Advent 3: Waiting in Vain?

Gaudete in Domine Semper! I love this Sunday in Advent. It is getting closer! This also brings some fear as I realize what I still have to do but also reminds me again of the waiting that is required.

Advent 3 – Year A

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Prayer: God for whom we watch and wait, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son: give us courage to speak the truth, to hunger for justice, and to suffer for the cause of right, with Jesus Christ our Lord.

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’. You know that I love it because I can wear pink!

Gaudete Sunday is also a reminder that Advent is quickly passing, and that 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.

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 – 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 where John gives his testimony to the priests and Levites sent by the Jews to check him out. Year C has set Luke 3 which is the same account from last week; John chastising the ‘brood of vipers’ and calling 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. I suspect that John was not experiencing intense joy or gladness and his expectations of getting out alive may have been low.

The four 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?’

There are 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 did not imagine that his purpose would be fulfilled so quickly. John is waiting (perhaps getting a little short on patience) and hoping. 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 wasn’t 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.

I think 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 – he might have been having a little trouble knowing it with his heart. Sometimes our faith gets shaken by what we don’t get or what God didn’t do 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.

Either way, many of us have endured long stretches of suffering, waiting and waiting for God to come through for us. And 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.

James also encourages us to be patient and to strengthen our hearts for the coming of the Lord is near; but this references to nearness means the second coming. This James is thought to have been the younger sibling of Jesus, the first born of Mary and Joseph. James didn’t see who Jesus was until after the resurrection. James, like Mary Magdalen, Peter and Paul, had an encounter with the Risen Jesus that completely changed him. From the few accounts there are of Jesus’ family, James would know a thing or two about grumbling against one another. James also doubted who Jesus was.

James, having missed Jesus the first time, now must wait patiently for the next time he comes, like the rest of us. He offers us the prophets as an example of those who waiting in suffering and patience, like Isaiah and John.

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. James went on to lead the church in Jerusalem and he too was crucified. Neither John nor James were men to buckle under pressure! I think it is safe to have some of our own doubts – if men like that can.

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.’

So from the James reading: You also must be patient, Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

And…Gaudete in Domine Semper.

Advent 2: Bear Fruit


8/12/19

Advent 2 – Year A

Isaiah 11:1-10
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.
Amen.

The second Sunday of Advent, over time, has been set aside to remember and reflect on The Prophets of the Old Testament. The focus on The Prophets gives us the opportunity to reflect on the way the Jesus’ birth was foretold in the centuries before it actually happened.

I love the season of Advent – I grew up in an evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and we were always big on Advent – wreaths at home and at church, calendars (my preference has always been for the chocolate ones)!

I also know that for myself marking Advent goes some way in keeping my cynicism towards the commercialization 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. I would argue that to some extent that Christians have let it go as has the church. 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?

Isaiah speaks of a king who is to come and what to look out for. Paul in Romans reminds the church in Rome to remember ‘whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction’ so that the church would be one voice. John the Baptist was being prepared in the wilderness to be the voice that cries out.

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 characterized by prophecies about Judah and Jerusalem alternating between judgement and salvation.

In both Isaiah and Romans there is mention of the ‘shoot from the stump of Jesse’. This is another way of speaking about a king in the line of David – along with Isaiah 9:2-7. That king is who we believe to be Jesus.

The line of David had been devastated during the exile and many people had no hope of restoration. Isaiah is prophesying that now a new shoot will spring out of it, 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 prophesy 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 doesn’t 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 – taking the long way! I vividly 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. Go to Him over and over again – in the first instance!

We also need to clear that path of debris – this can be anything that standing 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 of 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).

John has a serious go at the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him for baptism. ‘Bear fruit worthy of repentance’ he tells them. Maybe this is why John the Baptist never appears on any Christmas cards or Advent calendars?

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. Advent and Christmas are full of wonderful activities – but they can also distract us from what is more important. Again, why I choose to mark Advent and it is hard work some days.

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 – but 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 a very dangerous mindset to enter into – thinking that we have license to do what we want because we can be forgiven. God will not be mocked. He also knows the desires out of hearts, He searches us out and knows what our true motivations are.

Stopping something is never easy – especially if it has become an ingrained pattern of behaviour or habit. Stopping means changing behaviour, becoming vulnerable and finding new ways of living and being. It is hard but not impossible. We have the God for whom nothing is impossible. He will help and provide.

