Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Services at St. Margaret's

Monday December 24th (Christmas Eve):
4.00 p.m. Informal Holy Communion for Families. The first part of the service (readings, sermon, prayers of the people) will be simplified and adapted and will include and informal children’s play. Hot chocolate and birthday cake for Jesus will be served after the service. We hope that families with young children will find this a good service to attend.

9.30 p.m. Holy Communion by Candlelight. The traditional late night service, lit for the first part by candlelight, with the carols and readings of Christmas – a thoroughly magical experience.

Tuesday Dec. 25th (Christmas Day):
10.00 a.m. Holy Communion. There is something very special about getting up on Christmas morning and making the celebration of Holy Communion the first main act of your Christmas Day. Put Jesus and his birth at the centre of your Christmas celebration as you join your fellow-Christians around the Lord’s Table.

Sermon for Christmas Eve

Christmas in Narnia                                       

I wonder how many of you have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or seen the movie? I’ve loved this story since I first read it as a child, and like many people I’ve gone on to read all seven of the ‘Narnia’ stories by C.S. Lewis; they are children’s books, but they are definitely among my favourites.

Now, you might ask, why is Tim talking about the Narnia stories on Christmas Eve? What do they have to do with Christmas?

C.S. Lewis didn’t start off writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a Christian allegory, even though he himself was a Christian. He started out writing a children’s story, and he found that the specifically Christian element crept in gradually as the series developed. But there’s no denying that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as we have it, is full of Christian teaching, much of it with things to say about Christmas. Let me point out a few of those things to you.

For those of you who don’t know the story, it’s centred around four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. They are evacuated from London during World War Two, and they find themselves living in a huge country house owned by an elderly professor. One day not long after their arrival they’re playing a game of hide and seek and Lucy, the youngest, finds the perfect hiding place – an old wardrobe in a spare room. She climbs into the wardrobe and moves toward the back; she moves further and further in, and suddenly discovers herself in the middle of a wood in the middle of winter.

Lucy walks around a bit and comes to a clearing with a lamp post in the middle of it. As she stands there, she sees someone approaching, a very strange someone, with horns on his head and feet like a goat. He is in fact a faun, right out of Greek mythology, and he introduces himself to her as Tumnus. They go to his house where he offers her tea and tells her about the country she has stumbled into, the world of ‘Narnia’. He explains to her that in Narnia it is ‘always winter, but never Christmas’. When she asks why, he goes on to explain that Narnia is ruled by the White Witch, a usurping queen, who has made the Narnians her slaves and has covered the land with winter for a hundred years.

This, you see, is how C.S. Lewis saw the world we live in. It’s a good world, created by a good and loving God, but it has now become ‘enemy occupied territory’ and is under the thumb of an evil power who has made people his slaves. As a result of this, evil and sin have spread throughout God’s good creation and everything is infected by them. This doesn’t mean there are no signs of joy, of course! There are family gatherings, there are wonderful examples of love and self-giving, there’s art and beauty everywhere. But at the same time, everything is flawed and shot through with suffering. A child dies of starvation somewhere in the world once every three seconds, and every day in the news we hear of wars and injustice and oppression and violence. ‘It’s always winter, but never Christmas’.

Narnia needed to be set free. Our world too needs to be set free. It needs a ‘saviour’ – someone who will deliver us from the power of the usurping ruler. Is there in fact such a saviour? This question leads us to the true meaning of Christmas.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, eventually all four children find their way into Narnia through the wardrobe. Through a series of events they find themselves at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver – I should explain that Narnia is full of these talking animals. The beavers explain to the children again about the White Witch and the long winter she has caused, but then comes a word of hope; Mr. Beaver says, “Aslan is on the move”. “Who is Aslan?” they want to know. Mr. Beaver replies that Aslan is the son of the great Emperor-over-Sea; he’s the true King of Narnia, and he’s coming back to set his people free from the rule of the White Witch. The children are curious about Aslan, and Lucy asks “Is he a man?” “Certainly not!” Mr. Beaver replies; “Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion”.

