Friday, December 26, 2008

Sermon for Christmas Day 2008

(With more than a little help from Tom Wright's 'Luke for Everyone'!)

Kingdoms Collide when a Child is Born.

I don’t know if any of you have ever had the experience of trying to point a dog in the right direction. It’s rather frustrating. You point with your finger and you say to the dog, ‘Go over there’. Where does the dog look? Does he look at the direction you’re pointing in? No – he looks at your finger! It gets a bit frustrating after a while; the dog is giving all his attention to a sign, rather than to what the sign is pointing toward.

I sometimes wonder if Luke, the author of our gospel reading for this morning, ever feels that sense of frustration, if and when he ever takes a peek at what we’ve done with his gospel. You see, he’s put a sign in our reading for today, and just to make sure that we get it, he repeats it three times. In verse 7 he says, ‘And (Mary) gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn’. Then in verse 12 the angel says to the shepherds, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger”. So the shepherds go to Bethlehem to look for this sign; in verse 16 we read, ‘So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger’. Three times Luke mentions that the child Jesus was lying in a manger, an animals’ feeding trough – a rather strange place to put a newborn baby.

Legend has had a field day with that manger; like the dog looking at your finger when you try to point him in the right direction, we just don’t seem to be able to get over our fascination with the sign. St. Francis of Assisi is credited as the first person to actually bring a manger scene into a church, and since then we’ve added all sorts of other people to the cast, people Luke doesn’t mention at all. The ox and ass and camel adore Jesus in Christmas carols, but Luke and the other gospel writers never mention them, nor do they say that the shepherds brought their own animals with them, although most crib scenes have a shepherd with a lamb under his arm.

We’ve also added a stable, and a cranky innkeeper who won’t let the obviously pregnant-and-maybe-already-in-labour Mary into his inn. But in fact, the inn may be a mistranslation! Bible scholars have known this for a long time, despite the traditional translation ‘because there was no room for them in the inn’; the latest version of the New Testament, the TNIV, translates that phrase as ‘because there was no guest room available for them’. What’s the natural meaning of that phrase? Well, Joseph’s family was from Bethlehem, so it seems natural that he would plan to stay with relatives when he got there. Unfortunately, other relatives who had come to Bethlehem for the census had the same plan, and so the only room available for Mary and Joseph was the ground floor room that was normally used to bring in the animals at night – hence the presence of the feeding trough. This also explains why, according to Matthew’s gospel, when the wise men came later on, they found the holy family in a house.

So we need to set aside all the traditional details and look at what Luke actually says in his story, and when we do, the manger stands out in bold print and eighteen-point type! Why is the manger important? It’s important because it was the sign given to the shepherds to tell them which baby was the right one. Down there in Bethlehem that night there were probably a few newborn babies, but one of them was special; one of them was the Messiah, the Lord, the one God had sent to be the king who would deliver his people. The shepherds needed to know which child was the right one, and so they were told, ‘He’s the one in the feeding trough’. I actually find it quite funny to think of them, walking down the quiet streets of Bethlehem that night, knocking on doors and asking, “Excuse me – is there a new baby in this house? Er – is he lying in a manger? Yes, I know, that sounds ridiculous, but an angel told us… oh, all right, slam the door, then!”

What is a Messiah? The shepherds would know that, and so would everyone else in Bethlehem. In ancient Israel, in this same town of Bethlehem, a shepherd boy had been brought in from keeping his family’s sheep, when God called him to be a shepherd and king for his people Israel. His name was David, and he was the King Arthur of ancient Israel, the one the people looked back on as a man after God’s own heart, a king who loved God and loved his people. History actually records that David had human failings like the rest of us, but the people looked back on his reign as the golden age when Israel was strong and free. And they looked out on a world where they were ruled by the might of Rome, a world in which the rich and powerful exploited and oppressed the poor and vulnerable, and they prayed, “Do it again, Lord! Send us another king like David, one who will set us free!” The custom was to anoint kings with olive oil at their coronations, and so they called the King they were longing for ‘the anointed one’ – in Hebrew, ‘The Messiah’, and in Greek, ‘the Christ’.

But the world into which Jesus was born already had a king, a very powerful king, and Luke tells his story in such a way as to emphasise this fact. In verse 1 he says,
‘In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David'.
Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, and he became the sole ruler of Rome after a bloody civil war in which he defeated all his rivals. He turned the famous Roman republic into an empire, with himself as the first emperor. He claimed that he had brought peace and justice to the whole world. He claimed that his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, was divine, and that he himself was the ‘son of a god’. The Roman poets wrote songs about the new era he had brought in; people referred to Augustus as the ‘saviour’ of the world, its ‘lord’ and ‘king’. In the eastern part of his empire, people were already beginning to worship him as a god.

Luke was well aware of all this; in his day the Roman empire was still all-powerful, and he knew how people were overawed by it. All Augustus needed to do was to say the word, and all over his empire millions of people had to travel back to their home towns to be counted and registered – presumably for taxation purposes. That’s power! And yet, Luke is asking, what did this do? Why, it brought Mary and Joseph back from the Galilean town of Nazareth to the perfect place for the Messiah to be born – the hometown of his famous ancestor, David – just as the old prophets had foretold. Even Augustus found himself doing God’s will, without even knowing it!

Luke contrasts the two kings. Augustus lives in great wealth, but Jesus’ family is poor; later on in Luke chapter two when they come to offer the sacrifice for Mary’s purification after childbirth, they offer the cheap version designed for poor people. No doubt the birth of a Roman aristocrat would have been attended by distinguished family members and visitors, but at the birth of Jesus the visitors were shepherds, despised by most Jews as Sabbath-breakers. Augustus could compel the world to obey him by the power of his legions, but Jesus never forced anyone to obey him. His kingdom, he said much later, was ‘not of this world’ – in other words, it was not patterned after a worldly kingdom. Rich and powerful were not excluded from it, but they entered on the same terms as the poor and humble. Wealth was to be shared, not hoarded. Wrongs were to be forgiven, not avenged. Enemies were to be loved, not ‘taken out’. The king didn’t lord it over his servants; rather, he washed their feet. And when the time came for the supreme confrontation with the forces of evil, this king gave his life for his followers.

