Bible Text: Genesis 12: 1-9 & Mark 16: 14-19 | Preacher: Speaker: Phyllis McMaster Reciprocare “Is this really a word” Yes it is it is Latin and means to move back and forth. Other meanings Help each other Interact Interdepend Isn’t this what mission is all about “Helping each other” Todays sermon was written by Rev Shirley Gale. Shirley grew up in Perth and following graduation from Presbyterian College she has served congregations in Montreal, Forest, Port Perry, Ashburn and Guelph. She is now retired but she hasn’t stopped working. She continues to work doing pulpit supply and with congregations on future planning and with those preparing to receive a new minister. In his book, “Disappointment with God”, Philip Yancey relates this story from his own life. One time when Yancey and his mother were looking through a box of old photos he came across a crumpled picture of himself at 18 months. He asked her why she had kept this one. His mother explained that Yancey’s father, at 24, had lain completely paralyzed by polio and was encased from the neck down in a huge, cylindrical breathing unit. Due to the severity of his illness his two young sons were banned from the hospital, so Yancey’s mother hung this photo from the breathing unit just above Yancey’s father’s head. The last four months of his life were spent looking at the faces he loved. Yancey said: “that crumpled photo, was one of the few links connecting me to my father. Someone I have no memory of, and who spent all day, every day loving me.” Yancey went on to say: “ . . .the emotions I felt when I saw that crumpled photo were the very same emotions I felt that night in my college dorm-room when I first believed in a God of love…and realized Someone is there who loves me. It was a startling feeling of hope, a feeling so new and overwhelming that it seemed fully worth risking my life on. That photo and what it represented, had a profound impact on Philip Yancy’s life and faith. I’m sure neither his mother or father would ever have thought that God would work so powerfully through such a simple thing as a photo, nor did they likely consider themselves to be missionaries to their own son. We serve a God who is always at work, a God whose love is unmeasurable, unconditional, and missional. Missional? Yes, our God is a missional God, whose mission is to draw all people to God’s self in love. God pursues this mission in more ways than we can possibly imagine. One of those ways is in and through people. The primary purpose of the Church, is for its people to go into the world, near and far, serving as God’s missionaries. Serving isn’t always easy, nor is it done in ways that we expect. Dorothy was from small town where she attended the Presbyterian church She was a life-time member of the WMS and regularly attended worship. She was very active in the congregation, until shortly after the birth of her daughter when she became bed-ridden with a crippling illness. Each day, for many years, her husband would carry Dorothy to a specially constructed seat in their front window where she would spend the day overlooking the town’s main street. Jean*, a young, six-year-old girl, who attended Sunday School at the same church, started visiting Dorothy twice a week. In the summer, she brought flowers from her mother’s garden. These visits continued until Dorothy’s death seven years later. During these visits, Dorothy would talk about her life, her faith, and all the wonderful things she observed from her second-floor window-seat. Even though she didn’t know all the people that passed by her window she prayed for them. In her gentle way, Dorothy taught and mentored Jean in her faith journey and planted the seeds of her understanding of mission. Dorothy made Jean feel that she was an acceptable, worthy person whom God loved. What a wonderful gift to give an extremely shy young girl who wanted nothing more than to be invisible so people wouldn’t see her! After each visit with Dorothy, instead of walking, as usual, close to the buildings, with her head down, hoping she was unnoticed, Jean walked to school down the middle of the sidewalk with her head up, and her face decorated with a big smile. Isn’t it amazing how God used a woman who could no longer walk to help a young girl to walk with new dignity and joy? Jean eventually answered God’s call to serve as an Ordained Minister, which she does still today. Dorothy was only one of many people over the years who helped shape Jean’s life and faith. Dorothy may not have realized it, but she was really a missionary - right on her door-step. Today, there is still a great need for such a missionary-minded, nurturing community for the Church to be what God calls it to be and Jesus commanded it to be. We are to be a caring place where people seek God’s guidance to discover effective and meaningful ways to participate in God’s mission. As God’s missionaries we are called to use, whatever gifts and means God entrusts to us. Sometimes things stand in our way to fulfilling God’s call to serve. Age, physical limitations, work or family obligations, not enough time, financial challenges, or our misgivings about abilities can give us a feeling of not being properly equipped to do God’s work. It is important to trust that God has given us the gifts and means, we only have to listen and act. We are reminded by the Apostle Paul that it is often at our own point of weakness that God does God’s greatest work. Paul pleaded with God to be relieved of his weakness – his “thorn in the flesh,” he called it). God responded to Paul saying: ”My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” It is often in times of weakness God calls us to tasks we feel unable to accomplish. The Rev. Shirley Gale, the writer of today’s Mission Awareness Sunday service, was reminded of this call one Sunday just before worship. Knox Church in Guelph has a position called Pastoral Assistant. The position focuses on seniors within the congregation and the community, especially those who live in nursing homes and senior residences, or those unable to attend Sunday worship or other church functions. Shirley was approached one Sunday morning to fill the position. Shirley, now seventy-three, and retired from ministry because of Multiple Sclerosis, thought she was too old to start active ministry again. Shirley suggested that the position needed a younger, healthier person. Shirley sat down in the pew thinking the matter over. Well, for over two years now, Shirley has been serving as the Pastoral Assistant. For Shirley, these years have been rewarding and meaningful, even though at times physically challenging. She is reminded every day that God does use us despite our limitations. Through her work Shirley met Margaret, a person for more than ten years has resided in a full-care facility, bed-ridden because of severe Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. She can no longer move without assistance, nor can she feed herself. And yet, Margaret cheerfully greets each visitor with a warm, bright smile and a receptive ear. What is exceptional about Margaret is her deep faith and the way she shares it so sincerely and simply with everyone. She prays daily for the staff, her visitors, her family, her church family, and the church’s ministries. She believes her mission is prayer and encouragement for those who do and those who don’t know the Lord. She does it humbly and faithfully. Margaret is one of the persons who has caused Shirley to reflect anew on the nature of mission and how it is so often reciprocal—or as Shirley now calls it ReciproCare. Shirley puts it this way: ReciproCare is simply caring for others and acknowledging that others can and do care for us in return. And, for this reason it is an integral and inseparable part of mission. ReciproCare is giving something of ourselves and realizing that in the very act of giving our gift-of caring the receiver actually cares for us, blesses us in return. God is present and at work in the giving and receiving of care. The fact is, the things we do for good or ill, affect the lives of others whether we realize it or not. Jane Goodall, renowned for her work among the Tanzanian chimps, said it this way: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world round you. The truth is we do make a difference, and we have to decide what kind of difference we want to make.” Every day is a new day God has given us in which we can “have an impact on the world” around us. A day when we can touch the lives of others with the caring love of our God, and in the process be touched by them. Opportunities and need for mission are all around us - it can be as close as our own homes, on our doorsteps, or next door, and it is far beyond us in places where only our hearts and tangible expressions of care can reach. We are called to care. ReciproCare is a gift that blesses both the one who receives the caring act and the one who gives this gift because this reciprocal experience is a powerful reminder of God’s gift of constant, loving care of The Apostle Paul reminds us of the importance of the reciprocal nature of ministry in his letter to the Romans (1:11–12) “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong.” And then adds, “That is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” Remember that God’s love and grace equips you to be a missionary today, near and far. God’s mission is the loving redemption and renewal of all people and creation - it is this Mission we are called to live each day, or as one person has said: “To be living Gospels.” Jesus said it this way: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” We can do this assured that we do not journey alone for as Jesus also Said in Matthew: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” In spring our attention turns to planting and renewing our gardens and farm fields. #1 PLANT THE SPIRITUAL SEEDS OF JESUS’S LOVE IN YOUR HEART. #2 PLANT NEWS OF JESUS IN YOUR HEART #3 AS IT SPROUTS AND GROWS - IT STRENGTHENS #4 JESUS WANTS TO SEND YOU TO PLANT THE SEEDS OF HIS LOVE IN OTHERS #5 JESUS WANTS TO SEND YOU TO SPREAD GOOD NEWS OF HIM TO OTHERS. A satisfying life is not measured by what you have but by what you give. You may only be someone in the world but to someone else you may be the world. I can’t change the direction of the wind but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination. Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough and more. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Great opportunities to help others seldom come, but small ones surround us everyday. Let us Pray: Thank you Lord for loving and caring for us and may we reciprocare those to feeling to those around us. In Jesus name we pray. Amen. Phyllis MacMaster
