Saturday, 26 December 2009

Sunday 27 December 2009 Luke 2:41-52, Melanie

We pray that God would meet us where we are and move us on to where he would have us be

Once upon a time there was a man who sought wisdom and studied with the wise ones of many countries and faiths. And one day a wise child was brought to him, with the explanation that this child was profound in his understandings and ability to speak. When the man asked whom the child had studied with, he was informed that the child was naturally wise, that his spirit was unsullied, and that no one had taught him. And so the man questioned him. The child answered in utterly simply and direct responses. The man was stunned and overcome with emotion. What child was this? The man was full of questions that he had carried all his life. He poured them out in a stream of never ending proportions, one building upon the next.

But the child grew restless and decided he wanted to play a game, a game of hide and seek. He told the man, ‘You hide and I’ll find you’.

But the man insisted, ‘No, you hide and I’ll find you. After all, I have great knowledge, and I can find anything, and you are just a child’.

But the child refused. ‘No, you go first. Hide and let me find you’.

So the man snapped his fingers and disappeared. The child was delighted and searched for the man. But soon the child was disappointed and almost in tears, because he realized the man had disappeared into another world.

Out loud, he said, ‘That’s not fair. You’re not supposed to hide in another world. This is a game for here.’

The man came back, marvelling at the boy’s insight and perceptions. And, in that instance, the boy disappeared. It was a game of hide and seek, and now it was his turn. The man looked everywhere, but couldn’t find the child. The child had leapt into the man’s heart, a place the man rarely ventured, alone or with anyone else. Finally, desperate to continue questioning the child, he pleaded, ‘Where are you?’

The boy answered, ‘Right here’.
The man listened, but the sound, though near, so close, was also far away, indistinct, barely discernible. ‘Where?’ he called again.

The child laughed, ‘In your heart, of course’.

But the man was lost. He did not know how to get into his heart. The child reappeared before him, stern and sad, and looked at him for a long time. And then he spoke, ‘You know, if you do not look in your own heart you will never know what wisdom and truth are or their power to reveal and transform. Deep, deep down there are rooms and caves that are full of riches and treasures, memories and hopes.’ After a while, he spoke again, ‘And if you don’t look into others’ hearts you will never find faith or love’.

With that the boy turned to leave, and the man grabbed for him, ‘No,’ the child said, ‘I have to go. There are many people I want to play my game with. But someday I will come back to play with you again. I hope you’ve practiced a lot and explored a lot more by then, Goodbye, until we meet again’. And the child vanished.

Today our reading moves us on 12 years to the time when Jesus bridged his childhood and his coming of age as a Jew.

Joseph and Mary went up to Jerusalem each year
for the feast of the Passover,
and this year is no exception.
The rituals are attended to,
the law and the story told in the Passover meal,
and then they return home.
They would have travelled in the company of others, friends,
A large group protected them from bandits, soldiers, and wild animals on the 90 mile trip.
The journey was as much a part of the festival as the rituals in the temple.
They would probably have prayed
and told stories of their history as they travelled.
It was a mini exodus.
It is not surprising that Jesus was not missed the first day out.
Eventually they found him in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking questions.
All who heard him were amazed at his intelligence and answers.
Mary’s reaction is understandable –
‘why have you done this?’
But Jesus sees the wider picture –
himself as God’s son, not only Mary’s.
He is part of the larger family of Israel.
The covenant and the law tell him that he must be in the temple ‘in his Father’s house’.
It was a different world –
one I’m not sure Mary and Joseph understood.

