Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Fourth Gift (a sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 by Doug Schindel)

The Fourth Gift – A sermon by Doug Schindel, December 31, 2017

At the end of Advent I would think that we are all exhausted from being bombarded with the secular side of the Christmas season - starting with the Black Friday sales, continuing on with “only so many shopping days left until Christmas, and finally the ever so enticing Boxing Day Sale that has now grown into the boxing week sale. All this so we can find the perfect gift for that special someone. And if we look at the post-Christmas sales that someone may be ourselves. I would like to examine a bit of the history of Christmas gift giving, and the specific gifts in our Gospel this morning to see what is MYTH and what is MATTHEW!

We have all heard the story as we have read it in Matthew’s gospel this morning. And I am sure you have heard many sermons that identified the differences between what we have come to accept as Christmas traditions and what Matthew tells us.

Yes, there were visitors from “the east”, but we don’t know exactly where they originated or how many there were. We Three Kings was composed in 1857 by John Henry Hopkins, but has only a base of factual accuracy. Mr. Hopkins chose to add some myth. Matthew identifies wise “MEN”, meaning more than two, but there could have been a dozen. Or more.

Three gifts - check. Wise men arriving along with the shepherds and the angels, maybe not. We read later in Matthew’s gospel that Herod, when he found out he had been outsmarted by the wise men sent out an order that every male child under the age of two be executed. If this order was shortly after the birth, why would he specify two years? The wise men made a long and arduous journey and it may well have taken them almost two years to get there, depending on when the star first rose. We don’t know, but Christmas pageants have all the participants in the stable at once. The important thing to recognize here is not when they arrived, or in what quantity, but the devotion and determination and faith that a small group of Gentile scholars displayed to come and worship and pay homage to a Jewish Messiah.

No matter how many wise men or kings or astrologers or whatever they were, Matthew tells us they brought three gifts. This custom of gift giving at Christmas has grown over the intervening centuries, possibly assisted by St. Nicholas who was a Bishop in the fourth century in what is now known as Turkey. As the story goes he inherited a fortune and was a very kind man. In his town was a poor man with three daughters, so poor that he could not afford a dowry that would attract potential husbands for the girls. Nicholas learned of this and one night he dropped a bag of gold down the chimney of the poor man’s house, where it fell into a stocking that had been hung near the fire to dry. He repeated this for the other two daughters, but was caught in the act by the girl’s father during his third visit. He asked that his secret not be made public, but you can guess what happened. And so the legend grew and the custom of gift giving at Christmas has become solidified in our culture.
What I want to focus on today are the gifts. There were, in fact 4 gifts delivered in this story. Let’s examine them and their significance.

Gold - atomic number 79 on the periodic table of the elements. Conducts electricity, does not tarnish like brass, insoluble in some acids but will dissolve in cyanide which is used in the refining process after the ore extraction. This has led to some huge environmental disasters in abandoned tailings ponds. Gold is comparatively soft, easy to work and has a relatively low melting point which made it ideal for jewelry and other lavish ornaments in the time of Jesus. And therefore it was considered the appropriate gift for a king, even a newborn king. Gold is still considered a generous and enviable gift in any of its many configurations. Possibly the important thing to recognize here is that Gold, as an element does not break down to sub components over time. It has an enduring quality. Maybe this was the attraction for kings and royalty.

Frankincense - The English word frankincense is derived from the Old French expression francencens meaning high-quality incense. The word franc in Old French meant noble or pure. Frankincense has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula, in North Africa, and Somalia for more than 5000 years.

In the Hebrew Bible and Talmud it was one of the consecrated incenses utilized as a component of the services in the Temple in Jerusalem, and can be found in many other scriptures from Exodus to Malachi. And if you care to Google it there is probably far more information than you will need to satisfy your curiosity. Suffice to say it had a long and important history at the time Jesus was born and would have been considered a valuable gift. In Matthew 26 we read the story of Mary the sister of Martha anointing Jesus’ feet and the response of the disciples believing this act of reverence was a waste and the perfume should have been sold “for a large sum” and the money given to the poor.

