Third Sunday after Epiphany

The Grace and Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

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David:0414521661

Luke records in his record of the Acts of the Apostles that after Pentecost, ‘Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church. They joined with the other believers and devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, sharing in the Lord’s Supper and in prayer. And each day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved.’

Let’s  join in a word of  prayer:   Loving God, our Father, today, we join with believers around the world to devote ourselves to hearing your Word, to fellowship with each other, to praying, and to sharing in the Holy Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As we worship You, guide our time that we may understand the reality that your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has shown us great forgiveness and acceptance.  Help us to show great love for one another, and acceptance of others. God our Father, hear our prayer we offer in the name of our risen Saviour, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The new disciples who heard Peter’s message on Pentecost, devoted themselves to relating to God in a new way.  As people in a new very personal relationship with their creator, their saviour and their comforter.  As people who are forgiven.

Peter instructed them to repent over their sinfulness and to be baptised as a sign of their new life in Jesus Christ.  These were the first converts to the new Christian Church.  Their lives were changed forever.  They began to live up to their Christian challenge.  They became God’s family of the Church.  They cared for each other, they shared with each other, they praised God for Jesus Christ and for each other.  What a time of rejoicing it must have been.  They lived the experience of their forgiveness.

We join them today, caring for each other, sharing salvation and new life with each other, praising God for each other, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper with each other.  What a time of rejoicing it is for us today.  We can live the joy of our salvation every day. …. And yet, we still live in the brokenness of our humanity.

If we paraphrase Paul’s words to us today:  “every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are announcing the Lord’s death and resurrection until he comes again.”  A death that redeems our sins, and a resurrection that brings our eternal life.  All this by our faith in the Son whom God has sent.

As Christians, we are reminded that we hold two truths in tension.  In these truths the mystery of God’s grace is revealed in the reality of his love for us set against the reality of his hatred of sin.

On the one hand we have the truth that sin enters our lives as the fruit of a wrong relationship with God.   God takes the damage we do to each other very seriously.

But on the other hand lies the truth that we are all forgiven our sins at the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus  entered humanity to reconcile us to God and repair the damage of our broken relationship with God.

As we hold the Scriptures in our hands and in our hearts we hold onto the understanding that this is God’s message to us about his love for us.  His relationship with all of creation, and especially with each one of us.

As we discover in the Scriptures, when Jesus Christ took the bread and the cup of his Supper, he gave us a living reality.  That God’s relationship with us is lived out in the very personal and very real presence of Christ Jesus in our lives.

“This is my body”, and “This is my blood” were not words of a parable.  They were not words of a presumed hope.  They were words of truth and life.

The Augsburg Confession, Artlcle 10, states:  ‘Concerning the Lord’s Supper, it is taught that the true body and blood of Christ are truly present under the form of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper and are distributed and received there.’

That is why we take the Lord’s Supper so seriously.  Seriously enough to take a few weeks to prepare our youngsters to join us at the table of our Lord.  This preparation is purposeful to ingrain the reality of our relationship with God the Father, God the Son Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit.

When we hear the words to eat and drink the elements of bread and wine, we join this to the act of eating and drinking, with the faith we have in our Saviour.  And they become the real presence of the body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ, just as he said.

As the Large Catechism explains:  ‘everyone who wishes to be a Christian and to go to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper should know .. what they seek and why they come.’

In our Step Up To Communion preparation process, we look at the five steps of the Lord’s Supper.  The Invitation of our Lord,  our acceptance of this invitation, our gathering together, our eating and drinking, and our giving thanks to God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ for this wondrous gift.

In Holy Communion, the Holy Spirit is present as well. He reminds us that we are receiving forgiveness of sin and renewal from Christ Jesus every time we share the Lord’s Supper.  He also reminds us that we compound our error when we hold onto our guilt over every wrong, and every unforgiveness of wrong done to us, as we rise from the table.    We can trust  Jesus when he says, “for the forgiveness of sin”, and we can have faith in our Saviour.  Let the past remain in our past, and look to every future moment with confidence and peace at heart.

As Lutherans, we respect the thoughtful and spiritual dialogue of Martin Luther.  He was caught in the middle of the dialogue between the strict understanding of Holy Communion by the Church at Rome, and the radical reform movement to distance from that established Church of the day.  But Luther, as always, turned to the Gospels with faith-filled vision of Christ’s words, and his intentions.

‘The Lord’s Supper was very important to Luther his entire life, because God’s promises and the bond with Christ became concrete for him in the bread and wine. Just as it can become for us.  In a sermon about the right use of the Lord’s Supper, from 1518, Luther says that “needing the Lord’s Supper is the most important condition of receiving it”.

Luther believed that Christ was bodily present in Holy Communion, trusting in the words of Matthew 26: 26 and 28: ‘This is My body’ and ‘this is My blood’. But he suggested, against Rome, that Christ does not remain present in the host after the Lord’s Supper, and that the host can not be worshipped.

When, in the 1520’s, Luther again had to think about the liturgy.  Big differences of opinions rose to the surface inside the reforming movement. Luther turned sharply against the ideas of radical reformers, who suggested that the Lord’s Supper was a memorial meal, and that the words of institution are not meant to be taken literally. According to Luther, that would be a violation of the plain meaning of the Scriptures.  Furthermore that the concrete presence of Christ through faith would be removed.

However, his Reformed opponents wanted to clarify their position, that only Christ Himself and not the elements of bread and wine provided salvation. They were also afraid of all kinds of superstitions around the Lord’s Supper. Unfortunately, attempts to reconcile the three Christian traditions ended in failure.’  (CheckLuther.com)

Even today, the Lord’s Supper has remained an important point of difference between the theology of Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed Christian traditions.  But this does not overshadow our common faith in Christ Jesus and our love for every brother and sister in Christ.  After all, Christ himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

The German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a hunted man during WW II who upheld authentic Christian principles. As a part of the German underground he was not safe to worship openly.

Bonhoeffer knew there was no other community and fellowship like that experienced within the Body of Christ. He said: “Baptism incorporates us into the unity of the Body of Christ, and the Lord’s supper fosters and sustains our fellowship and communion … in that Body”.

For a time before he was imprisoned, and during his imprisonment, Bonhoeffer was cut off from other believers, and it took a toll on him. Donald LaSuer says “Bonhoeffer’s painful discovery is instructive for us. Cut off from the nurturing fellowship of other Christians, he felt a deeper hunger for the fellowship that was no longer available to him. Like a hungry man who knows the taste of bread though he can no longer reach and break from the loaf, he knew the power of fellowship when it was painfully absent”.

When we come to Communion, we have the chance to experience a fellowship with our Saviour and with each other, a deep union that only comes when we realize the saving grace that must cover each of us.  God forbid that we take this gift of grace for granted.

And so each one of us can look to Paul, that  we should always approach the table of the Lord’s Super, honouring the presence of our Saviour in his body, his blood, and his Spirit.   For nothing is impossible for God.

It is by God’s grace, that we are loved by him, saved by him, and given life eternal by him.  It is God’s grace that sustains us every day of our lives.

May the overriding grace and peace of our Triune God, which passes all human understanding, keep our hearts and minds in calm assurance of salvation in our living Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Rev. David Thompson.

Second Sunday after Epiphany

The Text: John 1:43-51

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David: 0428 667 754

The season of Christmas celebrates the coming of the Son of God in human flesh to save and rescue His people.

The season of Epiphany is about God revealing that this Jesus, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, is the promised Messiah. Jesus in the long promised and much hoped for rescuer from God, and He manifests His divine power in the spoken word, and in signs and wonders.

Epiphany begins with the sign of the star in the sky which guides the Gentile wise-men to Bethlehem, and the rest of Epiphany shows how Jesus was revealed as the Son of God to all who would hear Him.

God must reveal Himself to us or we would not know where or how to find Him. Many people think they can find God through religious experiences, charismatic leaders, and even participating in non-Christian worship practises. But such things don’t lead us to God, they lead us away from Him and place us in spiritual danger.  

God cannot be found by humans. God finds us. He often comes to us through someone who already knows Him. This someone trusts in God. They know His life changing love and they want us to have it too.