Bible Text: Acts 3:12-19 1 John 3:1-7 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp We are truly the product of our experiences. For us today our experience of church and even how we express our faith in God is so much shaped by the history and ideas of those who have preceded us. As a Christian church and specifically Presbyterian denomination we view the world and our relation to it from a certain theological perspective. That perspective has been shaped and reshaped over the centuries by the reflections of major thinkers who have sought to guide us in our worship of and life with God so as to ensure that we were doing everything that was right and proper. Certainly we can say that they didn’t get it all right but we must consider carefully that they ever sought to lead us on a path to a proper and full understanding of who we are as a creation of God and how best to be the people they believed God had created us to be. As you can no doubt appreciate - even from reading the four gospels and the many letters which compose the accepted version of the Bible and chroncile the birth of the Christian church - there were many different ways of interpreting not only what we are to believe about God but how we are to express that belief not only in worship but in our daily living. In fact there are many points in the growth and spread of the Christian faith where conflicts arose over how to interpret the words of the writers of the Bible and even how to guide the faith of the people so as to develop a proper view of God and ensure that people took the right path. And so it was that there developed in a part of the world isolated from the influence of the Roman Empire and the religious thought in Rome, a way of seeing God and our faith in God that led the people to an understanding of their world and their relationship to God that was a challenge to the accepted position of church leaders such as Augustine and Jerome. What I am speaking about is the Celtic church. The Celtic church had developed a spirituality that stood in sharp contrast to the Roman church. Firmly rooted in the spirituality of the gospel of St. John, the Celtic church listened for the heartbeat of God. They believed that this heartbeat is at the heart of all life while the Roman church listened for God in the ordained teaching and life of the church. At a synod of the church catholic in 664, the decision was made that only one view would prevail. The decision was for the Roman church and so the spiritual heritage of the Celtic church was discouraged and gradually over time it faded into obscurity. Rather than believing that both ways of seeing God and our relationship to Him were good and acceptable, the decision was made to accept one and reject the other – the belief being that this would promote unity in the church. Of course we know that God does not meet us all in the same way and that each of us finds God or is found by Him in our own time. And so what was it that so alarmed the traditional church fathers who sought to protect the orthodoxy of the church from these radical Christians? There were two things that troubled the Roman church. The first was the Celtic emphasis on creation. For the Celts, God was not just the creator but inherently present in all of creation. For the Celtic church God could not and should not be separated from the creation. While many of us think of the created world like a piece of art that stands on its own once finished, the Celts believed that God has never stepped back from creation. In fact the belief is that God dwells within every part of the created order. The world in which we live cannot be distanced from us. And even though there will be a new heaven and earth, the beauty and vibrancy found in the world as it is cannot be seen apart from God. For the Celtic church, we are to seek God by looking towards the heart of life, not away from life. To believe that the heartbeat of God is found in all of creation causes us to pause and give serious consideration to how we interact with all of creation. It forces us to consider more carefully what it means to be a steward of creation. You could say that the Celtic church was more sensitive to the environment as all of life contains the sacred presence of God and needs to be respected and honoured. One other point of conflict between the Celtic and Roman church was whether or not the image of God was present in all people or only those who believed in God as expressed through the church. Perhaps you have heard of Pelagius. He is associated with a heresy that has led him to be condemned as one of the greatest deceivers of Christians of all time. Sadly, the difference in interpretation of the faith between Pelagius and Augustine became a political struggle that ended with the excommunication of Pelagius and the push to eradicate any of the theological views of the Celtic church. Pelagius maintained that the image of God can be seen in every newborn child and that, although obscured by sin, it exists at the heart of every person, waiting to be released through the grace of God. Pelagius was up against Augustine who not only was one of the great theologians of his time but who lived closer to the political centre of the faith. It was his interpretation that every one of us is born sinful and that the image of God can only be restored to us through the Church and its sacraments. Augustine developed a spirituality that accentuated a division between the Church, which was seen as holy, and the life of the world, perceived as godless. And while we may think that the Celtic spirituality grew out of a misguided path borne of an isolation it actually has its roots in the teaching of St. John and even to the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. It was a spirituality characterized by a listening within all things for the life of God. While this series of talks will not be presented consecutively due to a number of special events, there will be six over the next two to three months. All will be posted on the website for you to review or catch up on what you missed. As with any topic that concern our faith in and life with God, the spirituality of the Celtic church will resonate with some of you while others may opt for a different path. However, I believe it is important for us to understand and appreciate that while we all come to God in Christ, we may choose different ways to find our way there. My prayer is that you will find in this series something to help you plumb deeper into the mystery of life itself and your life with God. Reverend Bruce Kemp
Bible Text: Acts 4:32-35 and Luke 24:1-35 | Preacher: Rev. Feras Chamas Different people describe life differently, but no one will disagree that it’s anything but perfect. We all believe life can be better if we do this or that or if this thing or that thing can take place. In any given day, the idea of changing things occurs to us more than once. We would often say to ourselves: “if only this or that can happen, things can look much better.” Usually, when we need to fly somewhere, we chose an airline that we can trust & afford. However, when we need to go somewhere in our minds we usually start by using what they call “if clauses” or “conditional clauses”. “If clauses” can help us to start to imagine the change we want to see so we can work on it. In this sense, “if clauses” can help us see the things that can’t be seen to the naked eye. Or they can help us see the turns our life needs to be taking. “If clauses” are very powerful; they give us the energy to explore possibilities beyond our immediate context. Today is the 2nd Sunday of Easter. Easter is a very special time for church people. It’s the corner stone of our faith. We believe nothing happens without this belief. Jesus' resurrection from the dead is what makes us who we are: “Easter people”. But as we came here last week and exchanged Easter wishes with each other, and as we do this almost every year, we are aware the world around us does not share with us the faith in the resurrected Christ. I think it’s fair to say that many people in this world don’t see the resurrection happening because it’s not seen to the naked eye. The world does not share our faith in the empty tomb because it does not exist in its immediate context. I wonder if I can invite you today to see what can’t be see and explore beyond where we’d normally stop by using our “if clauses”. I wonder how we’d we chose to finish the sentence that starts by saying: “If Jesus was risen …” Allow me this morning to suggest three answers for the sentence that starts: If Jesus is risen - what will happen? Let us start: If Jesus is risen…you will not come for anointment, rather you will come for testimony. It was the custom in the Middle East to put spices to the dead bodies. Usually they would do that before burial, but in Jesus’ case they couldn’t because they had to bring him down from the cross and bury him quickly before the Sabbath started. In the Jewish law, if the Sabbath starts while you are impure because you have touched a dead body, you will be looking at a difficult week until the next Sabbath. So, early in the morning, dawn time, some ladies (mother of Jesus accompanied by family & friends) went to the tomb to anoint Jesus. But Jesus was risen; he was not there. When the ladies found out that the stone was rolled away, and did not find the body in the tomb and were told by the angels that Jesus was risen as he had foretold them, who would care about the spices and the ointment anymore! Spices were expensive and hard to get, but who would care for them anymore when Jesus was risen? The angels asked Mary and her company to go and tell his disciples about that. When these ladies left their houses early in the morning, while it was still dark, they had an assignment in their minds (they had something to do). They had to anoint the dead body, but when they left the tomb they had a totally different mission: they are to tell Jesus friends that he is not dead - he is risen! There is no way to compare the two things: the first is so painful and sad - a mother anointing her dead son. The second is bringing the good news to those people. What would you chose? Years ago, in winter time, I had to take the train to get to my school. Many details of those mornings made me remember Mary and the ladies who went with her for Jesus anointment. We had to be in the station early in the morning while it was still dark - and of course it was bitterly cold. Only one look at some people’s faces was enough to tell you how unhappy they were to be there at that hour going to their work. Mary and her friends were not super happy about their mission that morning. If Jesus is not risen in our life, we will not be happy with our life mission. We will be probably busy doing things that we will get tired from soon. Those who came to anoint a dead body left with a mission (with a transforming mission) they were to bring good news to the people (what can be better?). In what sense are we anointing dead bodies in our lives? Do we want to have a real mission? Listen to this: Jesus is risen indeed and this can change your life. According to some articles which I came through when I was looking to learn more about “if clauses”: The first thing you have to do if you win the lottery is to stay anonymous. But if Jesus is risen, go for a testimony (for a new mission; not an old one like anointing dead bodies). The second answer: if Jesus is risen, you will not look for the living among the dead? When the angels met the ladies in the empty tomb they asked them: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? Jesus is the lord of life, death couldn’t hold him. Death is the power of nothing; Jesus is the lord of the creation (he is the Lord of every living thing). Death did not have the last word in Jesus story; life did because Jesus is the life. The angels asked the ladies a very big question: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Have we ever done that? Have we looked for the living among the dead? We don’t need to buy spices and leave our houses at dawn, while it is still dark, to be looking for the living among the dead. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian novelist who is considered one of the most significant authors of our times, was asked where he gets his stories from. He said: “I go to the poor streets of Mexico city; if you go to Avenue Foch (a street in Paris) you will get nothing” and then he said: “do not look for the living among the dead”. Avenue Foch is one of the most expensive and prestigious addresses in the world. Of course we are not judging the people who live in that Avenue or in any other one, but the point is that life is not found where we usually expect it. The world’s compass can be misleading. Too many people look for life where it is not found. I think each one of us has to ask his or her self: where am I looking for life? Are we looking for life among the dead? Do you remember the story of the Samaritan woman? She was looking for water (water is life), but Jesus told her she needed to ask him for the living water. We go out for water every day (for life in different forms). Jesus tells us you need to ask him for the living water. We don’t need to be looking for the life among the dead, Jesus is the life; he’d gladly give it to us. If Jesus is risen you will not look for life among the dead! If Jesus is risen in your life, you will not go to Emmaus. When the people who accompanied Jesus heard that he was dead, they started to go back to where they came from. People went back to their cities and villages. They thought…..it is over. They thought that the beautiful and promising story had ended in a bad way. Two of the disciples went back to their village called Emmaus. The risen Christ met, explained to them what happened and broke bread with them. Jesus made himself known in the road of Emmaus. Their eyes were opened and they came to understand that Jesus has risen indeed. Once they embraced that, they went again to Jerusalem. Most of the people have a faith story in their life, but this story comes to an end at some time. Some of the stories end in a bad way, others just give up on their faith. When our faith stories come to an end we go back to Emmaus. It is a sad and unfortunate trip. There is a heavy traffic on the road to Emmaus. Many people think that faith stories are over and they don’t make sense any more. The risen Lord is on that road all the time: meeting people, explaining to them and even breaking bread; making himself known to them in mysterious ways. Some people have their eyes opened, others not. Did I say that “most of the people have a faith story in their life”? Well, I should have said also “all of us have faith stories that had sore ends”. If our eyes were opened, we will change our way. If our eyes were opened, we will go to Jerusalem. Emmaus is the way out (is the way of giving up), the way to Jerusalem is the way in (the way of keeping on). We take the road to Emmaus when our faith candle is put out; we take the road to Jerusalem when our faith candle is kindled again. Usually, in the bible there are two famous roads: the narrow & the wide roads. Well I think we should be remembering these two roads too: Emmaus and Jerusalem. The resurrection is an excellent opportunity for us to have our eyes opened. If Christ is risen in our life we will not go on the road to Emmaus, we will go on the road to Jerusalem. Biblically and theologically, going to Jerusalem is going up. Jerusalem is seen as the roof of the world, the top point of the world and for a good reason. The Israeli air lines are called ALLIA, which means going up because they land in Jerusalem. Every road is a downhill road if you compare it with going up to Jerusalem. If Jesus is risen you will go from the valley to the top of the mountain. Yes, life is anything but perfect. Certain things have to happen for it to change. If Jesus is risen in our life, this change will take place. We will not come for anointment, rather we will come for testimony. We will not look for the living among the dead - we will not go to Emmaus. Feras Chamas April 12, 2015 Chesterville Winchester Morewood
Bible Text: Mark 16:1-8 For the love of Peter – Mark 16:1-8 Perhaps it is hard to imagine life without Easter because the experience of Easter has been with us our whole life or – at the very least – as long as we have had faith in God. But there was a time when Easter didn’t even exist. True enough, there was no celebration called Easter before the events that we have remembered this past week but even in the days of the early church there was no set date for the celebration of Easter as the early church saw every Sunday as a continuation of Easter. However, as time went by, the need to establish a fixed time to focus on the events of Easter grew and so the church universal decided on a celebration in the spring. This was influenced by the proximity of the original event to the Jewish feast of Passover. But in time there was a division within the church with the Eastern Church celebrating the event at the traditional time of Passover while the Western Church decided on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. And as with other major days in the Christian calendar, Easter as a fixed celebration did not take hold until the 4th century and even then it did not find its final place in the calendar until the 8th century. And so the church found in the cultures that surrounded it a word that drew upon the tradition of celebrating the rebirth of life in the world with the coming of spring. Like the dawn of a new day and the awakening of the world from slumber, the name chosen would be Easter. But let’s get back to that time before there even was an Easter. Imagine if you will that Jesus died on the cross and there was no resurrection. Certainly the teaching of Jesus would have had a profound impact on the faith community of the Jewish people and many of them may have continued to teach and preach His message. But there would have been a great hole in the hearts and lives of the people. They would have been left wondering about the miracles they had witnessed, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The disciples themselves would have been left with even more questions about that Passover meal at which Jesus washed their feet and spoke of the blood of the Passover becoming His blood. For Peter, the absence of Easter would have left him with a sick feeling in his stomach and heart as he would be left with the image of His Lord and Master standing alone. Peter, whose brave words turned to words of denial not once, not twice but three times just as Jesus had predicted. Peter’s bravery in the garden turned to cowardice in the courtyard. Yet who could blame him? He had followed this carpenter’s son from Nazareth through thick and thin but now he was faced with the might of Rome and the intense displeasure of the recognized leaders of the faith. If only he could believe that the promise of Jesus would come true, he might have dared to stand with Him. But Peter – like the rest – had come to believe that all the bravado from Jesus was just that. He had come to believe that there would be no resurrection for he had heard from John and Mary that he had died. Joseph of Arimathea had taken the body from the cross and buried it in a tomb. A rock had covered the opening. There was no tomorrow! But when the women arrived at the tomb to anoint the body, they found that the tomb had been opened and that it was empty. A messenger from God gives them the news that Jesus is not dead but that He is alive. The women are to go and tell the disciples and Peter to expect a visit from Jesus. And so they go to tell them. But why single out Peter? There are perhaps many reasons for this. Peter is the boldest of the disciples. He is one of – if not the most senior of the disciples. He is the one who refused to be washed by Jesus then wanted the full deal. He was the one who asked the most questions and yet who trusted Jesus the most. He was also the only one to dare to say that he would follow Jesus to the end and then denied even knowing Him. More than even any of the others, Peter needed to hear the message that Jesus was alive. More than even any of the others, Peter needed to be reassured that his trust in Jesus was not ill-founded. More than any of the others, Peter needed to know that Jesus had forgiven him and that he had not lost the trust of His Lord and Master. Without the resurrection, the crucifixion and the words of Jesus at that last Passover would have been hollow empty events devoid of any real purpose or meaning. But with the resurrection, those events made perfect sense. Peter and the others could now begin to understand so much more of what Jesus had told them in parable and in action. God had broken into the world in a way never before imagined. He had lived the life of His people and He had allowed Himself to suffer on their behalf. Perhaps His death would only have been remembered by those who believed but His resurrection would remind believers and non-believers alike that this was no ordinary man. In the resurrection God is telling all who would hear it that He desires nothing more than to open the door that stands between us and to invite us to come in and be at peace. He did this not for His sake but for ours. He did it for the love of Peter and for the love of us! AMEN.