I mentioned that there are seven Narnia stories. In another one of them, a book called The Horse and His Boy, one of the main characters is a horse called ‘Bree’. Bree has believed in Aslan all his life but has never met him. Toward the end of the story Bree is explaining to some friends from outside Narnia why Narnians speak about Aslan as a lion. “Well”, he says, “we mean he’s as strong as a lion, or as brave as a lion, or as fierce as a lion – to our enemies, that is! But of course, we don’t literally mean he’s a lion! That would be absurd! If he was a lion, he’d have four paws, and a tail, and whiskers!” But unfortunately for Bree, as he is explaining this to his friends Aslan is approaching him quietly from behind, and as he says the word ‘whiskers’, Aslan’s whiskers tickle his ear! He runs way in fright, but when he gets up the courage to come back, Aslan says to him, “Now Bree, you poor, proud, frightened horse, draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare. Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers. I am a true Beast”.

Just as Bree has trouble believing that Aslan could actually be a true Beast, so many people have trouble believing in a God who could become a true human being in Jesus. “Why”, they say, “when we say he became one of us, we mean he understands us, or is very close to us. But we don’t literally mean he became a human being! After all, if he really became human, he’d have to be a helpless baby, in need of feeding and changing and burping and all that! He’d have to grow up and learn things and get tired and feel pain like we do! How ridiculous!”

But Christians believe this is exactly what the Christmas story is all about. It’s not just a romantic tale about a baby born in a cowshed. The true miracle is who the baby in the cowshed really was. In the Gospel of John it’s explained like this:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-5, 14).
Aslan said, “I am a true Beast”, and in Jesus Christ, God could say, “I am a true human being”. As a true human being, Jesus shows us what God is like, and he teaches us the truth about the way God wants us to live.

What an amazing miracle it was that happened in Bethlehem! In the last ‘Narnia’ story, The Last Battle, we see the end of the world of Narnia. At one point in the story the children find themselves in a stable. Seen from the outside it looked small and dingy, but when they go through the door they find themselves in a beautiful country that seems to stretch on forever. Someone comments that the stable is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Lucy replies, “In our world, too, a Stable once held something inside it that was far bigger than our whole world”.

So Christmas teaches us this enormous miracle, that God became a real human being so that we humans might share the life of God. But there’s one other part of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that we need to think about. One of our less well-known Christmas carols has this line in it:
Trace we the babe, who hath retrieved our loss,
From the poor manger to the bitter cross.
The story of the birth of the baby in Bethlehem leads inexorably to the story of the Cross. And in Narnia, too, the time comes when Aslan makes the ultimate sacrifice for his people – and for one of them in particular.

You see, through a series of events Edmund, one of the four children, gets fooled by the White Witch and goes over to her side. He tries to lure his three siblings to her castle, but he is unable to do that. Eventually he discovers his mistake; the Witch isn’t a kind and caring person at all. She’s cruel and evil; she makes him her prisoner, and is on the brink of killing him when he is rescued by members of Aslan’s army. But the White Witch hasn’t given up yet. She demands a meeting with Aslan, and reminds him of the Deep Magic on which Narnia was founded; all traitors, she says, belong to her, and for every act of treachery she has a right to a kill.

But in the end Aslan voluntarily takes Edmund’s place. In the middle of the night he slips out of the camp and goes to meet his death. Susan and Lucy follow him; they see the Witch’s supporters tie him up, shave off his mane, and place him on the Stone Table. All the time the girls keep expecting Aslan to fight his enemies off, but he does not do so. Eventually they see the White Witch take her knife and kill the Great Lion. And then the Witch and her army leave, and the girls are left with Aslan’s body.

But all is not as it seems. As the first light of dawn appears, the stone table cracks, and just like the women in the Easter story, Susan and Lucy become the first astonished witnesses of Aslan’s resurrection. They have a joyful reunion, and Aslan explains to them that the Witch did not know about the Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time. He explains that according to this Deeper Magic, when a willing victim who had committed no treachery offered himself in a traitor’s stead, the table would crack and death itself would begin to work backwards.

Down through the centuries, all sorts of learned theologians have tried to explain the mystery of Jesus’ death on the Cross for us and how it saves us. The reality, of course, is far beyond our understanding. But C.S. Lewis’ simple story comes very close to helping us see the truth. A small boy chooses the wrong path and ends up enslaved and doomed to die for his mistake – just as we human beings choose to sin and discover, as the Bible says, that ‘the wages of sin is death’. And yet, astounding though it may seem, the Great Lion, the Son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea, offers himself as a willing victim in Edmund’s place. And that’s what the baby in the manger did for you and me, too – he died for you, for me, for everyone, to deliver us from evil and give us a fresh start with God. And just like Aslan, death was not the end for Jesus; he rose victorious over evil and lives forever as the Lord of all.

