life.

If the LORD does not build the house, it is useless for the builders to work on it. If the LORD does not protect a city, it is useless for the guard to stay alert. (Ps 127:1)

Auspice Christo: built with the help of Christ.

I am learning to be patient about Mays Farm.

Please be patient with me, God hasn't finished with me yet!

There are other signs of new life everywhere around the Farm. And blossom in the Walled Garden.


Come and see! On May 18th & May 25th there are invitation days - details here.

And on May 25th we will be burying the time capsule under the elm beams of floor boards on the top landing. Come and pray with us for the new ministry at The Vine as we do this.

CHARLOTTE LEAKE: your entry was chosen by the MbD Trustees! Congratulations on winning a free retreat night at The Vine @ Mays Farm in September!


Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  (2 Cor 5:17)

Might you pray for us? Pray for The Vine @ Mays Farm to be built by the Lord; pray for the ministry  of offering retreats and spiritual sanctuary; pray that all will be auspice Christo. Me and Mays Farm both.




















On a short fuse

Stress. Renovating projects and moving house and changing jobs are all rated highly on the stress indicator tables. Add to that the PTSS and depression of the previous two years, and I can excuse my instant explosions.

That angry tongue.

Those hateful words.

The impatient temper which explodes just when I'm not expecting it.

I even - yes, I confess to this too - I even hit the dog. Not hard, but still. I hit her, because she was leaping up at a visitor: trained already by our lovely workmen (they truly are, always cheerful and hardworking even in the recent freezingly cold weather) to leap as they tease her with their sandwiches. I've only recently discovered this and they do't do it anymore. But old habits die hard, especially in Labradors eager for any tidbit. Exasperated by her disobedience and desire to jump, I scolded and then lashed out, impatient, angry, on a short fuse.

And in front of a wonderful young Christian who had come on Saturday to help us work on the house.

So that's where I was last week.

On a short fuse.

It kept hitting me too, that short fuse.  Exploded externally, nagged internally.

But Sunday. And the sweetness of the Lord came pouring in as the tears poured out.

"This is the air I breathe ... and I, I, I - I'm lost without You, I'm desperate for You."

Worship at The Bath and Avon Vineyard. The Spirit convicting. 

Lord, change me.  I'm desperate for You to change me. I can't seem to get rid of this short fuse.

* * * *

He sent me Words. Words I have known for years but had forgotten. From Amy Carmichael's small but profound book IF  - 

If a sudden jar can cause me to speak an impatient, unloving word, then I know nothing of Calvary love. For a cup brimful of sweet water cannot spill even one drop of bitter water, however suddenly jolted.

I need Calvary Love. HIS love, pouring into me, loving others through me, filling me to the brim with His sweetness and patience and grace.

So I kneel at the foot of His Cross, conscious once again of that all powerful Love. LOVE that died for me and my short fuse.  LOVE that can flood me. LOVE - the first of the fruit of the Spirit.

Cross in chapel

The Cross we found (in the floor joists!) is now in the Chapel

close up of cross

I welcome His love in and drink deeply. Oh, LOVE, that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee ...

I'm still on a short fuse.  But I've handed the fuse to Him.

* * * *

SATURDAY  was another work day. The final wall came down, to create the kitchen. And the ceiling came down in one of the attic bedrooms.  That's the end of demolishing; now we start putting it all together. YAY!

last wall comes down

kitchen space!

ceiling comes down

Proof of a Miracle


Snowdrops as far as the eye can see - down to the Bybrook. We've often walked along this path to Long Dean and Castle Combe over the past 25 years; some years there's hardly any white and green, some years there are masses of snowdrops. This afternoon: one of the best displays for a very long time.


Here is what I posted on this blog, just over two years ago - three weeks after I saw my mother run over and crushed by an out-of-control car; three weeks into what was to prove to be a long descent into PTSS and depression:

October 2010      Three weeks after The Day

There will be snowdrops again. There will be snowdrops again. I have to believe it. One day soon, the tiny tips will push through, struggling, light seeking, upward bound. First, there will be snow. Frost and freeze. Rain. Anything the elements can throw on a winter’s day. A test of patience, hope, belief. But for now, the bulb lies cold, deeply hidden, dormant.