Bible Text: Mark 11: 1-11 The Meaning of the Palm – Mark 11:1-11 The palm tree is something that we associate with countries both in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. When we think of them we imagine them as large and majestic swaying in the gentle tropical breezes. Perhaps we wish we were there instead of here. For Christians this is the Sunday on which we begin again that journey with our Lord from great expectation through a time of sombre reflection to a time of great sorrow and angst from which we emerge with fresh hope on Easter morning. Today we are at that place in the story where the people are gathering to celebrate the Passover. This is the single most important religious event in the life of the people. While there have been many times when the people have experienced deliverance from persecution, the flight from Egypt was a turning point for the people. Every restoration that they experienced after this one was a return to the land promised to them by God but the exodus from Egypt with Moses was its beginning. Before this they were a nomadic family whose journey had taken them across many lands and placed them in the midst of foreigners. But with the exodus from Egypt the people were not only released from their bondage to the Egyptians, they also became a people whom the angel of death had passed over. And so the Passover marked for the people a turning point in their life as a nation. Clearly that experience of deliverance from the hand of death set them on a path with God – one which required of them a response. Their deliverance was marked by a new covenant relationship between the people and God. God would be their God and they would be His people. The Ten Commandments were given by God to Moses as guideposts for the people in this new relationship. And so the people had begun to come to Jerusalem to celebrate this wonderful event. Perhaps we find it strange that the people felt such a strong pull to come to Jerusalem. We live in a vast land filled with many places where we can go to celebrate the key events of the faith. We also probably do not think of a certain place in the world where we would want to go to celebrate these events. But then we do not celebrate the Christian Passover once a year. We celebrate it 4 times a year and other communities celebrate it more often. But for the Jewish people it is the Sabbath that they observe every week. And so for them the Passover is very special. And with Jerusalem being the spiritual capital of the faith and the place where the temple was built, that is the place to celebrate this most momentous occasion. And so for Jesus who knew that His ministry would lead Him to be condemned to death, it made the most sense that He would go with His disciples to the very spiritual centre of the nation and there not only celebrate the Passover with them but change the meaning of Passover forever. And so we are here in this the year of our Lord 2015 to celebrate His coming to Jerusalem. Jesus, the Son of God, the Lamb of God, come to the spiritual centre of that time to reveal to the people that God was not just to be remembered for what He had done in one time and place but for what He was doing now that would have an effect on the life of the world and its people from this time forward. It wasn’t until the 4th century that the ceremony of the blessing of and procession with palms began. The first place where it originated was Jerusalem. Gradually it was introduced into the ancient land of Gaul and then in Rome. In the Middle Ages the rite became quite elaborate and a procession was held from church to church through the towns. But it was not until 1955 when Pope Pius XII restored the practice of Holy Week that the procession of the palms became part of the annual celebrations of the church. As for the palm itself, it has always been a choice tree in the area of the Middle East for centuries and among all peoples of the region. It is a princely tree. Anything that stands that tall and commands attention would naturally be viewed in that way. The fact that it grows in areas bordering desert lands and that it provides shelter and shade from the heat of the sun as well as providing fruit when it is a date palm. A branch of the palm tree was used as a symbol of victory and well-being by both the Romans and the Jews. Palm branches were also used on festive occasions as part of the bouquet given as a sign of homage to a hero or to celebrate victory. Later in the New Testament they are connected with martyrdom (Rev 7:9) and even later still they were used to decorate tombs in the catacombs as a memorial of the triumphal death of the martyrs. Even in the Psalms (92:12-13), the palm was already the symbol of the just man who flourishes like the palm tree: strong, supple and graceful. Finally on early sarcophagi and mosaics, Christ and the Apostles are pictured amid palms or carrying palms, which have become a symbol of paradise. So the choice of the Palm branch as a sign to welcome Jesus to Jerusalem was not just a matter of convenience. It was not used because it was a common plant. It was used with great intention. For the people who met Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, Jesus was a hero. He was a person who had taught them about God in a way they had never before heard. They had been taught to understand their relationship to God in a new way, a deeper way. They had learned that their God was not so much a God of rules but a God of mercy. They learned that He was not so much a God of judgment and condemnation as a God of forgiveness and reconciliation. The people had found in Jesus one who understood their pain and healed their diseases. They found in Him a person who could show their God to be a God of love not hate, a God of compassion not vindictiveness, a God who realized that they would always struggle to do everything commanded of them. In Jesus they saw the human face of their God. And they were drawn to that humanity. It was always God’s desire to walk in the garden with the people, to ever be in a place where there would be no gulf between them. Jesus was creating that bridge between God and the people. And while they still did not fully understand all that God was willing to do for them in Jesus, they understood enough to know that it was a wonderful thing to see Jesus in Jerusalem and especially at the time of the Passover. Jesus would change what Passover meant but on this day He was for the people a hero because He had made God real to them in a say that had been lost for so many years. The words from Isaiah 50 are part of what we consider to be the servant songs and prophecies concerning the life of Jesus. Our passage today reads like a picture not only of the life of Jesus but of His trial, suffering and death. It’s probably a good thing that we do not know what the future holds but one thing we do know – Jesus, our hero, our friend, our Saviour, has walked the road before us. Today we welcome Him as a hero! Today we celebrate His journey knowing that His steps brought Him closer to that moment when He would reveal the final gift of God to His people – eternal salvation from death through the perfect sacrifice of the guiltless lamb, God Himself! Amen.