This is the pattern we see in the Bible. A Jewish servant girl told Naaman about the prophet of the Lord who could heal him and he was cleansed of his skin disease and given faith (2 Kings 5). Four friends brought their crippled mate on a mattress to Jesus and he was cured and made whole in body and soul (Mark 2:1-12). Philip spoke with the Ethiopian about Jesus and he was baptised (Acts 8:26-39). Believers in Jesus bring those in need of God’s grace to Jesus.

This is what we see happen to Nathanael when Philip asked him to come and see Jesus. Philip knew Jesus. The Lord had said, “Follow Me” and Philip did, and he knew the Lord. He heard and saw that Jesus is the One whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote about. The Spirit filled Word of God revealed to Philip who Jesus was. Everything he heard from Jesus and saw Him do confirmed it. His eyes were opened. His heart was transformed. Philip is so excited that he goes and tells his friend Nathanael that the promised Redeemer has come, and he wants Nathanael to know the Lord too.

Someone did that for you. It was probably your parents or maybe a friend. They pointed you to Jesus saying come and see. Come and see the Saviour who has fulfilled the Law and everything God’s prophets said He would. Come and hear what He has done for you.

Christian parents bring their children to be baptised, and in water and the word a child sees and hears Jesus at work—cleansing, forgiving, creating new life and giving a new identity. Without Baptism’s gifts of rebirth and faith no one could find God. The old nature is too strong for any of us to overcome.

In Baptism you received the most wonderful gift from God. You were found by Him. He gives you His salvation. The joy and comfort you have in knowing Jesus lasts more than that moment. Knowing Jesus means a life time of forgiveness and mercy. Jesus is the One who saves us, and in Him we see God.

The Jesus we don’t really want to look at, is the bloodied body of Christ hanging on the cross. Most Christians prefer baby Jesus in a manger or ‘Jesus my friend’ or glorified Jesus in heaven. And He is those things, but Jesus is no friend, and no Saviour, and has no glory, without the cross and death.  

It is not pleasant to see Jesus suffer God’s judgment for us. To see Him dying. To see on Him all those sins we shrug off or consider a normal part of life. It’s horrifying. But take a look and see.

Because once you do, then you realise the immensity of God’s love for you. Then you realise that Jesus fulfils the Law of God and the words of the prophets, and to do that is no small thing. The Father gave up His Son into death, for you. The Son laid aside His divine powers, to die as an atonement for you. And He wanted to do that, so you can have freedom and life.

And so, Philip goes to his friend Nathanael to tell him that God’s Saviour has come. But Nathanael could not believe it. This Jesus didn’t sound like the Saviour he had been looking for. After all, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Philip doesn’t try and convince Nathanael of who Jesus is, he simply invites him to, “Come and see.”

But before Nathanael sees Jesus, the Lord sees him. Jesus knows Nathanael. He knows his heart. Jesus knows all our faults and yet in love He still welcomes us.

We heard in Psalm 139 today that God knows us. He knew us before we were born. He knows our words before we speak them. There is no where we can go to hide from Him. This can sound threatening, because God can see our darkest sins and desires. But despite this, He welcomes us that we may be made holy, washed and forgiven.

And so, Jesus sees Nathanael, and Nathanael will speak the Gospel because he saw and heard the grace of God and was changed by it. Like the patriarch Jacob, Nathanael will see heaven open before him, but not in a dream, it will take place when he sees Jesus die on the cross and be resurrected three days later. Jesus comes from heaven to open its doors by shedding His blood, so that sinners like Philip and Nathanael and you and me may believe and enter into paradise.

How often do we desire God like Nathanael did, and yet overlook Him because we can only see our problems and hurt and shame? Turn your eyes from them and look at Jesus on the cross. That’s how He wants you to see Him. Look and see your condemnation and judgment on Him, because if it is on Him, then you are declared righteous. If your sins are laid on Him, then they are not on you—you are free of them. If your death is laid on Jesus, then you will no longer die, but live. If His rising again is for you, then salvation and life everlasting are yours. Heaven’s doors have been opened wide for you to one-day pass through them. In God’s eyes you are already there.

But we are not there yet; living in eternity. We live here and have no end of troubles and pains. The sins of others impact us and we hurt others with our sins. We have fears and worries and sometimes we wonder, “where are you now Jesus. I can see you on the cross, and I’m thankful for that, but what about now; in my pain, carrying my crosses, living life here?”

The Good News is that Jesus is here now, for us. He is here, speaking, washing, feeding, forgiving. He is here strengthening our faith and growing us in hope and trust. This doesn’t mean it is going to be easy. Life is never a breeze, the devil makes sure of that.

But He who has called us is faithful. He has made us a part of His body; He cannot forget us or abandon us. He has overcome the darkness of death and He will lead us through every dark time we face.

This is the Good News of Jesus on the cross. Forgiveness and salvation are ours as a free gift and this has changed us. We are comforted by our crucified Saviour. We have joy that God smiles on us, and this shapes the way we live now, desiring others to come and see Jesus, that they would know Him too. As a child of the heavenly Father we can pray for His Spirit to open their hearts to know Jesus, even as we ask them to come and see.

The invitation to come and see Jesus is for all His disciples, throughout our whole life. There is always something new to discover, or something old to learn again, and the depth of God’s love for us is new for us every day.

And so, we need to come and see Jesus, often, and not dwell on our sins and or focus on our troubles. Come and see and hear the Gospel and be assured that He has opened heaven gates for us. Amen.

First Sunday after Epiphany

Mark:1:9-11

Down in the valleysdhuff

When you think about it, the Christmas story has a lot to do with people looking for the baby Jesus.  Shepherds go looking for the baby the angels spoke about.  Strangers from the east travelled long distances looking for a new born prince.  Even Herod sent his soldiers out to look for this new born prince and in the process looks for every small boy in Bethlehem to have him killed.

John the Baptist didn’t have to go looking for Jesus.  Jesus suddenly appears in front of John.  John is bit surprised to hear Jesus say, “Baptise me too”.  This confuses John.  He’s not even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals, in fact, Jesus should be baptising him (Matthew 3:13).  “Jesus, you’re the great Messiah we’ve been waiting for.  You don’t have any sins to repent. You don’t need to be baptised.” 

John baptises Jesus.  The Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove and God makes a grand divine pronouncement, “You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.”  Here, being baptised, is the very Son of God.  This man, with water dripping from his head and face, is God himself.

No sooner had Jesus been baptised, the descending Spirit casts Jesus not upon the throne up at the palace, but alone out in the wilderness.  There he meets, not the Mayor who gives him the key to the city, but Satan who tests and tempts Jesus with “If you are the Son of God then do something to prove it”. 

The next time Jesus hears those words “If you are the Son of God then do something to prove it” will be when he hangs on a cross and hears the taunts of a howling crowd. 

What happens to the man who proclaims the good news that God has sent the Messiah?  He falls victim to the whim of a murderous king and his head is served up on a plate at a party. 

Look how quickly the mood has changed in the Gospel story.  From the glory of angels telling of a new born Saviour to the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, the gruesome beheading of John the Baptist and much closer to Jesus’ birth is the slaughter of the baby boys of Bethlehem.

Excitement and mountaintop experiences are great but they don’t last.  They are precious and special because of the very fact that they don’t last.  Eventually we come down off the mountaintop and resume life down in the valley.  All the hoopla of Christmas has gone.  The Christmas decorations have been packed away.  There are no more angels, and stories about a miraculous birth.  We are here at church and there’s not the same excitement as at Christmas.  We are back into the ordinary days of the year and the very ordinary problems that come with life that is very ordinary.

Today we hear about Jesus standing in the very ordinary muddy waters of the Jordan River with John the Baptist pouring some of that water over him.  In that act of baptism Jesus, God in the flesh, is identifying himself with the ordinariness of this world and ordinary people and their ordinary lives of sin and temptation and trouble and sickness and dying.

This is the great thing about our Christian faith.  Christianity is not just about mountaintops and the glory and the ecstasy of being lifted up to places beyond the ordinary.  It isn’t about always singing happy songs or always being filled with so much faith that nothing can trouble us or get in our way.  Our Christian faith is also for the valleys. 