Jesus had vanished into a different world ;
Just as he vanished in the human world –
to a small town called Nazareth
on the border of an oppressed country,
living simply and learning wisdom.
God’s game of hide and seek was in full swing.
Only those who spend time
‘remembering all these things in their hearts’
and those who surrender in love to others’ hearts will ever find the child and recognize him
when he comes again,
grown now into the way,
the truth, the life.
The wisdom of God incarnate,
Jesus the Christ,
born of Mary,
adopted by Joseph,
hides in out of the way places,
in the countryside, on borders,
in the dwelling places of the poor,
and especially among those who watch and wait for the glory of God to be revealed.
These are the chosen ones of God,
his holy and beloved family.
This Christmas, as we come once more to the child Jesus,
let us open our eyes
not only to the human child before us,
but also to the hidden God
who calls to us from within our own hearts.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Sunday 20 December 2009, Advent 4, Mary visits Elizabeth, by Kim

I hope that you have all of your Christmas shopping done by now. For those of you who put things off till the last minute, like me, the last minute has arrived. There are officially 4 days left until Christmas. If you have Christmas presents for family members who live far away, I hope that you got them into the mail in time for them to arrive for Christmas. If you didn’t, you may find yourself doing what we find Mary doing in our gospel this morning, delivering her Christmas present to family members in person.
Mary rushes off from Nazareth in Galilee to the hill country of Judah with her Christmas present for Elizabeth. Her Christmas present is, of course, Christ Himself.
And how wonderfully wrapped her present is. I don’t know about the rest of you, but at my house, everyone always knows which presents under the tree have been wrapped by dad. The wrapping is, shall we say, unique. Long ago, at many times, God has given His Christmas present to His people of old wrapped in various ways. Uniquely wrapped in a burning bush or in a pillar of cloud and fire; wrapped in manna lying on the ground, wrapped in a rock gushing with water, wrapped in a still, small voice. But now, in these last days, He has given us His Christmas present wrapped in a virgin mother, bread and wine, water and His Word preached. But never has it been so uniquely and wonderfully wrapped as it is in the virgin Mary.
But why the great rush? Luke says that she arose and went in a HURRY to her relative, Elizabeth. For Mary, Christmas was still 9 months away. What’s the rush? Some think Mary rushed out of town before anyone found out she was pregnant. If a good Jewish girl were discovered to be pregnant out of wedlock in those days it would be scandalous and sometimes even deadly. Some think she rushed to Elizabeth’s because she needed another pregnant woman to talk to. I doubt that either of those explanations are accurate. It’s not like the hill country of Judah was any more open and accepting of single mums-to-be than Nazareth. And if Mary needed someone to talk to, surely there were other pregnant girls closer to her own age right there in Nazareth.
No, I rather think that Mary arose and went with haste to see Elizabeth because she believed what the angel Gabriel had told her. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. (Luke 1:36). Gabriel gave Mary a sign to assure her that the incomprehensible news he had just given to her about her own pregnancy was true. And Mary believed the Word she heard and did what the Word invited her to do.
Same thing happens with the shepherd in the fields watching their flocks by night. The angels appear and announce to them good news of great joy for all people. The angels give the shepherds a divine sign that their announcement is true. And this shall be a sign to you. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. And then after they sing their favourite Christmas carol and depart, St. Luke writes, And they went in a HURRY and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. Why did they leave their sheep in the fields and look for the baby in the manger? Because they believed the Word they had been told and did what the Word invited them to do.
Faith and works go together. Faith without works is dead. How do we know that Mary believed the word of the Lord delivered to her by Gabriel? She went in a HURRY to see if Elizabeth was wearing maternity clothes. Had she not believed this incredible thing that Gabriel had told her she would have simply shrugged the whole thing off and only after she missed her period and started to feeling nauseas for no real reason would have said, well maybe I ought to go see my relative Elizabeth.
