Can you picture in your mind a statue of an angel. The angel is sitting down with its wings spread out behind. The angel has its left elbow on its left knee and is holding its hand over its eyes as if the angel is thinking or possibly exasperated. Here is the caption, “I have a feeling that my guardian angel often looks like this”. Have you ever wondered what your guardian angel is going to do with such a sinner? Whoever wrote the caption must have been ashamed of something or maybe had feelings of being worthless. All of those feelings come when we don’t think we are good enough or smart enough or caring enough or whatever.
Robin Williams once said, “All it takes is a beautiful fake smile to hide an injured soul and they will never notice how broken you really are.” We know that Robin Williams suffered from depression. His feelings of sadness or perhaps uselessness were so overwhelming that he could not cope with it.
In today’s lessons, three famous Scriptural figures describe their individual encounters with God. They are overcome with their faults and their sense of unworthiness. I ask you to think about how you feel when you are in God’s presence. As you do so, let us hear how God responded to each of them and consider how God responds to you.
Isaiah described an encounter with God. “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne”. In response to being in God’s presence, Isaiah was penitent. The glory of God brought to mind his sinfulness. He was convinced that he could not do God’s will. Isaiah wrote that he was a man of unclean lips. Woe is me. Isaiah expected that God would punish him forever because of his sin. Isaiah thought that he was worthless in God’s eyes. But God had other plans. God offered forgiveness to Isaiah in the form of live coals, something I hope I don’t have to endure. Then, God proclaimed that Isaiah would be a prophet and called him to do God’s work.
Paul also described the feeling of being unworthy. He wrote that he was unfit to proclaim the gospel because he had persecuted the followers of Jesus. Paul was present when some followers were killed. This is another case of God’s forgiveness and call to action. Paul described being visited personally by Jesus Christ. We often think of Paul’s conversion as a strike of lightning. Did Jesus come to Paul in bodily form or did Jesus appear as a bright light? We do not know the specifics but Paul indicates that Jesus was present with him. That is what caused Paul to accept Jesus as his God. Paul articulated the basis of our faith. Paul had turned from worthless to one of the most important voices of Christianity.
In the gospel for today, Jesus goes out on a boat with the fishermen. Jesus tells them to go out and catch some fish. Peter knew that the fish are on the surface in the nighttime and wondered how this carpenter could know that fish were nearby. Surprisingly, they bring in a load of fish so big that their nets were breaking. Peter realized that Jesus was the holy one and he said, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Peter must have felt that he was not worthy of being in the Lord’s presence because of his sins. Jesus never responded to the concerns of Peter about his sinful nature. Instead, Jesus told Peter that instead of catching fish he would be catching people. Jesus took a flawed person and created something special, the leader of the church.
So, we have three important men of Scripture who state publicly that they are sinners and they are not worthy of God’s love. It is certainly encouragement for the rest of us. We can see ourselves in the stories of Isaiah and Paul and Peter. And what is the response that God gave in each case? Acceptance, forgiveness and a call to use some of the gifts that had been given to them.
Have you ever said that you are not worthy of all that God has given to you? It is true that God has given us so much that we haven’t earned, so much that has been given to us. In the Rite I service at 8:00 we say the words, “I am not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table”. While it speaks specifically of worthiness, perhaps it is a sense of humility, making sure that our place is below that of God.
Have any of you reached the point were you feel useless, that you are worthless to God? I hope not for that is quite contrary to the basic tenets of Christianity. Our belief is that we are made in God’s image and that God loves us. Rather than say that we are worthless, I would encourage you to say that we are not worthy. It suggests that we are good but not good enough. We work but we haven’t worked enough to receive all that God gives us.
I am sure that you know of someone who fits the description of Peter. I am thinking of my friend Rose Anne. Rose Anne was a successful nurse and later went out and helped medical facilities to meet their required standards. She was a quiet but effective person. I know that she would say that she was not worthy. And yet, God chose Rose Anne to go to seminary. She is now a priest in northern Ohio.
The experience of being in God’s presence should give us peace and forgiveness and joy. Being in the presence of God should not give us a sense of shame. Why then did Isaiah and Paul and Peter respond to the presence of God in their lives by suggesting that they were not worthy? The only conclusion I reached is that their sense of humility overwhelmed them. They realized that they were less than God and they were thankful because God cared for them in spite of their limitations.
Here is a passage I read this week, “The Experience of God let them understand that they are far, far less than God. This is not bad, it is good. Our own elegance (our prideful self) cannot make us holy but God can. We can be proud to be unworthy if reception of God’s love is the result”.
We can say, Lord, you are the one who always shows us mercy. We do so with confidence. If we ever feel shame in the presence of God, we know that God does not say in return, “I reject you,” but “I love you dearly. Come be with me, you fine human being.”
When you come into the presence of God, it is appropriate to humble yourself. We remember that we are failed human beings who do not deserve what we have been given. We even offer our words of contrition in the service. We ask for God’s forgiveness.
Do not forget today’s Scripture. Don’t forget that God forgives and chooses each of us to do something special. Don’t forget that God will give you the gifts you need.
This is a day to feel the peace of God, it is a day to bask in the joy of God’s love. We pray fervently that God will forgive our sins. But we also live in the certainty that God not only forgives but also endows us with gifts to share with others. It is a day to remember these words from an unknown author, “Imagine someone who loves you so much, they make you love yourself.”
There is a modern day Christian piece of music called, “Here I am, Lord”. The words are taken from the passage we read in Isaiah today. The song suggests that we also are called by God and that our response, like Isaiah’s should be, “Here I am, send me”. Our response to God’s call is not possible until we first hear the words of forgiveness that God gives to all of us. It is not possible until we feel that love of God and know that he will be with us as we proclaim God’s word.
I hope that you are inspired by the word of God today, that you will experience God’s presence in your life, that you will know God’s never failing love, that you are certain of God’s acceptance and forgiveness. May the presence of God give you the strength to respond, Here I am Lord, send me. Amen.
On November 19, 1863, a crowd gathered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to dedicate a battlefield cemetery to the men who had died in battle several months before. Edward Everett, a well know and well liked orator, spoke for two hours at the memorial. I am sure that what he said was meaningful. Few of us remember Mister Everett. What we do remember is the two=minute speech that was given by Abraham Lincoln. His words are inscribed on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and known by heart by many people in this congregation. Lincoln spoke about how the sacrifice of so many soldiers impacted the equality, freedom, and national unity of the United States.
I thought of the comparison between Lincoln and Everett’s speeches in Gettysburg as I read two passages from Scripture. It was around 440 BC when the community gathered to celebrate the completion of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, especially the just completed walls of the city. Ezra stood up and read the law of Moses from a portion of the Bible. Ezra and others spoke for hours to the people of Israel. At that celebration, they all rededicated themselves to follow the Jewish laws. The way this story is presented suggests that Scripture was being opened up to all people, no longer held tightly by the priests. As with Edward Everett’s speech at Gettysburg, we have no record of what was said. We only know that the people were moved by the words of Scripture.
In comparison, we hear the words Jesus read from the Bible several hundred years later. He offered just a few short verses to a small group of people gathered in a synagogue in Nazareth. But those words still have meaning to us today. He proclaimed that he came to care for the poor and the oppressed, for the blind and the captives. Jesus is there for everyone.
