Thursday, December 26, 2013

Roster for January 2014

January 5th, 2014  Epiphany
Coffee between services
Greeter/Sidespeople: T. Wittkopf/T. Cromarty           
Counter: T. Wittkopf/D. Sanderson                                   
Reader: M. Rys                                   
(Isaiah 60: 1-6, Psalm 72: 1-7,10-14, Ephesians 3: 1-12)
Lay Administrants: E. Gerber/G. Hughes           
Intercessor: D. MacNeill                                   
Lay Reader:  B. Popp              (Matthew 2: 1-12)                       
Altar Guild (white) P. Major/A. Shutt
Prayer Team: L. Sanderson/ S. Jayakaran                       
Kitchen: - 9:45 am J. Johnston                       
Music: M. Eriksen
Altar Servers: A. Jayakaran

January 12th, 2014   Baptism of the Lord
10:00 am – One Service only
Greeter/Sidespeople: The Aasens           
Counter: C. Aasen/L. Schindel                                   
Reader:  S. Watson                       
(Isaiah 42: 1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10: 34-43)
Lay Administrants: D. Schindel/T. Chesterton                                   
Intercessor:  B. Popp                                   
No Lay Reader
Altar Guild: (white) K. Hughes -  Confirmation/Baptism
Prayer Team: M. Rys/E. Gerber                       
Sunday School (School Age): M. Cromarty           
Sunday School (Preschool): T. Laffin
Kitchen:  V&J Goodwin
Music: M. Chesterton           

January 19th, 2014  Epiphany 2
Greeter/Sidespeople: The Popps           
Counter:  B. Popp/LL. Kalis                                   
Reader: S. Jayakaran                       
(Isaiah 49: 1-7, Psalm 40: 1-12, 1 Corinthians 1: 1-9)
Lay Administrants:  L. Thompson/C. Aasen
Intercessor: M. Rys                                   
Lay Reader:  E. Gerber  (John 1: 29-42)           
Altar Guild (green) M. Woytkiw/T. Wittkopf
Prayer Team: K. Hughes/M. Chesterton                                      
Sunday School (School Age): K. Durance           
Sunday School (Preschool): M. Eriksen
Kitchen:  E. McFall                       
Music: R. Mogg
Altar Servers: E. Jayakaran

January 26th, 2013  Epiphany 3 
Greeter/Sidespeople: The Schindels
Counter: D. Schindel/B. Popp                                   
Reader: C. Aasen                                               
(Isaiah 9: 1-4, Psalm 27: 1, 5-13, 1 Corinthians 1: 10-18)
Intercessor: L. Thompson                       
Lay Reader:  D. MacNeill            (Matthew 4: 12-23)           
Altar Guild (green):  M. Lobreau/MW            
Sunday School (School Age): M. Aasen
Sunday School (Preschool): M. Rys
Kitchen: B. Cavey
Music: E. Thompson           

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

'The Word Made Visible' - a sermon for Christmas Day on John 1:1-18

A lot of people don’t think of our gospel reading for this morning as a nativity story. It is a common Christmas reading, but these days it doesn’t seem to capture people’s imagination like the stories Luke and Matthew tell. The angel’s announcement to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah – the Roman census and the desperate journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem (with or without a little donkey) - the search for a place to stay in Joseph’s ancestral home town, and the eventual realization that they were going to have to bunk down with the animals - the birth of the baby so far from home, and his first crib in the animals’ feeding trough - the angel choir singing to the shepherds, and their journey to the manger to see the Saviour - the long journey of the wise men, probably arriving months later, or even years, and then the desperate flight of the holy family into Egypt to escape from King Herod’s death squads – this is fantastic storytelling, and it draws us in and grips our imaginations year by year.

For most people, John chapter one doesn’t have quite the same appeal. It reads more like a chapter from a philosophy book, and philosophy has always been a minority interest. My guess is that most churches will not read this passage over the Christmas season – or if they do, they’ll read it at one of the smaller services.