So, if we picture the scene in our mind just the way Luke writes it, no sooner does Gabriel mysteriously disappear, than Mary begins to pack her bags for a trip to Elizabeth’s. Mary is not one who’s afraid of travelling, as we who know the whole story well know. And where does Elizabeth live? In the hill country of Judah. I was curious as to just where this hill country of Judah is. None of the commentaries that I have were curious about this, so, me being me, I went on the internet. Lo and behold, up popped lots of maps of the Holy Lands that show where the hill country of Judah is located. And it’s would be something like a county containing several towns and cities. There was one town that showed up prominently within the hill country of Judah. It was a little town called Bethlehem. Now I’m not saying that Elizabeth lived in Bethlehem, (In fact, it seems for sure she didn’t. If she did, Mary and Joseph wouldn’t have had such a hard time finding lodgings on Christmas night). But what I am suggesting is that as Mary leaves Nazareth in Galilee to visit her relative Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah, unbeknownst to her, she’s making a dry run of a very similar trip that she’ll be making again just 9 months later.
Faith believes the Word and does what it says and goes where it leads, in a hurry, without delay. The Word of the Lord to Mary was that the holy, Son of God was present in her womb. That Word is confirmed by the pregnancy of Elizabeth. In faith, Mary goes without delay, and her faith is confirmed.
Likewise, the Word of the Lord says to us that the holy, Son of God is present in the bread and in the wine, present for the forgiveness of all our sins, for the giving of real life and as a foretaste of the feast to come. And to that incomprehensible promise is added the following invitation. Take and eat; take and drink. So in faith, we come to this church, we come without delay expecting to find what we are told to seek. Whoever seeks, finds. God has wrapped His great Christmas gift to us in the bread and wine.
This is only half of the scene as St. Luke records it. To get the complete picture, we need to look see Elizabeth’s reaction to Mary’s visitation. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. We already know who this baby in Elizabeth’s womb is. He is John, the one who will go before the Lord to prepare His way, to give His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. The same angel Gabriel who informed Mary about her baby also informed Zechariah about Elizabeth’s baby. He said, He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. (Luke 1:15).
Allow me to digress for just a moment please. We need to switch gears and talk about shepherds. The job of the shepherds of Israel was to raise sheep and raise sheep for several purposes. For the wool to make clothing, for the meat to eat, and for the ceremonial sacrifice at the Temple. The most valuable and profitable lambs were those that were fit for sacrifice. They had to be year old males and without blemish. God had commanded the sacrifice of these lambs as the payment for the sins of the one who offered it. Sort of a mini-Passover every time a lamb was slain. The innocent lamb was accepted by God as a substitute for the guilty sinner who offered it.
Earlier, from Hebrews reading, we heard that these animal sacrifices were only a shadow of the good things to come. Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then, we hear the one who is speaking these words say, Then, I said, Behold, I have come do to your will, O God, as it is written of me. (Heb.10:5-7). So, if you will stretch your minds just a bit, can we accept the idea that Mary is the shepherd? Mary is shepherding this little lamb who is to be the sacrifice to which all the previous sacrifices were only a shadow. He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been made holy through the offering, not of sheep, but of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Heb.10:9-10).
The digression is now officially over. As Mary shepherds this pre-natal male offering without blemish, the pre-natal forerunner sticks out his foetal finger which jabs into the uterine wall of his mothers womb, and in baby talk that only a mother could understand, says, Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. John begins his ministry in the womb. And his first congregation consists of his mum and his aunt Mary. And to them, John proclaims the presence of Immanuel - God with us.
And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
This is the same leaping for joy that adult John would do as he saw the adult Jesus approaching him in the water of the Jordan River where he was preparing the way of the Lord through the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This is the same leaping for joy that we will do when this same Jesus, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, died and buried for our sins, comes again in the clouds in all His glory.
Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord. And blessed are you when you believe the same. Amen.