The Narnia stories tell us of Aslan, the Son of the great Emperor-over-Sea, who was not content to stay ‘over sea’, but who came as a true Beast, lived among his people, and died as one of them. Christmas tells us that this is God’s story too. God loves us far more than we can ever ask or imagine. Out of his great compassion for us, he became a true human being, and lived and died and rose again for us. Now Jesus invites us all to become his followers, to choose him as our true King and to live by the values of his Kingdom, until the whole world is transformed by his light. Magic? Yes indeed – deeper magic, from before the dawn of time, but come to us, in time and space, in Jesus. Believe it – taste it – see it – live by it. Christmas has come; the world’s long winter will come to an end, because, as Bruce Cockburn says in one of his songs, ‘Redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe’.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sermon for Dec. 23rd (10:30 service)

Matthew 1:23: God is with us

When I lived in the high Arctic I took regular skidoo trips out onto the barrens in search of caribou and muskox. Whoever called those lands ‘the barrens’ wasn’t joking. The tallest vegetation in the area where I lived is a stunted willow bush that grows to no more than about a foot high, and it’s not very common, either. It’s true that in the brief Arctic summer the tundra bursts out into colour as dozens of different wild flowers bloom briefly before the return of the cold kills them off. But in the dead of winter the wind howls over hundreds of miles of bare rock and snow. Sometimes the blizzards reduce visibility to near zero, and the most sensible thing you can do if you get caught in one of them is to make camp and wait for it to pass – which can sometimes take a couple of days. And even when the wind is calm and the sky is clear, all you can see for miles is white – snow-covered ground, with rock breaking through here and there. I could understand why some people would call it a ‘God-forsaken country’.

To many people, the world in general feels like a God-forsaken country too, and it’s easy to understand why. Many of us will have been stunned to hear of the recent school shootings in Newton, Connecticut, and may have found ourselves asking “Where was God for those kids?” We think of the millions who don’t have enough to live on and who die of malnutrition and other preventable diseases. We think of the depth of hatred that leads people to viciously kill other people just because they happen to be of a different race or religion. We think of the enormous greed that keeps some countries of the world in unimaginable wealth and others in desperate poverty. I know I think of things like this day by day as I say my prayers, and I find myself asking the question ‘Where are you, God?’

Many of us know what God-forsakenness feels like in our own lives as well. Most of us have gone through difficulties of one sort or another. For some of us they were relational difficulties – family problems, the loss of a relationship, the breakdown of a marriage, perhaps even abuse of one kind or another. Some of us have lost much-loved spouses or partners. Some of us have struggled with addictions or debilitating illnesses. Some of us have had financial difficulties. Many of us have been desperately lonely; many of us have known the sense of failure and have wondered what to do about it. And I’m sure we’ve all had times when we have longed for God to somehow make himself known to us – and perhaps have even cried out for him to do so – but just haven’t seemed to be able to break through to him in any meaningful way. And maybe we’ve asked, as Jesus asked on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

How would we want God to address those issues? The Old Testament prophet Isaiah prayed that God would answer in a dramatic way:
‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!’ (Isaiah 64:1-2).
This is the Arnold Schwarzenegger view of a God who suddenly appears before all the evildoers of the world in power and majesty and says to them, ‘Go ahead – make my day!’ A lot of people think they’d like to see God act in that kind of way – appearing in majesty, wiping out all the evildoers, solving all the problems of humanity in an instant, and so on. It’s a tempting vision.

But the God we read about in the Christmas story chooses a different way of acting. The God we read about in the gospels doesn’t want to ‘shock and awe’ the world – he wants to woo it gently and patiently, calling people back to him, inviting them to turn away from their foolish ways and embrace his love and his kingdom. And so, when God comes among us, he chooses not to lead a mighty army or become the head of a powerful nation. Instead, he chooses an ordinary couple in an obscure province on the edge of the Roman empire, and he sends his angel to them to give them the news that their child, who will be in one sense just an ordinary human baby, will in fact also be far more than that. And so in Matthew’s gospel we read that the angel says to Joseph:
‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21).
And Matthew adds,
All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us’ (Matthew 1:22-23)
‘God is with us’! So the world isn’t a Godforsaken place after all - rather, it’s a God-visited place!