But I don’t think we’re doing John justice by ignoring his nativity story. Because it is a nativity story, you see – only, it’s a nativity story that starts a lot further back than Matthew or Luke. Matthew starts his gospel with a genealogy that traces the line of Jesus back nearly two thousand years to Abraham. Luke goes even further, tracing Jesus back to the first human beings who walked this earth, however long ago that may be. But John goes even further back than that - in fact, he goes as far back as you can possibly go, and certainly further back than he thought he was going:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

‘In the beginning’. When is that, precisely? Undoubtedly John was thinking of the first sentence of the Book of Genesis: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. But if we use our imagination – and John’s gospel positively demands that we use our imagination as we read it – then we can go far, far further back. The two creation stories in Genesis one and two describe the beginnings of the universe in terms of life on this earth: the earth is created first, and then the sun and moon and stars are created to give it light and warmth. But of course we now know that history is far older than that. Most scientists think that the earth is about four and a half billion years old, and we human beings have lived on it for only a tiny fraction of its history. But our universe itself; how old is it? Well, of course, scientific consensus is changing all the time, but I think the current estimate puts it at about fourteen billion years, starting with a big bang that was prepared and timed to absolute perfection to create life as we know it.

Is Jesus just involved in the New Testament, in the gospel stories and the birth of Christianity? No, says John – I want you to go far, far further back than that. ‘In the beginning’ – the very beginning, when God began to create the heavens, when God carefully planned that big bang fourteen million years ago, or however long ago it may actually turn out to have been – in the beginning was the Word. In other words, even this far back, we still aren’t at the beginning of the Word himself. We can go as far back as we possibly can in the history of our universe, to a time when all that existed was God himself - and yet Christ was already there. ‘And the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. In some way far beyond our human understanding, he shares the very nature of God, but is somehow distinct from the Father as well. Our rational brain will never understand this, but John invites us to reach out and grasp it with our imagination.

And what happens then? In the Genesis story, God starts to speak: ‘Then God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light’ (Gen. 1:3). And so begins a whole series of ‘speakings’. ‘And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters”’ (1:6). ‘And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” (1:9) – and so on, and so on, a whole series of creative words, causing vegetation and plant life, birds and fish and animals, the sun and moon and stars, and leading up to the climax of the story, ‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”’ (1:26).

This is the power of God’s word. God doesn’t need to get his toolbox out and exercise his muscles: God’s very word has the power to bring creation into existence. Our words express the thoughts of our minds. I can have a thought in my mind, but no-one can see that thought except for me. But when I speak it, or write it, then my thought comes out into the open. And in the same way, God has all the wonders of creation in his mind, but then he speaks it out, and it becomes real.

But the truth is even more wonderful than that. Once again John invites us to use our imagination here. What if the Word of God was itself alive and active and personal? What if it wasn’t just a thing, like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars? What if it had a personality of its own? What if ‘the Word was with God, and the Word was God’?

This is what John spells out for us in verse 3:
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 (vv.3-5).

This ‘Word’, this ‘Logos’ in Greek, is Jesus himself. In an amazing way, far beyond our human imagination, he was himself the creative Word that brought everything into being. So Jesus is not just interested in things like Bible study and sacraments and prayer; he’s not just interested in what we sometimes call our ‘spiritual life’. Jesus is interested in black holes and red dwarfs, in dinosaurs and woodland caribou extinction, in the majesty of the night sky and the beauty of the mountains. Paul sums this up in Colossians when he says,
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created... (Colossians 1:15).

So John is establishing for us the identity of the baby in the manger. He isn’t just a great religious teacher or prophet, but the very Word of God himself, ‘and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:3). That’s who Christmas is all about.

And then, a little later on in the passage, comes what C.S. Lewis called ‘The Grand Miracle’:
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 1:14).

This is the great descent – the One through whom absolutely everything in the universe was created now stoops down to enter his creation. And he doesn’t even do it like a Greek god, taking the form of a warrior or a beautiful woman; no, he becomes a tiny, helpless zygote inside his mother Mary. He grows and eventually is born, but of course, like all babies, he’s totally helpless, totally dependant on his parents to keep him alive. ‘He emptied himself’, says Paul in Philippians – in other words, he laid aside his power and glory and became a true human being, sharing our lives and our struggles, to show us not only what God is like, but also what God designed human life to be like.

‘We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son’. Jesus once said, ‘If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father’. I once met the Rev. Andrew Asbil, whose father was Walter Asbil, former bishop of Niagara. Andrew was absolutely the spitting image of his Dad, and someone once saw the two of them together and said, “Now I understand what Jesus meant when he said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the father’!”