Sunday 6 December 2009 Advent 2 Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6 Bruce

Now is the season of Advent, the time of now and not yet, preparation for Christmas, school carols, Christingles, but also self-examination.

So John the Baptiser calls us to prepare the way of the Lord, to repent, and this is the good news.

In Philippians Paul gives us a similarly mixed message, not contradictory, but bitter and sweet, or chocolate with a hint of chilli!

Twofold purposes of the letter:
Thanks for the money (B and B Letter), and
Encouragement to be like Christ, to be changed, to think well and live well.

The passage before us lays out the themes of the whole letter.

First, thankfulness to God: Prayers rejoicing in their partnership in the gospel, and in the good work God is doing in us, until its completion on the day of Christ Jesus. That is the Advent hope.

Paul holds the Philippians in his heart whether he is in chains or free, whether things are good and bad.

1:15 some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry

1:18 Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance
2:17 even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.
And they, of course, will share in the same:
1:29For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

He talks of their sharing in God’s grace, and of his longing, his affection, (literally bowels). This is, of course, to be replicated in the way that they get on with each other:

2:1If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness (bowels) and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.

In the third paragraph, Paul prays that their love may abound in knowledge, and depth of insight. As they discern what is best, this will enable them to be pure blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness, to the glory and praise of God.

He is talking about behaving well:

1:27 conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

2:2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.

2:12 continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,

2:14Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15so that you may become blameless and pure,

He could be quite specific:

4:2I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.

I wonder what they had fallen out about?

He could recommend a Way of Life or Rule of life, and was perhaps more prescriptive than we are used to:

17Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. 18For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.

And what is most significant in helping us to live well? It is our thoughts and attitudes:

3: 1Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! If rejoicing in God, there is less opportunity for moping or feeling hard done by.

3:10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

3:15All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

4:4Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.
4:8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Paul finishes on a note of thankfulness to the Philippians, and praise to God.
4:10I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me.
4:19And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
Amen. May God give each of us grace to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may act well towards each other and towards God, and that we may become progressively more aware of his great power to change us from within into the image of his Son, and to provide for all our needs.


Daniel 7: 9 – 14 Luke 21: 20 – 36

To understand the Gospel I have just read, you have to go back towards the beginning of the chapter and verses 5 & 6. Jesus and his disciples are in the temple in Jerusalem. We read: “Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, ‘As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down’.” This gives the context for his teaching in our Gospel.

This was the third temple to be built on this site. The first was Solomon’s temple built in the glory days of the 10th century BC. This was destroyed in the 6th century BC, when Israel foolishly took on the Babylonians, Jerusalem was sacked and the people deported to Babylon. After fifty year or so, when Persia become the dominant power, King Cyrus allowed many of them to return, and a second temple was built, although they were only allowed to build a smaller version, and we read in Ezra chapter 3:12, that those who could remember Solomon’s temple wept when they saw the small scale of the new foundations.

Nevertheless, all the temple functions could be resumed, and this temple proved a potent symbol which helped the Jewish people in the great struggle that was to follow, when the Greek empire made strenuous efforts to impose Greek culture and religion.

But when Herod the Great came to power, he planned a magnificent rebuild. Work began in 19BC and by the time Jesus visited the temple at the age of twelve, (as Luke describes in chapter 2), it was substantially complete. However work continued for over 60 more years and it wasn’t entirely finished until 63AD.

To get an idea of what Jesus and the disciples were looking at, you have to turn to the Jewish historian Josephus. The pillars were of white marble, forty feet high, each made of a single block of stone. One of the adornments was a solid gold vine, each of the clusters being as tall as a man. He writes (see quote):

No wonder the disciples from the Galilean countryside were mightily impressed. No wonder it was unthinkable to the Jews that it could ever be destroyed. But Jesus says it will be utterly demolished, and when asked when this will take place, he warns them of the signs. ‘When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that the desolation is near’ and he goes on to tell them to get out as quickly as possible when they see this happening.

The Roman attack in which this prophecy was fulfilled was in 70AD. A Jewish rebellion led Emperor Titus to lay siege to Jerusalem, sack the city and fire its temple, just seven years after that wonderful building, so greatly admired, had finally been completed. Josephus says that over a million people died in the siege and final assault, and about 100,000 were subsequently deported. So Jesus’ prediction and warning were only too tragically fulfilled. With political upheaval shaking the foundations of the Roman Empire at the same time, it must indeed have felt as if the end of the world was coming. The temple site was destined to lie vacant with little except what we now know as the Wailing Wall remaining, until the Islamic Dome of the Rock was built on Temple Mount at the end of the 7th century. Jewish temple worship was gone for ever.