Most of us don’t live in a world of perpetual bliss and happiness; we may wish we did; we would like to but in reality we don’t.  We live down in the valley, where there is work to be done, laundry to be washed and folded, people to deal with, troubles to be confronted.  And here’s the good news: that’s where our God meets us.

And isn’t that exactly what the angel Gabriel had told Joseph in a dream.  Mary’s child would be the presence of God among his people – that he will be known as ‘Immanuel’ which means “God is with us”.  Jesus’ baptism becomes the occasion for the Holy Spirit and God the Father to state that Jesus is God’s Son who has come into the world, and through his baptism in the Jordan he is also revealed as an ordinary bloke who identifies with the ordinariness of our world.

In our baptism, God meets us in our very ordinary world.  He comes to us. He embraces us. He encounters us in the very ordinary matters of every day, not just the mountaintop moments and exhilarating spiritual experiences which we have every now and then, but he comes to us in the far more frequent ordinary moments of every day – the struggles, the boredom, the questioning, the pain, the grief, the torments, the doubting and the temptations.  That’s where he meets us.  Down there in the valleys where we wouldn’t expect to find him – that’s where he is ready to embrace us and remind us that he is our loving brother and saviour.

The heavenly Father meets Jesus in the undignified muddy waters of the Jordan saying, “You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you”.
He meets us in our baptism and says, “You are my own dear child.  I am pleased with you”.   

Baptism is God’s work, not ours.  It’s God’s grace coming to us and adopting us as his own.  In becoming God’s own dear child, God’s grace claims us, loves us, saves us, restores our friendship with God, rescues us from Satan’s power to kill us, gives us eternal life.  

The beauty of the Christian faith is that, yes it does give us some high times of spiritual fellowship; of divine experience – what I call, mountaintop experiences, and these mountaintop experiences are different for each person.  For some the closeness of God might come through an “Aha” moment when reading the Scriptures or listening to a live rendition of Handel’s Messiah or sitting quietly in a magnificent cathedral.  For others these occasions leave them cold with no experience of God’s presence.  For some it might be a vibrant hand clapping, beat thumping, contemporary Christian band playing to a large crowd of arm waving people. 

But more importantly I believe, our Christian faith gives us strength and comfort in those rather inglorious moments when we struggle and are on the brink of defeat.  In the dark valleys our God says to us, “You are my own dear child”,
I am with you;

I will not give up on you;
I will hold you up when you are sinking;
I will carry you when you are too weak;
I will walk with you through the dark shadows of death into eternal life.

We need that kind of assurance because we are tempted to limit God’s presence in our lives to those times when we can feel his presence.  It is during these highs that we really feel that God is near and sense that God has had a powerful impact on our lives.  We are excited about this.

It’s fine that we have these stirring feelings related to our Christian faith, after all a relationship with someone is an emotional experience. But these emotional experiences are more the exception.  God’s presence in our lives is not limited to the times we are consciously aware that God is with us.  He is with us whether we are aware of him or not.

In the 1970s the people of El Salvador were down in the dark valleys of suffering.  Thousands of people were unjustly imprisoned, beaten, tortured and murdered.  Many simply disappeared never to be heard from again.  Priests and nuns were tortured and murdered.  The people of El Salvador were in a dark valley and must have wondered why God seemed so far away. 

Bishop Oscar Romero said,
God is not failing us when we don’t feel his presence.  God exists, and he exists even more, the farther you feel from him.  When you feel the anguished desire for God to come near because you don’t feel him present, then God is very close to your anguish.  God is always our Father and never forsakes us, and we are closer to him than we think (‘The Violence of Love’ – A collection of quotes mostly from sermons by Romero). Oscar Romero was assassinated in 1980 for speaking out against the injustice in his country.

When Jesus endured the agony of whip lashes and taunts of the people and then suffering on the cross, he was encouraged by the voice that he heard from heaven on two occasions, at his baptism and then on the Mount of Transfiguration.  On both occasions the voice of his heavenly Father assured him, “You and my own dear Son”.  These words gave him the strength and courage to keep on going through the darkest of all valleys as he carried the sin of all the world.  To know that in the very ordinary world of suffering and pain that he was experiencing, the Father in heaven had an extraordinary love for him, enabling him to endure all things and to show extraordinary love for all humanity.

The One who calls us his own dear children enables us to walk through the darkest valleys of our ordinary worlds. In the water of baptism he calls us “my dearest child” and he promises to walk with us through thick and thin, even when we fail to be whom we should be as his children.

It’s easy to appreciate Jesus’ presence up on the mountain tops of glory and praise but it’s down in the valleys, that’s where we really need Jesus and we really need to hear our Father say, “You are my own dear child”.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

Second Sunday after Christmas

Text: John 1:10-18

‘God’s Glory’

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There was once a gentleman who would drop into a church office asking questions about God and faith. The people who worked for the congregation didn’t know whether this gentleman was honestly searching for answers to his questions, or whether he was just looking to have a religious argument with someone. Whatever his reason might have been, his questions were good and challenged the people in the office to search for a deeper understanding of God and the way he is at work in the world.

One question this gentleman asked was one that has perplexed humanity for thousands of years: if God is all-good, all-loving and all-powerful, then why are children and other innocents dying everyday all around the world from war, hunger, abuse, preventable diseases, and other evils? The thinking behind his question was that if God is actually all-good, all-loving and all-powerful, then he would somehow eradicate evil so that everyone, especially the innocent victims of human hatred and greed, could live safe, happy, lives that are free of suffering.

We can understand this gentleman’s struggle with the paradox of God’s love and power because we can see it playing out in a wide range of different circumstances, from personal struggles to global issues of justice and peace. The problem with simply getting rid of evil is that, if God were to do that, God would also need to get rid of human will which is often the cause of the evils in the world. We would end up with a God who controls people instead of a God who gifts people with freedom. People who have no will are people who are unable to love, and if God’s desire is that we live in loving relationships with him and with others, as we hear Jesus teach in passages such as Matthew 22:34-40, then taking away our will also means taking away our capacity to love. In fact, because we are all sinful in our natural condition, and the wages of that sin is death—God would have to get rid of everyone.

Rather than do that, God deals with the problem of evil in a different way. Instead of magically getting rid of suffering in the world, God shows us his glory by doing something that we don’t expect and that no-one else could do.

We would expect God to display might and power and obliterate evil. Instead, God comes hidden in the vulnerability of the manger and the cross. He empties himself of all His heavenly glory and experiences all our vulnerabilities (at his birth, in his ministry and in his suffering, torture, shame and even death).

This is God hidden from the proud and self-reliant who makes himself known through humility to those who trust in him.

That God should do the unthinkable coming to as a child in a manger, go to the Cross and die for the sin of the world is the only way we know that God does care. It’s the only way we know that he rolls his sleeves up and gets his hands dirty. That he should be become one of us and for us. This is not a ‘pie in the sky’ God of our own imagining. This is God that surpasses all human understanding.

So, God enters into the suffering of the world as an infant. In Jesus, God joins us in our suffering, meet us in our pain and confusion, and then gives us the hope of something better.

This might sound a bit too depressing or philosophical for a message during the Christmas season. We expect and look for Christmas to be light and happy most of the time. If we just want to have a good time at this time of year, then we miss the real significance and power of the Christmas story. Jesus wasn’t born in a sanitized, air-conditioned birthing suite at a hospital. He came into a broken world still tearing itself apart, a world captive to sin and blinded by it, a world paralysed by selfishness so much that some people stop at nothing to get their own way—even the murder of innocent people. Jesus came into a world such as this. He was born in a dirty, smelly, unhygienic cattle shed. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were shameful in their culture as his mother became pregnant before she was married to her fiancé. At the time, the people among whom Jesus was born were living under the oppression of the Roman Empire which maintained control through brutal and oppressive violence. We can sanitize the Christmas story so much that we forget that God entered the world in a humble way, immersed in shame, and into the suffering of an occupied and oppressed people. The Christmas story is really a story of shame, dirt, and conflict.