If this is true – if the child in the manger isn’t just an ordinary human baby, or even an extra-ordinary human baby, but is also in some sense God come to live among us – what does it mean? Well, it means is that God is like Jesus. It means that if we want a picture of what God is like, the life of Jesus is the best place to look.

When we look at the life of Jesus, then, what do we learn there about God? We learn that God loves us unconditionally – accepting us just as we are, with all our weaknesses and faults – and yet always inviting us to move on and become more than we are, with his help. We learn that God takes no notice of differences of wealth and class and gender and social status and race, but treats all people as special, made in God’s image and precious to him. We learn that God is far more concerned that we love him with all our heart and love our neighbour as ourselves than that we get all of our religious rituals right. We learn that God reaches out to the poor and needy and calls other people to do the same. And we learn that God chooses not to destroy his enemies, but forgives them and loves them instead.

Do you think you could love a God like that?

Furthermore, we learn that God knows what our human life is like, because he has experienced it firsthand. He knows what it’s like to be driven from your home by death squads and to have to live as a refugee in a foreign country. He knows what it’s like to lose a parent at an early age. He knows what it’s like to have to make your living by the strength of your hands and the sweat of your brow. He knows what it’s like to live in an occupied nation. He knows what it’s like to be misunderstood and even abandoned by your family and your friends. He knows what it’s like to be the victim of an unjust trial and to be executed for a crime you didn’t commit. Yes, he even knows what it’s like to die.

This is not a God who is far away from us. This is ‘God with us’, ‘Emmanuel’, God who has become one of us and lived our human life.

And he doesn’t want to be far away from any of us, even today. He wants to be very close to each of us – in our hearts and homes and our minds and our actions. And so he waits for us to welcome him in. He doesn’t batter the door down; he knocks, and waits for our answer.

What kind of answer is he looking for? Perhaps a prayer something like this:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in – be born in us today.
We hear the heavenly angels the great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.

I encourage you to pray a prayer like that today, from your heart, so that you too may learn to experience ‘Emmanuel’ – ‘God with us’ – for yourself.

Sermon for Dec. 23rd (9.00 service)

Micah 5:2-5a: Good Things Come in Small Packages

In the mid-1990s there was a major flood in the town of Peace River and a lot of buildings close to the river were damaged, including the Anglican cathedral and the offices of the Diocese of Athabasca. When the time came for government assistance to be portioned out, however, the church was told that it did not qualify for aid because it was not an ‘essential service’. Just to give you some perspective, the application of the Legion for assistance was approved!

The end of Christendom has made a huge difference in the way the Christian Church is seen in society, and in the way we see ourselves. For over a thousand years the story the Bible told was generally accepted in western society and was the rule by which all other truth claims were judged. Most people were baptised at birth and were assumed to be Christian by virtue of their membership in a society that saw itself as Christian. Intellectual acceptance of the truth of Christianity was rarely an issue: what was an issue was the degree and passion of a person’s commitment to Christ. The Church was involved in the coronations of kings, queens and emperors, and was consulted at the highest levels of government.

This has all ended in the past fifty years. Christian churches are now marginalised in society and are competing on a level playing field with other religions and philosophies of life. Sunday churchgoing is one option among thousands, and for many people it seems like the least attractive option.

It’s easy for Christians to feel intimidated in the face of this change; after all, we were used to the privileged position we had in the days of Christendom. It’s easy to forget that for the first three hundred years of its life the Christian church had absolutely no support from government or society, and that in those years it did some of the most effective evangelism it has ever done in its entire history. Our Old Testament reading for today reminds us that God’s plan doesn’t always go forward with the help of the powerful and influential. Usually it starts small and looks insignificant. It’s only as people look back that they can see that something world-changing was happening.

A thousand years before the birth of Jesus, the nation of Israel was threatened by a powerful neighbour, the Philistines. In the face of this danger the people had asked for a king for the first time in their history. But their first king, Saul, had not worked out well, so God instructed the prophet Samuel to choose a replacement for Saul. God sent Samuel to the little Judaean village of Bethlehem, to visit the family of a man named Jesse. God told Samuel that he had chosen one of Jesse’s sons to be the new king of his people.