Jesus could see only too clearly beyond the dazzling temple image in front of their eyes. Perhaps this was partly because, like some of the greatest of the prophets before him, he too came from the countryside, and was never impressed by bright city lights, impressive buildings and political intrigue. But more importantly, he was never deceived by media headlines, popular opinion, impressive people with high-sounding words – all the things which crowd in on us, then as now. His focus was on God his Father, and by daily prayer and obedience to his Father’s will, he could see through it all. He could see the truth about his own life and where it would lead him, inspite of all the reassurances of the disciples that God would step in to prevent any attempt on his life. And he could see through the political compromises of his day. He knew only too well that the impulse to rebellion against Roman occupation was too strong to be kept down indefinitely by those who struggled to maintain the status quo. Jerusalem was doomed and this was intimately intertwined with Jesus’ own fate, and we read on in the next chapter about how Judas agreed to betray Jesus. The two go together.

For there is much more to this prophecy than just the destruction of a city and a temple. Luke, who is writing not only after Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed, but also as a Greek to commend Jesus and his kingdom to Greeks, could see exactly why Jesus here introduces the reference to the prophecy in Daniel which we read earlier.

Daniel has a vision of Almighty God on his throne in great glory, and then of what he calls ‘one like a son of man’ coming with the clouds of heaven (from earth), approaching God’s throne, and being led into his presence, where he is given by God authority, glory and sovereign power.

This is the prophetic vision which is gloriously fulfilled at the resurrection and ascension. Luke has this prophecy clearly in the front of his mind when he describes in Acts chapter one how the risen Jesus ascends with the clouds of heaven to the Father (exactly as Daniel had said). And in the letter to the Hebrews, we read how now we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God – who is at the right hand of the Father, and who ever lives to intercede for us.

Luke was Paul’s companion on some of his missionary journeys, and I feel I can see as he writes this Gospel passage, having experienced at least part of its fulfilment, how the temple has now completely lost its relevance and become consigned to history, because our great high priest is now in heaven, having made once for all the perfect sacrifice for sin. And here on earth, Paul has smashed through the barrier of Jewish law and sacrifice, and taken the Gospel of the Kingdom to him, a Greek, and hundreds like him all over the empire. And with the coming of the Holy Spirit, redemption is not now centred in any earthly place, such as a temple, but – free as the wind – can carry to the ends of the earth.

So Jesus could see only too clearly how the day of judgment on Israel was at hand. Their rejection of God’s anointed Messiah brought judgment on them, while (on the positive side), it released the Gospel to the whole world – and of that we ourselves are, of course, among the beneficiaries.

So far so good. But, beyond all of that, we sense here Jesus’ prophetic eyes seeing far into the future and to a final day of judgment. It will be a day of judgment on the world (verse 35), but Advent calls us to note very carefully that it will be a judgment also on the Church (verse 36). We have taken Israel’s place. We are now God’s chosen people to be a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’. We have the full revelation of God’s promise in Jesus. We have the full power of God in the Holy Spirit. From the fig tree learn the lesson. If the Church fails, God will find another way.

Advent calls us to consider our faith, our worship, our priorities, our mission. Jesus’ words here are a solemn warning to the Church which sadly, at the moment, seems fatally divided and spends its time quarrelling over internal and often trivial matters. How much we need to repent and change our ways. And unless we do, God’s judgment will just as surely fall on us.

But there is also here a message of hope. There is a call here to lift up our eyes and see beyond the sinful mud on our feet that bogs us down, and to focus on the glory that is to be revealed. There is the encouragement that helps us shake off all that weighs us down, and look for the day when Jesus will come again in glory. This Advent, Jesus is here calling us to repent of our pathetic divisions and shameful lack of conviction, and to do so by lifting our eyes to the sovereign Jesus to whom all authority has been given, from whom all our inspiration comes, and who will one day come again in glory. To see that vision is the first step in our preparation for Christmas.

1. In what practical ways can we best prepare to celebrate Christmas?

2. ”He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” (Nicene Creed). What do you understand by this?