Both Ezra and Jesus asked everyone to turn to the Bible for direction. When we hear these passages, we turn our hearts to Scripture to find the uplifting message from God. How might we keep Scripture alive in our church today? We also hear the words that Jesus is God’s chosen one, our Lord and Savior, the one we are to follow.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we find advice and comfort in the letter to the Corinthians today. It is a well known passage and one that can get us back on the right track when we stray. I hear several messages.
First, we are one in the body of Christ. Being one doesn’t mean we are all the same, that we think alike or that we have the same gifts. Being one means that we all believe in Jesus and that we seek to follow his words despite our differences and our faults. But the reading tells us that we need all of the gifts to follow Jesus. We must use all of the gifts found in our church community to make our lives full of the Spirit of God and to share that Spirit with everyone we meet. From last week, we know that some have the gift of knowledge or wisdom or discernment or healing or interpretation. Let us use all of those and other gifts to keep us alive in Jesus Christ.
Part of using everyone’s gifts is to remember that no one is an outsider to our community. We welcome the wisest person in our midst, the wealthiest, the most beautiful and the most physically fit. We also welcome the poorest, the sickest, the physical, emotional or mentally challenged. We welcome those who sing well and those who sing off key. We welcome Republicans and Democrats and Independents. We welcome those who are uncertain in their faith and those who have assurance that they know how God works in their life.
We believe that Jesus Christ is the head of the church, the head of Christianity. I think that is true. But if we consider the analogy found in today’s lesson, I think we must be careful to assume that Jesus is always the brains of the operation. I like to think that sometime Jesus acts as the eyes and ears helping us to see or hear what we might otherwise miss. Sometimes Jesus is the heart and soul that helps us to feel what is most important in our lives, to experience the other.
I know that some of you are unable or will choose not to join us for the annual meeting. That is why I want to share some of my perspectives about our life together in this community, how we live as the Body of Christ in this place.
Our most important activity is the time we come together and worship God. We support each other when we come together, helping everyone to live in the Lord. We praise God, we ask for God’s forgiveness and we share in the communion with Jesus. It is a special time.
I find this congregation to be welcoming and caring for each other. I think that the Holy Spirit can be felt in this place. Visitors sometimes tell me they appreciate the welcome they have received. But we must remember that every situation is different and each new person deserves our welcome. And we should also be watchful that when we welcome other people to our church we encourage them to participate in any way that makes them feel comfortable. I also wish that we seek to avoid forming cliques that cause separation rather than inclusion.
There are many indications that this is a healthy congregation of followers of Jesus. I am most thankful that so many volunteers have stepped up to offer activities for the church. Most recently, we have a group that has started the Lord’s Kitchen, making soup for those who need it. Many others are active, offering programs like a book club, and a walking group. Our Harvest Festival took place for the third year in a row and so many volunteered to help. We held seminars in caring for the elderly, avoiding substance abuse and a new opportunity called Spirituality for the second half of life.
There are other positive signs for this congregation. The number of people attending our Sunday services has increased. The number of people that we consider to be part of this congregation has grown as well. We miss those who have left our congregation whether it be because of a move, or a sickness or for any other reason. During the 2018 year, we completed the move of the offices to the Parish house. Several improvements to the house have been completed as a part of the move including lighting enhancements. I am pleased that we have chosen one of the rooms to be a chapel. There have also been improvements made to the kitchen in the Parish Hall including new countertops and a new freezer. A group of volunteers has begun to change one of the former offices into a nursery.
It is always difficult to speak about money but we have good news in that space as well. If you look at our financial reports, you would see that our income exceeded our expense by about $1,000. It was not a lot but good to see. In other good financial news, our budget for 2019 indicates that our income will barely exceed our expenses in 2019 as well. Thanks for your generosity.
So many have given their time and money in the past to support this church. In 2012, this church created an Improvement fund that has helped us to maintain our church buildings and grounds. Last year, I suggested that we start an effort to build up this fund once again. There are several projects that could use our support. Perhaps you have some project ideas that would improve our church life. In the near future, you will be asked for your own wish list and we will ask for your help as we move forward.
Numbers are not the most important way to measure our communal progress. What I most appreciate is that we come together and share hospitality with each other. I have often heard from others about what delicious meals we serve here and I am thankful.
We are called by Jesus and we were called by Paul to care for one another. I am so thankful for the outreach activities that this church is involved in. We help to feed the hungry, to care for those who have been abused, we help children in this community and in the world. Once again, we gave money to the children of El Hogar, a school in Honduras. Our Chili garden team has started a new ministry to grow seeds for Native American communities to reintroduce native plants in their communities.
Today, I am thankful for everyone of the people in this church who make it a special place. It is always risky to identify people by name. However, I wish to thank Linda Ostmeyer, our office manager, and Gary Quamme, our organist. I wish to thank our senior warden, Miriam Waddington, and our junior warden, Pat Mack, for their wonderful work. Thanks to all of our vestry members and most especially thanks to my wife for her love and support.
As members of the Body of Christ, let us keep Jesus as the center of our life, as the center of our worship and his teaching as the guide to our actions. Let us share God’s love with everyone in this church, to those in this community and to all of the world. Amen.
After she woke up, a woman told her husband, "I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for our anniversary. What do you think it means?” "You'll know tonight," he said. That evening, the man came home with a small package and gave it to his wife. Delighted, she opened it to find a book entitled "The Meaning of Dreams.”
Now here’s a joke for the ladies. What do you call a man with half a brain? Gifted.
As you can tell our theme today is about gifts. A gift is something one person gives to another, a picture, some flowers or a bottle of wine. Gifts usually have great meaning to the person who receives it, even if it doesn’t have great value. The thought is what counts we say. In my lifetime, it seems that women are better at remembering and giving gifts. On Wednesday, a group of women met for lunch at the church. The women had agreed to be secret sisters to each other. An unknown person would send a note or a card to one of the other ladies just to let that person know she was being thought of and prayed for. On Wednesday the ladies revealed who their secret sister was. And as you might have expected many of the women gave a gift to their secret sister. I was fortunate to be invited for the luncheon. As I mentioned already, the offering of a gift has great meaning to the one who receives it and on Wednesday there were several examples of that.
A gift sometimes can also refer to a unique ability or talent. You have a gift for music. Or, you have the gift of discernment. When we speak of a talent as a gift, we mean that God has given that person an ability and that is why we call it a gift. Today’s lessons offer us examples of gifts of many kinds. It is a good day to be thankful for the gifts we have been given by friends, the gifts we have been given by God and to consider how we might share our gifts with others. Let’s first listen to some gifts that are given by God. In Isaiah, we hear that God will call us by name, actually we will be given a new name. We have heard this theme on a regular basis over the past month. God knows us individually by name and God knows us collectively as God’s people. Isaiah wrote about the Jewish people who had just returned from exile to the promised land. Isaiah wrote that the land of Zion will no longer be desolate but will now be God’s Delight. The people of Israel will be married to God.