So Samuel had Jesse’s sons come and stand before him. The first was a big strong man named Eliab, but God told Samuel “He’s not the one”. The second was Abinadab, but he wasn’t the one either. Seven of Jesse’s sons came and stood before Samuel, and each one was rejected by the Lord. Samuel asked if there were any more, and he was told “Just the youngest one, but he’s out looking after the sheep”. Samuel sent for him, and he came and stood before him; the Lord said “He’s the one; anoint him as king”. So Samuel anointed David as the new king.

But it was years before he became king in fact as well as in name. Understandably, Saul opposed David and tried to kill him. At one time he was forced to live as a fugitive; for a while he even had to go and live with the Philistines to keep safe. And even after Saul was killed, at first only David’s own tribe of Judah accepted him as king; it took seven more years before the whole nation acknowledged him as their ruler.

It would have been easy for people to dismiss David. “He’s just a boy – and what good could come out of little Bethlehem anyway?” I’m reminded of the story of the old timer who was asked, “Were any famous people born in this village?” “Nope”, he replied, “just babies”. David started out as an ordinary baby like everyone else! But in the years to come Israel looked back on him as their King Arthur, and his reign was seen as Israel’s golden age. And in the dark days of Israel’s suffering, the prophet Micah promised that a future king from the royal line of David would be the Saviour of his people:
‘But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days…
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God’ (Micah 5:2, 4a).

Nine hundred years after the death of David, in fulfilment of this prophecy, another insignificant family was making a painful journey from Galilee in the north of Israel to Bethlehem in the south. There were thousands of travellers on the roads; the Romans were taking a census, and everyone was required to participate. No one would have noticed Joseph and his heavily pregnant wife or seen any great significance in their journey to Bethlehem. They certainly weren’t the only ones to be told that there was ‘no room at the inn’ that night, and I doubt if Jesus was the only baby born far from home during the days of that particular census.

Like David, Jesus was opposed at first. Just as Saul tried to kill David, so Herod was threatened by the news of the birth of a new King of the Jews, and did his best to kill him before he became a threat. Just as David had to hide for a while in the land of the Philistines, so Jesus had to live as a refugee in Egypt when he was a boy. And when he and his family could finally return to Nazareth, he spent years in obscurity working to support his family – a strange preparation for a career as the Messiah, the King who would set Israel free.

Even when Jesus began his ministry he didn’t look like a King, and his crucifixion certainly seemed to have ended his Messianic pretensions. And yet fifty days later his church burst out onto the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming that he was alive, and so began a dynamic movement that transformed the ancient world. Despite opposition from government and society, the Jesus revolution spread like wildfire, armed with nothing but a stubborn belief in Jesus as Lord of all and a habit of love for one’s enemies.

You and I have an opportunity to be part of this movement for transformation. Bethlehem was ‘one of the little clans of Judah’; we are one of the little groups of Christians who continue to meet to worship and encourage each other as followers of our Master. In the face of a society that seems to have turned away from Christianity, it would be easy to become defensive and to retreat into the safety of our own little group. It would be easy to concentrate on our own comfort, our own worship, our own programs, and to ignore the supposedly hostile world around us.

Easy, but a betrayal of our mission. Jesus the Good Shepherd has other sheep who are not of this fold; he wants to bring them home too, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd. He has sent his church out into the world to make disciples of all nations. We are to work for the transformation of the world once again, by spreading the Gospel, calling people to turn to Christ, and doing our best to create a world of justice and peace.

In the long history of the Christian Church, there have been many instances where a small and insignificant movement has become God’s tool for the transformation of the world of its day. John Wesley’s Methodist movement started with one group of friends and ended up transforming working class society in Britain in the eighteenth century. A similar small group a few years later took on the enormous task of ending slavery in the British empire, and in forty years they succeeded. So let’s not get discouraged about this! At St. Margaret’s we may be one of the ‘little clans of Judah’ – one of the little groups of Christians in Alberta today – but the one we follow is the King of the Universe, the one who sends us out with his love and his message to the ends of the earth. So let us be faithful to this task, so that the day will come when these words of Micah will be true, not just of Israel but of the whole world:
‘And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace’ (Micah 5:4-5a).

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas Services at St. Margaret's

Sunday December 23rd:
10.30 a.m. ‘Service of Lessons and Carols. The Scripture readings tell the story of Christmas, starting from the Old Testament prophecies and then continuing with the Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth. In between these readings we sing carols – plenty of them! – so, if you like the carols of Christmas, this is the service for you. Some of the carols will be sung by everyone, some will be special performances by members of our congregation.