As Luke tells the story, that moment of Jesus’ death is the supreme confrontation between the two kingdoms. Jesus, the carpenter rabbi from Nazareth, hailed by his followers as the Messiah, stands before the might of imperial Rome in the person of the governor. Pontius Pilate. Any royal pretensions Jesus may have had look ridiculous as he stands before the real power, the brute force that can whip a man with a whip designed to tear his back open, and then nail him to a cross designed for rebels against the empire. So Jesus dies, his kingdom supposedly defeated.

But that is not the end. Luke tells the story of Jesus’ resurrection three days later, and in the book of Acts Luke goes on to tell the story of how the message of the risen Jesus spreads throughout the Roman empire. The so-called defeat of the cross is turned into the great victory of the resurrection, and before three decades have passed, the Christian message has reached even the imperial city of Rome itself. God is gathering together a new empire, with citizens drawn from every tribe and language and nation, united in their loyalty to their king Jesus and their determination to live the life he taught them.

So at the manger in Bethlehem, two kingdoms collide – the kingdom of power and wealth symbolized by Caesar Augustus, and the kingdom of love and justice, symbolized by the baby, the descendant of David. The angel said, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (v.11). The good news is that this defenceless child, and not Augustus on his mighty throne, is the true ruler of the world. By his life and death and resurrection he has won the decisive battle against evil, and he now calls all people to give him their allegiance.

Tonight we celebrate his coming and his kingdom. We give thanks to God for the promise that the last word of history will not go to military tyrants or terrorist fanatics or to the faceless heads of multinational corporations, but to Jesus, the servant King. And God challenges us to decide which king we will serve; we will undoubtedly become like the king we choose. Will we serve the kingdom of Augustus, devoting ourselves to power and wealth and worldly success, or will we follow God’s anointed King, Jesus, who rules not by the love of power but by the power of love, the one who, in the words of an earlier character in Luke’s story, will “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79)?

A Christmas Eve Sermon (II): Luke 2:1-20

What Sort of God Would Do a Crazy Thing Like This?

In the original movie ‘Shadowlands’, there’s a fictional conversation between C.S. Lewis and another university professor about the meaning of Christmas. Lewis says, “It’s all about magic, Christopher: God becomes a man”. The other professor replies, “Then God must be bonkers! Who would choose to become voluntarily human? Much better to stay safely divine!”

As a Christian, I have to admit that I often think they both had good points! On Lewis’ side, we have to face the fact that this is what the Christian story claims – that in the birth of Jesus, God has become a human being. A popular song of a few years ago says:
If God had a face, what would it look like?
And would you want to see it right,
if seeing meant that you would have to believe
in things like heaven,
and in Jesus, and the saints, and all of the prophets?

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on a bus trying to make his way back home?
I’ve often thought that we should add this song to the Christmas carol books. This is exactly what the Christmas story is all about; it’s God becoming one of us, God sharing our human life, God experiencing all the things that we experience. The technical word for it in Christian theology is ‘incarnation’ – God taking on himself our human flesh.

But we also have to face the point of view of the other professor in the movie. Has God taken leave of his senses? If God is the almighty creator of the universe, what would possess him to allow himself to be born as a helpless baby, to put himself in a position of complete dependence on human parents, to make himself vulnerable to all the pain and suffering of life on earth? What on earth would be the point of it? What sort of God decides to do something like that? Let me suggest a few things that this Christmas story tells us about what sort of God would do this.

First, the sort of God who would do this would be a God who believed in the power of love and not the power of force. There are a lot of people in the Christmas story who believe in the power of force. There’s the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. The story tells us that ‘In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered… All went to their own home towns to be registered’ (Luke 2:1, 3). Imagine having that kind of power! Caesar sits on his throne in Rome and sends out an order that all the millions of people in his empire are to be registered – presumably for tax purposes. Immediately thousands of public officials and soldiers leap to do his bidding! That’s the sort of power that can get things done! Or think of King Herod – he hears that a rival king has been born in Bethlehem, and immediately sends a death squad to kill all male children under the age of two years old. That’s decisive action! No one would dare to question the authority of a man who could give an order like that!

And yet today, two thousand years later, the only reason we remember Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great is because of the birth of a baby in Bethlehem during their reign. Despite all their power and influence, they died like anyone else, and they left the world much as they found it.

In contrast to them, Jesus did not have the authority to order a million people to interrupt their lives for an income tax registration, and he killed no one during the thirty-three years of his life. He spent his life teaching the truth and reaching out in love to everyone he met. He didn’t concentrate on the powerful and the rich in an attempt to influence the movers and shakers of society; rather, he hung out with lepers and tax collectors, blue collar workers and prostitutes, and everywhere he went he brought transformation into people’s lives. Jesus touched them, and they had the sense that they had been touched by God. It wasn’t the power of force; it was the power of love – God’s love. He modelled it for us in the way he lived his life, and even when human beings rejected him, he did not strike back, but allowed them to kill him by nailing him to a cross. In that act, he was saying to us, “You may be able to kill me, but the one thing you can never kill is my love for you”.

Christmas tells us about a God who believes in the power of love, not the power of force. Second, the kind of God Christmas tells us about is a God who thinks you make a difference by coming close, not by standing far away and yelling instructions.

There’s an old episode of MASH where Father Mulcahey and Radar find themselves in the situation of having to perform a tracheotomy on a man in a combat zone. Neither of them are doctors, of course; the only thing they can do is call the real doctors at the MASH unit and ask them to guide them through the operation. Of course, it’s an awful thing for both the doctors who are giving the instructions and for the people who are trying to follow them! Long distance instructions might work sometimes, but you just know there’s something lacking there.

Religious history is full of stories of gods who give their wisdom at long distance – gods who aren’t crazy enough to get close to this dangerous human race, but stay safely divine, far away in heaven, and send their messengers to give us their words of advice. But the Christian story is not that sort of story. In the Gospel for Christmas Day St. John calls Jesus ‘The Word’; he says, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory’ (John 1:14) – or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it, ‘The Word became flesh and blood and moved into our neighbourhood’ (‘The Message’). This God is not a general who barks orders at his soldiers by radio from a safe headquarters miles away from the front lines; rather, he’s a general who comes right to the front lines and knows what it’s like to wade through the mud in the trenches: ‘What if God was one of us?’ Well, he was!

And the thing is this: by coming close to us in this way, by living as one of us, he showed us two things. He showed us what God is like, and he showed us what a real human life is meant to be like.