In the King James version of the Bible, instead of referring to the land as married, the bible refers to the land as Beulah land. It is the Hebrew word for married. Over the centuries Beulah Land has come to have a special connotation. Beulah is a special and beautiful place. The slaves probably thought of Beulah land as a place of freedom. Others consider Beulah land to be a description of heaven. Some hymns speak of Beulah land meaning that God will show us into heaven, a beautiful and glorious place.
Just as God was able to change the people of Israel from the Forsaken into God’s Delight, so too was Jesus able to change the water into wine. Jesus’ first miracle is described in our Gospel lesson for today as his coming out, the start of his public ministry. It is the gift of Mary who encouraged her son to help people in need. What does the gift of wine mean to you? On Wednesday in our Bible study, someone suggested that it was a precursor, a preparation for us to receive the blood of Jesus in his crucifixion. What a wonderful gift. John Foley thinks the wine is a gift of abundance. He wrote that when Mary said to Jesus “They have no wine” it symbolically meant that the human race had no real life left in it. Water turned into wine is an image for anyone who is fresh out of hope and needs to drink of the promise that Jesus offers to us. “The full rich wine of life that we need is the love of God. That love was given to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus and is shown to us in the wine of Cana”.
Lindsey Trozzo, from the Princeton Theological Seminary, suggested that the miracle of the wine was a sign of our shared hospitality. Rather than taking the lack of wine as something the family shouldn’t have let happen, Trozzo suggests it was a community issue. She believes that guests usually brought the wine as a part of their wedding gift. Running out of wine was an indication that the community was unable to support this family during the wedding celebration. When Jesus offered the gift of wine, he lifted up the entire community. Changing the water into wine becomes a precursor of the abundant things we will receive from God. Trozzo wrote that “Jesus’ mission was to continue God’s work in the world that provides hospitality and a space of belonging despite the norms of society. Jesus heals our souls when we are in pain due to something expected of us by our societal norms today. In our thankfulness for God’s gifts, we are asked to consider the gifts that God has given to us individually.
The reading from Corinthians reminds us that our gifts come from God, specifically given to us by the Holy Spirit. No person’s gifts are better than another. We need the gifts of the entire community to bring God’s kingdom to earth. Many passages in the book of Isaiah come to fruition in our Gospels and Scriptural Letters. Isaiah spoke abut our gifts as well. In chapter 11 we read, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”
If we consider the spirit of counsel to be similar to the gift of prophecy, then four of the gifts mentioned in Isaiah are repeated in the letter to the Corinthians. Paul also listed healing and performing miracles, speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues. The sad situation in Corinth was that people were comparing their gifts as if there was a rivalry between them. There was an opinion that some gifts were better than others. The point that Paul was making is that our gifts should not divide us but rather unite us. For the gifts we have been given are for the common good, not for us to hold back and use only for ourselves.
Paul’s letter speaks of how the three persons of the Trinity work together. Each of the gifts mentioned comes from the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit and the one we call God the Father are united in this gift giving. And the Spirit is connected to Jesus. For no one who has a gift of the Spirit will say something against Jesus. The Trinity is united in all things. No gift is better than any other because the Trinity has given each person special talents and loves each one of us. Just as the Spirit of God has given us gifts, we turn and pray to the Spirit that we may be guided in what we should do, that we may allow God’s will in this place.
The people of this church have received many talents or gifts. We need the gifts of every person. Two years ago, we had a class led by Cathy Black from the diocesan office. It was a chance for us to consider our gifts and to identify our gifts for this place. We have so many gifts but I will always remember that we only had a few people who felt that their gift was leadership. In other words we have a lot of people willing to do the work but only a few who believe that they have a gift to lead a church project. We pray that we will find a few more leaders to help us finish the projects we are called to perform.
I ask you to consider the gifts that God has given to you individually and to us collectively. Let us be thankful for all of God’s gifts, especially that God has chosen us and loves us. Let us reflect on the gifts that God has given us and how we might together use all of our gifts to do God’s work in the world. For this church is a wonderful place and we ask God to help us grow together spiritually and to share God’s love with everyone we meet. Amen.
There is a cartoon showing Moses up on top of the mountain holding the Ten Commandments etched in stone. He is looking up to the heavens and asks God this question, “I am sure that they will believe me but will you sign them just in case?” It is a cute saying but a meaningful one as well. The Ten Commandments are an agreement between God and God’s people. It was not an agreement with Moses and the Israelites.
The Ten Commandments are an example of a covenant, an agreement between two parties. In Biblical terms we use the word Covenant to describe an agreement between God and God’s people. It is a word not often used in current day language. We usually speak of a contract between two parties or a promise made by two people to each other. Still, a covenant is an accurate description of what we seek with God. Covenant has a sense of sacredness for me.
Today we remember the baptism of Jesus and today we celebrate the baptism of Cory Rutledge. Cory was baptized at the 8:00 service this morning. Baptism is the creation of a covenant. Every person who is baptized makes a commitment and in return receives grace, love and other benefits from God.
I am so excited that Cory was baptized today. Cory has been such a blessing to this church. I appreciate his enthusiasm. During the peace, Cory often runs around from person to person in the church, greeting them with such a positive smile. I know that Cory often draws pictures during the service and I have been the thankful recipient of his work. I like the fact that Cory is willing to interact with adults. He has come to our adult education several times and talked with us about important and not so important issues. His spirit is infectious and a good lesson for some of us who are less enthusiastic about our lives. Cory, we thank you for being present in our lives and pray that you will always know how much you mean to the people of this church.
I believe that Cory feels welcome and safe in this place. That is something sacred that we are called to do. For in Cory’s attendance at church and in his baptism today, we make a commitment, all of us commit to supporting him as a Christian. It is our responsibility to help him on what is both an exciting and yet sometimes difficult journey of following Christ.
There have been many covenants in our religious history. God made a covenant with Noah. Soon after the flood, God said to Noah, “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. (Genesis 9:11-13).
God entered into a covenant with Abraham as well. God said, “this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Genesis 17:3-5 In the book of Jeremiah, God’s covenant was made with all of the people of Israel, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. Jeremiah 31:1
As Christians, we are thankful for these covenants but we focus on the new covenant based on the coming of Jesus Christ. Each time we experience a communion service the priest lifts the chalice and says, “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus brings us into a new relationship with God and offers us forgiveness for the sins we have committed.
In addition to forgiveness God promised other benefits some of which are mentioned in Isaiah today. First, God called us by name to be God’s people. Second, we are told to give up our fear for God has redeemed us. God promised to be with us when we enter treacherous waters. God is with us even when we go through the trial of fire. The water and the fire will not overwhelm us. It sounds like baptism. We are told that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire. Perhaps it is a fire of enthusiasm and courage just like that which Cory shows to us on Sunday.
In today’s world we think of the covenant that is reached when two people come together in marriage. They agree to live together in good times and bad, supporting each other for whatever comes. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, offered this perspective marriage, “Marriage has a unique place because it speaks of an absolute faithfulness, a covenant between radically different persons, male and female; and so it echoes the absolute covenant of God with his chosen, a covenant between radically different partners.”
Today, as we listen to the story of Jesus’ baptism and experience the baptism of Cory, I ask you to reflect on your relationship with God. Is it one of absolute faithfulness? Do you remember our promise to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior? Are you committed to put your whole trust in his grace and love? Are you ready to renew that commitment again?