We see God’s glory in the story of Jesus’ birth because when we are suffering from shame, dirt or conflict, God is with us through the birth of Jesus to give us hope and peace, love and even a deep sense of lasting joy. Jesus shows us the glory of God who isn’t removed or distant from the realities of our lives. He is right here with us, walking with us every step of the way, because he has been there before us in the person of Jesus. God doesn’t just leave us there either. In Jesus, God promises us a life that is free from shame, in which we are made clean through his forgiveness and healing, and is free from the oppression of sin, death and all the evils of this world.

When that gentleman went into the office and asked where God was when the innocents are suffering and dying, the Christians in that church could tell him that God was right there with them in the person of Jesus. This is not an empty platitude to try to win a philosophical argument, but the glory of God at work in the world. In Jesus, God shows us his power by joining with everyone who suffers, including us. God surrenders his power to meet us in the middle of the circumstances of our lives, and then gives us the hope of a better life in this world and in the next. We see the love of God in Jesus as he sacrifices everything – his heavenly glory as well as his own life on the cross – to suffer at the hands of evil in order to free us from the power of evil. We encounter the glory of God in Jesus who meets us where we are, journeys with us to carry our shame, dirt and conflict for us, who sets us free from their control, and gives us life that never ends.

Where is God when the world, or when we, are hurting? Through the birth of Jesus, God is right there with us.

First Sunday after Christmas

The Text: Galatians 4:4-7

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Time is one of the world’s deepest mysteries. The ability to measure it makes our way of life possible; the ability to use it properly makes our life fulfilling or frustrating. God has given each of us the same amount of time, and holds us accountable for our use of it.

Our use of time reveals our attitude to eternity. Musicians mark time, historians record time, prisoners serve time, loafers kill time. In the Bible, time isn’t money; time is given so we can love God and our neighbour. God has His own timetable for important events. Our Creator walks with us at our pace.

A long time passed from when God promised Abraham that Jesus would be sent to our world, to the time of His birth. God educated the Jews during a period of 40 years wandering in the desert. Approximately another 1400 years of additional education and preparation passed before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

God works slowly, because God is love. Love has its own pace, and cannot be hurried. Love focuses on time as a quality, rather than on time as quantity. More important than how long we live, is how well we live. What we love to do, we find time to do. Time has been given to us to prepare for eternity. As we use it, so shall we be. Our constant danger in life lies in letting things we think are urgent, crowd out the things that are really important as far as God is concerned.

We show our love for God by the time we set aside to be in His presence. There is no greater gift we can give someone than the gift of our time. We are to ‘redeem the time’, because we ourselves are redeemed. The greatest story of all time is the story of God’s love in Christ, a love that reaches its climax at Christmas. Nothing matches this story for beauty, for love and for care. When our ancestors wandered away from God, God didn’t give up on them or stop caring about them. Humans may have failed God repeatedly, but God didn’t fail them.

Jesus came at the best time possible for the reception and rapid spread of His mission and message. All the Mediterranean Sea was united under Rome with free access over the whole area, via a superb road and communications network. There was one common language – Greek – an admirable medium for the Gospel’s transmission. People keenly felt the bankruptcy of paganism and the failure of pagan religions to offer real help and hope to ordinary folk. A network of Jewish synagogues existed throughout the Roman Empire that were attracting a growing interest by people disillusioned with the lack of high moral standards. Jewish expectations of a deliverer, of a liberator from Roman occupation and oppression, were at their highest pitch. Above all, there were the faithful folk like Simeon and Anna who were praying daily for a Saviour to appear.

After nine months of waiting by His mother Mary, the same amount of time most mothers have to wait, Jesus was born of a woman, as we all have been. Jesus’ birth marked the all-important turning-point in the story of God and human beings. His coming is the heart and centre of human history. It gives meaning to all that happened before, and to the lives of human beings ever since. Christ’s appearance on the scene of human history made the world seem young and fresh again, as He gave a new start in life to all who followed Him. By filling time with love and hope, Jesus Christ gave time new meaning and purpose. The Church Year, which is different from the secular calendar, seeks to give expression to the difference Jesus makes to our lives by each year celebrating the events from before His birth to His ascension. We march to a different drum, we live by a different timetable, from that of the world.

Christmas and Easter are important to Christians for different reasons than for those who don’t know Jesus personally. “Now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! (2 Corinthians 6:2b).” Christians don’t need to engage in nostalgia for the “good old days”, because they believe the best is yet to come. We believe with St. Paul: “For me to live is Christ, and if I die, I will gain even more.” Christ’s birth of Mary was a guarantee of His humanity, which He’s proud to share with us. The essence of Christmas is our Saviour’s complete identification with us. 

“Born under the law” means Jesus submitted to the laws of His people. From the time of His circumcision onwards, He observed the religious practices of His day. Every Sabbath He went to a synagogue, and He diligently kept the religious festivals of His nation. He especially kept the First Commandment perfectly for us, so that He could offer us His perfect obedience in the place of our disobedience. Jesus kept the law for us, to redeem us from the curse of the law.

Jesus shared with us the laws and limitations of human growth. Within these limitations, He lived a full human existence with dignity and distinction. Our Lord became what we are, in order to make us what He is. He involved Himself in life’s great celebrations, like the wedding of Cana, as well as its tragedies. As a baby, Jesus was born to a young woman whose heart agonised at the oppression of her people. As a child, our Lord walked streets occupied by foreign troops. As a teenager, He had parents who didn’t understand His life’s calling and mission. As a carpenter, He understood the difficulty of getting paid for work done, and of sharing in the financial burdens of his family. No doubt the tax-man would have come regularly, seeking exorbitant taxes for a foreign colonial power. As leader of a new community of twelve men, Jesus was pained by their slowness to understand His mission and His message. He felt the rising tide of hostility towards Himself and His work.

But no price was too high to pay to redeem us from the curse of the law. “Redemption” is a wonderful word. It means “to buy back”, “to re-possess”. It means “emancipation”. Christmas marked the beginning of buying us back from our state of alienation and estrangement from God. “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18).”  We were ransomed and redeemed so that we might be adopted into God’s family with full rights as His children. “You are not your own. For you were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19).”

Christ has claimed us as His own. We belong to Him. He challenges us to live as His people in today’s world. Our bodies, our time and our possessions aren’t our own to use as we please. We use these good gifts from God in a way that pleases our Lord. Psalm 90 prays: “Teach us to make the most of our time, so that we may grow in wisdom.”

The good news of Christmas is that you can live as if today is the first day of your life, as you prepare for that day when time will give way to eternity. Today we thank God for eternity’s great gift of time, and His gift of our Saviour to us in the fullness of time, at the right time.

Amen. 

Christmas Day

The Text: Luke 2:11-20

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If you were asked what the most important thing to happen in history was, how would you reply? The sixth person interviewedby a newspaper reporter was a 14-year-old schoolboy who said, “The birth of Jesus Christ.” He believed the birth of Jesus was the greatest event in our world since its creation. For us, Christmas is a holy day as well as a holiday. Christmas is an event too divine, too glorious and too precious to reduce our wishes to others as “Season’s Greetings”. Without our Saviour’s birth, there would be nothing of real and lasting meaning for us. Christmas regenerates our lives each year; its celebration seems perennially new as it inspires new songs, new music, new artwork, and new presentations of the Christmas story.

The surprising way in which God comes to us shatters our preconceptions of how God ought to act. Christmas is the scandal of our Almighty God coming into our world as a helpless baby, lying in an animals’ feeding box. No elaborate preparations were made for this, the greatest birth ever. God’s true greatness is seen in His humility on Christmas night in Bethlehem. By His breath-taking humility, God raises us up to new heights of glorious joy and wonder. He came down to earth to first seek and save the lost; to experience an ordinary human life with us; and to model that human life for us so it might be our lifelong passion and endeavour to be like Jesus.

To save us from our sinful human nature and be reunited with Him, God came to us as a baby crying in His mother’s arms, as she fed Him and rocked Him to sleep. God didn’t want to scare anyone at Christmas with His great power, but reminds us that his power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). He didn’t force his way into our world. Instead, He came to share our vulnerability and need. He came in love and in the powerlessness of a newborn baby.