There’s a story about a little girl who was drawing a picture in Sunday School class one day. When the teacher asked what she was drawing, she replied, ‘God!’ The teacher said, ‘But no one knows what God looks like!’ The little girl replied, ‘They will when I’m done!’ And when Jesus was done – when he had lived his life of love for God and others, when he had gone all the way to the cross to show us the true extent of God’s love for us – then we humans finally had a true portrait of what God is like. God is like Jesus.

But Jesus not only shows us what God is like; he also shows us what human life is meant to be like. We have a common saying, don’t we? ‘I’m only human’. Usually we use that saying as an excuse for the times we mess up, the times we fall short of what we know we should be. It’s as if we’re claiming that being human is an excuse for being bad! And, of course, you and I have never seen a human being who wasn’t flawed in some way.

But Jesus came and lived the sort of life that God dreamed for us humans when he created us in the first place. He told us that the two great commandments – the ones everything else depends on – are that we love God with all our heart, and we love our neighbour as ourselves. And then he lived that out in his daily life. To learn to follow him is to learn to be truly human, the way God intended human life to be lived. It’s not about who has the most toys, or who is the most popular, or who can force the most people to do what they want. It’s about right relationships - with God, and with our neighbours. Get that wrong, and we’ve missed the whole point. Get it right, and we’ve grasped the reason we were created in the first place.

But there’s another aspect to this as well. Jesus knows what it’s like to be tempted and to suffer as a human being, so he can sympathise with us in our suffering and our weakness. Listen to how The Message Bible translates Hebrews 4:14-16:
Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let's not let it slip through our fingers. We don't have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He's been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let's walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.

So no – God was not out of his mind when he decided to become one of us. There was method in God’s madness. God is love, through and through, and everything that he did was consistent with that love. He came in love, not in force. He came close to us, to show us the way and to give us the help we needed, rather than standing at a safe distance and barking orders at us.

The song ‘What if God was one of us?’ also has this question: ‘If God had a name, what would it be?’ The Christmas story tells us that when God came to us in his Son, he chose a name for himself: ‘Jesus’, or ‘Yeshua’ in Hebrew, which means ‘God saves’ or ‘God to the rescue’. This name tells us so much about the character of God. The old saying, ‘God helps those who help themselves’, is completely wrong; the Bible tells us that God helps those who can’t help themselves! That’s why he came: to save us from sin and evil and death and to lead us into freedom and joy and goodness and love.

I’ve been asking the question, ‘Is God crazy?’ and of course my answer has been ‘no’. But there’s a sense in which God is crazy: he’s crazy about us! He loves us so much that he was prepared to come and live a human life, to save us and show us the way. The Son of God became human, so that we humans could learn to be like the Son of God. And that starts tonight, as we put our trust in him, and as we commit ourselves to following him.

A Christmas Eve sermon (I): Hebrews 1:1-4

Show and Tell for Christmas

I’m a great fan of the Mel Brooks movie Robin Hood – Men in Tights, which is a spoof on a lot of other Robin Hood movies, particularly the Kevin Costner flick Prince of Thieves. In one of my favourite scenes from the movie Mel Brooks takes a swipe at Costner, who spoke Robin Hood’s lines in Prince of Thieves with a broad American accent. In Brooks’ movie Robin, played by Cary Elwes, arrives at Prince John’s banquet hall while a feast is in full swing. He drops a dead boar down on the table in front of Prince John and announces that he’s come to lead the people of England. Prince John asks, “And why should the people of England listen to you?” Robin replies, “Because, unlike other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent!”

Well, of course, this is meant to be comedy, but there’s a deep truth being expressed here. I can remember as a child watching some of the great Hollywood biblical epics, like Samson and Delilah and Quo Vadis and The Ten Commandments. I enjoyed them, but still something about them didn’t seem quite right. After I became an adult I realised what it was. I don’t like biblical movies where the characters speak with American accents! How ridiculous! Do the directors really think that Jesus’ disciples spoke American? Of course, when I think about it, it’s kind of ridiculous for me to think they spoke British English, too! But what was the deep longing I was unconsciously expressing? It was the longing for God to speak to me in my language, and not someone else’s. Even if I can understand the other person’s language, it means so much more to me if I can hear God speak to me in my first language, the language of my heart.

Does God speak our language? Can we understand God’s language? What language does God use to try to communicate with us? This is the theme of our first reading this evening, from the New Testament letter to the Hebrews. How is it possible for us to know anything about God? We sometimes hear the phrase ‘the human search for God’, but if you think about it, the idea of humans searching for God is a bit like the idea of humans using a radio to try to pick up TV signals!

Think of some of the barriers we have to get over in order to find out anything about God, or in order to pick up a message from God. We are physical beings; we hear messages from each other because sound waves resonate against our eardrums. How can we hear sound waves from God? God is purely spirit, with no physical body. And we are limited by time and space - I can only be in one place at once, and I move through my life in time, looking back on the past, experiencing the present and worrying about the future. But God is not limited by any of this. God is present in every part of creation, and God is outside of time. So many words in our language have no meaning in God’s experience; ‘before’, ‘after’, ‘hurry up’ and so on! Communication between God and us is very complicated!

Nonetheless, the author of Hebrews assures us that God has spoken to us. He has spoken to our ancestors through the prophets, and then finally he has spoken to us through his Son Jesus. And the reason why this passage from Hebrews is a Christmas reading is that this is the big picture behind the Christmas story. The real significance about the birth of Jesus was that it showed the extreme lengths to which God was prepared to go in order to communicate with us; he was willing to be born himself as a human baby and open himself to all the pain and suffering of our human existence. Such is his love for us.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that God’s communication to us has been a two-stage process. First, he says ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors by the prophets’ (verse 1).

I once knew a man who claimed to be a prophet. He was the pastor of a church of another denomination, and one afternoon when we went for coffee he proceeded to tell me exactly what God wanted me to do in a certain situation. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a bit sceptical about people like that - and in this man’s case, my scepticism was well founded.

Nonetheless, we need to realise that this was exactly what the Old Testament prophets claimed; God was speaking through them to his people. The Bible tells us that Moses knew God face to face and gave his message to his people. He told them that they had been created by one true God, that they were made in God’s image, and he gave them the Ten Commandments and other laws to guide them into God’s will for them. Later on in the history of Israel, when the people were deviating from God’s plan, God sent them messengers like Elijah or Isaiah or Jeremiah to call them back to his ways. In difficult times they needed words of encouragement, and in those situations too God spoke to them through the prophets. That’s what the word ‘prophet’ means in the Bible - not so much ‘one who foretells the future’ as ‘one who speaks to the people on God’s behalf’.