Paul in the letter to the Romans talks about the scriptures written for our instruction (not entertainment) so that we might have hope. The God of steadfastness and encouragement is with us. Steadfast is a great and often forgotten word – it means immovable, unchangeable, firmly fixed in place. Not much in the world around us feel steadfast in these days. Thank God that we have a God who is steadfast!

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.

Advent 4: The Things We Miss (sometimes): Gabriel & Mary

I am posting my two morning sermons from Christmas Eve & Day. They don’t particularly overlap (except for the introduction) but the style is similar. I decided to read slowly through Luke’s Gospel telling of the First Christmas and let various aspects fall on me in a new way. I then did some exegesis to unpick some of the ‘new’ aspects.

Christ the Worker  9:30
St Mary’s 11:00
Advent 4
24/12/17 (Morning Services)

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm 89
Romans 16:25-end
Luke 1:26-38

One of the many things that I love about this season is how the story of the first Christmas comes alive. We see it in the pictures on Christmas cards; we hear it in the words of Christmas carols; we see the drama played out in Christingle and Crib services.

Even in commercialization and secularization of our society the story of that first Christmas does get told – not always in words but in the symbols and pictures; seen if we pay attention to the world around us.

We know that many people who do not normally darken the door come to church for Christmas services. Why is that? Tradition and ritual? Just the done thing? Maybe – naively on my part – they want to hear the first Christmas story told again in a way that is familiar, comfortable. The church tells the story of that first Christmas through our worship and liturgy.

But sometimes if or when we pick up the Bible to read it – we can lose the sense of awe and wonder. I was aware of this as I sat to read all of Luke’s First Christmas account as I was preparing for this weekend. Sometimes when I read familiar passages I like to get behind the story. Go slowly through it and see what is going on behind it. It helps me to do undo some of the assumptions I may have developed. Helps to regain my awe and wonder of the words.

I want to highlight a few parts of this amazing story this morning.

The angel Gabriel. 4 words in! Gabriel is a fascinating character; he is a Messenger of God. In any depiction, Gabriel looks to be tall with huge white, feathery wings. He often has a trumpet or a lily in his hand. Angels are created beings of God – as we are. They are not made – as it has been popularized – out of dead human beings. There is no biblical evidence for this – however comforting this notion might be.

Gabriel appears in the Old Testament as he was sent to explain the visions that the prophet Daniel was having. Gabriel has been around for a few hundred years at least.

Gabriel is now back on the scene – six months before greeting Mary, God sent Gabriel to Jerusalem to foretell another unexpected birth – this one to an elderly priest named Zechariah whose aged wife would Elizabeth would bear John the Baptist. On that occasion Gabriel was sent to Herod’s temple – one of the wonders of the civilized world. This time Gabriel is going to a backwater town called Nazareth.

Does he fly? He has wings after all! Does he cross the sky like a shooting star? A rocket?

Prior to these visits approximately 400 years had passed since God had sent any message to earth. Then twice in 6 months Gabriel is called into service with life changing news for the most unsuspecting of people.

Now we move on a few verses and turn our attention to Mary. Mary the Virgin, maybe 13 or 14 years old, engaged to be married to that bloke Joseph. He wasn’t a local though as his family came from Bethlehem, the house of David. Bethlehem is about 80 miles from Nazareth – takes about 2 hours to drive between the two places. Would have taken about 5-6 days to walk. How and why did Joseph’s family end up in Nazareth? It wasn’t exactly a desirable place to live. People on the whole didn’t tend to move around very much – you stayed where you were from.

Doing well – 3 verses in now. Gabriel’s opening to Mary of ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you!’ I wonder what Mary was doing at that moment – she was alone. Was she in her bedroom or our carrying water?
It sounds nice doesn’t it – you can read it as a positive message, friendly even. A large, friendly, winged man with a trumpet or a lily in his hand approaching a 13-year-old girl. Nothing weird about that!

But seriously – Mary is perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. There is a lot of meaning here – Mary is deeply agitated – she is taken aback, disturbed, anxious. One explanation that I particularly liked was ‘stirred up throughout’ – by this appearance of Gabriel.

Some of us here know what it is like to be ‘stirred up throughout’. I know a lot of people who have been stirred up throughout this year. That news that comes unexpectedly that moves adrenaline at lighting speed – good or bad that shakes us to the core.

It is not just by Gabriel’s appearance – it is his greeting, his words that have caused her reaction. Mary’s reaction could be that she knew that this greeting was coming with an overwhelming challenge.