And yet, it’s not immediately obvious to us that Jesus is the image of God. We think of God as power and majesty, but Jesus looks just like an ordinary human being. What does John mean when he says ‘We have seen his glory’? In John’s gospel, the cross is the supreme example of the glory of Jesus. In other words, the glory of God is indestructible love – love that would rather die than hate. It’s not in power and majesty that we see the glory of God in Jesus: it’s in his way of life, doing the will of God even when it cost him his life. ‘Having loved his own who were in the world’, says John, ‘he loved them to the end’.

So the powerful, creative word of God took on a body and lived a flesh-and-blood life as one of us; as Eugene Peterson put it, ‘the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’. Too often we reverse that process: we take the flesh and blood Jesus and make him into a Word, a doctrine, an intellectual idea, or even worse, a theological argument that we want to win! But that’s not what Christmas is all about. Paul doesn’t say that Christians are the Word of Christ; he says we are the Body of Christ. In other words, the Word still needs to be made flesh. And so as we welcome Jesus into our hearts and put his teaching into practice in our lives, the Word becomes visible and tangible again. All of us together: as we use our hearts and minds and bodies to follow Jesus, the Word is made flesh and moves into our neighbourhood.

So we thank God this morning for the message of Christmas: that the Word of God didn’t stay safely in heaven, but chose to humble himself, to become weak and vulnerable, to enter human life in all its mess and ambiguity – and in that context, to live and die and rise again to save us. And we are called to live out this Christmas message: first of all, as John puts it, by ‘receiving him’, by ‘believing in his name’, and then by following his example of plunging into human life ourselves, in all its mess and ambiguity, and giving ourselves to doing the will of the One who has sent us. Remember what he said? ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’ (John 20:21). So when this service is over today, you and I are called to continue the Christmas story; we’re sent out by God into the neighbourhood, so that the Word can continue to be made flesh in the broken and hurting world that Jesus came to save. May the God who became one of us at Christmas strengthen us by his Holy Spirit so that we may be faithful to this calling he has given us.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

'Good News of Great Joy' - a sermon for Christmas Eve on Luke 2:10-14

Picture this: I’m trying to make arrangements for two friends of mine, who don’t know each other, to meet up in a Starbucks in Edmonton. I’m making the arrangements by email, and I get a message from one of them with the all-important question: “How will I recognize this person I’m supposed to meet?” “That’s easy”, I reply. “Just go to Starbucks on Saturday at ten a.m. and look for the guy drinking a latte and working on his iPhone”.

Well, yes, that would be a rather strange sign to give to someone – but then, have you ever noticed what a strange sign the angel gives to the shepherds in Luke’s Christmas story? The shepherds are standing on a hillside hiding their eyes from the extraordinary light streaming from this angel; in fact, when he first appeared they were so terrified that he had to reassure them not to be afraid. He tells them that the Saviour, the King of Israel, the Lord, has been born in the ancestral town of their ancient King David. No doubt the question on their minds is “How will we recognize him?” And so the angel gives them a sign: “You’ll find him wrapped up in baby clothes and lying in a feeding trough”.

What an extraordinarily ordinary sign! Apart from the little detail about the feeding trough, it might have applied to a dozen newborn babies that night in Bethlehem. Surely when the shepherds heard the news that the promised Messiah had been born, they were expecting a more impressive sign than this! The Messiah was the king who God was going to send them, the king who would set them free from their enemies and bring everlasting justice and peace. Surely they were expecting the angel to say, “You’ll be able to recognize him because his family will be in the grandest room of the Bethlehem Hilton. A squad of temple guards will be keeping watch at the door, and you’ll need to give them a password to get in. When you get into the room you’ll notice immediately the splendid gifts sent by King Herod and the Emperor Augustus. Nothing you can give him will compare with that, and by the way, we seem to have gotten our wires crossed here – we weren’t meant to make this announcement to you at all, because you’re just ordinary shepherds!”

But of course that’s not how the story goes. This is a story about ordinary people who get caught up in a series of extraordinary circumstances. Joseph is a descendant of King David, but there’s been no king from the royal line of David in Israel for centuries, and in fact Joseph earns his living as a journeyman carpenter in Nazareth, far away from Judea where David was born. But the powers-that-be decide that they need to update the taxation records for the area, and suddenly, at a very inconvenient time, Joseph and Mary find that they have to make the trip to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of Joseph’s family.