The angel gives the shepherds a sign “You will find a Child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (v 12). Now there’s nothing especially religious or miraculous about this sign, and its lowliness didn’t deter the shepherds from going to the stable to see their Saviour lying there. When the angel says “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour” (v. 11), the words “to you” mean us too. We are also beneficiaries of this amazing event. Jesus belongs to you and me as much as He does to Mary.

In the hour of His birth, this good news of great joy is announced by an angel. The contrast between the humble setting of His birth and the splendour of the angel’s announcement couldn’t be more dramatic. And then a host of angels engage in praise and adoration of the wonderful thing God has done, giving God the glory for His wondrous deeds. Their Christmas song is still heard by us two thousand years on in our Sunday services. Their Christmas anthem is the climax to the Christmas story.

“Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those who enjoy His favour” (v. 14)

Jesus has brought the glory of God down among us so that we might never stop praising our marvellous God. The birth of Jesus brings heaven down to earth for us. The vision of God’s glory is no longer restricted to the angels in heaven. It’s now revealed to us in the human face of Christ. The Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

In our Christmas carols, we’re telling the world that heaven has come down to earth through the birth and life of Jesus. The angel’s Christmas carol permeates our whole worship. We join the angels in praising God for the marvellous way His Son comes to us. The more we enjoy all the wonderful gifts God has given us, the more we can’t help but give Him the glory. To do so is to acknowledge His primary importance in our lives and to praise His everlasting goodness, grace and mercy. King David’s prayer, “Let your glory be over all the earth” is now being fulfilled (Psalm 57:5). Praise of God is joy expressed in words, music and song. We praise the most what we love and treasure the most. When we sing with the angels “Glory to God in the highest”, we’re expressing enjoyment of our Creator. We’re living again as God created us to live; we do what God created us to do.

With the psalmist we say, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you (Psalm 9:1-2).” We have received immeasurable blessings in our lives from celebrating Christmas year after year.

A common prayer request at this time of year is for harmony, peace and calmness of spirit to reign supreme when family members get together at Christmas. The Christ of Christmas says, “Blessed are the peacemakers”, because what peacemakers do is so urgently needed and so full of blessings for everyone involved (Matt 5:9).

“People who work for peace in a peaceful way plant a good crop of right-living (James 3:18).” What a wonderful incentive that is to make the “peace on earth” of Christmas an essential part of our relationships with each other. Peacemaking is meant to be a tonic rather than a tranquiliser as it aims to make others keen to be peacemakers too.

When we give Jesus the broken pieces of our lives, He gives us His unbroken peace, peace such as this world cannot give, peace which blesses us with His gift of patience and makes us so much easier to live with. The peace of Christ becomes the still-point in our madly turning world, a blessing no change of circumstances can destroy. His peace is a creative gift that brings a soothing sense of serenity and calmness to those who eagerly embrace and treasure it. Nothing can bring you peace of heart and mind quicker than to pray about the things that make you angry and upset. Let us all pray that God will make us His instruments of peace this Christmas season.

After hearing the angels’ message, going to the manger in Bethlehem becomes more important for the shepherds than anything else.

What would you have done if you’d been one of them?

What is it in your life that matters more than anything else?

What if some of the shepherds had said they had to work, or that the stable was too far, or that they didn’t have time?

What if, years later, a shepherd who didn’t go, reported to his grandson: “Years ago when I was young, and I was watching sheep at night near Bethlehem, a bright light appeared in the sky and a voice said; ‘I bring you good news of great joy. To you is born a Saviour, Christ the Lord.” The old man’s story would finish. His grandson would look puzzled and ask what happened. The old shepherd would have to reply, “I never found out. I never went to see. Some shepherds said they saw the Christ-child. For me, I could never be quite sure. I couldn’t be bothered going.”

We too are called as the shepherds were called, to go and pay homage to the Saviour of us all. The shepherds went without hesitation and experienced the greatest night of their lives. They had believed without first seeing, and their faith was vindicated. This filled them with endless courage to share the good news of our Saviour’s birth with those around them. They took the light of Christmas into the darkness of their lives, never to be the same again.

God came Himself to save our fallen world. He came through His Son. The Word became flesh because only in flesh could Christ demonstrate ultimate and uttermost love to us human beings. The story of Christmas continues every Sunday in our worship, where we continue to sing the angel’s song: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to those who enjoy His favour.”

The glorious joy of Christmas is yours to enjoy as long as you live.

Good Christians all, rejoice

with heart and soul and voice;

give good heed to what we say

Jesus Christ is born today!

Amen.

Fourth Sunday in Advent

The Grace and Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
  Let’s  join in a word of  prayer:
Loving God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; this day around the world, our fellow Christians are gathering together to worship You, and to remember the human life, death and resurrection of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who is our true redeemer.   We thank you that we can be together to praise you, and  to consider the sure and certain hope of eternal life with You.  By your Holy Spirit, open our minds to understand, our spirits to receive, and our hearts to rejoice over your plan for Christ to return again at the end of this age.  In the name of Christ Jesus we pray.   Amen.

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Christmas is soon upon us.  As we make our final preparations, this week, it’s good to take a few minutes away from all the fuss and just relax in the presence of the Saviour whom we celebrate.  After all, soon, we will once again gather to celebrate the birth of the most important person ever – Jesus Christ, the son of Mary, and the Son of God – both human and divine indivisibly intertwined. 

A Saviour whom followers have been celebrating for more than 2000 years.  And whom our Triune God has been preparing the world to receive almost from it’s creation.  A Saviour who brought both blessing and controversy to the people whom God loves so much.

Nearly 1000 years before the birth of Jesus, God was speaking to David about the Savour through the Prophet Samuel.   “ ‘And now the Lord declares that he will build a house for you—a dynasty of kings! Your dynasty and your kingdom will continue for all time before me, and your throne will be secure forever.’ ”

The birth of Jesus Christ into humanity, into the line of David, was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David.  And yet, this fulfilment needed to wait for the perfect time when a gentle teenager, Mary, was chosen to be the human mother of Jesus.  A girl faithful to God in all things.  The first believer in the Saviour who brings us into a right relationship with God by our faith.

What do we hear when we listen to the words used to describe the incarnation of Jesus to Mary.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”   Isn’t this reminiscent of words used much earlier in Scripture?    ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was empty. And the Spirit of God was hovering over its surface.’ 

The same creating presence of the Triune God.  Father God who sets His plan for creation into motion, the Son and Saviour who is present and active in both creation and redemption, and the Holy Spirit who fills all creation with the presence of God.

And we have young Mary, caught in the embrace of history and destiny.  But Mary, who is given both opportunity and choice.  The Angel Gabriel explains the future for this young believer in a God of miracles.  And Mary makes her choice.  “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true.”   I can just feel the relief of Gabriel, if angels can have feelings at all.  The plan had not been rejected.

But this choice must have represented some serious after-thought on Mary’s part.  I am convinced that Mary would have suffered rejection and criticism from the family of Joseph.  Even Joseph himself revealed his concern over the chastity of his fiancée.  He considered breaking the engagement quietly and sending Mary away to have her baby.  Now I can almost feel the anxiety of Gabriel.  

It reminds me of the beginning of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The Angels are in conference about the fate of George Bailey, in answer to the many prayers for him.  But St Peter calms the angels and sends just the right one to meet the challenge facing George.  

I can imagine the angels in serious discussion with God about Joseph’s quandary.  And then God sends Gabriel to calm the fears of this devout carpenter.

Gabriel spoke to Joseph in a dream, when he was quiet enough to listen.  Gabriel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to go ahead with your marriage to Mary. For the child within her has been conceived by the Holy Spirit.   And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 

When angels make their presence felt in the human experience, two things are certain.  It will involve a miracle, under the direction of God, and it will involve belief on our behalf to accept the miracle. 

Like Mary, Joseph was a person of great faith.  Faith in a miracle working God.  And when Gabriel appeared to Joseph in his dream, Joseph believed. ‘When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord commanded. He brought Mary home to be his wife,  but she remained a virgin until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.’ 