Monday December 24th (Christmas Eve):
4.00 p.m. Informal Holy Communion for Families. The first part of the service (readings, sermon, prayers of the people) will be simplified and adapted and will include and informal children’s play. Hot chocolate and birthday cake for Jesus will be served after the service. We hope that families with young children will find this a good service to attend.

9.30 p.m. Holy Communion by Candlelight. The traditional late night service, lit for the first part by candlelight, with the carols and readings of Christmas – a thoroughly magical experience.

Tuesday Dec. 25th (Christmas Day):
10.00 a.m. Holy Communion. There is something very special about getting up on Christmas morning and making the celebration of Holy Communion the first main act of your Christmas Day. Put Jesus and his birth at the centre of your Christmas celebration as you join your fellow-Christians around the Lord’s Table.

Friday, December 21, 2012

January 2013

January 6th, 2013    Epiphany
Coffee between services
Greeter/Sidespeople:  The Popps           
Counter:  B. Popp/D. Sanderson                                   
Reader:  S. Jayakaran                                   
(Isaiah 60: 1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12)
Lay Administrants: G. Hughes/M. Rys           
Intercessor:  C. Aasen                                   
Lay Reader:  D. MacNeill            (Matthew 2: 1-12)           
Altar Guild (white): J. Mill/A. Shutt
Prayer Team:    K. Hughes/L. Sanderson                                   
Sunday School (School Age):  N. Muwanguzi
Sunday School (Preschool):  T. Laffin
Kitchen: - 9:45 am    J. Johnston           
Music:  M. Chesterton
Altar Servers: E. Jayakaran

January 13th, 2013    Baptism of the Lord
Greeter/Sidespeople:  B. Cavey/A. Shutt           
Counter:  B. Cavey/L. Kalis                                   
Reader:  M. Rys                                   
(Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8: 14-17)
Lay Administrants:  C. Aasen/D. MacNeill                                               
Intercessor:  D. MacNeill                       
Lay Reader:  B. Popp            (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)           
Altar Guild: (white): M. Lobreau/L. Pyra/L.Pyra
Prayer Team: E. Gerber/S. Jayakaran                       
Sunday School (School Age):  M. Aasen           
Sunday School (Preschool):   A. Dunsford-Verrill
Kitchen:  A. Kalis
Music:  M. Chesterton           
Altar Servers: A. Jayakaran

January 20th, 2013    Epiphany 2
Greeter/Sidespeople: The Aasens           
Counter:  C. Aasen/L. Schindel                                   
Reader: D. Schindel                       
(Isaiah 62: 1-5, Psalm 36: 5-10, 1Corinthians 12: 1-11)
Lay Administrants:  D. MacNeill/M. Rys                       
Intercessor: L. Thompson                                   
Lay Reader: E. Gerber              (John 2:1-11)
Altar Guild (green): M. Woytkiw/P. Major
Prayer Team:  M. Rys/M. Chesterton                                      
Sunday School (School Age):  C. Ripley           
Sunday School (Preschool):  S. Doyle
Kitchen:  A. Shutt                       
Altar Servers: E. Jayakaran

January 27th, 2013    Epiphany 3
Greeter/Sidespeople:  The Hughes
Counter:  G. Hughes/   T. Cromarty                       
Reader:  T. Cromarty                                               
(Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1Corinthians 12: 12-31a)
Intercessor: T. Chesterton                       
Lay Reader:  L. Thompson            (Luke 4:14-21)           
Altar Guild (green): J. Mill/MW/L. Schindel             
Sunday School (School Age):  M. Cromarty
Sunday School (Preschool):   M. Eriksen
Kitchen:  The Goodwins
Music:   R. Mogg                       

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sermon for Dec. 16th: Zephaniah 3:14-20

Extravagant Joy


I don’t know if you’ve noticed that in the media we Christians don’t exactly have a reputation for being joyful. The standard media Christian in many TV shows seems to be a long faced, angry person who spends their whole life trying to impose strict moral standards on the people around them and then getting mad when those people don’t eagerly fall into line.