Luke doesn’t give us all the details that have passed into legend through Christmas carols and Sunday School plays. We don’t have the little donkey on which Mary made the trip. We don’t have the desperate search for a place to stay when they arrive in Bethlehem and find all the inns full. We don’t have the innkeeper as a villainous character who sees a pregnant woman on the verge of giving birth and consigns her to the stable out the back – in fact, we don’t have an innkeeper at all. We don’t have the ox and ass before him bowing, or the little drummer boy waking him up just when his mom has managed to get him to sleep, and we certainly have no hint at all that ‘little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’!

In fact, we might not even have the inn! One of the latest Bible translations, the 2011 NIV, translates ‘there was no room for them at the inn’ as ‘there was no guest room available for them’. A lot of biblical scholars argue in favour of this translation, and it changes things a bit in the story, doesn’t it? What probably happened was that Joseph had relatives in Bethlehem (which was, after all, where his family came from), but when he and Mary arrived there was no room left in the guest room, because so many people were traveling back for the census. Family homes in those days had only two or three rooms, and at night one of them would have had the animals in it. The story probably simply means that the guest room was full, and so Mary and Joseph had to sleep in the room the animals used, and use the manger as a crib.

So Luke doesn’t give us many of the traditional details; he tells the story very simply, with the bare minimum of detail. I quote from the NIV:
‘While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them’ (vv.6-7).

It’s the angel, though, who interprets the story and tells us its true significance. He tells us four things about the story: it’s about good news; it’s about God’s plan to rescue the human race; it’s about the identity of our true King; and it’s a message of peace.

First, it’s a message of good news. The Christian message isn’t always seen as being a message of good news, is it? It’s more often seen as good advice at best, or judgement and condemnation at worst. But the angel says to the shepherds, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (v.10, NIV). Jews who knew the scriptures would immediately think of the book of Isaiah, where the prophet announces the good news that God is going to set his people free from captivity in a foreign land. In our modern world we might compare it to the news that must have travelled quickly around occupied Europe in June 1944: ‘The Allies have landed! We’re going to be free again!’ So when the shepherds heard the angel talking about good news, they would have immediately connected it with God’s activity: God was about to do a great work to set his people free.

This leads naturally to the next thing: it’s a message of good news, and secondly, it’s a message about God rescuing his people. The angel says, ‘Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you’ (v.11, NIV). That word ‘Saviour’ is almost always used in the Old Testament in a military sense – God ‘saves’ his people from their enemies. It’s the same idea we get in Zechariah’s song in Luke chapter one, where he talks about ‘salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us’ (v.71, NIV). Later on in the song, though, Zechariah mentions a different sort of salvation; he says that his own son John the Baptist will go before the Lord to prepare his way, ‘to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins’ (v.77, NIV).

My friend Rob Heath has written a song in which the first line is ‘Our greatest battles we fight alone’. The greatest enemies we struggle with are internal – the sins and habits that chain us and stop us from being the people God wants us to be. Scripture teaches us that we can’t save ourselves from these enemies. Rather, Jesus came to bring us forgiveness, and to give us the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that we could be saved from our sins and transformed, gradually, day by day, into the sort of people who can change the world. That’s how God is rescuing his people and saving the world – one heart at a time.

It’s a message of good news, and it’s a message about God rescuing his people. Thirdly, it’s a message about the identity of our true King. ‘Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.11, NIV). Lovely words that we’ve sung every year in Christmas carols:
To you in David’s town this day is born of David’s line
a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, and this shall be the sign.
But in Luke’s time, ‘Them’s fightin’ words’! The Greek words for ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’ are soter and kyrios, and in the time of Jesus they were two of the official titles of the Roman emperor, who had absolute power to save or condemn, and who was the supreme lord of the known world. The angel was dethroning the Roman emperor and setting the baby in the manger up in his place as Lord of all! Don’t tell me Christianity is not political!

Today when we think of the most powerful people in the world, we think of presidents and prime ministers, or the CEOs of multinational corporations. It’s hard for us to believe that a child born in the little town of Bethlehem might in fact be more powerful. But today, the main reason we remember rulers like Herod and Caesar Augustus and Pontius Pilate is because of their association with Jesus. Absolute tyrants will not have the last word; the last word will go to Jesus, the true Saviour and Lord, our true King.

It’s a message of good news, a message about God rescuing his people, and a message about the identity of our true King. Finally, it’s a message about peace. In verse 14 we read that the angel choir sang this song:
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests (NIV).