So lies my soul.

A corpse, buried in winter snow. Buried within my cold cold body. Iced from within. I can see it from above, the rectangle of transparent ice surrounding all that is me.

It is hard to hear you through the ice. Impossible to reach out, touch you, feel your well-meant hug. This ice is brittle, sharp, so-very-cold. It forms a barrier.

Maybe that is my protection, for should the thaw come too soon I would feel too much.

So I will believe that snowdrops will come again. And one day One day My snowdrop soul will grow again a tiny tip of life.

For as [surely as] the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring forth, so [surely] the Lord God will cause rightness and justice and praise to spring forth before all the nations [through the self-fulfilling power of His word].  

Isaiah 61:11 (Amplified Bible (AMP) © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation)


Snowdrop (n): A.D. Miller

 1. An early-flowering bulbous plant, having a white pendent flower

2. Moscow slang. A corpse that lies buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw.

* * * *

And now, two and a third years later, the thaw is well and truly here; I can feel - too much sometimes, too deeply occasionally.

But I can feel. Above all, I can feel God's love.

Last week, a dear girl prayed for me. I had gone forward for prayer ministry, hoping for a mature, well-practiced pray-er. Inwardly I cringed as a sweet faced young girl approached me - what could she know of my what and where and when.

Lord forgive me.

Lord You work through whom You chose - not whoever I think should be best.

I simply told her I felt I had lost some things in my life over the past few years; and that I wasn't sure that the Cross of Christ was big enough for this.

That's all.

She prayed for comfort and love; then she had a picture for me.

The Lord was saying that there were some chapters of my life that He needs to rewrite. To show me that He was, is,  there in those chapters with me. And that right there and then, a new chapter was beginning, being written. The old chapters  are past and gone; here beginneth the new one.

The tears came; and with them, repentance and acceptance.

And new emotions.


Now try telling me miracles don't happen. For I've proof that they do.


There are HUNDREDS of snowdrops in this part of the world right now.


A sign from God for me.

Your daily survival kit for this year:

We are in the middle of a mini-series on alleviating, surviving, truimphing over, the bleak midwinter blues of January. Sign up to get the rest delivered straight into your email box! I've just had an email from a dear friend  - with the most amazing survival kit that we all need.  Where she got it from, I have no idea - no-one is attributed with authorship, so if you know where it comes from, PLEASE let me know!  But I pass it on as a slightly tongue-in-cheek daily survival kit:  fill your bag with these few things and keep taking them out to remind yourself.




to help you each day of this new year:

A Toothpick ... to remind you to  pick the good qualities in everyone, including  yourself.

A Rubber Band ... to remind you to be flexible. Things might not always  go the way you want, but it can be worked out.

A Band-Aid ... to remind you to  heal hurt feelings, either yours or someone else's.

An Eraser ... to remind you  everyone makes mistakes. That's okay, we learn from our  errors.

A Candy  Kiss ... to remind you everyone needs a hug or a compliment  everyday.

A Mint  ... to remind you that you are worth a mint to your family  & me.

 Bubble  Gum ... to remind you to stick with it and you can accomplish  anything.

A Pencil ... to remind you to  list your blessings every day.

A Tea Bag ... to remind you to take time to relax daily and go over  that list of blessings.

This is what makes life worth living every minute, every day 

May you have love, gratitude, friends to cherish, caring, sharing,laughter, music, and  warm feelings in your heart in 2013.

AND, I have to add, the gratitude in counting each day's gifts gives so much blessing and a  change of mental attitude. How can doing one such small simple thing make this enormous difference?

All is gift.

Counting - are you?