In the New Testament, in contrast, joy is one of the defining characteristics of Christians. And it’s not usually inspired by their circumstances, either. For example, there’s the lovely story in the Book of Acts of the night when Paul and Silas had been flogged and then thrown into jail in Philippi. There they sat in the stocks, their backs bloody and sore from the whipping they’d just received, but Acts tells us that, far from feeling sorry for themselves, ‘About midnight they were praying and singing hymns to God’ (Acts 16:25). Indeed, this seems to be a standard feature of Christian life and mission in Acts – Christians get persecuted, Christians rejoice and praise the Lord, and so the story goes on!

Today is the Third Sunday in Advent, and it’s traditionally known as ‘Gaudete’ Sunday, from the Latin word for ‘joy’. The note of joy in our scripture readings for today is strong. In our epistle we hear Paul saying ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). And in our Old Testament reading we hear Zephaniah – a prophet who for most of his book has been foretelling judgement against Jerusalem – suddenly switching gears and finishing his prophecy on a note of jubilation: ‘Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!’ (Zephaniah 3:14).

Why is joy such a strong characteristic of Christian discipleship? Advent provides us with two focal points for this joy. First, we rejoice because of the past; we look back to that incredible time in human history when God became a human being and came to live among us in Jesus, to save us from evil and sin and to give us hope for the healing of the whole world. And secondly, we rejoice because of the future. Yes, we look around at the continuing presence of evil in the world, but we rejoice because we know it won’t always be like this; the day will come when God will heal the world completely, and we will all live together in justice and peace forever. Because of these two focal points, we can live in joy right now, in the present, between the two comings of our Lord. And when we look at our reading from Zephaniah we discover four more reasons for this outrageous sense of joy and celebration amongst God’s people.

First, we rejoice because we have been forgiven. In verses 14-15 we read these words:
‘Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgements against you…’

Imagine yourself as a condemned criminal coming into the courtroom to hear your sentence passed by a judge. There is no doubt about your guilt, and over your head hangs the probability of an enormous penalty that will engulf you for the rest of your life. There is no hope of any relief, and you have resigned yourself to your fate. You take your place in the dock and the judge asks you to stand. Then to your absolute amazement the judge says, “A royal pardon for this crime has been received. You are free to go, and your record is clear”.

According to the New Testament this is our situation as Christians. In terms of one of Jesus’ parables, you are like the finance minister of a country, and you’ve been quietly embezzling tax dollars for years. One day you are found out, and the king demands repayment of what you have stolen – an amount equal to several times the annual budget of the kingdom. Since you cannot pay, he sentences you and your family to be sold into slavery. You fall down and beg for time to pay your debt. But the king does not give you what you ask for – he gives you more than you dared to ask or imagine: he forgives your whole debt and allows you and your family to go free! According to the Gospel, this is what God has done for us.

Do you believe this? This is truly at the heart of the message of the New Testament. So if you are carrying a huge burden of guilt on your shoulders, the Gospel says that you don’t have to carry it a moment longer. You can drop it at the foot of Jesus’ Cross, leave it there, and walk away free and forgiven. That’s certainly a good reason to rejoice!

We rejoice because we have been forgiven. Second, we rejoice because God lives among us. Look at Zechariah 3:15-17:
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst…’

This is the time of year when children are mailing letters to Santa Claus. We all know his address, right? ‘Santa Claus, North Pole, Nunavut, H0H 0H0’! But where would one mail a letter to God? What would his address be? Many would say ‘heaven’, which to a lot of people means a faraway place that we can’t reach until we die.

In contrast to this view, the Old Testament people had a strong sense of God’s presence with Israel, and especially in the Temple in Jerusalem. As long as God was there in the midst of his people, they felt safe and secure; he would protect them from their enemies and from disasters of various kinds. But when the Babylonians came to destroy the city and take the people away into exile, they wondered what had happened to God’s presence among his people. The only conclusion they could draw was that God was no longer with them – that God had abandoned them to their fate – and that their sins had caused this terrible situation. For these people, then, verse 17 was very good news: ‘The LORD your God is in your midst’. For Zephaniah to tell them that God was living among them again meant that God had forgiven their sins and was willing to start again with them.

For us as Christians, the good news is even better than that. The traditional gospel reading for Christmas Day tells us that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14), or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it, ‘The Word became a human being and moved into the neighbourhood’! Where does God live? Because of the birth of Jesus, God lives in our neighbourhood; he has come among us as a human being and shared our life. Furthermore, he didn’t leave the neighbourhood when he ascended into heaven: his gift of the Holy Spirit means that he is still with us today.