We would love to know how those people received God’s message! Sometimes it was by dreams or visions; sometimes by direct words. All that the writer of Hebrews tells us is that God’s word came to them ‘in many and various ways’.

Were there other ‘prophets’ outside the Hebrew tradition who also spoke messages from God? I once heard Anglican Bishop Gordon Beardy referring this verse to the traditions of his Cree ancestors, saying that all that was good and true in their teachings also came from the one true God. Another New Testament writer, Paul, tells us that all people in the world know instinctively what is right and good, because God has put his law within them. We know that all truth is God’s truth, and so all that is good and true in other traditions also comes from him.

However, we must also say that all these revelations are incomplete. The writer of Hebrews wants to show us that the message that came through the prophets was not completed until, ‘in these last days, (God) has spoken to us by a Son’. Jesus is the culmination of the story; he is the highest revelation of God to us. And so we go on to the second stage of God’s revelation to us, the stage when ‘in these last days, (God) has spoken to us by a Son’.

I’ve noticed that kids love ‘show and tell’ games. Words can wear on you after a while, but when you combine words with something you can see and touch, the message is much more compelling. The ministry of the Old Testament prophets was mainly in words, and Jesus continues this. But he is also God’s message to us made visible; Hebrews tells us ‘He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (v.3). He not only speaks God’s message; he also is God’s message to us. When we see him caring for the poor and needy, or speaking the truth fearlessly to the authorities, or loving his enemies and forgiving those who crucified him, we are seeing a portrait of what God is like.

Who is the baby in the manger? Look at some of the incredible things Hebrews has to say about him. He is ‘the heir of all things’ (v.2); he is the son of a King, but the King of everything that exists in the entire universe! He is the one ‘through whom also (God) created the worlds’ (v.2) – in other words, Bethlehem was not the real beginning for this little baby. He was present and active at the creation of the whole universe. He was there at the big bang!

The writer goes on to say that Jesus is ‘the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (v.3). He is God made visible for us; in God there is no un-Christlikeness at all, because Jesus is in fact God with a human face. And he continues to be active in the universe; Hebrews says ‘he sustains all things by his powerful word’ (v.3).

These are incredible things to say about a man who had died on a cross outside Jerusalem less than forty years before this letter was written. President Franklin D. Roosevelt died over sixty years ago, and yet there are enough people still alive who knew him to be able to refute any outrageous claims about his divinity that his enthusiastic fans might want to make! The same could be said for spiritual leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, both of whom died some time ago. And yet less than forty years after the death of Jesus, our writer is claiming that he is ‘the exact imprint of God’s very being’. What kind of person provokes this kind of language? Obviously the baby in the manger is no ordinary baby!

If this writer is telling us the truth - if God has in fact come to live among us in the baby in the manger – then what does it mean for us as we go into 2009? Two things:

First, it means that God has lived our human life in all its pain and squalor. Think of the things that Jesus went through in his short life. The circumstances of his birth were such that people sometimes questioned his parentage – was he really the son of Joseph, or was the truth much darker and more scandalous? As a child he had to flee his country as a refugee to escape King Herod’s death squads, and so he spent the first part of his life as a stranger in a foreign land. He seems to have lost his earthly father at an early age, and so he is no stranger to the pain of bereavement. He had to earn his living just as we do. He experienced the rough and tumble of family life as we do – in fact, the New Testament makes it plain that he was misunderstood and slandered by members of his own immediate family. He was persecuted by powerful people, and eventually was tortured to death on a cross. This is a God who can understand our human life. This is a God who understands our language. This is a God who has become one of us.

So God has lived our human life in all its pain and squalor. The second thing the passage is teaching us is that Jesus is God’s love made visible for us. We live in a culture that has become jaded with words. We’ve heard too many false promises from politicians and too many false guarantees from businesses assuring us that their job was to give us ‘customer satisfaction’. We know how easy it is to say ‘I love you’ – and how hard it is to actually put that into practice in our daily lives. And a God who simply says to us “I love you” from the safety and security of heaven, far removed from our human suffering – that kind of God has little credibility for us today.

But what about a God who loves us so much he is willing to leave the safety and security of heaven and make himself small and vulnerable? The one through whom the worlds were made now needs a human mother to wash him and feed him! The source of all life and health now takes a form that makes him susceptible to pain, torture and death. And he does all this because he loves us and wants to save us from our sins. If God is willing to go to these extraordinary lengths, we can well believe him when he says to us “I love you”.

So God took the time to learn our language – that is, to become one of us and live our life – so that his communication would be understandable to us. And what comes across most clearly in this story is the incredible love God has for each of us. We will give and receive many gifts this Christmas time, but the greatest gift of all is the gift of God’s Son who became a human being and moved into our neighbourhood. In him we see what God is truly like. Through him we receive God’s clearest revelation of his will for us. And when we welcome him into our hearts and live with him at the centre of our daily lives, we receive the one Christmas present which will never wear out, but will last throughout our earthly lives and on into eternity.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sermon for Advent 4: Luke 1:26-38

Son of God

‘What child is this who, laid to rest,
on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
while shepherds watch are keeping?’
What child indeed, and why are we still celebrating his birthday two thousand years later? I’m as egotistical as the next person, but I seriously doubt whether many people will remember my birthday two hundred years from now, let alone two thousand! Why is the birth of this child so special?

Today we read the story of the announcement that the angel Gabriel made to Mary when she first became pregnant. In it, the angel said these words:
‘And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end’ (Luke 1:32-33).
Mary asks how this can possibly happen, since she is a virgin. Gabriel replies,
‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God’ (Luke 1:35).
Twice in these verses Jesus is called ‘Son of the Most High’ or ‘Son of God’. What does that mean?

Some people think that the gospel writers are importing a pagan theme here, from Greek or Roman literature. Many of the old Greek myths tell stories of gods who lusted after human women and came down to earth to satisfy their desires; the resulting offspring were the ‘heroes’, men of great strength and women of great beauty, who figure so highly in these stories – people like Achilles and Hercules, Aeneas, and Helen of Troy. But the gospel story is completely different from these Greek and Roman myths. In those stories, the whole point is the lust of the gods; the children who were born are simply a by-product of that lust. But in the gospel story we have no account of God, or of a god, having sex with Mary; she conceives while still a virgin, through a miraculous act of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the whole emphasis is on the holiness of the event: ‘the child to be born will be holy’.