Bible Text: St John i. 41. St John i. 35 - 48 News is for sharing. In 1965 I came over from Scotland to Canada to work in summer mission. I was appointed to Lake Ainslie pastoral charge. I was amazed that everyone around the lake had telephones. In my home village I doubt if more that 3 or 4 people on our street of 40 houses had telephones. I was further amazed that while in Scotland we each had a private line, the people around the lake shared in two or three lines and that each conversation was quite public. Most people had a chair near the phone and they listened in to the conversation. It seemed that news and information - no matter how intimated or sensitive was for sharing .. Our New Testament lesson this morning is all about sharing the new - the good news of the Gospel. St. John i:35 - 48 ......... This was big news - Andrew had found the Messiah..... Philip had found the Messiah ...... No doubts - Andrew knew. So did Philip.... What did they do? Keep it to themselves and rejoice in their good fortune at having found the Messiah? And when they asked the Messiah where he was staying, He said to them “come and see.” They went with Him and saw where He was staying. Now what did they do? Well, we know what Andrew did - he went and found his brother and said the same words to Simon as Jesus had said to him: “ we have found the Messiah, come and see .” The story is repeated the following day when Jesus met Philip and said “follow me.” Philip found Nathaniel - a rabbinical student - we know this because they would use the shade of the fig tree to sit and study and mediate and pray. Nathaniel was skeptical when Philip said “ we have found the Messiah and replied sarcastically “can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip Andrew, Simon and Philip all came from Bethsaida. Like Andrew, Philip went to his friend Nathaniel and said “we have found the Messiah, come and see.” If we want a micro course in evangelism without all the bells and whistles, here it is: three words “come and see.” Andrew said it to Peter and Peter came to see. Philip said it to Nathaniel and Nathaniel came to see. Basically, these are the two things which have characterized the growth of the Christian church down through the years the invitation to come and to see. The first is a confession of faith ........................ Jesus said 'if ye confess me before men I will confess you before my father which is in heaven.’ (St Mat. x. 32)................ Andrew confessed his faith to his brother Peter. Philip told Nathaniel .... It is laid upon us today to tell others where we stand. To acknowledge that we have a living relationship with Jesus Christ. Was Andrew a Christian at this point? Or Philip? Nobody was called a Christian at that time - but that is what they were and became: followers of Jesus. That is what we are by our response to our calling. The question is have we you told others about your faith recently? What did they say? How did they do it? They said “we have found the Messiah, come and see.” St John i. 41. He first finds his own brother. St John i. 35 -48 It is not a disease...nothing to be ashamed of... But it should be contagious. It is a distinction - to be called by the Name of Jesus. Today we must praise the Name of the Lord for all who have professed Christ and who are still professing him. Some of them hold exalted positions. Some of them are in the public eye. Most of them are like you and me - very ordinary. But we can still use the evangelistic technique. We can used the words of Jesus, of Andrew and of Philip: come and see. Perhaps they will come. Perhaps they will not. But you tried. Secondly Philip brought Nathaniel to Jesus, . Andrew brought his brother Peter to Jesus. It is never enough just to tell others. If the news is so great, if our love is so genuine then we will want to bring others - if they will come - that they too might share the blessing. Andrew was always bringing people to Jesus. Three times we are told that he brought people to Jesus. First, Andrew brought his own brother to Jesus. He did not know the impact Peter would have in spreading the Gospel - his preaching on the days of Pentecost, his missionary travels, his writing. What if he had not shared the good news? In John 6, Andrew brings to Jesus the boy with the five loaves and two fish. What on earth would Jesus do with 5 loaves and two fish when faced with multitude of hungry people? We are no required to be successful - only faithful .... And in chapter 12, we find Andrew bringing to Jesus the enquiring Greeks who wanted to meet Him and visit with Him. Who know what seed they planted in Corinth and Philippi and Colosse and Thessalonica Andrew’s greatest joy was sharing the good news of Christ and bringing others into the presence of Christ. Having found Jesus, he could not sit still, he could not help it. He had to share Christ with others. Here is the greatest thing in the world.... Here is the most important event in history..... Here is the most important person to have walked on earth Here is the one who can do for you what no one else can do. Is it not right to tell others? Is it not right to bring others? Throughout Jesus ministry people brought others to Him - relatives, friends -4 men with their friend on a stretcher, breaking down the roof. The centurion coming to intercede for his servant... The father with the epileptic child... It is never enough just to tell others. We must go all the way and bring them and show them - here is Jesus. Taste and see that the Lord is good.... The other and often forgotten point is that we do not know the effect of bringing others to Jesus. The initial effect is either to accept or to reject him. St John i. 41. He first finds his own brother. St John i. 35 -48 But what happens afterwards? The man who rejects Jesus will have one of two things happen to him. a) His heart will get progressively harder.... There will be bitterness and antagonism.... or He will feel the prompting of the spirit and have no peace until he has his peace in Jesus. The wonderful thing is that God in Jesus calls all sorts of people into His kingdom. It is not just the beautiful, the wealthy, the intelligent, the socialites. Most are like Andrew and Peter and Philips and Nathaniel. It is our task to see that they are welcomed and encouraged. You do not know what God cane to when they have come to see and find a loving caring fellowship of men and women welcoming them. It is regretable that many congregations are not welcoming and visitors are regarded with suspicion. The early church was characterized by love..... Perhaps today it should be said of the church not 'see how they love one another'. But 'see how they love themselves.' There is a whole world in need of hearing the Gospel... Gary Inrig in “Hearts of Iron, Feet of Clay” tells the following story: In May 1855, an eighteen-year-old boy went to the deacons of the church in Boston. He had been raised in a Unitarian church, in almost total ignorance of the gospel. He had moved Boston to make his fortune and began to attend church. Then, in April of 1855, his Sunday school teacher went to the store where he was working and shared the Gospel and urged the young man to trust in the Lord Jesus. He did, and now he was applying to join the church. One fact quickly became obvious. This young man was almost totally ignorant of biblical truth. The deacons decided to put him on a year-long instruction program to teach him basic Christian truths. Perhaps they wanted to work on some of his other rough spots as well. Not only was he ignorant of the Scriptures but he was only barely literate. The year-long probation did not help very much. At his second interview, since it was obvious that he was a sincere and committed (if ignorant) Christian, they accepted him as a church member. Years later his Sunday school teacher said of him: "I can truly say that I have seen few persons whose minds were spiritually darker than was his when he came into my Sunday school class.... He seemed more unlikely ever to become a Christian of clear and decided views of gospel truth, still less to fill any space of public or extended usefulness." Many people agreed and were convinced that God would never use him. In doing so they wrote off Dwight L. Moody. But God did not. By God's infinite grace and persevering love, Moody was transformed into one of the most effective servants of God in church history, a man whose impact is still with us today. The mission of the church today is to tell others to bring others. You can make it as complicated as you like. But it is really quite simple. Andrew’s message conveyed the conviction “I have found the Messiah.” His message was simple: “Come and see.” Here is the strategy for evangelizing our community, our world. COME AND SEE. And when they come to see, make sure that you welcome them in the Name of Jesus. . He first finds his own brother. St John i. 35 - 48 News is for sharing. In 1965 I came over from Scotland to Canada to work in summer mission. I was appointed to Lake Ainslie pastoral charge. I was amazed that everyone around the lake had telephones. In my home village I doubt if more that 3 or 4 people on our street of 40 houses had telephones. I was further amazed that while in Scotland we each had a private line, the people around the lake shared in two or three lines and that each conversation was quite public. Most people had a chair near the phone and they listened in to the conversation. It seemed that news and information - no matter how intimated or sensitive was for sharing .. Our New Testament lesson this morning is all about sharing the new - the good news of the Gospel. St. John i:35 - 48 ......... This was big news - Andrew had found the Messiah..... Philip had found the Messiah ...... No doubts - Andrew knew. So did Philip.... What did they do? Keep it to themselves and rejoice in their good fortune at having found the Messiah? And when they asked the Messiah where he was staying, He said to them “come and see.” They went with Him and saw where He was staying. Now what did they do? Well, we know what Andrew did - he went and found his brother and said the same words to Simon as Jesus had said to him: “ we have found the Messiah, come and see .” The story is repeated the following day when Jesus met Philip and said “follow me.” Philip found Nathaniel - a rabbinical student - we know this because they would use the shade of the fig tree to sit and study and mediate and pray. Nathaniel was skeptical when Philip said “ we have found the Messiah and replied sarcastically “can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip Andrew, Simon and Philip all came from Bethsaida. Like Andrew, Philip went to his friend Nathaniel and said “we have found the Messiah, come and see.” If we want a micro course in evangelism without all the bells and whistles, here it is: three words “come and see.” Andrew said it to Peter and Peter came to see. Philip said it to Nathaniel and Nathaniel came to see. Basically, these are the two things which have characterized the growth of the Christian church down through the years the invitation to come and to see. The first is a confession of faith ........................ Jesus said 'if ye confess me before men I will confess you before my father which is in heaven.’ (St Mat. x. 32)................ Andrew confessed his faith to his brother Peter. Philip told Nathaniel .... It is laid upon us today to tell others where we stand. To acknowledge that we have a living relationship with Jesus Christ. Was Andrew a Christian at this point? Or Philip? Nobody was called a Christian at that time - but that is what they were and became: followers of Jesus. That is what we are by our response to our calling. The question is have we you told others about your faith recently? What did they say? How did they do it? They said “we have found the Messiah, come and see.” St John i. 41. He first finds his own brother. St John i. 35 -48 It is not a disease...nothing to be ashamed of... But it should be contagious. It is a distinction - to be called by the Name of Jesus. Today we must praise the Name of the Lord for all who have professed Christ and who are still professing him. Some of them hold exalted positions. Some of them are in the public eye. Most of them are like you and me - very ordinary. But we can still use the evangelistic technique. We can used the words of Jesus, of Andrew and of Philip: come and see. Perhaps they will come. Perhaps they will not. But you tried. Secondly Philip brought Nathaniel to Jesus, . Andrew brought his brother Peter to Jesus. It is never enough just to tell others. If the news is so great, if our love is so genuine then we will want to bring others - if they will come - that they too might share the blessing. Andrew was always bringing people to Jesus. Three times we are told that he brought people to Jesus. First, Andrew brought his own brother to Jesus. He did not know the impact Peter would have in spreading the Gospel - his preaching on the days of Pentecost, his missionary travels, his writing. What if he had not shared the good news? In John 6, Andrew brings to Jesus the boy with the five loaves and two fish. What on earth would Jesus do with 5 loaves and two fish when faced with multitude of hungry people? We are no required to be successful - only faithful .... And in chapter 12, we find Andrew bringing to Jesus the enquiring Greeks who wanted to meet Him and visit with Him. Who know what seed they planted in Corinth and Philippi and Colosse and Thessalonica Andrew’s greatest joy was sharing the good news of Christ and bringing others into the presence of Christ. Having found Jesus, he could not sit still, he could not help it. He had to share Christ with others. Here is the greatest thing in the world.... Here is the most important event in history..... Here is the most important person to have walked on earth Here is the one who can do for you what no one else can do. Is it not right to tell others? Is it not right to bring others? Throughout Jesus ministry people brought others to Him - relatives, friends -4 men with their friend on a stretcher, breaking down the roof. The centurion coming to intercede for his servant... The father with the epileptic child... It is never enough just to tell others. We must go all the way and bring them and show them - here is Jesus. Taste and see that the Lord is good.... The other and often forgotten point is that we do not know the effect of bringing others to Jesus. The initial effect is either to accept or to reject him. St John i. 41. He first finds his own brother. St John i. 35 -48 But what happens afterwards? The man who rejects Jesus will have one of two things happen to him. a) His heart will get progressively harder.... There will be bitterness and antagonism.... or He will feel the prompting of the spirit and have no peace until he has his peace in Jesus. The wonderful thing is that God in Jesus calls all sorts of people into His kingdom. It is not just the beautiful, the wealthy, the intelligent, the socialites. Most are like Andrew and Peter and Philips and Nathaniel. It is our task to see that they are welcomed and encouraged. You do not know what God cane to when they have come to see and find a loving caring fellowship of men and women welcoming them. It is regretable that many congregations are not welcoming and visitors are regarded with suspicion. The early church was characterized by love..... Perhaps today it should be said of the church not 'see how they love one another'. But 'see how they love themselves.' There is a whole world in need of hearing the Gospel... Gary Inrig in “Hearts of Iron, Feet of Clay” tells the following story: In May 1855, an eighteen-year-old boy went to the deacons of the church in Boston. He had been raised in a Unitarian church, in almost total ignorance of the gospel. He had moved Boston to make his fortune and began to attend church. Then, in April of 1855, his Sunday school teacher went to the store where he was working and shared the Gospel and urged the young man to trust in the Lord Jesus. He did, and now he was applying to join the church. One fact quickly became obvious. This young man was almost totally ignorant of biblical truth. The deacons decided to put him on a year-long instruction program to teach him basic Christian truths. Perhaps they wanted to work on some of his other rough spots as well. Not only was he ignorant of the Scriptures but he was only barely literate. The year-long probation did not help very much. At his second interview, since it was obvious that he was a sincere and committed (if ignorant) Christian, they accepted him as a church member. Years later his Sunday school teacher said of him: "I can truly say that I have seen few persons whose minds were spiritually darker than was his when he came into my Sunday school class.... He seemed more unlikely ever to become a Christian of clear and decided views of gospel truth, still less to fill any space of public or extended usefulness." Many people agreed and were convinced that God would never use him. In doing so they wrote off Dwight L. Moody. But God did not. By God's infinite grace and persevering love, Moody was transformed into one of the most effective servants of God in church history, a man whose impact is still with us today. The mission of the church today is to tell others to bring others. You can make it as complicated as you like. But it is really quite simple. Andrew’s message conveyed the conviction “I have found the Messiah.” His message was simple: “Come and see.” Here is the strategy for evangelizing our community, our world. COME AND SEE. And when they come to see, make sure that you welcome them in the Name of Jesus.
Paul Maier muses that perhaps Herod’s reaction to the Magi visit would have been different if they had asked their question in a different way. But in spite of this, it is known that Herod mistrusted everyone and that he was in constant fear that someone would try to seize his throne. But being shrewd, he questioned the Magi on the pretence of being interested in visiting the child himself. Of course we know that the Magi do not return to Herod. It is believed that this is what sets him off on his gruesome mission. But Herod was not always this bitter, twisted figure that appears in the Bible. In his early days, he was a wise and exceptional ruler. He rebuilt many towns and oversaw the refurbishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. He established new ports and stimulated trade and commerce. Rome highly respected him but the people of Palestine had a different view. In spite of his great achievements, he was something of a tyrant and even went so far as to execute any of his family whom he believed had any designs on taking his throne. To add fuel to the fire, Herod had designed his mausoleum in a place he called Herodium close to Bethlehem. With everything that Herod was thinking, feeling and planning, it was inevitable that he would go down in history as the Monster of the first Christmas. And while Herod’s plan is carried out, Joseph, Mary and the baby escape to Egypt. But before this happened, the family had already made two trips: one for the circumcision of the infant at the age of 8 days and the second for the purification of Mary forty days after the birth. Then, after the visit of the Magi, the family had to take an even longer and unexpected journey. In a dream, Joseph is warned of the impending danger from Herod and is told to take his family and flee to Egypt. The New Testament tells us nothing about the actual route but it is most likely that they took the coastal route from Bethlehem through Gaza and on to Egypt. There are at least two places claiming to be the place in Egypt where the family lived. One is in Cairo itself where there is a crypt below the church of St. Sergius. I myself was able to see this crypt on a visit to Cairo in 2000. But their time in Egypt was not long. When Herod was dead, word came to Joseph in a dream again. But the son of Herod named Archelaus was on the throne and he was as ruthless as his father; and so the family continued on their way past Bethlehem and on up to Nazareth where they could resume their life in the midst of family and friends. Joseph, the carpenter, was leading a quiet life in Nazareth fully expecting to carry on his father’s business, get married and raise a family in peace. Never in his wildest dreams would he have expected to be asked to be the foster father to the Son of God. It is a miracle and a great blessing for all of us that Joseph accepted his role in the events that brought God into the world in human form and that he continued to provide for and defend his young family. He is only mentioned once more in the record and that is when Jesus is 12 and the family visit the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. IT is believed that Joseph had passed away before the culmination of Jesus’ ministry. There is no record that he was with Mary in the last days of Jesus’ earthly life. This is inferred from the time when Jesus was presented at the temple and the aged Simeon turns to Mary and prophesies that her heart will be pierced. The prophet spoke directly to her and not to Joseph. Of course, no one could even imagine that Jesus would die so young. As for Mary, tradition in many of the Christian branches of the church makes much of her. She is the one chosen to carry the seed of God and to bear the child and bring him into the world. Her name is an alternate form of the name of Moses’ sister Miriam. Mary means “the Lord’s beloved” and it was a common name in that day. Her parents are identified as Joachim and Anna. And in spite of the fact that attempts have been made to identify the home where Mary was when the angel visited her and later the home where Joseph and Mary raised Jesus, the only site that we can be certain of is the one known as the well of Mary. It remains the only public well in Nazareth and no doubt was the same well that Mary would have drawn water. Unlike Joseph, Mary appears several times throughout the ministry of Jesus. She is portrayed as a woman of much spiritual sensitivity, loyalty and concern. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, Mary is seen as being involved in the founding of the church in Jerusalem. From there various accounts place her in Asia Minor with John. One tradition maintains that she died in Ephesus while another maintains that she died in Jerusalem. Mary would always share a unique bond with her children as most mothers do but the bond she would share with Jesus was one beyond any other. His conception and birth set him apart from all others in the world and set her apart from all other women. Scripture records that she pondered all these things and kept them in her heart. And while we are far from those days, we can certainly believe that when Luke wrote his version of the Christmas story that he had the first hand account of the one who had lived it – Mary, the mother of Jesus. The final part of this untold story is perhaps the best known. After all the first Christmas is about the baby; it is about the one who grew up to become the person we know as Jesus Christ. But born He was and His birth changed history, it wrenched the world’s chronology so that its years pivot around His birth and His life has touched and continues to touch countries, cultures, civilizations and untold millions of lives. The supreme paradox must be this: the person behind this achievement taught publicly for only three and a half years; he wrote no book; he had no powerful religious or political machine behind him; and yet he became the central figure in human history. The book about his life and accomplishments has been read by billions of people in more than 2,000 languages and yet there is no biography of his life. The four accounts which we know as the gospels describe parts of His life but the focus is on the message He brought. The Gospels never pretended to be biographies for their purpose was to give the reasons for Christ’s birth, life and death. But this has not stopped people over time from seeking to find out stories about Jesus in those missing years. But the truth is that His childhood was probably similar to those around him. He would have studied at the synagogue from the age of five and no doubt learned the Torah as well as the languages of Aramaic and Hebrew and common Greek which was the universal language of the Roman Empire. He worked in his father’s shop and would have been apprenticed to learn the family business. He was a gifted orator who spoke with authority. Yet to those who did not share His vision, He was a deceiver, a false prophet. One thing is for sure there was never a neutral feeling. People either loved Him or despised Him. And He was no ascetic: He enjoyed a good time, provided party supplies on one famous occasion and loved good friendships with all kinds of people. He was no legalist, He was not intolerant, and He was no wimp. He had stamina. Whether he is recognized as the Son of God or not, Jesus is widely regarded as one of – if not the most – influential people in all history. Yet it is said that in spite of all that He said and did in His life, He probably never forgot that story his mother told him of that time when he was born. And I am sure that even He marvelled at the story of angels over Bethlehem, adoring shepherds and humbled wise men, the story of the first Christmas.