Commitment is a hard thing and we know of many examples of people who have struggled with it. I am trying to get my swimming pool control unit fixed. I was promised a visit by a pool company this past week but it never happened. I am sure that you have your own stories of commitments made but not completed.
As a priest, I receive commitments from people all of the time. Some say they are going to attend church here but never show up. I have become jaded by talk without action, no longer expecting people to do what they say. But I trust in God. We understand that the commitment we make to follow Jesus is a hard one to live up to all of the time. That is why we come together in community. We seek to support each other as followers of Christ, hoping that our joint efforts will make it easier to stick to our commitment.
But today is much more about the glory of the gifts we have been given. In the water of baptism, we are cleansed from all of our sins, we are washed in the glory of Jesus and we become one with him. But it is not just Jesus that we unite with in baptism.
Both the gospel and the Epistle speak of the presence of the Holy Spirit in baptism. For the people in Samaria, they had been baptized with water but it wasn’t until Peter and John showed up that they received the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit came to be with Jesus when he was baptized. And so, the same is true for each of us. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever. It is as if we have received a tattoo with the Holy Spirit. Something we carry with us for the rest of our lives.
Baptism is an experience of all the senses. But it is not just water that we use in baptism. We offer a candle to Cory and his family, a sign of the light of Christ in his life. We also sign Cory with oil. It is our way of indicating that he has been ordained by God to be a part of this congregation, a part of the community of Christians. It is a sign that he has received the Holy Spirit.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he wrote, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God”. This morning, we have welcomed Cory as a new member of the body of Christ, a child of God. We welcome his spirit and his testimony and we are excited that while he is still a child he has joined all of us as an equal amongst the children of God in this community.
Today, we remember our covenant with God. We promise to follow Jesus. Let us be thankful for all that God gives to us in this covenant relationship. We receive God’s grace and love. We are forgiven for our sins. And we have Jesus and the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us on our journey. Joseph Prince, a pastor from Singapore said “God doesn't want us to have rigid rituals with Him. In the new covenant, God is more interested in having a relationship with us.” May we seek God in everything we do. May we be energized by our baptism, a time when we receive the grace of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I live in a part of Mesa where the number of street lights are limited in order to allow us to see the skies at night. And I enjoy looking up and seeing stars shining above. But my view of stars is limited because there is too much ambient light in the area.
While we don’t see many stars with the naked eye, we still have been blessed to see beautiful sights from the heavens. Just this week we got to see this picture of Ultima Thule, a small icy object some 6.5 billion miles from earth. Some say the picture of the object looks like a snowman. It took six hours for any information to be transmitted from the spacecraft New Horizons. It took days for the detailed picture to arrive on earth.
The Hubble telescope was placed in earth orbit in 1990 and has given us incredible pictures like this one of the Twin Jet Nebula. Planetary nebulae are the glowing shells of gas given off by dying stars. Since the Twin Jet Nebula is a bipolar nebula, there are two stars at its core. Its butterfly-like “wings” are caused by the interaction of the two central stars which are similar in mass to our sun and circle one another every 100 years.
There are some scientists who don’t believe in God but prefer to believe that the universe was created by a natural phenomenon. I, on the other hand, find it to be an amazing indication of the work of God. It gives me a sense of the awesome power of God when I look at these pictures.
During the time of Jesus, people could see many more stars in the heavens than we do. The wise men who came to visit Jesus were the astronomers of their day. Something that they saw in the stars caused them to conclude that an important person had been born, a new king possibly. They probably knew the predictions about the coming of a Messiah in the Jewish Bible. They decided to come and offer their homage.
Many people in today’s world have tried to recreate the star of Bethlehem. They want to have a natural explanation for what the wise men saw. So if you go online, you can read about stars and planets that may have created this image. Matthew’s gospel indicates that the star rose from the east which suggests that it may have been a planet. I am unsure of exactly what happened or exactly when. My favorite is this one. It was created by drawing lines from the location of each planet in the solar system to other planets around the time of the birth of Jesus. The funny thing is it includes the planets Uranus and Neptune which were first identified about 300 years ago.
For me, what is more important is the work of God. God wanted to make a big deal of the fact that Jesus came to earth. And God wanted everyone to know about the coming of Jesus. Our stories tell us about how God communicated. An angel came to tell Mary that she was going to have the baby Jesus. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to tell him about the coming of Jesus. Angels appeared to the shepherds when Jesus was born. In today’s lessons, we hear about the star of Bethlehem appearing to the wise men. The wise men were not Jewish and they came from a distant land. Some experts have said that they were pagans. Yet they came to see Jesus because God sent them a message.
I offer this quote from a website discussing Epiphany messages, “First, God went to some trouble (by providing the star) to announce Jesus' birth to people of another race and country. In other words, God loves all people everywhere. Jesus came to all people. Thus, as Jesus' followers, we are to be one family with all people everywhere. We are to exclude no one from God's church or from our family. Although this inclusiveness is to be extended to people in our own school and community, Matthew's account of the wise men focuses on God's insistence on racial, national, and cultural inclusiveness.”
I don’t know whether God created something special in the stars that caused the wise men to be attuned to the coming of Jesus or if it was just part of God’s original plan that the stars appeared. I do believe that God reached out to humans to tell of the birth of Jesus.
We are influenced greatly by the customs that have been created to celebrate our Christian feasts. So, we have a manger scene with wise men on camels who come to visit the baby Jesus. We don’t know how many wise men there were, tradition suggests it was three. Around 700 AD we decided to give these three wise men names. We don’t know if they came to visit Jesus on camels either. I was in a restaurant last Sunday and we were talking about Epiphany as the waiter came to our table. He quickly said, “Did you know that it took about two years for the three Kings to show up in Bethlehem?” Apparently, this young man had just learned that the visit of the wise men probably came some two years after Jesus was born. Our image of the wise men had left him with the impression they came when he was a baby. There is so much that we don’t know about the star of Bethlehem. But we do know that God was reaching out to share the good news with everyone.
I believe that God has never stopped reaching out to humans. So, I ask you, “How might God be reaching out to share the wonders of Jesus with you today?” We often call Jesus the light of the world. How might you see the light of Jesus in your life today? Do you see the light of Jesus in a sunrise or a sunset? Do you see the light of Jesus in the smile on a child’s face? Do you see the light of Jesus in the face of someone in need when they receive help? Or perhaps you see the light of Jesus in a candle on the altar and the glow of light that shines on the little baby in the manger.
Our reading from Isaiah refers to the coming of Christ as well. We hear, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” It is another way that God informs us about the Messiah. We look forward to the coming of Jesus just as the Israelites did so long ago. The good news for us is that Jesus is already here.
The apostle Paul continued this message. He was selected by God, changed by God’s actions from one who persecuted the followers of Jesus to one who proclaimed the good news of Jesus. Paul was chosen to bring the good news to the Gentiles. Paul wrote about how “the mystery was made known to me by revelation.”