Paula Gooder in her Advent book ‘The Meaning is in the Waiting’ writes, ‘Gabriel’s greeting is somewhat reminiscent of the ancient Chinese proverb ‘May you live in interesting times’, which can be seen as either a curse or a blessing. In the same way, Gabriel’s greeting can either be seen as good or bad: to be in receipt of God’s favour, especially beloved and granted his presence, can only mean that Mary’s life is about to be turned upside down. She is surely right and sensible to be disturbed by this greeting.’

I think that being a Christian is sometimes an overwhelming challenge. Forget being a priest – just the act of being a Christian is daunting! Doing what God’s asks of us is often hard, it is inconvenient, it is messy sometimes.

The giant winged Angel-man then declares ‘Do not be afraid!’ Yeah okay! The phrase ‘Do not be afraid’ appears 366 times in the Bible. One for each day of the year and an extra for Leap Years.

Do not be afraid is then followed with the sweet words ‘you have found favour with God.’ How did she do that? A 13-year-old girl from a poor, back water town. What was it about Mary?

We can do all the religiousy, churchy stuff in the world – but this doesn’t mean we have found God’s favour. It isn’t in what we do – it is in who we are. We were created by God out of God’s love for us – despite everything about us that is unlovely. We can still find God’s favour. What we do should be an offering back to God – out of our love as thanksgiving for his love.

Mary then gets the news that she is going to conceive and bear a son whom she will name Jesus.

Jesus. Do you realize that this was the first proclamation of our Saviour’s personal name since the beginning of time? Jesus. The very name at which one day every knee will bow? The very name at which every tongue will confess? A name with no parallel in any vocabulary? A name with power like no other name? Jesus.

Gabriel tells Mary ‘He will be great’. Oh yes he is.

Gabriel then carries on with some details of what is to happen. On closer reading, these details are not as shocking to Mary as the first appearance and greeting of Gabriel were. Paula Gooder again writes, ‘For Mary – the message that God has chosen her is far more frightening than what he has chosen for her to do.’

Not sure about you – but if a winged-man angel appeared to me and started to discuss my womb and its imminent call to service – I would have a little more to say!

Mary’s concern is for the practicalities – she obviously knew were babies came from. We see something of her innocence too. Gabriel has the answer for Mary – ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’. Come upon here means ‘to arrive, invade, resting upon and operating in a person.’

For nothing will be impossible with God says Gabriel. This was in one of the readings at Morning Prayer this past week. It is a verse that I remind myself of frequently. But sometimes it just comes in a new way.

Nothing will be impossible with God. I sometimes laugh to myself when I hear people resisting change or offering up a list of excuses about why something can or can’t be done. If it is of God – nothing is impossible.

Imagine for a moment if Doreen/Peggy/Joan – lovely Doreen/Peggy or Joan – came to church pregnant! It could happen! It happened to Elizabeth in her old age. This is the impossible thing that was made possible that Gabriel is referring to!

Sometimes it is us who need a little more courage or imagination.

It is after she heard ‘that nothing is impossible’ – that Mary says ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ I seriously wonder what our lives, our families, our community and our world would look like if this was our response to God. ‘Here am I’.

And not just when the news is good or happy or the request is something that we really want to do. When about when the news is uncertain or just plain hard, comes with a price tag we don’t want to pay. Or the inconvenience doesn’t seem worth it. ‘Here am I.’

Then the angel departed from her. As I am about to depart from you, I hope that you will know and experience the great love God has for you this Christmas.

Not just at Christmas but at every moment of every day of your life – when things are calm and happy but more so when you are stirred up throughout.

I hope that you will know the Lord’s favour upon you.

I hope the name of Jesus falls sweetly on your ears and off your tongue.

The Lord is with you. Nothing will be impossible with God.

Do not be afraid – The Lord is with you.

My Advent Reflection for 2017…

I do realize it is Advent 4 today. But it is still Advent for a few more hours and therefore not too late to post something of a reflection. The season has felt short – I spent the first part of it at home in Calgary before coming back home to Slough.

It has felt a bit disjointed in some ways – trying to maintain the dignity of the season at the same moment as preparing for the Christmas services. As I sit here this morning my Christmas Day sermon is only about half written. I have 5 services to participate in today – 2 preaches this morning, narrating the Crib Service, leading the Reflective Service and presiding at Midnight Communion. With friends over for dinner in between. Phew!