Religious people are often accused of being the cause of some of the most vicious wars in history. Some years ago – long before 9/11 – I was planning a funeral and was consulting with the family members. Somehow this topic came up, and one of the men started talking about suicide bombers. “Their religion tells them that if they blow themselves up to kill unbelievers they’re going straight to paradise”, he said; “If we could just get rid of religion, the world would be a much more peaceful place”. That’s what John Lennon sang in the song ‘Imagine’, of course: ‘Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too’. And we can’t deny that there’s a dark streak in a lot of religions; in a lot of people, absolute conviction seems to morph easily into an absolute desire to wipe out those who disagree with them.

The only thing I can say is that this was not Jesus’ plan. Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who hated them. When Jesus was arrested and Peter tried to defend him with the sword, Jesus rebuked him, and later on at his trial he said to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders” (John 18:36, NIV). Notice that he didn’t say, ‘My kingdom is not in this world’ – of course it’s in this world! No – he said it wasn’t of this world – in other words, it wasn’t a worldly sort of kingdom, built on greed and military power and violence. Rather, it’s a kingdom of justice and peace. That’s what Jesus had in mind when he got the whole thing going.

So the angel announces the good news that God has acted in Jesus to rescue his people from evil, sin, and death. Jesus is the true King of the universe, and his rule is not about violence and oppression but justice and peace.

Where does this all start? In the room where the animals sleep, in Joseph’s relatives’ house in Bethlehem. Not in Herod’s palace, not in the court of Caesar Augustus. Probably not in 24 Sussex Drive or the White House, but in your house and my house, as we welcome Jesus in, as we recognize him as Lord, and as we quietly ask his help to be his true followers. Not very dramatic, is it? It’s as quiet and undramatic as a baby being born in a small Judean town and being laid to sleep in a manger. But think of all that has come of that seemingly insignificant birth! And then imagine the things that can come in our lives and our world, if we allow Jesus to be born in us today, and if we commit ourselves to living as his followers in our daily lives.

And that’s the plan, you see! That’s how God is changing the world through Jesus – one heart at a time. May it be so, in your life and my life, today and every day. Amen.

Christmas Services 2013

Friday December 20th: ‘When Christmas Hurts’.
Christmas is not a happy time for everyone; those who have been bereaved, or have suffered loss of employment, or who struggle with addictions are just a few of the people who find the season difficult. Our ‘When Christmas Hurts’ service is designed to provide comfort and healing; it will be held on Friday December 20th at 7.30 p.m.

Sunday December 22nd
9:00 a.m. Holy Communion

10:30 a.m. Carol Service and ‘Bring a Friend’: 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.

Tuesday 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 an informal children’s play. 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.

Wednesday 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.

Monday, December 23, 2013

December 23rd, - 29th, 2013

December 23rd, 2013
Office is closed.
December 24th, 2013
Office is closed
4:00 pm  Family Holy Communion & Children’s
6:00 – 8:30 pm Malankara Rental
9:30 pm Candlelight Holy Communion
December 25th, 2013
10:00 am Christmas Day Holy Communion
December 26th, 2013
Office is closed
December 27th, 2013
Office is closed
December 28th, 2013
2:00 pm  Greenwood Rental
7:00 pm  Malankara Church Rental
December 29th, 2013   Christmas 1
9:00 am  Holy Communion
10:30 am Holy Communion (No Sunday School)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Why the Christmas Story is Good News (a sermon for December 22nd)

Two weeks ago at our church we had a Christmas pageant, in which we saw the familiar Christmas story dramatized once again. We saw the Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary the news of her pregnancy; we saw Joseph and Mary asking for space to stay at an inn and eventually being directed to a stable. We saw the shepherds startled by the visit of the angels and then coming to pay their respects to the newborn king. We saw the three wise men on their way to give their gifts to the one born to be King of the Jews. We’ve seen or heard this story many times, and it has all the comfort of familiarity. It’s a beautiful story.

However, in the New Testament it isn’t just described as a beautiful story. Rather, it appears in two books called ‘Gospels’, and the word ‘Gospel’ means ‘good news’. So why is the Christmas story ‘good news’? Why does the fact that a Galilean carpenter and his wife had a baby far away from home two thousand years ago have anything to do with me today? Matthew gives us some hints about that in one of our readings for today, Matthew 1:18-25.

First, he wants us to know that the story is good news because it tells us that God is with us.