Paul wrote that he was, “to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
We also experience that revelation of Jesus through God’s presence in our lives and through our own revelation. God’s secret plan, Paul wrote, is that we are all co-heirs of God’s glory in Jesus. That same message is meant for us. And yet, in the light sent by God and in the light of Jesus, we find fear and jealousy. King Herod was not happy. He thought Jesus was a threat to his kingdom. Herod set a trap for the baby, trying to get the help of the wise men. But God was ready for that threat to Jesus. God communicated with the wise men in a dream and they must leave Bethlehem in another way. Herod must have been furious but God protected his son. Sometimes God protects the weak and the innocent. Sometimes God deals with fear and jealousy.
I find that God is present and active in our lives. God shares the good news of Jesus with us. God is there for every person regardless of where they come from. Let us join the three wise men and offer our homage to the Son of God. They brought gold and frankincense and myrrh. What might you bring? Let us rejoice for the glory of God. Let us look to see how the Light of Christ may change us in wonderful ways. Amen.
On Christmas morning, Jan and I woke up early. Both of the Christmas Eve services seemed to go well. We drove up to Flagstaff and arrived just in time for our two granddaughters to wake up and open their presents. Christmas is a special time when you are with children. Because we were with children we had another special experience. On Thursday evening we drove about 30 miles to Williams, AZ. We boarded the Polar Express train which is offered by the Grand Canyon Railway. Our experience was enhanced because it started to snow just as we arrived at the train station. It made the entire experience wonderful and a little more real.
The Polar Express is a computer-animated movie based on a book. The story is about an eight year old boy who isn’t certain whether he believes in Santa Claus. He is awakened on Christmas Eve and looks out to see a train stopped right outside his window. The train takes him to the North Pole where he meets Santa Claus. Santa gives him a bell which falls out of a hole in the pocket of his robe. The train returns him to his home. The next morning, he finds that bell from Santa under the Christmas Tree. Only those who believe in Santa Claus hear the bell ring. Sadly, his parents do not hear the bell because they do not believe in Santa Claus.
Santa Claus is not something we discuss in church but belief is. All of us believe in the baby Jesus. We believe that this child is God, Emmanuel, God with us. Some of us have had a special experience that makes it easy for us to believe. Others have a deep-set faith that keeps their trust in God alive. Some others question how all this could be.
Today, we get a second shot at listening to the story of the birth of Jesus. This time it is not the story of Luke with its description of the visit of the shepherds. Rather it is a description by John of the meaning of the birth of this baby. The narrative describes the faith of the author and is a faith that we are encouraged to share.
Each Sunday we use a set of Scriptural passages prescribed by the Episcopal Church. We almost always use the choices found in the Revised Common Lectionary. That set of readings is used by the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Lutherans and usually by the Catholics in the United States and Canada. The nice part about it is that you can speak to someone in another part of the country about your experience at church and you will be able to discuss the exact same passages in Scripture.
This week, the Episcopal Church goes out on its own. Most Protestant churches are reading about a visit of the Holy Family to Jerusalem when Jesus was a young boy. Jesus stayed behind talking to the teachers in the Temple and was found later by his parents. We, however, have decided to read the first chapter of the gospel of John. For me, it is a decision that we make to continue for one week with the coming of Jesus. So we have the opportunity today to still listen to Christmas hymns and to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
In the Gospel of John, we learn that Jesus is the Word of God, Jesus is God. We hear that Jesus brings life to us. I have decided this morning to focus on words that are found at the end of the gospel, the idea that we are children of God. We often read that in Scripture but let’s consider for a few minutes how much that means to us.
It is the very coming of Jesus that makes us children of God. According to John, all that we have to do is believe in Jesus and he will give us the power to become children of God. This message is also found in the passage from Galatians today. It says, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” Once again, it is because Jesus came to earth that we have the opportunity to be children of God.
The passage from Galatians helps us understand the importance of being children of God. First, Jesus sends into our hearts the encouragement to call God, Abba. The word Abba provides a sense of intimacy or closeness. Abba describes the personal relationship that is available to us with God. It means we can call God Papa or Daddy. It means we can share things with our Abba that we would not be able to share with others. I know that some people in this congregation have or had difficult relationships with their father but I still hope you can picture the ease of relationship that this term is meant to give us. All of us can turn to God and share what is in our heart and God will listen. Jesus used this term himself when he prayed to God.
In Galatians, we also learn that we are no longer slaves or servants. We are not merely servants but we have been given authority in many things. We have authority over sin and the power to defeat the devil. We have a sense of confidence and hold our heads up because we are God’s family.
Paul also tells us that we are heirs. In Paul’s time, heirs got the lion’s share of the inheritance. Paul wanted us to know that what we will receive as God’s children is so grand and glorious that it is hard to imagine. God is so good and powerful that God gives this gift to everyone of us and each of us.
Paul wrote about our gift as children of God in Romans, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption”. Another gift of children is security. Servants are not certain of their status but children of God do not fear losing the relationship with their Father in heaven.
Paul wrote that “the very Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God”. Paul suggested that we are testifying to our faith in God, the Spirit gives us confidence that our testimony, our faith pronouncement, makes us children of God. The Spirit stands beside us to help us remain faithful.
I know that some of you will question me on the next gift. I call it discipline. It sounds like a bad term. But I believe that God gives us some mild form of developmental reminders as a way to keep us on the straight and narrow path. God’s discipline is good for us. It is intended to help us, not hurt us.
We say that we are made in the image of God. As children of God, we are brothers and sisters of Jesus. We learn from him and we imitate his actions to the best of our ability. It makes us more like him. Sometimes we even share in the suffering that Jesus experienced because we are committed to be a part of his family.
More than any other gift we receive as children of God, I appreciate the fact that we have God’s unconditional love. God wants us to be successful in our faith. God will forgive us when we do wrong. God will be there for us in times of great difficulty. God will not leave us alone and afraid. It is the most wonderful of gifts we receive.
I hope that you appreciate this one more opportunity to think of the baby Jesus coming to be with us. I know that it is not the same as Christmas Eve when you visited the baby Jesus at the manger. But we still focus on the coming of God to be with us on earth. It is a special gift and an amazing commitment that God has made to us. Let us be joyful for this gift and let us give thanks to God for all that we have been given. Today, we remember that Jesus is the light of the world and the giver of life. And we remember that we are now children of God, through our faith and our baptism. We remember all that it means to be a child of God and we live in thanks and praise for all you have received. Amen.
I love Christmas. I love the music. I love the lights. I love visiting with friends and family. I love giving presents to others and receiving presents from them.
More importantly, I love the thought of Jesus. This evening, we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Emmanuel, God, has come to be with us. We come to the manger at Bethlehem with awe and wonder. We come to worship and give thanks for Jesus.
The coming of Jesus, his incarnation, changed everything. Let me share this perspective I read from Karoline Lewis.
“The incarnation means that at the same time the incarnation is a revelation of God, it is also a revelation of who we are. We begin to realize that in God’s decision to become human that our humanity matters. We begin to recognize that in God’s commitment to bodies that our bodies matter.”
For those of you who are alone this Christmas, who feel the loss of someone important in your life, I hope that you can find comfort and peace in the visit of this little baby for Jesus wishes to be with you always. Jesus is there to be a source of strength when you have troubles.