Now I can imagine the utter joy of Gabriel.  God’s blessings of both Mary and Joseph will become the reality of every Christian, drawn to faith by the message of angels, the servanthood of two simple folks, and enshrined in the sacrifice of the Saviour of the world.

The human birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ had one purpose.  The focus of God from the beginning of creation and the fall of Adam has been upon that purpose.  And we are the realisation of that purpose.  Chosen to follow Jesus just as surely as Mary and Joseph were chosen to parent the Saviour.   Given the opportunity to believe, just as surely as Mary and Joseph were given the opportunity to receive the blessings and the challenges of raising Christ Jesus.  Guided along the path we accept by the Holy Spirit, just as surely as Mary and Joseph were guided in their lives.

But we have the same challenge that Mary and Joseph had.  When we face the reality of Jesus Christ, inviting us to accept the challenge of Christian living.  We must face our fears and doubts and come to terms with who we are, and what we are about.  Even when we don’t see the angels that surround us, we can face the confusion and anxiety of this world, knowing that in our every day lives, we are being addressed personally by God.  è

Through the Word and Sacraments.  Through the presence of his Holy Spirit.  Through his plan for our lives.  Through the protection of the guardian angels sent by God our Father.

 Our gracious God created the world to be a place of harmony and peace.  But when the people God created determined to be their own god, our Creator’s perfect plan was corrupted.  And so, God determined to restore our relationship with him by entering humanity and bring salvation.  God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ was born into humanity as the sacrifice for our human brokenness.  In our own brokenness, we can only come to terms with the brokenness of others by living the forgiveness and compassion of our Saviour.

And when Christ Jesus returns to establish an eternal kingdom of perfection, all will be completed, and we will once again find ourselves in a garden of eden.  Walking in the cool of the evening with our ever- present God the Father, with our eternal Saviour, both human and divine, and surrounded by God the Holy Spirit.

As we personalise this morning’s message of Paul to the church at Rome, we might paraphrase it as, ‘God is able to make us strong, just as the Good News says. It is the message about Jesus Christ and his plan for each one of us, a plan kept secret from the beginning of time, but now revealed in Jesus Christ.  

And now as the prophets foretold and as the eternal God has commanded, this message is made known to each one of us everywhere, so that we might believe and follow Christ.  To God, who alone is wise, be the glory forever through Jesus Christ. Amen.’

God spoke through Gabriel and through Paul.  God also spoke through Nathan to David who desperately desired to build a glorious temple to house the glory of God.  ‘This is what the LORD says: Are you the one to build me a temple to live in? I have never lived in a temple, from the day I brought the Israelites out of Egypt until now.’  And God continued in his dialogue through Nathan, ‘And now the LORD declares that he will build a house for you—a dynasty of kings!  Your dynasty and your kingdom will continue for all time before me, and your throne will be secure forever.’ ”

Solomon did build that magnificent Temple,  Even so, it was the presence of the glory and majesty of God in the tent of human life, that God’s Son would assume to bring salvation to all who would believe.

As Paul spoke once, of our life in this world, ‘For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.’  (2 Co 5:1–5 ESV)

This week, we begin the celebration of the saviour of the world joining the tent of humanity to bring the gift of ‘mortality being swallowed up by immortality’.  All from a stable in Bethlehem on a bright star-lit night.

As we embrace the human life, and the eternal divinity of Christ Jesus today, may the grace, the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love of  God keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, ‘the lamb who takes away the sin of the world’.  Amen

Rev. David Thompson.

Third Sunday in Advent

Isaih 61:1-4 8-11 Thessalonians 5:16-24 St John 1:6-8,19-28

There are at least two things which are of importance for understanding the background of the reading from the holy gospel of St John Chp.1, this morning; concerning John the Baptist.

First, there is the obvious historical question regarding John the Baptist. gordon5According to the gospels John’s mother Elizabeth was a cousin of Jesus mother Mary. Both had births signalled by an angelic emissary. In John’s case his mother’s conception of him is the occasion of his father being struck dumb. Zechariah, his father was released from his disability only after the birth of his son and his revelation that his son’s name would be John.

Second, John became an itinerant preacher like Jesus, a prophet, proclaiming the immanent coming of the expected Day of the Lord. God’s final judgment of Israel and the world. He therefore preached repentance to the people in the light of this coming great event. He gathered around him, like Jesus, a band of followers. We hear in this same first chapter of John (v35) that while he was standing with his disciples, he saw Jesus, and he said to them, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’.

Thirdly, related directly to the words of the lectionary reading for today, (Vs 6-8 and 19-28) there would appear to be, what some have seen as a self-conscious attempt by John the Evangelist, to emphasise an obvious great difference between the persons of Jesus and John. That John the Baptist was and is not the promised Messiah of Israel. This repeated emphasis is seen as evidence in the early church community, with whom John the Evangelist was familiar, that there were those who had a higher view of John’s person than that he was simply a forerunner, a witness of One who was to come. Here we see something not uncommon in early the churches, which St Paul addresses in his letters also; party spirit, one group or another holding quite differing views on important theological and ethical issues. On more than three occasions in this chapter the issue of John the Baptists identity and authority is raised. From three different perspectives it is emphatically made clear that John the Baptist is not the One who is to come and inaugurate God’s kingdom and reveal God’s judgment. Firstly, John himself says of Jesus, “This is He of whom I said’, He who comes after me ranks before me, for He was before me’.” (v15) Then there are two quite different discussions between John the Baptist and the Priests and Levites from the Jerusalem temple, and also a separate discussion with the Pharisees about his status. In both of these discussions the Baptist makes it clear that He is simply one pointing away from himself to Another who is to come, and on whose behalf, he has come simply as a witness, to bear testimony, as a “voice crying in the wilderness”. (v23)

So, what is John the Baptist’s testimony, or witness? Remember the word testimony or witness in the NT is μαρτυρέω from which we have the word martyr. This was to prove true for the Baptist; being beheaded at the whim of King Herod and Salome the daughter of Herod’s wife Herodias. The substance of the Baptist’s testimony or witness was according to the text in (v7) is, “He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light that all may believe through him, He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light”.

The issue now is made clear: since the Baptist by his own confession is clearly not the light nor the one who is to come what is the purpose of his being there? It is to “bear witness to the light”. The Baptist is to testify to the Light. St John, the Evangelist, makes it clear what, or Who, is “the Light”. For this light is not the impersonal physical reality, composed of particles or waves called photons. This reality we know about, it is the basis of our understanding the world, including our sight, it is created light. Created light is one of the basic building blocks of all matter and its speed determines both the weight and mass of everything that exists in the material world, at least, according to Einstein.

But John the Baptist’s witness is not to this light but the Light of the world, the light which gives reality to the world and everything in it. The Uncreated Light of God’s very own being. The light of Him who was in the beginning with God and without whom nothing was made that was made. For as far as the Gospel writer is concerned this One who is Light was with God from and to all eternity and is of one essence with God. Thus, the Light to which the Baptist testifies is not a thing like a photon or wave of energy but a person. As Jesus later says of Himself, “I am the light of the world”. (Chp 8:12) As such John the Baptist testifies to the One who is the Light which lights up the reality of the world before God. Being Himself the uncreated light of God, He reveals the darkness that has come into the world of God’s creation that attempts to negate humanity’s being as created by God. But in Him human life has been irradiated by the uncreated light of God. As St John says, being the Uncreated Light of God Jesus is “the true light that enlightens every human person”. (v9) He overcomes the darkness that inhabits our lives as the One who in the beginning brought our life into existence from the dust of the earth and breathed into humans such that they became living beings. St Johns witness is that this One who in the beginning created all that was made now inhabits our creaturely being in such a manner that he turns our degraded being, having been grasped by the darkness, and wrestles it back to its true relationship to the light of its life in God. He does this not for His own sake, He never ceases to be the uncreated light of God, but this His act of self-humiliation is for our sake. It is we who are enlightened anew by His light so that we may come to believe and know the truth about ourselves before God through and in Him. John the Baptist’s testimony has as its purpose that ‘all may believe through Him”. (v 7)

It is for this reason that when we read St John’s account of the holy incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, we appear to enter a different world to that of the homely figures of Jesus and Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Angels, of Stars and Wise men. Most people today, regard such images of Christmas as harmless tales of special relevance only for children, but of no real meaning for adult society except perhaps to the GDP figures related to retail spending.