So what’s God’s address? Your house – or, even more, your heart! This morning God’s address is 12603 Ellerslie Road, because Jesus said “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”. He’s here among us as we worship this morning, and when we leave to go home and to go to our places of work tomorrow he will be there ahead of us. He’s not far away, holding himself aloof from us; he has made the decision to become ‘one of us’ – and we rejoice in this good news.

So we rejoice because we are forgiven, and we rejoice because God lives among us and in our hearts. Thirdly, we rejoice because God rejoices over us. Look at verses 17-18:
‘He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival’ (vv.17b-18a).

Did you know that God is so excited about you that he sings a song of joy over you? That’s what this verse says! For some of us this is pretty hard to believe. We’ve grown up with a low opinion of ourselves, for all kinds of reasons, and it’s pretty hard for us to accept that anyone would actually enjoy spending time with us. And if we are believers we often transfer this to our relationship with God. We think of ourselves as so unworthy, and so we might be able to force ourselves to believe that God could maybe tolerate us – but surely not to enjoy us, to rejoice over us?

Listen again to what verse 17 says: ‘he will rejoice over you with gladness’. These words are spoken to God’s people in all their brokenness and imperfection. If you are a Christian, you are one of God’s people, so these words are spoken to you! God rejoices over you! As a friend of mine likes to say, ‘I want to introduce you to a God who loves you more than you can ever imagine, and who made you for the pleasure of knowing you!’

How does this good news impact my habits of prayer? Surely the best motivation for me to pray is the knowledge that God made me for the pleasure of knowing me. God is looking forward to spending time in my company – and in your company. It may be hard for you to believe that, but the scripture says it’s true.

Are you catching a sense of the joy that God wants for us? God freely forgives our sins and welcomes us into his presence. God is not far away from any of us; he became one of us, and he lives in us and among us as we gather together. God rejoices over us and loves spending time in our company. And the fourth thing Zephaniah wants us to rejoice about is this: We rejoice because God is bringing us to our eternal home. Look at verse 20:
‘At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you’.

When I lived in Valleyview I had a quarter time job as a consultant for the Diocese of Athabasca, and once a month I would travel to lead workshops in various parishes across northern Alberta, from Fort Vermilion to Fort McMurray. I remember many occasions when I was driving home on Sunday afternoons over hundreds of miles of snowy roads, often tired out from a full weekend. But it was always a wonderful feeling to pull into the driveway of the rectory in Valleyview, knowing that inside that house I would find some loving hugs, a hot cup of tea, and a nice supper. It was always great to get home!

But imagine if you could never go home! Imagine being one of the Israelite exiles in Babylon for the seventy-year period of their captivity – two or three generations, in other words. During that period they preserved their language and culture, their identity as Jewish people. They purified themselves from the worship of idols. And they longed for the day when they could return to their own land.

Earlier generations of Christians had this same longing for what the Nicene Creed calls ‘the life of the world to come’; they sang ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through’. Today many of us live a very comfortable lifestyle, and we can easily buy into the illusion that complete happiness is possible in this world as it is. But then something happens to shake us up – perhaps a bereavement, or the loss of a job, or the sentence of a terminal illness. Then we realise afresh that it’s a mistake for us to expect complete happiness right now. We were made for something better; we were made for eternity. The kingdom of God is our real home, and on the day when it comes in all its fulness, that’s when we’ll find pure, unadulterated joy forevermore.

So there’s a ‘now’ and a ‘not yet’ to this joy we experience as followers of Jesus. Now we know the joy of having our sins forgiven. Now we have the joy of knowing that God lives in our hearts and that God lives among us as we meet as Christians. Now we might possibly even dare to believe that God rejoices over us and made us for the pleasure of knowing us.

But not yet do we know the complete, unadulterated joy, with no hint of sorrow at all, that we will know one day. That’s the future side of Advent; we look forward to the day when God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. On that day, each of us will truly be home forever – home with God, and home with the millions of believers who have gone before us.

So let us now obey Paul’s exhortation: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). As we’ve seen, there’s already plenty for us to rejoice about. But let us also remember that this is only the beginning. Let us look forward to the day of our great homecoming, when we together with all God’s people will know fulness of joy forever. And what a day of rejoicing that will be!