We have to go back to the Old Testament to find out what ‘Son of God’ means. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the King of Israel is sometimes called ‘the son of God’. Of course, some of those kings had not been particularly inspiring figures! They had worshipped false gods and exploited and oppressed their people, just as many modern politicians do! But the people looked back on David, the first great king of Israel, as an ideal king; even though he had undeniable weaknesses, he had always returned to God and tried to do what was right. And when Israel was under the power of foreign armies – the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes and Persians, the Greeks, and eventually the Romans – they remembered the prophecies in their scriptures and comforted themselves with this thought: ‘One day, God will do it again. He’ll send us another king like David, and we’ll be free at last’. They called this king ‘the anointed one’, which in Hebrew is ‘the Messiah’, and in Greek ‘the Christ’.

In our passage today David is a prominent figure: ‘the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end’ (vv.32-33). This is all Messianic language; Luke, the gospel writer, is telling us, ‘This is who the baby is. He’s the Son of God, the long-awaited king in the royal line of David, the one who will finally set his people free’.

But the fit isn’t quite perfect, is it? I mean, Jesus didn’t set his people free, or at least, not in the way they were expecting. The Messiah was expected to destroy his enemies; instead, Jesus’ enemies destroyed him on the Cross. This is because the kingdom Jesus came to rule was unlike any kingdom the world had ever seen before. It wasn’t based on the love of power, but on the power of love. It wasn’t defined by national boundaries or racial origin; it can’t be identified with so-called ‘Christian’ countries. It has no political system and no army. It’s a multinational community, a group of people who have freely given their allegiance to Jesus as God’s anointed king, and have chosen to live in obedience to his teaching.

And so, when we call Jesus ‘the Messiah’ or ‘the Christ’, we haven’t quite exhausted the meaning of this term ‘Son of God’. Yes, the first time Gabriel uses the term, he obviously means ‘the Messiah’, but the second time it’s not quite so clear. You remember that Mary had asked how it could be possible for her to become pregnant when she was still a virgin. Gabriel answered,
‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God’ (Luke 1:35).
Here, obviously, it is the supernatural origin of Jesus that is being stressed. Jesus is not the son of a human father in the normal sense; he is the Son of God.

There were hints of this earlier on in the passage. In the ancient world, it was common to say, ‘May the king live forever!’ but no one seriously thought that he would, and God certainly never promised that any one individual king would live forever. But here Gabriel says of Jesus, ‘he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end’ (v.33). Obviously, this is not a mere human being that we are talking about here, because no human being can live forever; only a divine person can do that. Certainly no other religion has made this claim for its founder. Muslims refer to the Prophet Muhammad with great reverence, and when they speak his name they add the words, ‘Peace be upon him’, as they do to any other godly person who has died. But they certainly do not believe that Muhammad is still alive. The contrast with Jesus could not be greater; shining through the pages of the Book of Acts in the New Testament is the unshakeable conviction that, even though the apostles saw Jesus die, and even though, for the most part, they no longer see him with their eyes, he is still alive and active in the world. Indeed, Peter says of him, ‘He is Lord of all’.

That, of course, is a political statement. There was already a person in the ancient world who claimed to be ‘Lord of all’: the Roman emperor. His titles were ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’ – exactly the titles Christians claimed for the risen Jesus. The Roman emperors also claimed to be sons of the gods. And now this Galilean carpenter, born in a tiny community on the edge of the empire, was claiming the emperor’s titles! The very idea was ridiculous!

Except that it has not turned out to be ridiculous after all. In the first century the Roman emperor Nero persecuted the Christians and had the apostle Paul executed, but, as F.F. Bruce once said, “the day would come when men would name their dogs ‘Nero’ and their sons ‘Paul’!” Today the people of Jesus are spread throughout the world, and although we are far from perfect, we are still doing our best to live by his teaching and to point to his coming kingdom.

What child is this? This is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing, and the carol encourages us to follow the example of the wise men; they brought him incense and gold and myrrh as symbols of their allegiance to him, and we’re told that ‘the King of Kings salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone him’. You see, one of the major differences between worldly kings and our king Jesus is that he does not force himself on anyone; rather, he invites everyone to willingly give him their allegiance, to ‘enthrone him’, so that he can lead us out of darkness and into the light of God’s amazing love. Let it be so, for you and me, this Christmas.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sermon for Advent 3: John 1:6-9, 19-28

A Witness and a Voice

I’m not sure which school for aspiring politicians John the Baptist went to, but he obviously had a thing or two to learn about how to get attention and grab the limelight. Imagine him participating in a modern election campaign! The journalists and interviewers descend on him and decide to ask him some important questions:
“So, John, are you the one we’ve been waiting for, the one who’s finally going to defend us from foreign terrorists and make our streets safe from crime?”
“I am not”.
“Oh – er – well, are you the one who’s going to solve the problem of poverty and make our society prosperous so that everyone finally has enough? And are you the one who’s going to do away with excessive taxation?”
“I am not”.
“You’re…not? Ah… well, can you promise to bring the nation back to traditional values? Are you the one we’ve been waiting for to remind us that we’re a Christian nation and enforce Christian standards in government?”
“I am not”.
“You’re not? Well then, John, what exactly are you planning to do?”
“I’m planning to point away from myself to the one who’s really worth voting for, whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie”.
“Oh? Then why are you wasting our time? Where’s his press conference?”
Now you might think I’m making a rather far-fetched comparison here, but in fact, as John would say, ‘I am not’! Today we’re so used to hearing the word ‘Messiah’ in a religious context that we strip it of all political connotations, but in fact in the time of John the Baptist it was a very political word. The Messiah really was the one people were waiting for to make their borders safe, to deliver them from injustice and crime, to restore prosperity, and to bring the nation back to its roots in God and God’s commandments! And when people were asked, “Are you the Messiah?” it was very unusual for them to say, “I am not”!

Today we have a long line-up of Messianic candidates, all ready to tell us that they are on a mission from God to save the world, or at least our own nation. Our opposition parties all want us to believe that if they take power it will be ‘a new day’ for Canada, and through their efforts we’ll be saved from the consequences of the current economic downturn. The governing Conservatives, meanwhile, use apocalyptic language to describe what will happen if we dare to put anyone else in their place; we’ll make the separatists the real government of Canada. Meanwhile, in recent years the government to the south of us seems to have believed that it is the Messiah appointed by God to clean up the world, whether the world wants to be cleaned up or not. And of course there’s never a shortage of rock stars and media personalities with the perfect solution to all the ills of the world.