This state of affairs prompts the question why Christians believe in and practise Christian faith in today’s environment of nearly universal unbelief. The answer is simple: because they believe Christianity is actually true and that this is the only reasonable basis for any serious commitment to the Christian faith. Now it is St. John’s account of the incarnation, the birth of Jesus that raises this question starkly for us. John places the incarnation in the context of what is understood to be the reality of the human condition. That is life as lived in this world here and now.

St John speaks to us from the situation in which he sees our human condition as enlightened by the advent, the coming, of the Son of God into the world. It is a world which is alienated from the source of its life, living in darkness, subject to the thraldom of death. He speaks of a battle between light and darkness and of darkness not overcoming the light. If we feel this version of reality into which the Son of God comes, according to St John, is irrelevant to us and our more mature tastes; that we are people of good intentions and do not feel alienated from one another and are not alienated from God; that we live in a world that will progress in time to an earthly utopia. Do we feel like this? Do we believe that? Does it describe who we are? If it does then we must say that God’s strange journey into the world in such an unheard of manner, as depicted here by St John, was and is for no purpose; it is in fact irrelevant to us.

But what if what St John says is true? Then irrespective of what we may feel about ourselves we must consider the fact that we are the ones for whom the eternal Son of God, the One who is with the Father from all eternity, God’s word, the Revealer of God’s uncreated Light, undertook God’s strange journey into the darkness of our world for our sake. His light reveals the truth about our untruth. For He undertook his strange journey into a world that is alienated from God and living in our darkness to be for us God’s eternal light and Truth. Thus, we must think that such an act of extravagance by Him who is the Light of God was and is, from God’s point of view, necessary. And if this is so we must accept as true for us St John’s statement in verse 16 of the first chapter from which we read. Verse 16 says, “And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace”.

These words tell us the outcome of that history of creation and reconciliation which St John narrates from verses 1-15 and of which the Word of God is the Subject. The Word who was in the beginning and through whom all things came to be that was created, who became flesh and revealed the Father’s light and glory, it is of this Word that St. John says “we have all received grace upon grace”.

The meaning of these words is not that grace is divided up into different sorts of grace, but that at every point we are to understand that humans’ relationship to God in both their creation and their reconciliation with God and each other is established and continued by the grace of the Word. That both the gift and the receiving of the gift, the act of creation and our being created; the act of God’s self-revelation and our reconciliation; the believing in and the receiving of the gift in faith is the work of the Word. So it is that of His fullness we have received grace upon grace.

Of this fullness Martin Luther says, “As the sun is not darkened by the fact that the whole world enjoys its light, as a thousand lights can be lit from one light and this would not affect the first light, so Christ our Lord is an endless spring and fountain of all grace, truth and righteousness, having neither measure, end or source, so that even though the whole world draw enough grace and truth from Him for all to become angels, yet he would not lose a single drop”.

In St. John’s terms “from His fullness” means that Christ is not only the giver of our life before God and each other as created by and reconciled in Him with the Father and the Spirit: He is the gift as well. It is Christ Himself the giver and the gift we now celebrate in this holy sacrament. We then know the true miracle of Christmas.

Dr Gordon Watson.

Second Sunday in Advent

The text: Mark 1:1-8garth

   When we think of “snap, crackle and pop”, Rice Bubbles or Coco Pops would normally come to mind, but not munching on a bowl of locusts! I’ve always wondered why this would have been the staple diet for John the Baptist. But it seems locusts are not unusual to the palate of the Israelis and people there still eat locusts today. The wings and legs are torn off, bodies dried, roasted, or ground up and baked, seasoned with salt. Mixed with honey, locusts would provide a meal rich in protein, minerals and sugar and would have given John the Baptist valuable sustenance during his preaching in the desert.

Then there is John’s wardrobe. I guess his fashion stylist was going for the ‘wild’ look. Wearing a garment made of camel’s hair with a leather belt while standing in the desert under a hot sun isn’t something we might picture as particularly comfortable or desirable. But this was the customary clothing of a prophet, noted in Zechariah 13.

However Mark doesn’t include detail of John’s wardrobe and diet to explain the practical reasons for them, but to highlight the deep symbolical significance they carry. John’s clothing conveyed a message in itself. The people who came to John would identify him as a spokesman from God, and more particularly, the one of whom the Old Testament prophets had spoken. John’s meal, so unusual to us, would have evoked memories of God’s promise to the Israelites to bring them into their own land, a good land with abundant supply from God, a land flowing with milk and honey. Yet the locusts would also bring to remembrance God’s judgment on Israel; his warning that he would send a locust plague to devastate the land, sparking a national fast and mourning, during which the people were called to “rend their hearts, not their garments.”

As the Israelites came to John in the hot, uninhabited wilderness which in itself symbolised the spiritual state of the nation, they would have been reminded of their desert wanderings for forty years because of their grumbling and lack of faith. Yet as John stood there by the Jordan River, the location would have been striking for another reason: the Jordan was the gateway for Israel to enter into their new land that God had promised. So John’s ministry location was significant in itself. It is time to repent―a time for new beginnings. Indeed John had been sent by God as the forerunner to Jesus: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John’s task was to confront the people so that their hearts could be prepared to receive their Saviour. And so he preached a baptism of repentance. ‘Repentance’―that is a hard word for human ears to hear. It’s a thought laughable to the world. Even to God’s own people it’s a word that grates in our ears, wounding our pride. No one likes hearing that word, especially at this time of year. It’s a word that doesn’t fit with the candy canes and Christmas cards we receive, the carols wafting through the speakers in the shopping centres, the tinsel, Christmas lights, and fake snow in the windows. “Society’s changed and the church needs to change with it,” people say.

But as we wait in hope for our Lord’s coming, John’s words in the wilderness are more relevant than ever. They are not words out of sync with our culture and shifting morals. They are God’s words for us today, the church standing in the materialistic wasteland of our Western world. How might John’s sermon be relevant to us today? Did God give us a level of pride so great that it excuses his commandment to love? Did He call us to be judge over our brother and sister and decide who is forgiven, and when? Did he call us to lift ourselves above others and to be indifferent and insensitive to their needs? Did he call us to become workaholics and work hard at winning the approval of others rather than serving Christ? What—or who—do we look to for our security, worth, approval and peace? If the affirmation of others, or the things we do—even our service to the church—or our accomplishments and achievements take the place of Christ, then they are all idols.

The word ‘repent’ means a complete about-face; a U-turn. That’s something that we can’t actually do by our own strength. But the Good News in John’s preaching of repentance is his preaching of a baptism of repentance. Baptism is the means for repentance and baptism is God’s work. The change within comes after the washing. Through John’s preaching in the wilderness, God led the people to John to be baptised, to cleanse and change the hearts of his people, so that by God’s work in baptism they were now empowered to repent and prepare for Christ’s coming.

The Good News of Advent is that God longs to forgive people and give them his peace. How do we know? The purpose of repentance is to receive the forgiveness of sins. The word for forgive literally means to send away, to untie, to release. God knows that is not a work human beings can manage. So he sent the One who John was pointing ahead to. God made the paths straight all the way from heaven to earth when he sent Jesus into the world for you and came to you when he baptised you with his Holy Spirit to make you holy. Through the preaching of God’s Word the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of his people and moves them to turn towards Jesus with our sins, for him to release us from them.

It’s a harsh world out there. A wilderness, where people are lost and confused by so many competing ideologies about life and spirituality, promising so much hope and fulfilment, but delivering so little. A wilderness where people are consumed by the consumer lifestyle trying to shop their way to happiness and create the perfect Christmas paradise. A wilderness where people carry the burden and anxiety of the longing to be loved. A wilderness of pain from the cycle of selfish abuse and neglect at the hands of others who care only about themselves.

Humans devise many ways to attempt to deal with sin. We can justify it: “They deserved it!” We can rationalise it: “It was done in the name of love, and I was just trying to help.” We can reframe it in more acceptable language—“It was a spirited conversation” even though it was really a volatile argument. We can simply attempt to cover it up. Or we can even blame God, and say it’s the personality we were born with.