Myrrh also has a long history in the old Testament. If was used for everything from cures and medicines to fragrances in funeral services. And so myrrh might be considered a sign of what would happen at Jesus’s death as it was also present at his crucifixion and burial. In Mark 15:23 we read And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not. And a little later in John 19:38 we read And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.39 And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.
              
Three very valuable and noteworthy gifts, but what Joseph and Mary would have done with them is left to our imagination. As they were a poor family the gifts may have been sold or traded for food and clothing and other staples far more immediately important to them. The common thread between all these gifts is their temporal value. As the old adage states, you can’t take it with you. Or in the modern vernacular, you don’t see a uhaul trailer being towed by a hearse.

That brings us to the fourth gift in our story.

Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of the world is God’s gift to us. Every one of us. No one is excluded no matter how undeserving we may be. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11 This gift is foretold much earlier by the prophets. Read Isaiah's words, or if you enjoy good music, go to YouTube, search for Handel's Messiah and listen to the prophecy. Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and name Him Immanuel. God is with us.

There is a phrase used by charitable organization fundraisers that describes the gift they are asking you to give.  Money, or possible “financial support” is a more appealing description. They describe it as the gift that keeps on giving. Their way of telling you that by financially supporting an organization like World Vision, one that we are very aware of and involved with, our funds will provide education, for example, education. The people that receive the education will be better equipped to work their way out of poverty, which provides a better life for their children, which does the same for many generations. Truly your gift does continue giving.

I would like to suggest to you that Jesus was “the original” gift that keeps on giving, and giving, and giving. He spent the last years of his short life on this earth spreading the Good News of God’s love, of salvation and of the eternity we will spend with our heavenly Father. And his ultimate gift was that of his life. The gift that paved the way to salvation. But the giving didn’t stop with his crucifixion and resurrection.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he speaks of two sets of three gifts from God.  Three that are temporal and three that are eternal. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. And then he follows that up with 11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. 13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three. And he finishes the verse with  the greatest of these is love. We have all heard many sermons on this passage and many of them focus in on faith and love. We have read today about God’s love for us in sending Jesus to save us. We have also read about the unshakeable and striking example of faith  demonstrated by the wise men to travel so far to find the Christ child.

The third gift is the gift of hope, a gift that is so fundamentally and crucially important to our Christian faith. Today is a special day, one that should direct our attention to Hope. It is the last day of the year, or more importantly, the day before the first day of the new calendar year. And every new year brings, for most of us a renewed hope in the coming year. We hope for peace, we hope for an end to hunger, and poverty and homelessness and domestic violence and, and, and. The list goes on.

The word Hope can take two different forms. First, and most common is as a verb. I hope the weather holds for the weekend. I hope I get the new position I applied for. I hope the Oilers get their season back on track. But hope is also a noun and this is where we can find comfort and solace and peace in the coming year. This is Christian hope. Not wishful thinking as in the verb, but sound, supported and real knowledge being the hope we have in Jesus. We don’t wish, we KNOW that Jesus was born to save us, we KNOW that He died for us and we KNOW that He is coming again to take us home. This is the kind of hope that gives us confidence that the other shortcomings of our current global conflicts and politically motivated unrest will eventually be resolved. What better Christmas gift, or a gift any time of the year could we possibly want or even expect to receive.

I would like to close with by looking at a new year's custom, that being the making of new year's resolutions. Some people vow to lose weight, increase their physical activity, eat better and so on. But if we want some guidance from Jesus on this subject we need look no further than the 25th chapter of Matthew, and read the parable of the sheep and the goats. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Our resolutions should be more focused on the Lord’s expectations than what we believe might make us healthy and fit. Caring for the poor and the hungry and the naked and the sick and the incarcerated. Jesus used the word prison, but that may not be restricted to physical institutions. Prison may be the confinement of substance abuse and dependence, mental health issues, and chronic depression. In these simple acts of love and charity, actions directed by Jesus, gifts that endure, we will indeed be caring for Jesus, as He cares for us.

Let our prayer be that we will use the Divine guidance God provides to find opportunities to do Jesus’s bidding, to provide gifts of freedom from the shortages of basic human need, and to inspire in us the determination to follow through with our resolutions as the wise men did in completing their journey so many years ago.