It’s pretty tough to be all alone, especially in difficult or dangerous circumstances. When I lived in Aklavik in the Northwest Territories I had two friends with whom I often went out on hunting trips. One of them, Angasuk, was a really good friend of mine, but his big shortcoming as a hunting companion is that when we were travelling together on skidoos he never looked back. This presented a problem, as I usually followed behind him, and if I had a problem with my skidoo or my load I could easily find myself alone for an hour before he realised that I wasn’t following him any more! There I would be, with miles of trackless snow-covered tundra stretching out all around me, with a broken-down skidoo, all alone! But my other friend, Abel, had this great virtue: he always looked back. Consequently I felt safe travelling with him.

In your life, do you ever get the sense that ‘I’m all alone, and this is too big for me to handle’? Perhaps it’s a crisis in your family, or a personal habit you’re trying to get free from. Circumstances far beyond your control are impacting your life.

In Old Testament times, God’s people were very familiar with this feeling. Their country was on a main travel route, and invading armies went through all the time. They often felt as if God had abandoned them. But in the writings of the prophets, God promised his people a special sign of his presence with them. He was going to deliver his people through the Messiah, a descendant of King David; through him God would be ‘with’ his people as never before. In our reading, Matthew quotes from Isaiah chapter 7, the promise that God will send a child who will be called ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God with us’. Matthew, and all the New Testament writers, saw the coming of Jesus as the fulfilment of that prophecy.

History includes many stories of people who experienced the presence of God in times of deep darkness in their lives. One of my favourites is the story of Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie was a little Dutch spinster lady, a devout Christian, and during World War Two she and her family were actively involved in hiding Jewish refugees and getting them away from the Nazis. Eventually the family were caught and arrested, and they were sent away to concentration camps. Corrie and her sister Betsy went to Ravnsbruck, and you can well imagine the terrible sufferings they endured there: the lack of food and clothing, the awful cold in winter, the long hours of backbreaking labour and the brutal discipline.

Betsy was determined to serve the Lord in the camp, and so she started a Bible study group at night in their cell block. She and Corrie often wondered why the guards never interfered with the group; in fact, they never seemed to come near that particular block at all. One day they discovered that it was because that cell block was infested with fleas; the guards were afraid of them, and so they stayed away. Corrie had often complained about the fleas, and said she would never learn to thank God for them, but when they heard this story Betsy looked at her sister and said, “See? Even the fleas!”

Eventually Betsy died because of the sufferings and brutal treatment at the camp. When she was dying, she gave her sister a commission. She said to Corrie, “You must go all over the world and tell everyone that there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. And they will believe you, because you have been here”.

The Good News Matthew wants us to know is that we’re not alone; God is with us, even in the very darkest places. There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. Sometimes our struggles may seem too much for us, but Matthew wants us to know that God has come to live among us in Jesus and has experienced the trials and tribulations of our humanity firsthand. He is not far removed from our human struggle; he knows it intimately. Jesus, as someone once said, is ‘God with a human face’.

Secondly, Matthew wants us to know that the story is good news because it tells us that God will save us.

In the Old Testament the word ‘save’ is almost always used in a military sense;  ‘save’ usually means ‘save from enemies’. We can see, then, how startling is Matthew’s reinterpretation of this in this Gospel, where he tells us that the angel said ‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (1:21). The word ‘Jesus’, or ‘Yeshua’ in Hebrew, is based on a Hebrew phrase meaning ‘God saves’, or ‘God to the rescue’. Matthew is teaching us that, of all the enemies that we face, our sins are the most powerful. They cut us off from God, preventing us from receiving God’s help and spoiling God’s plan for our lives. And we know their power over us: just ask an alcoholic who is trying to quit, or someone trying to break another negative habit.

But you are not alone in this struggle with evil. This baby who Matthew is telling us about will grow up to give his life on the Cross for the sins of the whole world, reconciling us to God forever. He will rise again victorious over evil, and he will send his Holy Spirit to help his followers. Slowly, sometimes barely perceptibly from day to day, his power can set us free.

All around the world today millions of A.A. members bear testimony to this fact. Alcoholics Anonymous is a spiritual program based on faith in God as the Higher Power who is able to deliver people from their addictions. It receives no government support, employs no professional counselors, and does no advertising, but it is one of the most successful methods in history for the treatment of alcoholism. The testimony of A.A. is that God is well able to save people from things that are too big for them to handle.

So we could sum up the message of this Gospel in two words: ‘presence’ and ‘power’. God is present with us in Jesus and will never be far from us again. God’s power comes to us through Jesus, leading us out of slavery to negative behaviour patterns and into a new way of living. God’s invitation comes to you and me: do you want to experience this for yourself? If you do, all you need to do is ask God. Any words will do – God knows what’s on our hearts – but at this time of year perhaps this famous Christmas carol can guide us:

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.