The first thing John wants us to know, then, is that ‘there’s only one Messiah, and I’m not him’. And to understand what he’s saying here we need to think a bit more about the concept of the Messiah and what exactly it means. The ‘Messiah’ was not just a religious figure, a sort of Old Testament version of the Pope, or Billy Graham, or Confucius. The Old Testament people were going through times of great suffering, and they looked to the prophets to bring them a word of hope. The prophets foretold a coming great day, the ‘Day of the Lord’, when the nations of the world would finally turn to the one true God. They would stream to Jerusalem to learn God’s law and to submit to his judgements; everyone would beat their swords into ploughshares, and no one would learn war any more. The lion would lie down with the lamb – in other words, natural enemies would be reconciled one with another. On that day the orphans and widows and the poor and marginalised people would be safe under the Lord’s own rule at last.

It would be a ‘year of Jubilee’. This was a powerful idea from the books of Moses. Under the original legislation given to Moses on Mount Sinai, every fiftieth year was supposed to be a year of Jubilee for Israel. In the year of Jubilee all debts were to be cancelled, all slaves were to be set free, and all land was to revert to the family that originally owned it. In this way the unjust accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few rich and powerful people would be prevented; everyone would have enough, and no one would have too much. Interestingly enough, religious conservatives who want us to return to clear biblical standards of sexual morality don’t seem quite so excited by the idea of returning to the equally clear biblical idea of the year of Jubilee! But it’s quite plain in the Messianic passages in the Old Testament; it’s what Isaiah means in today’s reading, for instance, when he says that he has been anointed ‘to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour’ (Isaiah 61:1b-2a).

Another Old Testament idea that describes the future hope of God’s people is the idea of ‘shalom’. This word is usually translated ‘peace’, but in fact it means far more than that. Today when we say ‘peace’ we either mean ‘the absence of war’ or ‘the absence of emotional turmoil inside’. But to the Old Testament people, ‘shalom’ meant wholeness and well-being – not for individuals, but for the whole community, which included the individuals in it. It meant not only the absence of violence and war, but also the achievement of economic justice, care for the vulnerable, healing for the sick, freedom for the slaves. It meant everyone having enough and no one having too much. All of this is what an ancient Israelite meant when he said the word of greeting, ‘Peace be with you’.

In the time of Isaiah many people looked back to the days of their first really great king, David. They saw David as being the closest thing to a godly king they’d ever had, and they came to believe that God would send them another king like him to usher in the new age of shalom. It was their custom to pour olive oil over the head of a new king, symbolising the power of God anointing him for his role. And so they called this coming king ‘the Anointed One’ – in Hebrew, ‘the Messiah’, in Greek, ‘the Christ’.

Now, with all that in mind, listen again to these words from our first reading:
The spirit of the LORD God is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn… (Isaiah 61:1-3)
This is Messianic language; these words are spoken by the one God has anointed to bring the new age of shalom. And when John the Baptist is asked, ‘Are you that one?’ he replies honestly, ‘I am not’.

Many years ago Bruce Cockburn wrote these words in a song called ‘Laughter’:
Let’s hear a laugh for the man of the world
who thinks he can makes things work;
tried to build the new Jerusalem, and ended up with New York.
The problem is that the ‘man of the world’ has always tried to build the Messianic kingdom without the true Messiah; we try to bring in the kingdom of God while ignoring the one God sent to be the King. And so we have to put someone else in his place; we’re always looking for the next great leader who’ll finally get things sorted out around here. I’m guessing it won’t be Barack Obama or Stephen Harper or even Michael Ignatieff! It’s a rare leader who has the courage to say honestly, with John the Baptist, “I am not the one. Let me point you to the one you really ought to be following”.

If we Christians are true to John’s example here, then, we’ll be insisting that there’s only one true Messiah – our Lord Jesus Christ. So what’s our role in the process? Again, we take our lead from John here; he saw himself as a witness and a voice. Let’s look at our passage again.

John says of himself, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23). John is quoting here from Isaiah chapter 40. The prophet was preaching to a people in exile and telling them that their time of captivity was almost over; God was going to lead them home through the desert to their own land:
‘A voice cries out,
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken’ (Isaiah 40:3-5).
Isaiah announced that God would lead his people home from exile. John the Baptist used these words to announce that in Jesus God was bringing his people home from spiritual exile and establishing a new community of justice and love. John said, ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’ – meaning the kingdom of shalom, the kingdom of peace and reconciliation.

This is part of our mission as a Christian people today – to announce continually that the kingdom of God is at hand. Isaiah announced it in a time of suffering when God’s people were crying out for deliverance. We have to announce it in a time of rampant materialism and greed, a time when people have been told so often that the one who dies with the most toys wins that they have really come to believe it. They really do believe that happiness means the latest computer and the most powerful SUV and the largest possible house and the little white iPod earphones stuck in your ears. And we Christians are called to be a voice crying in the wilderness, announcing that the kingdom of God is coming and that on the day it arrives all that stuff won’t mean a thing.

So there’s a lot of nay-saying involved in being ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’; false gods and false messiahs have to be identified and exposed. But there’s also a positive role for us, the role of a witness. Look at verses 7-9:
(John) came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
We all know the role of a witness in a courtroom; a witness testifies about what they themselves have experienced. They don’t report hearsay, and they don’t try to argue the case; they simply pass on the truth as they have experienced it. The Christian community is called to be a witness, pointing to Jesus who is the true light of the world. We point to him by the words we speak and also by the way we live our lives, and both of these elements are important. Words without actions lack credibility; actions without words lack clarity.

A few years ago the Amish of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania gave a clear witness to the true light. It was a tragic event – a gunman entered their little schoolhouse, and when the smoke cleared several of their daughters were dead, along with the gunman himself. But to the amazement of the world, the Amish not only forgave the killer, but also reached out to his family and made sure that some of the aid money they received was passed on to them. The Amish seemed surprised at people’s amazement at the forgiveness they offered. “It’s in the Lord’s Prayer”, they explained; “we pray it seven times a day!” By their actions the Amish gave a clear witness to the way of Jesus.

But there’s also our spoken witness to Jesus; we can’t avoid this responsibility. He’s the light, and we’re responsible for pointing to that light, especially in places where the darkness is overwhelming. This doesn’t necessarily mean passing out tracts or knocking on doors or beating people over the head with a Bible. It simply means being willing to tell the story of Jesus’ work in our lives in such a way as to recommend him to others.