Friday, December 29, 2017

Upcoming events January 1st to January 7th, 2018

Upcoming Events January 1st to January 7th, 2018

Tim is away on vacation until Jan 3rd, 2018. During his absence, the Rev. Hugh Matheson, from Wetaskiwin, will be providing emergency pastoral care and can be reached at 780-312-7794.

January 1st and January 2nd, 2018
Office is closed
January 6th, 2018
4:30pm – 7:30pm Crosslife Church rental
January 7th, 2018 (Baptism of the Lord)
9:00am  Holy Communion
9:45am Coffee between services
10:30am  Holy Communion and Sunday School


Giving envelopes for 2018 are out in the foyer for pickup.  If you are going to be giving via direct deposit for 2018, there are no envelopes set out for you for the upcoming year.  Should you wish to contribute during the year for something “extra” such as world vision or PWRDF, simply use the blank envelopes at the back of the church. Should you have any questions, please feel free to call the church office at 780-437-7231.

The Inner City Pastoral Ministry Lunch (ICPM) at the Bissel Centre, 10530 96th Street NW, Edmonton, AB
is coming up on Sunday January 14th, 2018. St. Margaret’s, in partnership with Good Shepherd Anglican Church, will be providing and serving lunch at the Bissell Centre. We are still in need of volunteers to donate food, prepare food on Saturday Jan. 13th at 10:30am, and help serve lunch at the Bissell Centre on Sunday Jan. 14th from 9am – 1:30pm. There are sign up sheets for all of these options on the table in the foyer. If you have any questions, please contact the church office at 780-437-7231.

Winnifred Stewart: Empties to Winn Project
Please feel free to bring some or all of your empty bottles (juice, milk, cans, and other beverage containers) and drop them in our bags. Please support Winnifred Stewart by making provision for this project! Next pick up should be January 4th.  Thank you!

Daytime Lectionary Bible Study: Wednesday afternoons 2:00 – 3:30 p.m. @ the church, starting January 10th, 2018.
This will be a new small group which will meet each week to look at one of the scripture passages set in the lectionary for the following Sunday (usually the one Tim plans to preach on!). This will be an ongoing group and people are welcome to come when they can.

Food, Fun and Fellowship: Friday January 26th, 2018 @ 6pm
This is our ‘new and upgraded’ reboot of Spaghetti Church (a monthly event for families with children that we used to run on Saturday afternoons). The event will begin with a supper, followed by a child-friendly time of singing, Bible teaching and prayer. Some activity (crafts, games etc.) will follow, and the evening will close with hot chocolate and a candle prayer time. This will be held on the last Friday of each month. A sign up sheet will be out next week. For more info, email Melanie at stmargaretsedmonton@gmail.com.

Life in the Eucharist: A Children’s Communion Program.
During Lent (i.e. February and March) our church will be running a 'Life in the Eucharist' program of communion education for our kids. This program was designed to be used with children between the ages of seven and nine, but has been found to be useful one or two years either side of that as well. If you would like to participate in this program, please let us know by January 12th so we can order materials for everyone. The materials will be funded by our Reach Campaign monies.

Please check out our monthly announcement sheet for more upcoming events. If you have not received a copy or have changed your email address, please update your email with Tim or Melanie. Extra copies are available on the table at the back of the church.


Monday, December 25, 2017

The Word Became Flesh (a sermon for Christmas Day on John 1:14)

I think most of us here are probably familiar with MASH, that great TV comedy show from the 70s and 80s about the staff of an army field hospital in the Korean war. One of my favourite episodes was when Father Mulcahy and Radar found themselves on the front line having to do emergency surgery on a wounded soldier – a job neither of them was capable of. But they were able to get Hawkeye and B.J. on the radio, and after they described the symptoms the doctors walked them through what they had to do. To their great surprise everything worked out well, but I can imagine that would have been a scary situation for anyone to be in. A voice from far away is better than nothing, but it sure doesn’t beat a real live flesh and blood human being who knows what they’re doing and can give you the help you need.