The Advent message is the message of the hope we have in Christ―not hope as the world understands but an expectation that Christ will come again. We also expect him to be with us now, here, through his word, because that is how he has promised to bring you his grace. Indeed the One whom John pointed to and called the people to prepare for, has arrived and keeps on arriving in every worship service. Here, in the church, is our refuge, for Christ is here. He will not drive us away but will turn us, with our sin, toward himself, to show us his mercy and favour.

This is what makes the church different from any other organisation in the world. Jesus doesn’t deal with your sin the way the world would deal with sin. He doesn’t bury your sin deeper by covering it up, but he lifts you up out of the pit. He doesn’t reframe it but releases you from it. He doesn’t justify it but he justifies you. Some say that right preparation for attending worship would be to leave our sins at the door before we enter church. No. Bring them in, with you. Bring them here. Because here is the Good News of the forgiveness of sins. Jesus bestows on you peace that the world cannot give, because it is the peace given to you from your Heavenly Father. Peace be with you. Amen

First Sunday in Advent

Text: Mark 13:24-37

Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so that we may keep watch for the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Have you noticed what’s coming? For example, have you noticed that Christmas is coming, and how can you tell?

 You can tell because the shops and streets are full of Christmas decorations, wrappings, lights, gift ideas, etc. You can tell because Christmas music is playing. You can tell because the TV advertisements let you know what you need to buy to make yourself or your loved ones happy.

 Or, have you noticed a number of new films coming soon? Boxing Day is traditionally when many blockbuster films open in cinemas around the country.

Or, have you noticed that the days are getting longer and warmer, and the agapanthus and jacarandas are flowering?

Or, have you noticed the Lord is coming, and how can you tell?

Well, you can tell by the signs.

Just like a television advertisement or movie trailer which changes scenes rapidly, today’s gospel reading, or rather Jesus through St Mark, is using a montage of pictures which advertise the Lord’s coming in a very contemporary way.

Try to imagine what he’s saying, picturing the signs:

The opening scene: Cosmic chaos! You watch the sun go dark; the moon goes black without the sun, the stars fall from their positions, and the heavenly authorities and powers are shaken from their foundations.

Change of scene: You see the Son of man coming on the clouds surrounded by the light of his glory. The angels whizz backwards and forwards to the ends of the earth, gathering all the chosen ones.

Change of scene: You see a fig tree at spring time, sprouting a new, green, tender shoot, advertising the coming summer; then you see a picture of the universe, and you’re disturbed to see everything, including the heavens and the earth disappear over time, yet you also notice the words spoken by God strangely remain unaffected by the ravages of time and don’t fade at all.              

   Change of scene: You see an alarm clock about to go off, but because it hasn’t got any hands to tell what time it will happen, no-one can figure out what time it will go off. You even see the Son of God go up and inspect it, but he too doesn’t know what time it’ll go off.

Change of scene: You watch a man going away on a journey, leaving his servants in charge of all his belongings. You see the doorkeeper of his property stand at watch. Time goes by and you notice the same doorkeeper at different times of the night and day still standing, still watching, still waiting.

Change of scene: everything is going dark, but as you see this, you notice more and more people falling asleep, and fewer staying awake. The scene ends with a word, strong and clear: Watch!

Like a richly colourful and startling advertisement, this montage of pictures creates a sense of anticipation.

In the church we anticipate and eagerly look forward to the coming of the Day of the Lord. This is what the Advent season is all about. Advent isn’t designed just to make us ready for Christmas, but to remind us and make us ready for Christ coming in his glory. And while we may not see the sun going black or see any stars fall, we know the moment of his return is getting nearer all the time.

But, we are not very good at keeping watch!

We aren’t very good at waiting because we want things NOW. We’re not even patient at watching sport. Many people prefer the quick action games like one-day cricket or 20-20 cricket to the slower battle of the tests. We also want our meals NOW, that’s why we have microwaves and fast food. We want to sing Christmas carols now and then by the time Christmas is here we are tired of them. We want to see the films now. We want the new products now so we can be first in our social circle to have the latest thing. We want to get better now rather than letting nature take its course. We want the highly paid positions now rather than working our way up the ladder. We want to get paid for our crops now. We want to receive the blessings of retirement now. We want to be wise now. Even emails and mobile phones demand our immediate attention.

Why are we all so busy and feeling stressed out? Because everything has to be done…NOW! But who said everything has to be that way?

Have you noticed how we’ve become so impatient? Is this healthy for us? We have forgotten how to be patient, to watch and wait.
We need to re-learn the art of silence. We need to re-learn the teaching of rest and relaxation instead of our constant work and busy-ness.

But that’s not all! We’ve also become passive watchers. What once used to make our blood boil or cause us to cry, no longer affects us or moves us to action. Many of us were deeply affected when we first saw the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre buildings or the Bali bombings on our television screens. But what about now? Terrible atrocities seem to be reported on every night in our news bulletins. What is our reaction? Not another terrorist attack that we are tired of hearing about. It also seems as the amount of violence increases on our TV screens, the less we notice it; we become conditioned to it. Violence and terror don’t move us to action the way it used to. The most we do is shake our heads and change the television channel to find something else more appealing.

In other words, we’re becoming people that hide or ignore our emotions. What once used to shock us, we now turn a blind eye to. What once used to terrify us, we now only shrug our shoulders.

Unfortunately this same attitude affects the church. For example, when the Word of God strikes deeply at our hearts, we might just consider it an “itch” and ignore it. When God urges repentance, we self-justify our actions and excuse ourselves from self-examination. When God announces peace, forgiveness, comfort and love, we simply shrug our shoulders as if nothing has happened.

Yet we are called to watch – actively and patiently. The Spirit calls us to action like a concierge standing watch. He calls us to have patience as we wait in constant anticipation.

But just like a scary movie, we might be afraid to watch. Some of us are afraid to look for the signs of the Lord’s coming, because it reminds us of our fragility, our feebleness, our weakness, or our sinfulness. Yet for those in Christ, watching for Jesus isn’t something to fear.

Even though some of the signs Jesus talks about may be scary to some, to Christians they’re something to look forward to. We look forward to them because we’re among the chosen ones!

Since we’re God’s chosen ones, even if the sun were to lose its light and energy, we’ve nothing to fear. Even if the stars were to fall from the sky, we can instead celebrate the coming of the Lord. Even when Jesus comes in glory and many shake with fear, we can clap our hands and cheer our victorious King.

We can do this because we’re among those he’ll gather up into his eternal kingdom. He’s already placed his name on us in baptism, claiming us to be his own. Therefore, confident of his love and faithfulness, we can constantly watch and look forward to his promised return.

This is the story of Advent. When Advent comes, we’re called to watch. We’re to watch ourselves and admit our impatience, our inaction and our laziness. We’re to repent of our busyness that has squeezed Jesus and his word out of our lives. We’re to repent of our sinfulness, but in such a manner that we don’t fear his anger, but instead we are confident of his mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

When Advent comes, we’re called to watch for Jesus. We’re to watch for the signs of his coming and listen to his Words of promise. We’re to look to Jesus who truly comes to us already, hidden in a child born in Bethlehem, hidden in the words of a sermon, hidden in water mixed with his holy name, and hidden with bread and wine that truly becomes his body and blood.

Just like an advertisement announcing the arrival of a film, product or celebration, Advent creates sense of anticipation. We anticipate that Jesus will return, for that’s what he said. Jesus doesn’t lie. His word remains true and valid today as the day he first promised.

Therefore stay awake and watch, actively and patiently! Watch, knowing that salvation is ours and we’re the chosen ones who’ll be gathered up to enter his kingdom. Rejoice that we’ve been selected to enter his kingdom without fear.

As we stand and watch, clinging to God’s word, we’re assured that he’s not far off, but here with us, standing beside us patiently. In this way as we listen attentively, eat and drink eagerly, we’re assured that salvation is ours even now. So the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard our hearts and minds as we wait and watch for our coming Lord Christ Jesus. Amen.