‘Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today’. The carol tells us that as Christ entered into the world as a tiny baby, so he wants to enter our lives and live in our spirits. This is how he saves us from our sins – by coming to live in us by his Holy Spirit. Our call is to welcome him right into the centre of our lives, and that can start with a simple prayer: ‘Lord Jesus, come into my life in a new way today. Cast out my sins, and teach me to live the sort of life God planned for me when he created me in the first place’. If that prayer speaks for you today, why don’t you pray it, or something like it, before the day is over?

Friday, December 20, 2013

What if God Was One of Us? (a sermon for our 'When Christmas Hurts' service)

Back in the mid-1990s Eric Bazilian wrote a simple little song that became a smash hit for Joan Osborne: ‘What if God was one of us?’ I’m sure many of you will know it. I’ve always thought the first line was kind of ironic, because that’s exactly what Christianity has always taught: that God did become one of us. God came into this world he had created, he was born as a human being, and he shared all the joys and the pains of our human existence.

And that’s really what Christmas is all about. In our culture, Christmas has become a time for parties and eating and drinking, and buying and selling and giving presents and celebrating and general jollification. But the first Christmas wasn’t like that at all. Yes, there was joy: ‘good news of great joy for all the people’. But there was also hardship, fear, misunderstanding, oppression, anger, and violence. This is the sort of world that Jesus knows very well. Let’s try to think our way back into the story for a few minutes.

A young Jewish girl, probably in her mid-teens, comes to her fiancée and says, “I’m pregnant”. Her fiancée knows that the child is not his, but when he asks the obvious question – ‘Who did it?’ – she replies, ‘God’.

The Bible doesn’t report this conversation, but I think if I’d been in Joseph’s shoes I’d have been a little skeptical about that story! And in fact we’re told that he planned to break his engagement to Mary as quietly as possible, until an angel came to him in a dream and told him that Mary had been telling him the truth. I wonder how you would have felt in her shoes? ‘My fiancée won’t believe me until God sends an angel to tell him I’m right!’

But when Mary’s belly started to get bigger, I expect the rumours really started to fly. In that culture, the law had harsh penalties for sex outside of marriage – death by stoning, in fact. Of course, it was often not enforced, but the law was on the books all the same. I’m sure some people thought about it. I’m sure Mary got some dark looks when she went to synagogue on Saturdays. “A child out of wedlock, eh? And she used to be such a good girl!”

Then came the news that everyone in Israel had to travel back to their ancestral home town to be registered for taxation purposes. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time – Mary was in the last weeks of her pregnancy, and now she would have to make the hard journey south to Bethlehem. Tradition says she rode on a donkey – tradition has even given us songs about the little donkey – but the truth is that we have no idea whether she rode or walked. But we know for sure that it must have been an awful journey for her.

And then, after Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, we’re told that there was ‘no room for them at the inn’. Well, actually, the word used in the Bible might not mean ‘inn’; a more accurate translation might be ‘because there was no guest room available for them’ (Luke 2:7b NIV 2011). If Joseph’s family came from Bethlehem, it would make sense that he would try to stay with relatives when he arrived. But I expect that the relatives had the problem of space: there were so many people coming home for the census, and there was just nowhere to stay in the house.

Where was the baby born? Tradition tells us in a stable, but the New Testament doesn’t say that. It simply says, ‘She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger’ (Luke 2:7). We can be sure that the circumstances were uncomfortable, anyway – not the maternity ward at the local hospital, if they had had such a thing – or even a comfortable room in a relative’s house. Perhaps it was the room downstairs where the animals came in at night - a common practice in that culture. We just don’t know.

What happens next? The king sends a death squad after the new baby. Joseph is from the ancient royal family of King David, and there are rumours that this baby is going to be the king God is sending to set his people free. The present King is a tyrant who doesn’t like this revolutionary talk about freedom. So he sends his soldiers to kill every male child under two years old in Bethlehem, just to make sure he’s got rid of the threat to his throne. So Jesus gets caught up in this first century political crossfire; Joseph and Mary and the young Jesus only just get out of there in time, and they escape into Egypt.