Religious history is full of voices from far away. Ancient gods live in seclusion, on Mount Olympus, or Asgard, or the top of Mount Sinai. When they speak, they speak in thunderous voices, and human beings are afraid to hear them or encounter them. The gods send oracles and prophets to speak in their name, but they themselves rarely come close to human beings. And human beings are glad of this, because the presence of gods is dangerous to mere mortals We’re talking about mighty supernatural beings with unimaginable powers. In Hebrew thought the contrast is even more striking: we’re talking about the almighty Creator of everything that exists, the one whose holiness burns like a fire. No one in the Old Testament ever assumes that an encounter with that God would be a therapeutic experience! Their attitude is ‘No one can see God and live to tell the tale!’

It’s true that the Old Testament assumes that God lived among his people in the tabernacle in the desert, or in the Temple in Jerusalem. But his presence was still a scary thing. Right at the centre of the Temple was the room called ‘The Holy of Holies’, the focus of God’s presence in the whole building. That room stood empty for most of the year. Only once a year did the high priest enter that place to burn incense to God, and when he went in there he had a rope tied around his foot, so that the other priests could pull his body out if he died in there!

That’s how the Old Testament people felt about the presence of God. If you touched the furniture of the tabernacle in an irreverent manner you might die. If you approached God without the proper ceremonies, it could be fatal. Yes, God lived among his people – but he definitely wasn’t one of them. He was wholly other, wholly different from his human creations, terrifyingly divine. No one took it for granted that such a God would love his people; they all though it was an amazing wonder.

And that’s where we have to start when we think about the miracle of Christmas – the problem of any sort of contact between the Creator and his creation, especially his human creations. ‘No one has ever seen God’, says the apostle John (John 1:18), and the Old Testament people were thankful for that. How could a mere human being actually ‘see’ the great and powerful Creator of the universe? The circuits of our brains would be fried by such an encounter! Our hearts would stop with the shock!

And yet this is right at the heart of what’s going on in the Christmas story. ‘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). God didn’t just speak his Word to us from a safe distance, like Hawkeye and B.J. speaking through the radio to Father Mulcahy and Radar. God’s Word actually ‘became flesh’ – actually took on humanity, physical humanity – and shared our human life.

Who is this ‘Word’? John describes him to us in language that recalls the first chapter of Genesis:
‘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’ (John 1:1-5).

In the book of Genesis, you’ll remember, God brought creation into being through his word. He didn’t get out a tool kit like a divine construction worker; he simply spoke, and it was done. “Let there be light”, he said, and there was light. “Let there be a firmament”, “Let there be lights in the sky to separate day from night” and so on. God’s word is powerful. Psalm 33 says, ‘By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’ (Ps. 33:6).

Later on in the Old Testament period there was already a Jewish tradition of personalising this ‘Word’, in the form of the ‘Wisdom of God’. In the book of Proverbs Wisdom speaks on her own behalf:
‘The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago…When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep…then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always’ (Proverbs 8:22, 27, 30).
But John takes this a step further. This ‘Word’ by which God speaks and creates the world is not just a disembodied voice; he’s not just an embodiment of wisdom. John was a Jewish writer who firmly believed that there was only one God, but now he speaks of the Word as divine:
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1).
Obviously we’re talking about God here, and the first rule for human thinking about God is that if you think you understand it, it’s probably not God! God is far above our human understanding, and the exact relationship between God and the Word who is also God – between Father and Son, to use Christian Trinitarian language – is far above our comprehension. But as Christians who take scripture seriously we have to hang on to both sides of this paradox: ‘and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’.

And now the Word becomes flesh.

Some people want to make Christianity into a spiritual religion. It’s about ideas and feelings. It’s about the soul, and life after death. Material things are less important. Material things don’t matter.

Nothing could be further than the truth. If God had believed this, the Word would never have become flesh. Some modern translations say ‘The word became a human being’, and I don’t object to that, although I think it falls short of the stark physicality of what John actually says. God became a real human being, with a heart and blood vessels, and a nervous system, and a stomach, and bowels. The Word didn’t just speak and think. He also ate and drank with outcasts and sinners. He touched the sick and healed them. He got tired and fell asleep. He touched people who were ritually unclean and he did it without fear. And on Good Friday they drove great spikes into his wrists and feet and hung him on the cross, where he bled and died.