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17, NIV)

What would you add to this list?
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I preached yesterday at all three of our main services at St James - on the first Sunday of Advent. Several people asked for copies of my sermon - so here is my script for those who would like to be reminded of something from it. The audio edition will very soon be available here:



-       comment on difficulty in finding something to wear this morning, getting following photos of Sally Hitchener in The Times yesterday …

-        PRAY……


Today: the first Sunday in Advent.  We’ve just lit the candle of HOPE

And so Christmas is beginning…the season when so many superficial wants get confused with the deeper longings of the human heart.

When giving the latest techno-toy gets confused with giving love.

When the frenzied scramble for that perfect gift at the lowest possible price takes over our thinking and leaves very little room for the theme of Advent, for preparing for the coming King.

But this season of Advent calls us—in the midst of so much distraction—to pay attention to the deeper desires of our hearts.

So this morning I want to look at three questions which I hope will help us over the weeks of Advent. Each question comes from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel and I want to look at each in turn, and then think about how it applies to us in our own situations.

-       About how each question will help us to go deeper into God in order to satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts, in a way that the consumerist frenzy of our modern Christmas never can.

-       About HOPE – as we wait for the coming of the Messiah, King Jesus  who is the hope of the world.

So -  3 Questions: and I am indebted to Tim Clayton’s new little book on the Four Questions of Advent for the idea for this sermon today.

- The question of disappointment, asked by Zechariah

- The question of inadequacy, asked by Elizabeth

- The question of surrender, asked by Mary


Luke begins his story of God’s presence coming to live among us with this surprising account of Zechariah.

A man who was living a life of great disappointment: in his work and in his marriage.

He was a priest, one of the leaders of the people, and they had been expecting the Messiah to come. There was great disappointment and frustration that not only was there no messiah, there was the Roman invasion and so they were occupied by foreign forces. He had had no good news at work to be able to share, no hope to offer to others.

Z also had great disappointment in his marriage.  Most men want to son to carry on their family name, to be proud of and bring up. And in those days, to be a childless couple was to be a laughing stock, second class citizens almost. Z & E had had no child, in spite of their prayers, and Z was a man disappointed in his marriage.

How many of us know deep disappointments in life – in our careers, in our family life, in our homes, in almost every area of our lives?

Here is a husband who had been crying out to God in desperation,

a wounded, hopeless man;

one whose work has not been all that he had hoped,

one whose marriage had not been all that he had  hoped.

And I suspect for most of us here, there are things in Z’s disappointments  that we relate to in our own lives, whether we are male or female, married or single.

We have known deep disappointments in our lives -

- Relationships which cause hurt and anguish and intense sadness

- Work situations and frustrations causing stress and  hurt and disappointments

- Lack of money and security

- poor health or persistent pain

- the general pursuit of happiness.


We are Broken and Bruised and Battered people.


Maybe we feel we have cried out to the Lord and he hasn’t heard our anguish.

Just like Zechariah, who had tried to live a good life according to God’s laws (v 7) maybe we feel it’s too late  - they were getting old, maybe they were tempted to give up.

Someone once said that the words “TOO LATE” are the saddest words ever. And maybe that’s how you feel too.  It’s too late; there have been too many disappointments. Maybe that’s going round in your head right now.

But let’s look at bit more at this story of Zechariah. For something is about to change in his life. Suddenly, after years and years of hopelessness both at work and in his personal life, something happens.

Something happens at work: he is chosen, he won the privilege, of being promoted for this one- off event of offering the evening incense, something a priest typically only did once in his lifetime, as once you had done it you were ineligible to be entered into the draw until all the priests in your division (and there were a great many) had done it, and your division was only eligible twice a year for a week at a time in any case.

So Zechariah goes into the special area in the Temple, offers the incense and as he does so, he has this vision of an angel – who turns out of course as we know with hindsight, to be an archangel. The archangel wants to calm Z – don’t be afraid – and give him some good news.

‘Your prayers have been heard.”  And there is the amazing news of a son for Z and his wife Elizabeth – a son who is to be called John: which means “GOD HAS GIVEN GRACE.”