I went to Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford last night for Nine Lessons and Carols – Merry Christmas to me! This was a bit of an indulgence of time – but so necessary and an invitation I didn’t want to refuse. It gave me some ideas of where to take my Christmas Day Sermon – will post that once it’s written!

The journey to Oxford was a smooth one – little traffic, trains were on time and had few passengers. I have done the journey to Oxford many times over the last 3 years by all manor of transport – it is a well worn path for me. Some journeys have been better than others.

The theme of journeys and paths came up in two of my three Advent sermons this year. John the Baptist 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 means ‘a beaten pathway’. By this I mean a well-worn path, a path that has seen some use, it’s been established. In a personal way God wants us to prepare a path.

What does that path look like? Is our path to God straight? I know that mine sometimes is more of a meandering path – taking the long way!

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. Come to Him over and over again. We also need to clear that path of debris – this can be anything that standing in the way of God being able to work in our lives fully.

I hope that your path is clear and straight – I know that mine could use a little maintenance.

Much love.

Christ the King Sunday: The Love & Judgement of God

St Peter’s Lutheran Church Cochrane 
Christ the King  Sunday
26/11/17

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
1 Corinthians 15:20-28
Matthew 25:31-46
Psalm 95:1-7

Prayer – God the Father,
help us to hear the call of Christ the King
and to follow in his service,
whose kingdom has no end;
for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, one glory.
Amen.

Today is Christ the King Sunday – I am not sure what Martin Luther would have made of this. This is a recent addition to the church calendar – and a Roman Catholic one at that!

Pope Pius XI instituted it in 1925 – which is like 5 minutes ago in church time. He did this in response to two issues he was facing. Firstly, the growing secularism after World War 1. The Church was facing a huge crisis of faith and many people left the Church (both Catholic & Protestant) in Europe in the wake of WW1. The men had left for war and the didn’t come back; so the women had left the church and God. Secondly, Pope Pius was also dealing with issues in the Catholic church about what authority the Pope had in the civil matters (matters outside the Church) in Rome in the 1920’s.

This context led him to establish Christ the King Sunday as a reminder of Jesus’ power and authority above all else. Pope Pius wrote:

‘If to Christ Jesus our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to His dominion; if this power embraces all men, [paraphrasing now] He must reign in our minds, He must reign in our wills, He must reign in our hearts, He must reign in our bodies and in our members as instruments of justice unto God.’

This Sunday was instituted as a reminder about who is really in charge. There are two dimensions to Christ the King Sunday – the first is pointing to the end of time when the kingdom of Jesus will be established in all its fullness to the ends of the earth. The second is pointing to the more immediate season of Advent.

The Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Sweden really embraced the final judgement dimension of today as they use to referred to it as the Sunday of Doom. Those cheerful Swedes have since amended their focus to the Return of Christ. Good choice I think – even if only from a PR perspective. Of course, the Norwegian Lutherans would never do this!

The second dimension of Christ the King Sunday leads us into the season of Advent – the season of expectation and preparation as we look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus. Advent also marks the start of the new Christian year.

We live in the in-between time – the first Advent and the second, the now and the not yet. The new born King has come and we wait for His return as the grown-up King.

I tend to see Christ the King Sunday as New Year’s Eve on the church calendar. New Year starts next week with the first Sunday of Advent. Forget January 1st – December 3rd is where it is at!

Looking back on the year that has just past – I know many people for whom 2017 has been personally challenging and difficult to downright horrendous. They are counting the days until it passes. I know others who have had a great 2017 filled with many blessings and excitement. And others for whom 2017 has been a fair mix of peaks and valleys.

Wherever you find yourself this morning – God bless you! Know that you are loved.

It is good to remind ourselves that Jesus is King above all kings whatever season we are in. He is also the King of the Sheep as Ezekiel describes for us.

The sheep here are a metaphor to represent the people of Israel. They are God’s flock and they are a mix of strong and weak sheep. It is interesting that God uses sheep as a metaphor for people. Sheep are not the brightest animals in creation, they are not able to take care of themselves the way other animals can, you can’t teach them tricks, they need a lot of care and attention, they need to be guided – hence the need for shepherds.

God acts as the shepherd for his people – he will search and seek out the lost, the lonely and the oppressed. He brings back the strays, strengthens the weak, binds up the injured. He feed them, he will make them lie down – 23rd Psalm anyone?

This is a picture of a King who gets deeply involved with his mixed flock of strong and weak out of deep love and concern. This is not a King who is disinterested in his people!

