Midnight Communion: Love is the Word

Saturday December 24, 2022
Isaiah 52:7-10
Hebrews 1:1-4
John 1:1-14

This, tonight is the meeting place.

Christmas Prologue from Cloth For The Cradle (Wild Goose Worship)

This, tonight,
is the meeting place
of heaven and earth.

For this, tonight,
is the stable
in which God keeps his appointment
to meet his people.

Not many high are here,
no many holy;
not many innocent children,
not many worldly wise;
not all familiar faces,
not all frequent visitors.

But, if tonights
only strangers met,
that would be enough.

For Bethlehem was not the hub of the universe,
nor was the stable a platform for famous folk.

In an out-of-the-way place
which folk never thought to visit –
there God kept and keeps his promise;
there God sends his son.

This is what we are here to remember and celebrate tonight: God’s keeping of his promise through the sending of his Son.

The Son that has been talked about, anticipated, longed for over centuries arrived as a Baby. We don’t hear this part of the story in the readings tonight. We miss out on Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus in the manger, the animals in the stable, angels, shepherds and the wise men. This is the familiar, the comforting part of the Christmas story. I hope you took a moment to appreciate our large crib at the back of the church. Baby Jesus has yet to make his appearance but he will!

However, this is only part of the story. Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus move on from the stable and so must we. The Baby grows up and this is where the story picks up in John’s Gospel. John expands the story for us as he forces us to lift up our gaze to see the wider picture.

John’s use of the ‘In the beginning’ is referencing the opening lines of Genesis ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…’ This is to highlight that from the beginning of time Jesus was there.

When my nephew Riley was 5 years old, he and my sister had a bedtime conversation that went like this:

Riley: ‘Mom, how old are Great Grandma and Great Grandpa?’

Sister: ‘they are both 90’

Riley: ‘Mom, when will they go to heaven?’

Sister: ‘I am not sure but Jesus will be waiting to greet them when they go.’

Riley: ‘Mom – how old is Jesus?’

Sister: ‘Well he was born 2000 years ago but Jesus doesn’t age and has always been around.’

Riley: (with all the exasperation of a 5 year old) ‘Mom – Jesus is a baby!’

It is quite easy to take this view whether we are 5 years old or not. Jesus was never meant to be contained to the manger. Nor did Jesus just appear one night in Bethlehem as if out of nowhere. Jesus has always been around ; part of God and the Trinity. He is more than a Baby!

John describes Jesus as The Word. That may feel like a big jump for us to make. The Word is God’s way of communicating himself and making himself known to us. The Word became flesh and lived among us.
I wonder if you remember what your first word was this morning?
Or last Tuesday?
If you are married – what were your first words to your now-spouse the first time you met them?

Do you remember the kindest words that you have ever spoken to another person?

What has been the kindest word or words you have ever received?

What about any unkind or untrue words spoken to another person? Or spoken to you?

Our words matter. Yet we tend not to remember the majority of the words we speak.

Words have power. We know that by how they make us feel, think and act. We can watch our words influence other people’s thinking, feelings, and behaviour.

We are responsible for our words – “but you said…” “remember when you said…” holds us to that!

We get very excited at the first words of a toddler as they learn to speak. The first coherent utterance of a life is a big deal. Our first word or words often reflect that which is around us; ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada’.

What about the words of Jesus?

We are told in the reading from Isaiah about the words the promised one would bring: He announces peace, good news, salvation and comfort. He sustains all things by his powerful words. The most powerful of Jesus’ words is love.

If you go away from here tonight with one word let it be love.

My friend Eddie this posted on Facebook and it has always stuck:

Though we are incomplete, God loves us completely.
Though we are imperfect, God loves us perfectly.
Though we may feel lost and without compass, God’s love encompasses us completely.
He loves every one of us, even those who are flawed, rejected, awkward, sorrowful, or broken.

Jesus is the Word and the love.
Jesus is also the light.

Light shows the shape of things as they really are.

It is here that John the Baptist appears in verse 6 as the witness to the light, ‘so that all might believe through him.’ John the Baptist points to Jesus.

We live in a dark world, in a dark society. You don’t need to spend much time looking at the telly or the papers to work that one out. I will spare us all by not expanding on that tonight.