Many people set out a Nativity scene in their homes. Children often have their own nativity sets which can create lasting memories. Our Advent devotions included a story of a three-year old child who told her mother to be quiet for the baby Jesus was being born for her. She had created a scene using several nativity sets as well as other characters such as Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber from Veggie Tales. My wife still has the nativity scene from her childhood and she puts it out each year. My sister sent me a picture the other day of the nativity set which was given to my parents right after World War II. I remember that set. These creches are personal, a way to connect with Jesus on an individual level.
We all come here tonight to celebrate this amazing event. Each of us comes to see and worship the baby Jesus. Some say that all babies are beautiful. I think that is true. Others would say that babies are not beautiful because they are red faced and scrawny. Despite their appearance, we come and admire babies, we want to hold them because they are so precious. Jesus is precious because we believe he is God. Can you imagine holding the baby Jesus in your arms?
So for just a little while, we put away the troubles of our world, the anger and hatred, the fighting and the disagreements. We believe that Jesus came to bring peace to the world. There are so many who seek to follow the will of Jesus, caring for others and doing good works. Still, it seems that we need that peace in our lives today.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent a long time in a Nazi prison and was eventually killed for what he said. But he still lived in hope. Here is an example
“...And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.”
We come to the manger in hope. I am reminded of a poem called “I Heard the Bell on Christmas Day” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth, I said,
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.
Jesus is called the Light of the world, the instrument of Peace. Jesus is the one who can clear away the darkness of your life and help you to see the light. Christians hear the story of Jesus as the Light of the world in the passage from Isaiah. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. This child who has been born will be for us a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah wrote these verses at a time of great trial and tribulation for the people of Israel. Do you feel some of that in your life today? Do you feel powerless as if someone else is controlling your life? Then this Jesus is for you.
The thought of Jesus as the light of the world is described in John’s gospel. John doesn’t tell us the physical details of Jesus’ birth the way Luke does. Instead, John tells us that Jesus is the word. And then, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Come Lord Jesus and bring your light of peace to each one of us.
In the Psalm we sing a new song because a new day has come. The world has changed. Our Messiah is here. We proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day. This evening is just the start of our excitement and our new life.
The birth of Jesus was just the beginning. Jesus was born in poor surroundings and Luke believed that Jesus was especially concerned for the poor and those who suffered. The first to visit Jesus were the poor shepherds. Jesus came for everyone. Compassion is the word that best describes his willingness to help anyone and everyone. Jesus came to save those he met from their struggles and he came to save us from our sins. He cared for those in need. We have so much to be thankful for as we celebrate this birth of Jesus.
But I think there is more to the story than just the visit of a baby. We begin to think about what Jesus did for us It took a long time after his birth for Jesus to become a public figure, to begin preaching to people about how they should live their lives and to let them know how much they are loved.
In our life, we make commitments to our selves and to those around us. One of the most important commitments we make is when we become parents. Whether said or unsaid, we make a commitment to do everything we can to raise child in the best way possible. We commit to keeping the child healthy, we make a commitment to protecting the child from harm, we make a commitment to teaching the child what that child needs to know and we make a commitment to giving that child the opportunity to be all that this child can be.
What commitment will you make to the baby Jesus? Are you willing to follow him wherever he leads? Are you willing to listen to his words? Are you wiling to seek him out when you need help? Are you willing to defend him from his enemies? Are you wiling to stay by his side when things go bad?
The idyllic nativity scene that we appreciate and love so much does not last long. As soon as the wise men come, we learn of the threat that Herod made to kill this baby. Jesus is taken to Egypt to escape Herod’s fury.
What I am suggesting is that we take this evening to consider the full scope of our visit to the manger. I ask you to say to this baby Jesus tonight that you are ready to follow him wherever he goes and that you are wiling to do his will in this world. We are not becoming the parents of Jesus but we are making a commitment to be his follower, and to let him be our teacher.
Karoline Lewis said,
“We begin to remember that God’s determination to be known in the flesh means that doing ministry in the flesh matters. We can respond to the coming of Jesus first by realizing that God being here matters and secondly by responding to God’s actions by doing his ministry on this earth.”
My focus during Advent has been to ask Jesus to come and be with us for we really need all that he brings. Let us welcome Jesus into our lives this evening, living with hope that he will bring peace to our world. Let us understand that this child brings love and mercy to outlives. Let us commit ourselves to help bring that peace in all that we do. Amen.
Last week I was in such a good mood that I was singing aloud in the church office. Our office manager, Linda Ostmeyer, took notice and asked me what made me so happy. Things were going well at work and at home and I was pleased. I love to sing to my two granddaughters because they make me happy as well. This past week, my younger brother welcomed his first grandchild into the world. They were so excited that they could not wait to see the baby. In the pictures, they just hold the baby and stare into her eyes. Have you ever been so happy that you just started singing out loud?
Today is a celebration. We remember the glory of God and give thanks for God’s presence in our lives. It is a change of pace from what we have heard in scriptures during the first two weeks of Advent. Now we are joyful. This day is called Gaudete Sunday. The word means rejoice. We get to rejoice even though we still have more than a week before Christmas arrives.
Our readings are full of descriptions of joy at God’s coming. We hear it in the reading from Zephaniah, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart,… for the The Lord has taken away the judgments against you”. My favorite portion of this lesson speaks about God’s happiness in us.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
According to Zephaniah, God is not up in the clouds someplace. No, God is right here, standing next to you and singing for joy. Imagine that! God sings happily for all of humanity and for you personally. God’s excitement over each individual reminds me of the parable of the Lost Sheep. Jesus said that the shepherd would leave the ninety-nine sheep just to find the one that is lost. God cares for everyone of us. The ending tells of God’ rejoicing for finding that one lost sheep.
We find joy in Paul’s letter. Paul wrote that we should Rejoice in the Lord always! We are to be happy and not to worry, he wrote. We should be confident in asking God to help us. We know that the Lord will give us peace through the care of Jesus Christ.
Our concept of a celebration is usually eating too much, drinking too much and staying out late at night. The kind of rejoicing we have here is more like a clear sense of the love and joy that are at the heart of our life. It is a time of feeling connected to others in a way that we might not have felt before. We are connected with God in a special way. Let’s celebrate!
I am sure that you picked up on several other themes that we experience today in our liturgy and in our readings. One of the themes is the hope we have in the salvation that God has given us. It is the theme we use for our Advent candle today. I am feeling a little rebellious today. Rather than talking about hope, I think today is about having a balanced life. I hope that you will think about how God helps you find balance in your life.
Choosing to rejoice in the middle of Advent is an example of balance in our church life. We know that Advent is a time of preparation and a time of contemplation. Today our faith and our liturgy give us the opportunity to be joyous once again, to not simply await the coming of Jesus but to celebrate the salvation that we have already been given. Listening to John the Baptist speak with his followers gives us another sense of balance.
When I think of balance, I imagine a ballet dancer. They are incredibly talented and I know that they practice for hours on end each day. I can see a ballerina jumping up lightly on her tiptoes and spinning around again and again. I remember as a child how I loved to spin around and how quickly I would get dizzy doing so. I would get so dizzy that I would fall down. But ballet dancers have incredible balance and they are able to spin over and over again. By the way, if ballet is not your thing, then I am sure you can imagine some other professional who is able to do fascinating things that require a great deal of balance.