Ray Taylor was a man who was willing to do that. Ray was the director of the Church Army in Canada for over forty years. Some of us get more sophisticated and self-conscious as we get older, but Ray Taylor didn’t. I watched him over the years sharing the gospel story with sophisticated church members and with down and outs, with young and old alike. He was never ashamed to speak up for Jesus; he loved the Lord passionately and wanted to be a faithful witness more than anything else. He was not the light – in fact, he was far from perfect – but he was a good witness to the light.

There is only one Messiah. There is no political leader or king or philosopher or media personality who is equal to the task of bringing peace and justice to the world. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the only one who can do it. So we Christians, like John the Baptist, are called to point to him. We’re a voice crying in the wilderness, reminding people of the coming kingdom of God and of the emptiness of the various alternatives to it. We’re witnesses, pointing to Jesus by our lives and by our words. Let us pray that God will give us grace to be faithful witnesses, so that others also may come into the light of Christ.

Monday, December 8, 2008

December 7th - Advent 2
Greeter/Sidespeople Mittys
Counter B. Rice
Reader & Psalm R. Betty
(Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a)
Lay Administrant- G. Hughes 2nd Administrant- E. Gerber
Intercessor M.Rys
Lay Reader L. Thompson (Mark 1:1-8)
Altar Guild (Blue) 9am Jean Mill /10:30 Peggy Major
Prayer during Communion K. Hughes, P. Major
Nursery Supervisor C. Ripley
Sunday School M. Aasen
Kitchen J. Holmes

December 14th - Advent 3
Greeter/Sidespeople Willacy
Counter Willacy/G. Hughes
Reader & Psalm C. Aasen
(Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24)
Lay Administrant- A. Zinck 2nd Administrant- D. Schindel
Intercessor T. Chesterton
Lay Reader D. MacNeil (John 1:6-8, 19-28)
Altar Guild (Blue) 9am M. Lobreau/10:30 L. Payra
Prayer during Communion M. Chesterton/E. Gerber
Nursery Supervisor M. Aasen
Sunday School P. Ripley
Kitchen Brian and Mary Mirtle

December 21st - Advent 4 - (Nine Lessons & Carols)
Greeter/Sidespeople Gerbers
Counter Wittkopf, S. Gerber
Intercessor P. Leney
Kitchen M., A. Rys
Sunday School No Sunday school
Nursery supervisor: K. Hughes
Altar Guild (Blue) 9am M. Woytkiw/10.30 no communion
(Lessons and Carols cont.)
Readers: W. Pyra (Genesis 3:1-13)
C. Ripley (Isaiah 9:2-7)
D. Schindel (Isaiah 11:1-9)
T. Wittkopf (Micah 5:2-5a)
T. Rayment (Luke 1:26-38)
B. Mirtle (Matthew 1:18-25)
M. Penner (Luke 2:1-20)
T. Cromarty (Matthew 2:1-12)
T. Chesterton (John 1:1-18)

Please see sign- up sheet
Altar Guild-(White) 7pm M. Lobreau / 11pm K. Hughes set-up

Altar Guild- 10am K. Hughes set-up
Please see sign-up sheet.

December 28th - Christmas 1 - JOINT COFFEE (No Tim; Morning Prayer)
Greeter/Sidespeople Schindels
Counter Schindels, M. Lobreau
Reader & Psalm A., M. Rys
Readings: Isaiah 61:10 - 62:3, Psalm 148, Galatians 4:4-7
Intercessor C. Aasen
Nursery Supervisor G. Hughes
Sunday School S. Chesterton
Kitchen Ed & Diane Kalis

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sermon for Advent 2: Isaiah 40:1-11

Where Can We Find Hope?

The word which Isaiah speaks in our first lesson for today is spoken to people who feel that the situation they are in is hopeless. I wonder how many of you ever feel as if things are hopeless?

I think about the person who gets into debt so deeply that they can’t see a way of ever getting their head above water financially again. Or the person who is in an abusive relationship in which they are being hurt over and over again, and they can see no way out of it. I think about the parents who realise that they are in a negative rut in their relationship with their child and can’t see any way of changing it, or the teenager who wonders if his parents will ever understand him. People like this are on the verge of giving up all hope; maybe they’ve already done so.

Sometimes this is complicated by guilt as well; the situation is hopeless and it’s my fault. Think of the alcoholic or drug addict who can’t see any way out and knows that all the suffering that he and his family have gone through is his own fault. Think of the person who struggles unsuccessfully to control her temper and can’t see any hope of change, all the time being aware of the damage she’s caused to other people’s lives. “I’ve ruined it now”, they think, “and there’s no way it can ever be fixed”.

When our Old Testament reading was written, God’s people were in a hopeless situation. They had been unfaithful to him; they had chased after other gods made of wood or stone and worshipped them. As a result they had abandoned God’s laws, oppressed the poor and needy, turned to sexual immorality, and offered their children as sacrifices to idols. All this time they were also offering worship to the one true God, but in an insincere and formal way. Over hundreds of years God had tried to call them back to him; he had sent a long line of prophets to try to persuade them and to warn them about what would happen if they didn’t repent and return to him. A few responded, but most ignored God’s call.

Eventually God allowed foreign armies to come against the land and defeat the Israelites; they were taken away as prisoners into exile in a foreign country, and their land was given over to others. The temple in Jerusalem, which they saw as a sign that God was with them, was destroyed by the Babylonians. The people were taken away to Babylon feeling that God was so angry with them that he would never again accept them as his people.

Into this hopeless situation God sent a prophet to speak a word of comfort. God gave this prophet a word of hope for people who lived in hopelessness and despair:
‘Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins’. (Isaiah 40:1-2)
The prophet is bringing the people an incredible message: despite all the sins they have committed, all their unfaithfulness and guilt, and despite all the suffering they have been through, God still cares for them. In fact, their exile in Babylon was a gift of his love.

How could the exile be a gift of his love? Once I was talking with the father of a small child about a year old. He was telling me how he and his wife had gotten to the point that they just knew they had to teach their little son to go back to sleep in his own crib without having to be picked up and taken into their bed. Well, you know what that means: a few totally sleepless nights while this message gets across! The father told me that he and his wife took it in turns to sit up with their little son, talking to him and reassuring him, but not taking him out of the crib. He told me how he sat in the little bedroom, watching his son standing up in the crib, holding onto the rungs, crying hopelessly; he told me how his son’s cries were just tearing at his heart. He longed to be able to pick up his son and comfort him, but he knew that he could not. For his own good, he had to leave him in that crib so that he would learn to go to sleep on his own.