In Galatians 4, Paul makes his famous comment that the Nativity happened “in the fullness of time.” God’s sense of timing is unlike anything the world has ever known. But as we are no doubt aware, all time is relative. We count the years of this world by the birth of Christ but other civilizations and cultures used other dates to mark the significant moment when recorded history began. We are all no doubt aware that the decision to mark the years from the time of Christ’s birth meant that we were changing many of the accepted dates in history to that point. Herod the Great died in the spring of 4 B.C. The king was alive during the visit of the Magi in the Christmas story. Therefore Jesus would have to have been born before this time, and his birth is usually set during the winter of 5-4 B.C. So why is our calendar off by 4-5 years? It was a 6th century Roman monk-mathematician-astronomer named Dionysius Exiguus (Dionysius the Little) who unknowingly committed what became history’s greatest numerical error in terms of cumulative effect. For in reforming the calendar to pivot around the birth of Christ, he dated the Nativity in the year 753 from the founding of Rome, when in fact Herod died only 749 years after its founding. The mistake was never caught for such a long time that we have continued to use it as the benchmark even today. I suppose we could really say that all time is truly relative and open to interpretation. Except for God, there is no real definitive time for any of us. We live in this reality; they lived in their reality; and the people who lived in that time lived between the end of something old and the beginning of something new. But why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th? We know that the church in the East still observes the birth of Christ on January 6th – a day we know as Little Christmas or Epiphany. In the West, the church chose December 25th. But the use of either of these dates didn’t start until the 4th century. As has been mentioned, the conversion of Constantine to the Christian faith combined with the desire to draw the people to Christ no doubt was the motivation for aligning the celebration of the birth of Christ with the festival of Saturnalia. The Romans believed the winter solstice to be on December 25th when they celebrated the feast of the Unconquerable Sun. This believed was the moment in the year when the sun turned to head north again – and so the unconquerable Sun becomes the Christian Son of God. But as fascinating as it is to puzzle over how we have come to settle on certain dates and times for the birth of Christ and the subsequent celebration of that event, we need to remember that time had a wholly different meaning for that couple who had just finished an uncomfortable journey to Bethlehem. I am sure that they were just wondering if they had time to reach Bethlehem before the baby was born. It is almost certain that Joseph and Mary reached Bethlehem in the late afternoon or early evening. I am sure that many of us have experienced at least once coming into a busy town too late to find accommodation. It is believed that this was what happened and that the nameless innkeeper thankfully remembered the cave behind the inn where animals were sheltered. Hopefully he didn’t charge them for the room! We don’t often think about it but Mary was truly alone in giving birth to Jesus. Men didn’t take the role of midwives and there is no mention of one being present. And so – in a practice not uncommon for the women of Palestine in that day – Mary gave birth to Jesus and wrapped him in swaddling bands and laid him in a feeding trough filled with the sweetish, grainy smell of hay, barley and oats. And so the incredible paradox happened at Bethlehem: history’s greatest figure was born, not in a palace or mansion, but in a cavern-stable. And while we traditionally view the wise men as coming to the stable, it is more likely that they found the family in a house or perhaps even a real room in an inn. After all, once the census was taken, most people would have returned to their homes. Joseph and Mary would have stayed to allow her to recover and to prepare for her purification at the temple in Jerusalem. As I mentioned before, Bethlehem was the place spoken of in Scripture as the birthplace of the Messiah. The name itself means “House of Bread”. It was the setting for the story of Ruth and it was the birthplace of David as well as the place where the prophet Samuel anointed him King of Israel. “And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” It is said that even the rabbis of that day had trouble imagining God announcing the birth of the Messiah to shepherds. Shepherds – while valuable and necessary to the economy of the country – were nomadic. They were not the most regular to worship and they often had to disregard the law in order to perform their duties. But they represented the people for whom God came – the ordinary people, the working people. It is said that it is a good thing that the shepherds were not scholars or theologians. The latter group would probably have held a debate on the hillside instead of rushing into Bethlehem. And as much as critics of the event try to dismiss it as fanciful hallucination or irresponsible behaviour, there is no doubt that if we were faced with such an event, we would no doubt forget everything else and rush ourselves to see what had happened. When it comes to the visit of the Wise Men, it is believed that they came at least 40 days after the birth because Jesus had already been presented at the Temple before their arrival. And while tradition tells us there were three and that they came from the Orient or Far East, it is most likely that they were Persian priest-sages. But whoever they were, the significance of their visit lies in the fact that they were not of Hebrew descent and yet they were led to come and mark the birth of this child – a sign that even those outside of Palestine knew that something of great significance had occurred. But what of the star that led them to Bethlehem? Here is one possible explanation. There was a conjunction of the planets of Jupiter and Saturn in 7-6 B.C. This was connected to the predictions of a Messiah to be born to the Jewish people. The comet of 5 B.C. would have confirmed their belief and started them on their journey with the nova of 4 B.C. completing their journey. Of course, even the brightest of stars would not have pinpointed the exact location of the baby and so the Magi stopped in Jerusalem and sought information about where the child was. They were directed to Bethlehem where they came, bowed, worshipped and offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But Herod saw the birth in another way. He did not see the child as the Messiah or Saviour. He saw in the birth trouble. If truly a descendant of David had been born who was to be king, then Herod would find him and his sons cast aside. And so he determined to kill all male children in Bethlehem born from the time of the first appearance of the star to the Magi. But that’s another part of the untold story!