One of my friends likes to talk about ‘head’ people and ‘heart’ people. ‘Head’ people, in her mind, are rational people; they’re comfortable in the world of ideas and logic and theoretical learning. They like Bible studies full of facts, studies that give you good background information about the world of the scriptures. But they tend to be afraid of excessive emotion, and they keep their feelings to themselves.

‘Heart’ people are the opposite. They find excessive rationality irritating. They’re in touch with their feelings and they relate to God on the level of their feelings. It’s important to them to feel God’s presence, God’s joy and peace. If they don’t feel anything, they quickly get discouraged about the state of their spiritual life.

I’ve always felt that this ‘head’ and ‘heart’ division was too simplistic, and in the last few years I’ve begun to understand why. Neither head nor heart are particularly physical. One is about ideas and the other is about emotions. But I think true spirituality involves a third ‘H’ – ‘Hands’. True biblical spirituality involves our bodies. The word for ‘worship’ in the Bible literally means ‘to prostrate yourself on the ground before God’. Biblical people clap their hands with joy; they pray by raising their arms in God’s presence. And not only that: they use their hands to care for the poor and needy. “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36). You can’t do any of those things without using your body. A word is not enough; the word has to become flesh.

So God doesn’t just announce his love from heaven; he embodies it. Love is vulnerable; to love someone involves opening yourself up to being hurt. So God becomes vulnerable; he becomes a foetus in the womb of Mary, and is born as a human baby. He needs to be fed and clothed and touched and cleaned and loved and hugged. Love isn’t just feeling for someone; it’s actually being a blessing to them in the things you do. So Jesus grows up to become a man and he doesn’t just teach and pass on wisdom; he embodies it. He doesn’t just make friends with people; he shares meals with them, and uses the meals to build relationships and have important conversations. He doesn’t just care about people’s souls; he cares about their bodies too, and heals them. He doesn’t just teach us to love our enemies; he loves his enemies too and forgives them.

Bethlehem tells us that the Word became flesh. Jesus isn’t just about the head or the heart; he’s about the hands too. You don’t just become his follower by believing in him; he says you have to get baptized as well. You don’t just remember him in your head; he says you have to eat his bread and drink his wine as a way of feeding on his presence and being nourished by him. These aren’t just optional extras for those who like that kind of thing. Jesus makes them mandatory. “Baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”. “Do this in remembrance of me”.

So today as we celebrate the birth of the Word of God, we celebrate it in action, not just in word or thought or emotion. This morning we gather around the Lord’s Table again and share the bread and wine as he taught us. The Word who came to us in flesh comes to us again in physical form. We don’t understand it, but we believe it, and so we come to him with our hands open to receive the gift of his presence.

Later on we’ll go home, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get together with family and friends to celebrate Christmas. I doubt very much whether anyone here will do that without earing or drinking! Quite the opposite! We’ll share the turkey and all the trimmings, and maybe a nice bottle of wine, and mince pies and Christmas pudding and all that stuff. Sitting around the table and eating together makes our fellowship real and tangible. It’s a sacrament of human love, just as the Eucharist is a sacrament of God’s love. And this is real and important to God too. If it wasn’t, Jesus wouldn’t have accepted so many dinner invitations!

But let’s not forget the third part of this. Celebrating Christmas isn’t just about hearing communion together and sharing a meal with family and friends. Celebrating Christmas also involves recognising the continuing presence of Jesus in the ones he calls “the least of these who are members of my family” (Matthew 25:40). Our gifts to World Vision of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund – to the Bissell Centre and Hope Mission – are an integral part of our celebration of Christmas. Our presence as volunteers at the Bissell Centre lunch our parish will be involved in on January 14th is a part of our discipleship. Our visiting someone in hospital, our handshakes and hugs for lonely friends and neighbours – these things aren’t optional extras either. The word has to become flesh – or, to use the language of the letter of James, faith has to show itself in works. Faith without works – faith that’s just head or heart – is not enough. It has to involve the hands in order to be real faith.

‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us’. God’s love was incarnated in a human body, and so it became possible for us to see God and know him in a way never imagined before. And now that continues in us. The Word of the Gospel continues to become flesh in us, as we use our hands and feet and eyes and ears to bless others in the name of Jesus. Or, in the words of the well known carol,
‘Therefore Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor

Shall yourselves find blessing’.