The world needs Jesus and his true light. We need Jesus and his true light to enlighten us. We need a light that shines in the darkness – that cannot be overcome by the world or by our own fallibilities and weaknesses. We need the Word to guide and direct out of the darkness and into the Light.

Finally, John’s Gospel makes some huge claims about Jesus and if we establish that Jesus is the Word and the Light there are consequences to follow. Does my life reflect the light and love of Jesus? Do my words reflect the Word?

I want to be able to answer those questions with a resounding yes! But I know I don’t always get it right. But that’s okay. I suspect it is the same for you. As long as we stay in the Word and the Light – we have forgiveness, hope and a chance to do better.

Our words matter. Those spoken in love, in hate, in jest, in seriousness, in passion, in anger, in fear, in sadness. What words would you like to be remembered for? Any word or the Word – that is Jesus?

Tonight of all nights, the word is love. Know that you are loved by God. Beyond our limited vision, despite walking in darkness much of the time, regardless of what we think or believe or think we know. Love is the word.

Advent 4: Joseph

Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’) 1849-50 Sir John Everett Millais

Advent 4 – Year A
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

I can’t believe that it is the Fourth Sunday of Advent! It has gone by way too quickly! I am reassured that there is still another week to go.

The Gospel readings for Fourth Sunday always revolve around Mary as she completes the picture of our Advent journey. It seems that at this time of the year, we Protestants are okay to talk about Mary and even have a statue of her in church without great resistance!

I was looking back over the lectionary to see which stories of Mary are used on this particular Sunday. Year B has set Luke 1 which is the Annunciation; when Mary was visited by Gabriel who brings her the good news that she will bear a son. Year C has also set Luke 1; the Magnificat in which Mary proclaims the greatness of the Lord who has looked with favour on her lowly self.

But every third year, the Gospel reading switches primary focus from Mary to Joseph with Matthew’s account and tells of the birth of Jesus. Matthew seems to focus his attention on Joseph much more than on Mary. You might not have noticed but Joseph never speaks.

We never hear his voice in any of the accounts. Mary speaks and there is great focus and attention on her. In comparison, we know very little about Joseph and there can be a temptation to push him to the side-lines. I want to take the opportunity to look a little closer at Joseph. Without him the whole Christmas story would have faltered.

Recently in the Tuesday afternoon Bible Study, we watched a version of the nativity story over 3 weeks. While it took some liberties with the dialogue as having been written by a writer from EastEnders, it was thoroughly enjoyed. Joseph was portrayed as a responsible but passionate younger man who was deeply in love with Mary. When Mary returns from visiting her cousin Elizabeth with a very obvious baby bump, Joseph is devastated, angry, grief-stricken, embarrassed. As viewers, we were confronted with a range of emotions and conversations between Mary and Joseph that were likely experienced but are not mentioned in the biblical story.

In Matthew’s account, Joseph is told about Mary’s baby and in a breath decides to quietly divorce her and save her from public disgrace. Here we see the loyalty and dignity, faithfulness of Joseph.

It is not until the angel appears to Joseph in a dream to explain the whole situation that he believes Mary’s story when he wakes up.

We would make a mistake to sanitise Joseph’s consent as being an easy decision to come to. We diminish his humanity by overlooking his humiliation and doubt. In a culture and religion that was bound by rules, Joseph would have been in a lot of pain. We so often want to separate ourselves from the pain of other people, we can feel so helpless in the face of it. In Joseph, we see that God’s favour is not always a shiny, happy thing.

Whatever thoughts Joseph had about his family’s future were upended. His ideas of fairness, justice, goodness and purity are shattered. Being chosen by God is not always so attractive.

Joseph’s story is one that can give us hope. Many of us will know what it is to struggle to do what has been asked of us, sometimes the decisions are difficult and the choices are limited. Joseph struggled. He was prepared to do the honourable, arguably easier thing but that was not what was asked.

So he struggled more and came to the decision that was far harder but the right one. He woke up and did what the angel commanded him.

Little wonder that the angel’s opening line was do not be afraid. Joseph was needed as it is through him that Jesus’ connection to the House of David is made. If you read through the opening verses of Matthew chapter one, it is a cabaret of characters who did some interesting things.