So now the holy family are refugees. In order to be safe, they have to live for a while in a foreign country, where they have to learn a different language and get used to strange customs. Their religion makes them different from the people around them, and they have to get used to strange looks and whispers behind their backs. Not until King Herod dies do they feel free to return to their own land.

This is the Christmas story, you see. It’s not a story of pure unadulterated partying and cheerfulness. It’s not just tidings of comfort and joy. It’s about ordinary people being called by God, and going through all sorts of struggles and difficulties in the course of doing what God asks of them. God comes among us in Jesus but he doesn’t remove himself from the pain of ordinary human life; he plunges right into it. Think about the rest of the story for a minute. Joseph disappears from view early in the gospels; after Jesus is twelve years old, we hear no more of him. It seems likely that he died while Jesus was still young, so Jesus experienced the sharp pain of bereavement. He would then have been expected to take over the family business and provide for his mother and brothers and sisters.

At age thirty Jesus left home and began a wandering ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing. Very quickly his family came to the conclusion that he was out of his mind, and they tried to take him home before he did himself any harm. Not exactly an inspiring vote of confidence! His closest followers didn’t really understand what he was on about, and when push came to shove, they all deserted him and left him to die; one of them, in fact, informed on him to the authorities. He was arrested on a trumped up charge, subjected to a mock trial, and then tortured to death in one of the cruelest forms of execution ever devised by human wickedness.

But note this: we Christians believe that God was in Jesus reconciling the world to himself. If God had never been one of us – if he had stayed safely in heaven – then God would not have been able to understand by experience what it means to be a human being. We could tell him about our pain, and he might nod sympathetically, but he could never have truthfully said, “I know how you feel”. It’s only because God became a human being in Jesus that God can truly ‘know how we feel’

So if you are going through the pain of bereavement this Christmas, remember that Jesus experienced that too. If you find yourself far away from your home and your loved ones – well, Jesus and his family went through that too when they had to run away to Egypt. If you feel isolated in your family and misunderstood by your friends – well, Jesus experienced that too. If you feel rejected and abandoned – in fact, if you feel grief or fear or pain of any kind tonight – the Christmas story is for you. It tells us that God has come among us and shared our troubles. So we can bring our pain to God in the confidence that God understands it – from personal experience.

In our Gospel for tonight we read, ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (John 1:14). In his paraphrase of the Bible called ‘The Message’, Eugene Peterson translates that verse like this: ‘The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’. Your neighbourhood; my neighbourhood. The places where we live, where at any given time there are happy families and families breaking up – newborn infants, and people who are grieving relatives who have died before their time – people sharing a glass of wine over supper, and people who just can’t stop drinking no matter how hard they try – people with good jobs and a secure income, and people eating Kraft dinner who just don’t know where the next rent cheque is coming from. That’s the sort of neighbourhood Jesus feels at home in.

So whatever pain you are struggling with tonight, I encourage you not to be afraid to bring it to God. There are two ways you can do that in the context of this service.

First, you can light a candle – an ancient symbol of prayer. We have several candles on the altar, as you can see. In a moment we’ll be having a time of quiet prayer and reflection, and during that time, if you want to offer a prayer for your own needs or those of someone else, I encourage you to come forward and light one of these prayer candles.

Second, you may have noticed that in your bulletin tonight there is a little three by five card. If you would like prayer for a specific issue you’re struggling with, or if you want to pray that sort of prayer on behalf of someone else, I encourage you to write your request on that card, and then bring it with you when you come forward to light your candle, and lay it on the altar here. You can be as specific as you like; you can write the request in detail, or just write the name and leave it at that. We will send these requests around our church prayer chain and they will be prayed for all through the Christmas season.

Let me close with a story that has always inspired me. Corrie Ten Boom was a little old Dutch lady who was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp by the Nazis during the Second World War; her crime was that she had helped Jewish people to get away from those who were hunting them down. Corrie’s whole family were involved in this, and she and her sister Betsy went to Ravensbruck together. I need not describe for you the horrors they experienced in that concentration camp, or the way that Betsy eventually died of the sufferings she endured there; Corrie has written all about it in her book ‘The Hiding Place’. But what I want to close with are the words Betsy spoke to Corrie just before she died. She said, “You must go all over the world and tell people what we have discovered here. You must tell them that there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. And they will believe you, because you have been here”.

There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. That was true for Corrie and Betsy, and it can be true for us tonight as well. So let us turn to God in our pain and struggle, knowing that he hears our prayers and shares our sufferings, and that nothing can ever separate us from his love for us.