Jesus never says to the sheep – ‘sort yourselves out and then drag your sorry tails back to me’ or ‘behave yourselves and then you will be good enough’ or ‘I only help those sheep who help themselves’. No – Jesus goes to them – where they are at and brings them home. We have a King who loves. This is Jesus the Shepherd King.

In this reading we also see a King who judges as there is inequality in the flock. There are both strong and weak sheep living together in his flock. We are told that the strong sheep are not looking after the weak sheep the way that they should.

Now that I have dropped the J word – we need to hold on to some important truths:

God does not judge the same way we do – I am very glad of that. God judges out of love – not hate or pride or envy. For this King love and judgement go together. Let’s remember that we will be judged by the same standards that we judge others.

There are people around – maybe you know some of them – who seem to think that God has outsourced the business of judgement to them. They seem to know what God hates which is almost always the same stuff or people that they hate. We all make judgments every day! I also know that the standards that I hold myself to are far less than the standards I hold other people to.

A trivial example of this – speeding tickets. Every speeding ticket I have ever received is justifiable because I had to get somewhere quickly because it was really very important. Every speeding ticket you have ever received is completely your fault, you bad driver and danger to society!

We do need a God of judgement though – otherwise He quickly becomes ineffectual and useless.

In the Ezekiel reading God is judging between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. The fat sheep are the ones who butted the weaker animals, took their food, tread down the pastures for their own gain. The fat took advantage of the lean by mistreating them and will be punished for this.

If God did not judge between the two – what is He saying? To the fat sheep – you can do whatever you like to serve yourself – there are no consequences. I don’t love you so I will ignore what you do. To the lean sheep – God is saying you are not worthy of help. I don’t love you enough to want to help you. You are on your own.

This is similar to the picture of judgment in Matthew’s Gospel – the separation of sheep and goats seems to emphasize that ultimately every person on earth will be called to account for the use of the opportunities to serve others.

It also suggests that there will be some surprises – people who did kind things for God only to find that what they did for the ‘insignificant people’ were kind things done to the Lord who was in them. Other people will be punished for failing to make use of opportunities to serve the lowly and thereby failing to serve God.

Our own justice system – although imperfect – is meant to work the same way. Penalize people for the wrong they do and protect those who cannot protect themselves. One person fails to serve another and is punished for it. How one person treats another is always the central issue.

The world does not operate as it should – it doesn’t take much imagination to work this out. We don’t treat people as we should – whether that is the people next door to us or the people on the other side of the world. The injustice in the world is rampant – socially, politically, economically. We have had the global examples of Zimbabwe and Egypt this past week.

It is not all bad news though.

It might be helpful to hold that this is not the full picture of judgement. This passage only deals with works – not grace or faith or the atoning work of Christ. Works are the evidence on which people will be judged here, not the cause of salvation or damnation. It is common to all of scripture that we are saved by grace and judged by works. The works we do are the evidence of either the grace of God at work in us or of our rejection of that grace.

Out of love God wants the fat sheep to care for the lean sheep – share food, protect them as he does. Love you neighbour as yourself! We will be judged on this.

We have a King of love and of judgment. Whatever season of life we are in – we have a King who loves us and will defend us. This will come to pass at the end of time.

We also look ahead to the more immediate future of the Advent season. In Advent we celebrate the first coming of Jesus, the Son of God, who was born into the world as both God and man, died so that our sins may be forgiven and rose again so that we may live with him forever. We also look forward to his glorious return at the end of time. Advent helps us to remember that God is present in the world today.

The Advent season falls at the darkest time of the year, and the natural symbols of darkness and light are powerfully at work throughout Advent and Christmas. We may live in dark times but the light of Christ will show us the way.

But we do have to wait. Wait with expectation and anticipation. We wait in the light of new hope.  There is always work in the wait – Pastor Paul in his sermon last week reminded us that God gives us challenges in this life and what we do matters. We have jobs to do in this life and the next and we will be rewarded for what we do. These jobs require some risk and there is always the possibility of failure but we are not to let fear and anxiety hold us back.

As a New Year is about to dawn – as Psalm 95 sings to us ‘let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!’ We live in uncertain times – globally and personally. What a relief it is to have the rock that is higher than I to cling to.

Verse 4: The whole world is in His hands. The mountains, the sea and the dry land are his for he made them. We are the sheep of His hand. We cannot escape him! We are safe in the safest hands possible as we wait.

The Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. I think we need to know this – God is great and good and loving towards us. He is so worth listening for. He is so worth waiting for!