We seek to find balance in our hectic lives standing tall even though we feel caught in a whirlwind of activity and a time when things are uncertain. Balance is something that our faith helps us to accomplish. Most of us are taught that we must make as much money as we can and save as much as we can in case we face a catastrophe or to support ourselves when we retire. It is our faith that helps us to find balance between the desire to have money for ourselves and the knowledge and wisdom to determine how much we should share with those who are needy.
Most of us experience a culture where the Christmas season is a time to purchase goods for ourselves and others. We are bombarded with advertisements and deals that make everything look good. Our faith provides the balance between buying everything we see and buying what is appropriate to share our love with others and to meet our own needs.
Many of us believe that we must live our lives to the fullest, running backward and forwards so that we are always busy. Our faith provides the balance to know that we need to make time for quiet in our lives and for God in our lives. As they say, “take the time to smell the roses.”
Even in our religious observances, our faith helps us to stay in balance. And our faith tradition helps us to understand that we should be joyous and thankful for the gifts that God has given us and at the same time we are called to do the work on earth that Jesus has given us to do.
The message of joy and challenge is described so clearly in the gospel. In the last verse we are told that John the Baptist brought good news to the people. You would be hard pressed to listen to all that John said and decide it is good news. John told the people that they were a brood of vipers. He chastised them saying that they were not living according to God’s expectation. John told them that it wasn’t good enough to say that you were a Jew, you had to produce fruit or you would be chopped down. He told them that they must behave differently and take care of others.
To be fair, there is good news as well. John proclaimed that Jesus was coming and that Jesus would baptize us with the Holy Spirit. We will be given the strength of the Holy Spirit to help us live our lives as God wishes. We must balance the good news with the good works.
Scripture often reminds us to rejoice. Matthew wrote “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven”. In the prodigal son story, the father asked his older son to “celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. When Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, John said, “the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord”.
Scripture also informs us that there is work to be done. When Jesus spoke about the judgment that will come on the last day, he described what he expected. We must feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit those in prison. In John, Jesus said, we must work the works of the God who sent me. Jesus also said, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do”.
We are a joyful people who celebrate God’s grace and God’s gifts. We are a joyful people who do good works out of thanksgiving for what we have received.
It is not quite Christmas but I hope that you will take the time to rejoice and celebrate today. We are encouraged to do good things for others in part because we feel the most joy when we do something for another person. May we have hope that God will give us a sense of balance in our lives, that we may always know how to live, how to celebrate, and how to share. Amen.
I have been thinking about the word repentance all week. John called for people to repent as he preached in the wilderness. The word repentance is found in our collect as well. The prophets preached repentance and we pray that we will heed their warnings. Most of the time I think of repentance as giving up a sin that I have committed and seeking instead to follow in the ways of the Lord. But then I read a commentary that suggested the Greeks and the Hebrews used this word in ordinary life to mean a “change of mind”. It has a similar meaning to giving up on sin but has a slightly different focus. So, in my analytical mind I decided to look it up in my Bible dictionary. I learned that repentance has several Biblical meanings that range from regret to reversal, from changing one’s mind to a complete moral or ethical conversion. Perhaps all of these ideas fit into what we are hearing on this day. How we approach repentance might be based on what we need. And it might be a little different for each one of us.
Our path to repentance may begin with regret. We are sorry for our sins. We are sorry for the people we have hurting. We are sorry for the things that have separated us from God. We wish to change all of that and bring ourselves closer to God once again.
A few may wish for a complete conversion. We, like Paul, believe that we are doing the right thing. But suddenly, we are struck by some powerful force; something like the lightning that struck Paul, and we are transformed. Paul was blinded, but in his blindness he could now see that Jesus was his Lord and Savior. I know of people who have had that sudden conversion experience. You may wish for that yourself.
I would like to spend a few minutes on the idea that repentance is a change of mind. For me, that depends on our faith. Here is one example. In May of 1950, a group of students from Oxford University gathered for a debate between atheists and Christians. The debate was chaired by C. S. Lewis. A philosophy student named Antony Flew argued the case for atheism in a speech titled “Theology and Falsification”. He subsequently published a paper based on his speech. It became the preferred argument for atheists around the world. Flew was accepted as one of the leading atheist thinkers. Now, jump forward to 2004. Flew declared that he had changed his mind. He simply believed that the evidence from science and philosophy now pointed to the existence of a God. Flew wrote that “he accepted the existence of a self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent and omniscient Being.” It took fifty plus years but Flew found repentance as defined by a changing of one’s mind.
In the last few weeks, I have encountered two people who were regular churchgoers but are no longer believers. When people find out that I am a priest, I get into some interesting dialogue. On our cruise, I met a lady who had been raised as a Christian but no longer felt comfortable with what she had been taught or believed. As we toured several cities in Southeast Asia, we often visited Buddhist temples. The people who worshipped at these temples were very sincere. They would light incense and say prayers asking Buddha to care for them in some way. After one of the stops, this lady decided that she wanted to talk with me. She said that she just didn’t understand why Christians were so consumed with believing that Jesus was God. After all, the Jewish faith only has one God, the Muslim faith has Allah and the Buddhist faith has no need for God to be human. Why then is it so important for Christians to believe that Jesus is God. We talked for awhile about the issue but neither of us changed our mind. She just no longer had faith in Jesus.
I heard another story about a woman who had been raised as a Christian who has decided that that was not right for her. She said to another person, “I just don’t get this Jesus thing”. Once again, we have a person who no longer had faith in Jesus.
Faith is something that we have and faith is something that is given to us by God as a gift. Many times we want to treat our faith as something that we have because we have studied the issues with our intellect and decided that we believe in God. I don’t think it works that way. The former atheist turned believer must have had some faith deep inside of him given by God. His faith churned inside him for fifty years as he studied and thought, finally coming to the conclusion that God existed
Faith comes from our hearts and faith is a gift that God has given us. I hope that today you are thankful for the gift of faith. Let’s thank God gives us faith so we will change our mind and turn our hearts to Jesus. We call out to Jesus praying, Come Lord Jesus and instill in our hearts faith and hope and love. Help us to change our minds. Help us to repent.
Another concept of repentance is such that we must reverse our course. We need look no further than the reading from Malachi today. This reading suggests that we must be purified, cleansed of our sins. I am not sure I would enjoy the experience very much. Refining gold and silver requires an extremely hot fire and I certainly would not like to be purified in that way. Nor would I like to be cleansed with the soap of the fuller, for the soap was powerful and the stench of the cleansing was overwhelming. Let us hope that our sins are not so bad that we need to be refined or cleansed. Wouldn’t it be better if we were just gently nudged to get rid of our sins and follow God.
Sometimes, the reversal requires us to look at something from a different point of view. There is a story that Abraham Lincoln once met with a group of ministers for a prayer breakfast. At one point one of the ministers said, “Mr President, let us pray that God is on our side”. Lincoln’s response showed far greater insight, “No, gentlemen, let us pray that we are on God’s side.” Religion is not a tool by which we get God to do what we want but an invitation to open ourselves to being and doing what God wants. Repentance then is a reversal of course. We switch from asking God for what we want to trying to understanding what God wants. Our repentance is to turn from our ways and follow God’s ways.