Debie Thomas wrote, ‘Interestingly, in the verses that immediately precede our Gospel reading, Matthew gives us a genealogy of Jesus’s ancestors. He mentions Abraham — the patriarch who abandoned his son, Ishmael, and twice endangered his wife’s safety in order to save his own skin. He mentions Jacob, the trickster usurper who humiliated his older brother. He mentions David, who slept with another man’s wife and then ordered that man’s murder to protect his own reputation. He mentions Tamar, who pretended to be a sex worker, and Rahab, who was one. These are just a few representative samples.

Notice anything? Anything like messiness? Complication? Scandal? Sin? How interesting that God, who could have chosen any genealogy for his Son, chose a long line of brokenness, imperfection, dishonour, and scandal. The perfect backdrop, I suppose, for his beautiful works of restoration, healing, hope, and second chances.’

Not only was Jesus born into a messy world, but a messy family.

Joseph helps to remind us that what God asks of us is often messy and unexpected. We should however expect to have our own ideas upended and challenged. Yet do not be afraid. I hope as we come fully into this Christmas season and new year that we are not afraid to love more deeply, pay more attention to what God is doing or asking of us. It might be messy.

Do not be afraid of the mess. It is in the mess that Jesus our Saviour was born.

Advent 3: Gaudete (even if it is hard)

December 11, 2022 

Isaiah 35:1-10

Matthew 11:2-11

Scenes from the life of John the Baptist (1175-1200) British Library

It is my favourite Sunday! Rose day! Gaudete! Gaudete in Latin means ‘rejoice’. The name comes from the opening of the Mass for that day: Gaudete in Domine Semper, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. Gaudete Sunday is also a reminder that Advent is quickly passing; the Lord’s coming is near. The focus is turning more to the second coming than the first and there is a heightened sense of intense joy, gladness and expectation in our readings.

The Gospel readings for Gaudete Sunday always revolve around John the Baptist as the thrust of John’s ministry is the announcement that the Lord’s coming is near and is in fact nearer than you think.

I was looking back over the lectionary to see which stories of John the Baptist are used on this particular Sunday. Year B has set John 1 (the Gospel) where John the Baptist gives his testimony to the priests and Levites sent by the Jews to check him out. Year C has set Luke 3 where John chastises the Pharisees and Sdducees, brands them a ‘brood of vipers’ and calls for them to repent. Year A sets John in prison awaiting his fate.

On the face of it, none of these events provide obvious reasons to rejoice!

As a refresher, John was sent to jail by Herod. John had been attacking Herod over marrying his brother’s ex-wife which was less than appropriate. John had also been announcing that the Kingdom of God, the true kingdom was coming. Herod wasn’t the real king; God would replace him. John was likely not experiencing intense joy or gladness and his expectations of getting out alive may have been low.

The four prison walls closing in must surely have limited his vision. So much so that John sent his disciples to Jesus with the question ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

I offer some thoughts about why John asked that question…

One suggestion is that John was disappointed. Maybe he was expecting Jesus to be a man of fire who would sweep through Israel as Elijah did and right all the wrongs. Maybe Jesus was supposed to confront Herod, topple him from his throne, become king in his palace, get John out of prison and give him a place of honour. Or at least let him live.

But Jesus is not doing this. He is healing the blind and deaf, cleansing the lepers, befriending the sinners, the tax collectors, ordinary men and women and teaching them about the things of God. Maybe not doing what John wanted him to do. So maybe John is thinking ‘was I wrong?!’

The other suggestion for John’s question is that he wants to know if it is safe for him to give up, to hand the mission on. John was the one to herald the coming of God’s Messiah. How could he do that from a prison cell? Maybe he couldn’t relax until he knew whether or not he had done his job.

John’s ministry only lasted about a year. Maybe John thought he would have more time, that his purpose would take longer to be fulfilled. John is waiting to see if what he has done in the past was right; waiting in the present to see if Jesus is the one; and waiting to see if there is another yet to come.

In his waiting and hoping John gets an answer back; and it probably was not what he was expecting! What Jesus sent back could not be more different from the message that John preached. John shouted for repentance in the face of the wrath of God: he spoke of axes cutting down dead trees and unquenchable fires. Jesus speaks of mercy, healing and rejoicing. Jesus lists the great signs of the coming of the Messiah which had all been prophesied in the past.