But I suspect Z didn’t really hear it all – didn’t take it all in. Even though something is going to change in his personal life, he is so stunned, so overwhelmed, that he misses God’s promises.  Maybe he allows his disappointments and broken hopes to get in the way; he is so used to feeling disappointed, let down by God and by everything else in his life, that he doesn’t really understand what’s going on.

And so he asks the wrong question, a question coming out of disappointment. HOW CAN I KNOW? He is disappointed and hurt, and he can’t get beyond that. Even when confronted with this messenger from God, with this astonishing and very surprising vision, it’s almost as if he voices his frustrations. How can I KNOW? It can’t be true! It’s just not possible.

Z has spoken from his heart, from a place of disappointment and hurt. But he has overreached himself. And so God puts him in a place of reflection for a while – by making him dumb, so that he would not be able to do his work, not be able to take services or talk to others. Maybe the silence, the reflection, is so that there can be time for renewal and refreshment.

Because the answer to Z’s disappointments is coming:

HOPE is coming:

first in the son he is to have,

who will then point the way to the true HOPE:

Jesus, the Messiah and the hope of the nations. Jesus, the hope of heaven, coming to lift us from our hurts and disappointments.


How can I KNOW?  Is this a question we also would have asked, or do ask in our own circumstances, when we sense the movement of God in our lives – or long to do so? That deep longing to KNOW that God is real, that he has plans for us, that the pain of disappointment and hurt will one day be gone?

Because don’t you find that there is always the temptation to try to work things out for ourselves,

to ask WHY so loudly and with such heartache,

that even if the answer should come, we’d not be able to  pick it up?

Like Z, to ask the wrong question?

And so our first questioner, Zechariah, perhaps speaks to us in our disappointment, and suggests to us that we should take a period of reflection, maybe during this first week of Advent coming up;

- take some time in quiet before the Lord, and ask Him to speak  to us, to speak into our lost hope and our pain;

- and maybe to expect him to again, in a way we’ve not known  certainly for a long time, perhaps not ever.

We need to whisper, like Samuel: Speak Lord for your servant is listening.

Is that something you need to whisper out of your hurt and disappointment over this next week? And will you stay quiet long enough to hear what the Lord has to say? Because with God, it’s never too late; in the presence of God, maybe our hurts and fears and disappointments look very different. Can you offer them to him, knowing that he will say “Don’t be afraid” and that he will have the best solution: the hope we can have in Jesus.


Let’s move on to the second question, the question of inadequacy.

Moving on just over 6 months, to verse 39. Z’s wife Elizabeth is now 6 months pregnant, and has an unexpected visitor – her young cousin, Mary, who is also pregnant  - with the Messiah, of course, but we will look at Mary and her question in a little more detail in a moment.

Mary has struggled on a long arduous journey, probably whilst trying to cope with morning sickness and all those first strange early week of pregnancy. As she arrives at long last in Elizabeth’s house, and steps at last over the doorstep, tired and weary and yet strangely exhilarated with all that is happening, something wonderful happens.  Elizabeth’s baby, the promised John whose name means GOD HAS GIVEN GRACE, ‘leaps in the womb’ – v 41.

Now most babies are fairly active in the womb – by about 6 months into the pregnancy they are kicking and turning, getting hiccups and making their presence felt.  So in some respects what Elizabeth feels is normal.  AND YET!

In the original text, the word used for ‘leaped” is used only in this one place in the New Testament. It is the word used to describe great energy and joy, and was used in the book of Malachi to describe the energy and joy which will follow the coming of the Messiah.

In Malachi 4: 2 the prophecy reads: “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in his wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.”

This was a special moment, and Elizabeth recognized it as such. Verse 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!  But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 

Elizabeth gives a loud cry of joy – but then comes her question, and its heartfelt profundity seems to be lost in translation in the NIV which we have in front of us.