Regardless of the kind of change we need to experience, I want to remind you that we cannot do it alone. Yes, it does take some effort on our part and a willingness to be different, but much of the work is in God’s hands. That is why we ask once again that Jesus would come into our lives, that Jesus would help us to be changed. For we know that Jesus is the Emmanuel, God with us.
In each of our readings today, we hear about God’s coming acts that will save us. In fact, we learn that God’s justice will prevail and it will happen soon. In Canticle 16, we hear that God will come to his people and set them free. John the Baptist tells us that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. I find God’s work to be so prominent in the letter to the Philippians. Paul celebrated for the people heard God’s message to them. Our lives are no different than the people of Philippi. We have heard in Scripture that Jesus Christ is our Savior, he came to be with us and is with us still. We believe that Jesus will work with us so that we will be ready for the day that he comes. We have lived with the compassion of Jesus. And we try to show the world who Jesus is by letting our “love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help us to determine what is best”.
Advent is a time when we prepare for the coming of Jesus. We want to repent and return to the Lord. We know that we cannot do it alone. So we turn with hope and joy to Jesus and say, Come Lord Jesus, come quickly that we may do our best to live our lives just as you would have us do. Amen.
A gentleman from Ontario wrote that “When his daughters were little he would always tell them around Christmas that this is Jesus' birthday and he only received 3 things so do not be disappointed in what lies under the tree. When it came time for worship on Christmas morning, he asked the children what they thought Jesus would think of Santa and all the hype. Would Jesus ask Santa a question? His youngest daughter replied, "I think Jesus would ask how come I only got three things and none of them were toys?" ... SAL Ridgeway Ontario
Our liturgical season has changed. Thanksgiving is over and Advent has begun. Did you notice that we changed the colors on the banners to blue? The advent candle has been lit, the tone of our service is a little more contemplative. The world may have been talking about Christmas for several weeks but now we start talking about Christmas in church.
You know that Advent means coming. We look forward to the coming of Jesus. When you think about it, there are two different comings of Jesus that we prepare for. To start, we remember the first time that Jesus came to earth. We want to hear the story from Luke about how Mary and Joseph were denied a room in the Inn and we want to see the baby Jesus in the manger. That’s one coming. We believe that Jesus will come again at the end of the world. That is the second coming. Jesus told the story himself and we read it in today’s gospel. The Son of Man will appear on a cloud and judge all of heaven and earth. It will be a traumatic time with much fighting and lots of calamities on earth. It sounds like a time that we should fear. But for those of us who are faithful to Jesus, it seems like a time to look forward to because Jesus will be in full power. At that time, Jesus will judge us. It is our hope that we will be judged as having done well and we will be invited into heaven. We live our lives doing our best to follow the will of Jesus. We know it is the right thing to do and we hope that our good works will be recognized by Jesus on judgment day and that our wrongs will be forgiven. We live in the middle between these two comings of Jesus trying to look back and forward at the same time.
Most of us have been though lots and lots of Advents and Christmases. My suggestion is that you look for a way to make this Advent personal. It might mean that you change your point of view a little. Sometimes we approach Advent as something that is going to happen to us or for us. That Jesus is going to come for the whole world, or we remember that Jesus did come and did save us. I want you to think about the fact that Jesus is coming to you personally. It is not something that just happened a long time ago, or will happen later. It is something that is happening now.
What I am saying is that instead of thinking of this coming of Jesus as a passive experience, let’s find a way to be involved in it individually and actively. Jesus is coming for me and I cannot wait. I want Jesus to enter my heart and change me. Rather than remembering what did happen or imagining what might happen, let’s see if we can make something happen. Let’s seek an encounter with Jesus.
There are so many things we can do. For example, some of you will choose to have a special set of daily devotions for Advent. I have chosen to use this book called “O Wisdom, Reflections on the Names of Jesus”. Some people choose to make an Advent wreath and light candles at the dinner table just as we do here in church. Others have told me that in their house they had an advent calendar. Each day a child would open a little box on the calendar and a tiny figure would be taken out and shared. When she was younger, our daughter had a felt Advent Christmas tree. Each day, she would add an ornament to this tree. We are not kids anymore but let’s try to create some experience each day that reminds us of the coming of Jesus.
I know that many people feel the pressure of the holiday season. There are presents to buy, cards to send and gifts to wrap. There is decorating to be done and cooking to be completed. We may spend time at parties and we may make plans to see relatives. Is it possible that you could dedicate each of these activities to Jesus? After all, our decorating is about showing the light of Christ to all people. Our gifts can be given in remembrance that Christ gave us the gift of salvation. Our time spent with others reminds us of the times that Jesus shared a meal with friends or ate with those who argued with him about his mission on earth. Let’s consider our daily work this season as a way to honor Jesus.
I know that for some people, the holidays are a sad time. You miss someone who has passed or you cannot be with a loved one who is far away. I hope that you will find some solace as you turn your heart to Jesus that his coming may give you some comfort and peace.
I would encourage you try one more thing. I would suggest that you ask for and pray that Jesus will come into your life and into your heart. This is something we do often in our prayers and in our hymns. Some offer this prayer before a meal, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest and let these gifts to us be blest”. We sing the hymn, “Come Thou O Love Divine” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” as well as the anthem “E’en so Lord Jesus Quickly Come”.
Before the season is over, we will be singing that special hymn, “O come O Come Emmanuel”. But I think we should change the words a little bit. Yes we want God to be with us but not to ransom captive Israel but rather to lift us out of our depression. Yes, we want Jesus to come down from heaven and free us from Satan’s tyranny, to save us from our sins, to help us to sin no more. We want Emmanuel to come not to some ancient tribes on the mountain of Sinai but rather to those of us gathered here that we may follow the will of Jesus.
The presence of God in our lives is reflected in this beautiful passage from the letter to the Thessalonians. It is a prayer of thanks for the presence of other faithful Christians in our lives, especially those who inspire our faith and give us joy because of their dedication. It is encouragement for sharing our faith and helping each other during the times that we question our faith. It is a reminder that we live in the present, that we seek God each day and that our faith can be a source of joy. Paul was convinced that God would hear his prayers for his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica and that God would help them to grow in love and faith even though Paul could not be present with them.
At the very end of the Book of Revelation, the author, John, wrote that there will be a river of life flowing through the city and that on either side of the river there will be trees. The trees will bear fruit that will be for the healing of the nations. He writes that the Lord God will be the light and will reign forever. One of the last verses goes like this, “The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon. Amen. Come Lord Jesus”
I believe Jesus is coming to us soon, to each of us, before this year is over. In that coming, let us hope that the nations will be healed.
I would like to paraphrase from a prayer found in the Book of Occasional Services. It is our responsibility and joy to listen to the message of the angels and to go to Bethlehem to see the Son of God lying in a manger. We seek to hear and heed the story of God’s loving purpose for us including the glorious redemption brought to us by Jesus. We look forward to greeting Jesus into our lives once more on this Christmas. This Advent, we await the coming of Jesus. We remember his first coming and we prepare for the second coming. Let’s also ask Jesus to come into our life today and every day of this Advent season. Let’s have an encounter with Jesus during this holiday season. Amen.