In a similar way, I think that God’s heart was torn and broken by the suffering of his people as he watched them go into exile; he longed to be able to take them out of that situation immediately, but he knew he could not. First they had to learn the terrible consequences of the way they had been living; they had to sincerely repent of their idolatry and sin and learn to live in devotion to God and obedience to his instruction. And this is in fact what happened. Seventy years after the Babylonian exile a new political situation allowed some of the Jews to return from Babylon and go back to their own land, but very rarely after that did they worship false gods. They had learned their lesson; the exile had done what God intended it to do. It was a terrible time, but it was also a gift of God’s grace.

The message of this passage to us today is similar. Wherever you are, whatever the situation you are in, whatever you have done, God still cares. God loves you, and in the midst of your suffering he comes to you with a word of hope. ‘Comfort, O comfort my people’. You may feel like a little lost sheep in the midst of your troubles, all alone and desperate. Very well; your God is the one who ‘will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep’ (v.11). Despite everything you and I have done, in the midst of everything that we are going through, our God still loves us, and, as Paul reminded us, there is nothing that can separate us from his love.

Furthermore, the words of this prophet point us to two things that give us hope. The first thing is the promise of God. Human life may be frail and uncertain, but the promise of God is not. Listen again to the words of the prophet:
‘A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever’. (Isaiah 40:6-8).
We’re used to being sceptical about promises these days, and you often hear the phrase ‘talk is cheap’. My response to that is, it depends who’s talking! When I was growing up British money used to have a strange phrase written on it in small letters; it said, ‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of one pound’ and it was signed by the governor of the Bank of England. The phrase refers to the fact that a paper bill is just that - a bill for a certain amount of gold. In a sense it’s just a promissory note, but that promise is so rock solid that we build our whole economy on it! We very rarely even think of cashing it in, even in these days of economic uncertainty; the promise of the governor of the bank is so reliable that we just trade in promises!

Well, when you’re in the midst of a hopeless situation and you’re getting close to despair, the promise of God can bring you hope because it is rock solid. It was very important for the people to whom the prophet was speaking to remember this. Over hundreds of years prophets had foretold that if the people didn’t mend their ways they’d end up going into exile, and their prophecies had come true in a big way. But what they needed to remember was that there was another part to those old prophecies, telling them that the exile wasn’t permanent, that God would use it to purify them and would then bring a faithful remnant of the people back to their own country. The last word with God is not suffering and judgement, but hope and blessing.

None of us is going to have an easy life. We will all experience our share of trouble, and maybe more than our share, but we are also promised the help and presence of God in the midst of our trouble. And this promise gives us hope.

A friend of mine was once going through a time of great stress in her life and in fact she had a nervous breakdown. When she was telling me about this, she said that a Catholic nun who was a great help to her told her ‘When you start to feel depressed again, just open up the Bible and read it’. I personally wouldn’t recommend that you read it just anywhere, but the Gospels are a sure bet and so are the Psalms and some of the other books. But of course, you need to read it and meditate on it in good times if it’s going to be much help to you in bad times; if you never open it until times get tough you won’t know where to look to find God’s help and encouragement. So this passage encourages us to get to know the Scriptures, because in times of hopelessness and despair the promise of God is one thing that can bring us hope.

The other thing that can bring us hope in hopeless situations is the presence of God. At the end of this reading the prophet makes an announcement to the people in exile in Babylon; he says simply, ‘Here is your God’. In order to understand how radical that was, we need to remember that they saw the Temple in Jerusalem as a sign of God’s presence among them. However, when the Babylonians had overrun the country and taken the people away into exile they had destroyed the Temple. Furthermore, the people understood that the exile was God’s judgement on them, and they were sure that he had abandoned them. They were not expecting him to live among them again, and perhaps they weren’t even sure they wanted him to if he was going to be as angry as the last time! But now the prophet tells them ‘Here is your God’. Furthermore, the image he uses for God emphasises the tender and loving nature of God; ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep’ (v.11). Yes, God is coming to live among them again, and not as an angry judge but as a tender shepherd caring for the weakest and most vulnerable members of his flock.

God is not far away from us; he is present with us and lives among us. This is what the coming of Jesus means. Matthew says that the birth of Jesus was in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us’” (Matt. 1:23-24). Never again will God be a stranger to human life; he has lived it to the bitter end just as we do. As Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 1:14: ‘The Word became a human being and moved into our neighbourhood’.

If God is truly in our neighbourhood, then there is always hope. But again, we need to get to know God in the good times so that we can turn to him in the bad. It isn’t that he won’t help us in the bad times; it’s just that if we haven’t formed the habit of prayer and of relying on his presence, we won’t find it so easy to do when the chips are down. So we need to learn to practice the presence of God. We need to form the habit of turning to him all through the day; of sharing our thoughts and feelings, our needs and thanksgivings with him. Then when we’re going through the hopeless situations that tempt us to despair, we’ll know how to turn to him for hope and comfort, and his presence will make all the difference.

Sometimes evil seems overwhelming, doesn’t it? What can you do climate change, or global terrorism, or world economic chaos? What can you even do against personal sins which have become firm habits and resist any attempt you make to break them?

Yes, but think of some other situations. What can you do against the power of the Babylonian army? What can you do when you have an Egyptian army behind you and the Red Sea in front of you? What can you do when you’re up against a wooden cross and a stone-cold tomb?

God specialises in bringing hope out of hopeless situations. He doesn’t promise to act immediately - Abraham had to wait twenty-five years for his son to be born, and the Israelite exiles were in Babylon for seventy years. But sooner or later, in God’s good time, deliverance will come. Meanwhile, in the midst of our trouble and despair he invites us to trust in his promises and to rely on his presence with us. His promise is rock solid and his presence with us gives us comfort, strength and hope. And that makes all the difference.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

St. Margaret's participates in the Amazing Grace project

Across Canada on November 23rd, Anglicans joined in singing 'Amazing Grace' and also raising money for the work of the Council of the North. At St. Margaret's we joined our fellow-Anglicans across the country in this project. Here were are:

You can read about the project and see the other videos (there are hundreds of them, including versions of the hymn in Inuktitut, Ojibway and Cree) here.