Jesus answers John by quoting Isaiah 35 which John would have known. It is a message all about John. The wilderness, which was John’s home, will rejoice and bloom, the fearful of heart are to be comforted. John is in prison, awaiting certain death. How can he not be afraid?

I think that John knew that Jesus was the Messiah. After all John was the baby that leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when her cousin Mary and her baby (Jesus) came to visit. John the Baptizer knew Jesus the Messiah the moment he saw him at the Jordan River. John knew in his head who Jesus really was.

But time and circumstance can dull the image of our faith perception and leave us feeling not sure what we believe.

John’s question had more to do with his heart than his head. John had heard about the miracles and healings Jesus was doing for others and perhaps his faith was shaken. He certainly could have used a miracle for himself and he didn’t appear to be getting one. And sitting in that prison cell John might have been having a little trouble knowing it with his heart. Sometimes our faith gets shaken by what we do not get or what God has not done for us personally.

I spoke to an older lady a while ago. She was very honest about where she was at with faith. She told me that after her husband had died after a long period of illness; she came to the conclusion that ‘if there was a God – why did her husband suffer the way he did?’ She couldn’t believe in a God like that. Neither can I.
I don’t have a good answer for that question. There are theological or doctrinal answers that are pastorally unhelpful in these situations. Equally there are pastoral answers that deny the theological problems these situations raise.

Ann Garrido – (Dec 11th): Today the Church is garbed in pink – that colour of hope in the midst of darkness. We are reminded that even though daylight is difficult to come by and waiting is hard, we are not to cave in to despair but to be open to and sustained by those signs already present in the world around us that let us know that God is at work. While we have not seen the kingdom of God yet in its fullness, there are ways in which that future is breaking into our own time even now – bursts of illumination and freedom, connection and healing. Our faith does not hinge on promises still unfulfilled but on promises in the process of being fulfilled this very day.’

Either way, many of us have endured long stretches of suffering, waiting, longing and hoping for God to come through for us. Maybe in those times we have seen or heard of wondrous works He was doing elsewhere. And it hurts! It is painful! The doubts that these types of situations create are probably not coming from our heads but our hearts, our feelings, our hurts.

John was not like ‘a reed swayed by the wind’ – he was a man of conviction. He was a man of little personal vanity and had a huge commitment to God’s kingdom. If he can have a doubt or two then it is safe to have some of our own doubts.

Gaudete in the face of suffering and uncertainty. It won’t last forever. The Lord is near. I will end this sermon with a poem.

Gaudete by Brad Reynolds

Because Christmas is almost here
Because dancing fits so well with music
Because inside baby clothes are miracles.
Because some people love you
Because of chocolate
Because pain does not last forever
Because Santa Claus is coming.
Because of laughter
Because there really are angels
Because your fingers fit your hands
Because forgiveness is yours for the asking
Because of children
Because of parents.
Because the blind see.
And the lame walk.
Because lepers are clean
And the deaf hear.
Because the dead will live again
And there is good news for the poor.
Because of Christmas
Because of Jesus
You rejoice.

Advent 2: Prophets

Advent 2 – Year A

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7; 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Lord Jesus, light of the world,
the prophets said you would bring peace
and save your people in trouble.
Give peace in our hearts at Christmas
and show all the world God’s love.

I love the season of Advent. I grew up in an evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and we were always big on Advent, big wreaths and candles in the church, special prayers and calendars at home all made for a growing sense of anticipation for Christmas. Marking Advent goes some way in keeping my cynicism towards the commercialisation of Christmas low. It is very easy to complain about the stuff in the shops too early or how the Christian message gets lost today.

If we do not prepare ourselves and examine again what it all means, then how can we possibly be the Prophets of today who can share the Good News of this season with others? The second Sunday of Advent, over time, has been set aside to remember and reflect on The Prophets of the Old Testament. This focus gives us the opportunity to reflect on the way Jesus’ birth was foretold in the centuries before it actually happened.

The people of Israel that Isaiah is speaking to have been through the mill. The first 39 chapters of the book speak mainly of punishment and the exile of the people of Jerusalem to Babylon. Chapters 40-66 begin to speak of things turning around with messages of comfort and the end of punishment for Jerusalem.

Within these two main sections there are further identifiable sections. Ch 1-12 (where we are this morning) is characterised by prophecies about Judah and Jerusalem which alternate between judgement and salvation.