Zechariah’s question was sceptical, a sort of ‘prove it to me’ kind of question.  Elizabeth’s cry of joy is followed by a pause and then a question of self doubt, which literally says in the original, “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes EVEN TO ME?”

She is basically saying, WHY ME? WHO AM I that this should happen to me? I’m not the priest like my husband, I’m no-one special, I’m just the stay at home housewife up in the hills. I don’t deserve this.

I’m no-one special.

And itsn’t that the lie that the enemy feeds into each one of us at times?

That moment of self doubt,

that lack of self worth,

that low self-esteem.

I’m no-one special.

Someone else is smarter

Someone else has not made all those wrong decisions

Someone else is more vivacious, more patient,

more clever

or younger or better looking  – or, or, or

Poor self esteem, often through comparing ourselves with others.

Here is Elizabeth, wondering why on earth God would choose her. And so again, the question comes off the page and engages each one of us, whatever our situation, whatever our role in life, however slight or mundane it seems.  We too often struggle with this very question.

Surely God would never want me. Surely God would never choose me.  My ministry is no good, I never help people, I’m wasting my time.

All those self doubts, all those moments of low self esteem, all those moments of wondering whether I have anything at all to offer. Why should God choose me?

And yet -  He does. He chooses each one of us for the role He has determined before our birth for each one of us.  But, even more than that, there is his love for each one of us.

Our eldest granddaughter had her fourth birthday last week.  She celebrated with a Hallo Kitty birthday party. (For those who don’t’ know, Hallo Kitty is a slightly nauseating, very pinkly coloured, cartoon-like character who for some reason appeals enormously to little girls).  At the party, there were hallo kitty masks to colour in and wear, hallo kitty face painting, lots of pink things – and hallo kitty transfers to be put on to the back of one’s hand.

And so I told Talitha, my granddaughter, when she was proudly showing me her hallo kitty transfer on her hands and arms, that God loves her so much he has a transfer with her name on it on his hand. Only that transfer wont wash off, like the hallo kitty ones.  The transfer with her name on it which is on God’s hand is permanent, and it’s because he loves her so much and wants to wear her name on his hand forever.

You know that’s true for you too, don’t you! God has your name engraved on his hand because he loves you so much  - it says so in Isaiah 49:

V 14 But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, 
the Lord has forgotten me.’

in other words, who am I?

self doubt, thinking the Lord doesn’t care.

But what does God say to us?

v15  ‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
 and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
 Though she may forget,

I will not forget you!  See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;

That’s what God does to prove his love for you, his unending, faithful, trustworthy love for you.  You are so special, so loved by God, that in the word of the song,

There is nothing you can do to make him love you more

There is nothing you can do to make him love you less.

God loves you.

That makes you special.

No matter who you are, no matter what you have done, no matter what you look like or feel like.

God loves you and you are special. And he proves his love to you in this : he sent Jesus. The promised messiah, the hope of the world.

Romans 5:8
But God demonstrates (or proves) his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. THAT’S HOW MUCH GOD LOVES YOU.

And so the challenge for the second week of Advent is for us to think more deeply about


and for that thinking to take us deeper into knowing the truth of how much God loves us.

We don’t have to feel inadequate or compare ourselves to others.  We have instead to live in this truth: how very very much God loves you.

HE LOVES YOU. You are a child of God.



And so we move on to the third question, one which I am going to look at in very much less detail although in fact it is probably the most important one.  And that’s Mary’s question, when she is told that she is going to be the mother of the Messiah, the hope of the world.  We’ll look at it more briefly for two reasons – one is that you want to get home for lunch, the other is because I preached at St James about Mary’s surrender to God not so very long ago, and you may remember or you may want to listen to it online.

Go back to Luke 1: 26.  It’s a story we all know so very well. A story of a young girl who is engaged to be married, and of how she is met by an angel, how the angel tells her that she will find herself pregnant and how the baby will be a miracle from God.

Maybe you too have had an experience which has been out of your normal comfort zone, when you have been asked to do something which has been scary but also a great privilege.  Of course, it’s a very small and totally inadequate illustration of what Mary the mother of Jesus was faced with.

Picture from Spoleto: God tapping Mary on the shoulder:

And what was Mary’s response to this invitation?

V 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.

A better translation might be, Mary was confused and worried and tried to think what the angel could mean.

So she is thinking deeply about this, trying to work it out, as the angel goes on to tell her what is going to happen. Don’t be frightened, the angel says, God has it all worked out.

And then, in v 34, Mary replies,  ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’   -   How can I have a baby?  I’m a virgin!

Unlike Zechariah, Mary’s curiosity as to how God would act was genuine.   Most importantly, her immediate reaction was one of total obedience.  What would happen to her would cause her to be misunderstood and probably chastised and ridiculed by her family and her friends, as it would look as if she had had sex outside marriage, an offence punishable by death.  This could jeopardise her marriage, or any future marriage possibilities, and make her an outcast. But she didn’t hesitate to be used by God in whatever way he asked of her: -

V 38  It comes across as an immediate decision; she may have been bewildered, she may have been anxious; but she was content to leave it to God and be open to his will.  “I am the Lord’s servant,” she said, “and I am willing to accept whatever he wants.  May everything you have said come true.” (NLT)

OK, God, whatever you want, whatever you say.  Full and glad surrender, at any cost.

Isn’t this the most powerful example of complete trust in God and obedience to his plans?

“Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”

And so here is the challenge for each one of us for the third week of Advent. To spend time bringing our impossible situations to God, and asking him to work it all out; to offer him ourselves, knowing that he can, will, and does do all things well. (as it says in Mark 7:37)

From the moment she accepted God’s plans and will for her life, Mary was totally dependent on him.  She opened herself to God in every way; and gave him complete control.  The only thing she could control was her faithfulness to God, her dependency on him.

But God – don’t you just love that phrase?  But God… we do this and we do that, and we mess up, and whatever.  But God.. God did what only he could do and he poured out his spirit over Mary.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, “ the angel had promised. (v. 35).  And Mary knew that God had not forgotten his promise (v54 NLT).  She was filled with Spirit, overshadowed by the power of God.

Mary embraced God’s will so completely, that she doesn’t question him, his ways or his plans.  And this I think is the real challenge of this story.

Not only was Mary in a relationship with God to the extent that he cherished her and chose her;

not only was she filled with power from on high so that his plans and promises permeated through her to the whole of history;

but she was totally surrendered to what he wanted.

Full and glad surrender at any cost.

IS that true of you and of me? Are we totally surrendered to God? And if that is the only question you remember from this sermon, if that is the only question you take with you into Advent and then Christmas this year, it is the most important and fundamental question of all.

Will you allow God to have all of you,

your disappointments and hurts,

your self doubts and fears,

your lack of love and your questions and fears?

Will you hand it all over to him and give him yourself?

Because only when we do that, as Mary did, can God pour his Spirit over us and fill us with Himself.

Mary, who was probably young and poor, who came from insignificant Nazareth and had nothing to offer except herself and her full and glad surrender at any cost, surrendered herself utterly and completely to God’s call on her life. She trusted him and obeyed him. And because of her faith and her trust and obedience, God could use her and through her bless the whole of human kind. . Full and glad surrender at any cost. She wanted “God’s will, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.”


What is your question as you wait for Christmas? Whatever your situation, whatever your disappointments or your inadequacies, there is hope.

By surrendering ourselves to God, the One who loves us best,

we can know new hope, new love.

We can know His deep deep love for us as we look at his king size bed, and

And know that He IS the answer to each and every one of our questions.


Will you stand ….  Pray maybe with hands open to showing offering of self to the Lord …


There is a hope that burns within my heart

That gives me strength for every passing day

A glimpse of glory now revealed in meagre part

Yet drives all doubt away

I stand in Christ with sins forgiven

And Christ in me the hope of heaven

My highest calling and my deepest joy

To make his will my home.


 - Stuart Townend