The line of David had been devastated during the exile and many people had no hope of restoration. Isaiah is prophesying that a new shoot will spring up. The shoot will be in the form of a Davidic king who will bring a new age of righteousness and justice for Judah. Hope is on the horizon! Isaiah’s prophecy is telling the people of Israel what kind of person to look out for and what kind of changes to see in the world. The King is coming!

The wilderness, biblically speaking, is often a place of transformation and preparation. Jesus is taken for 40 days into the wilderness at the start of his ministry, the Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness before they reached the promised land.

The wilderness is also a place of loneliness, isolation and vulnerability. Christians can often speak of having those times in the wilderness when God feels distant, it can be a time of great doubt and despair. All you can do is wait and watch for God as though your life depends on it. This does not sit comfortably in the season of Christmas parties and carol singing.

John the Baptist bursts onto the scene in the opening verses/chapters of all four Gospels from the wilderness. John brings the message of hope for the coming of Jesus the Messiah. John also wants us to prepare spiritually for this coming. There are two things, according to John, that we need to do.

Firstly, we need to clear a path for the Lord and secondly that path is to be straight. The original Greek word for paths here means ‘a beaten pathway’; a well-worn path, a path that has seen some use, it’s been established, walked on.

In a personal way God wants us to prepare a path to him. If you were to picture what your path to God looks like, what do you see? Is it well worn? Lightly tread? Is our path to God straight? I know that mine sometimes is more of a meandering path. I have taken the long way around! I vividly remember a sermon where a rather charismatic preacher suggested we should ‘go to the throne before we go to the phone.’

Have we made a path for Him to come and do a major and powerful work in our lives? I trust that God wants us to make a beaten pathway to Him. We also need to clear that path of debris; this can be anything that stands in the way of God being able to work in our lives fully.

There are ways that we can make a beaten path. I will suggest two that I came across from a friend’s blog reflection on preparing spiritually for Christmas.

Firstly, meditate on the fact that we need a Saviour. We all need Jesus.

Ali in her blog writes: ‘My friend recently confessed that growing up in a Christian home, she has never really understood the depth of her need for a Saviour.

Another friend, after battling addiction for years, knows and relies daily on her desperate need for a Saviour, the very giver of her sanity, health and life. Most of us probably fall somewhere in between.’

I know that I need to deepen my awareness of God in areas of my life. It is embarrassing how short my memory can be sometimes.

Secondly, engage in sober self-examination. John’s first words when he appeared from the wilderness ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ It is also no coincidence that in Matthew’s Gospel, the first line of Jesus’ first sermon is ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (4:17).

My friend Ali again in her blog, ‘This does not mean checking how many moles are on your back or how many wrinkles have appeared around your eyes (though there is a time and place for this type of self-examination).

Rather, this is a deep internal examination of how we are doing spiritually. The Christian writer John Piper says, ‘Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter’. There should be time for honest self-reflection, where we invite the Holy Spirit in to show us where we need His help and healing the most.’

John’s call to baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is a way of getting our paths clear and straight. I think that many of us would assign this kind of reflection to Lent and not Advent. Yet it is through John we have a gateway to the swaddled baby, fleecy lambs, singing angels and wisemen that we hold so dear at this time of year.

Confession and repentance bring a cleansing and a change of mind and heart can help us turn back to God. It can clear and straighten the path like nothing else can. It is not easy and may not seem to fit in the season of mulled wine and mince pies. They don’t taste as good as a clean heart and mind feel though.

Repentance needs to be taken seriously. It means stopping and turning around. Is there anything you need to stop doing? We can of course ask for forgiveness for the things we do wrong. Yet if we don’t get serious about stopping sin we cheapen forgiveness. It becomes worthless and meaningless. This is what John means in his demand that the Pharisees and Sadducees to ‘bear fruit worthy of repentance.’

It is hard but not impossible. We have the God for whom nothing is impossible. He will help and provide.

In this Advent season my prayer is that you will know the hope of Jesus the Messiah as we celebrate his birth and await his return. I also pray that amidst the turkey and tinsel you find time to deepen your need for the Saviour who loves and cares for you. May you also know his love and forgiveness this season too. As uncomfortable as it might be, some serious self-examination might be in order to. Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement be with you. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.