For the next few Sundays I would like to take us on a journey of exploration looking at the background of the story we know so well as The First Christmas. We are told that Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem. This was the place from which the Messiah would come. The prophets had foretold it. But Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth and had no intention of journeying to Bethlehem just to have a baby. Yet it came into the mind of Caesar Augustus to conduct a census in the land. In those days you didn’t simply fill in a form in the town where you lived, you would travel back to your home town and register there with your family. It seems like a strange practice but because of this custom, we find Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem – even though it was probably not advisable for Mary to travel. Bethlehem lies in the Judean hills six miles southwest of Jerusalem. It was known as the city of David the ancient king of Judah but other than that, it was a sleepy little town not considered worthy of visiting. But visit it they did. Joseph duly registered himself and Mary as well as the newborn baby before departing for home. In the record, they would appear as: Joseph Ben-Jacob, carpenter; Mary Bath-Joachim, his wife; Yeshua or Jesus, first-born son. Chances are that their registration would never have made it to the attention of the Emperor. His own death occurred while Jesus was still an apprentice in his father’s carpentry shop. It is noted that Caesar Augustus died in A.D. 14 when Jesus would still be in his teens. At the time of his death, the world would still be counting years according to the Roman calendar and so, he died in the year 767 A.U.C. (ab urbe condita, “from the beginning of the city”). He would probably be even more amazed that the time he knew as the great festival of Saturnalia would become the celebration of a new King – one whose kingdom was not of this world and yet encompassed the whole of creation. Of course we know that one day with the Emperor Constantine, the Christian faith and the Roman Empire would become entwined with one another in a way no one could ever have imagined. Now let us step back from the story in Bethlehem and look at that place where Joseph and Mary had chosen to live and work. Nazareth is usually the forgotten town in the Christmas story, but this is where it all began. The Galilean village was indeed a very forgettable place in the ancient times. There is no mention of Nazareth in the Old Testament and later on one of Jesus’ future disciples would sneer,”Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46) Nestled in one of the hills of lower Galilee overlooking the triangular Plain of Esdraelon, Nazareth was an insignificant village far smaller than the present bustling city. Its secluded inhabitants had to travel northward over four miles of back roads to get to Sepphoris in order to purchase the many items not available in Nazareth. The Gospels tell us very little about Joseph, but if he resembled the pious, hardworking class of his Jewish colleagues in Galilee, he would not have thought of marriage until he was at least 25 years old. On the other hand, it was customary for girls to marry shortly after puberty. Mary was probably about 14 or 15 when she first met Joseph. And while we cannot be certain of how it happened, it is most likely that they met at one of the harvest festivals or even the well at the centre of the village. We do not know whether they fell in love at first sight but it is believed that one day Joseph asked his parents if he could marry that village girl who was his distant relative. Both families shared a distant relation in King David. And while not born in the line that would become kings by blood, they did carry the genes of David in their family tree. And so, they were – distant though it might have been – descendants of David. Of course in David’s time, it was common for him to have more than one wife and so – regardless of who may have borne your ancestor, you were related. Unlike so many marriages today, the whole process of engagement and marriage was surrounded with much importance. Once the decision was made that a marriage would take place, a covenant would exist between not only the couple but the families. This gives great credence to the belief that when you marry, you marry the family as well. The parents would pronounce a formal benediction over the couple as they tasted a cup of wine together. This marked their legal betrothal and it was far more binding than any modern engagement. Only divorce could break this betrothal. From this point on, Mary was considered to be Joseph’s wife. And while couples who were formally engaged could have sexual relations while remaining in their parents’ homes, it is clear that Joseph and Mary chose to abstain and wait until the time of their wedding. It is during this time between her betrothal and the wedding that Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel who announces that she will conceive and bear a son and she will call him Jesus. Many modern scholars would have us throw out this story as pure fiction believing that a visit from angels would have scared Mary out of her wits. But it is forgotten that angelic visits were not uncommon and that people like Mary would find the message alarming but not the messenger. The fact that Mary accepts the message of the angel and agrees to this request is testimony to the great respect that she had for God. If God Himself had chosen her for this special event, then it was for her to accept His decision and allow herself to be the servant of the Lord. It is not clear when Joseph found out about the coming event, but it is recorded that he was quite conflicted. No doubt any man would be filled with questions, concerns, and possibly even anger! After all, they had promised to keep themselves until marriage and now she was telling him that she was pregnant with not just the seed of another man but the seed of God Himself. Nazareth was a small village. People would begin to talk. So Joseph had to make a decision quickly. He could marry her, have her stoned as an adulteress or break the marriage contract in a quiet way and send her off to have the baby elsewhere. But Joseph’s decision to send Mary away was changed when he received a visit from an angel. He was encouraged to understand that Mary had done nothing wrong; that she was pregnant by the hand of God and that the child she was carrying was to be the Saviour of the people. Joseph now understood that Mary was not lying to him and that she indeed had been visited by an angel and that the Spirit of God had brought this about. And so they were married. But the expected birth of the child was not to take place in Nazareth. It would mean a journey of some 80-90 miles by donkey to Bethlehem. And so they journeyed in faith and love!
Bible Text: Luke 1:26-38 Today I invite you to explore again the journey of revelation that led to the coming of the God we know made flesh in Jesus Christ. I say explore because we should ever seek to understand how to relate to our God; and even though there is a real sense from ancient times that this God is a god not to be doubted, there is also an invitation from this God to the people to explore what it meant for them to have a relationship with this God. In fact, it is the very nature of the interactions between humans and this God that makes the record in the Bible so unique among other faiths. As with other faiths, the people who make the decision to accept and worship this God take on obligations and responsibilities and enter into a relationship that requires each side to make and keep promises. But in the case of this God – right from the beginning – the relationship is more than satisfying external obligations. For every ancient people, there was no doubt that the universe they knew had not just appeared by accident but that it was designed and put in place. And while most came to believe that there was a pantheon of gods responsible for creating and maintaining the various aspects of the world and their lives, they did not have the sense that these gods were overly concerned with their welfare physically, mentally or spiritually. To tell the truth, people had to be very careful in their lives with the gods. Proper sacrifices had to be made in order to appease the gods so that the people could continue to live in relative peace and harmony. In spite of these attempts, though, the people experienced many hardships. Through it all, they realized that their very survival depended on keeping the gods happy. This was the world in which Abraham – then known as Abram – was living when he encountered the One we now know as the Lord God. The relationship which developed between God and Abraham was one unlike anything the ancient world had ever known. It was unheard of for a god to speak with someone directly. Perhaps there would be a seer or a prophet or a wizard but not directly and to a person who did not stand out from the crowd in any way. Yet this is what happens. And from that moment, there comes a realization that there is a God who not only has been the One responsible for the creation of the world and is the One who has been active throughout the life of the world but that this same God desires to have and to sustain an active involved relationship with the people of this world. If we reflect back on any of the ancient stories of the Bible, we immediately see God acting in ways that do not correspond to anything we may have learned about the gods of other peoples. We have stories of God walking and talking. We find God seeking to share the joy of the gift of life. And yes, we are His creation and He is the Creator but right from the beginning, we all received this gift along with the right to decide how to use it. The fond hope of God was ever that we would receive that gift with such reverence and joy that we would do everything possible to preserve it and encourage it to flourish. But God sought not to control us to the point where we would fail to be able to respond with our own mind. And so we know that there were also those who sought to convince us to take the gift of life and control its direction for ourselves. And while such a decision led to the loss of eternal life with God, God did not give up on us. He continued to come to the people generation after generation seeking to renew the relationship He sought to have with us and encouraging us to live the life He had envisioned from the beginning. We were given laws and commandments to guide us. We were given the opportunity to communicate with God. It was impressed upon us that we would never go through this life alone as long as we chose to stay in relationship with this God but there was still something missing. We still found ourselves separated from God by death. No one could find the way to continue from this world to the next. All efforts to bring us to a place where we could once again live in that perfect world with God fell short. There were moments when we came so close but it seemed impossible to get there. How could God get us from here to there? The time had come for God to take a bold step. He would come Himself and take on our flesh. He would walk among us in a way never imagined. He would talk with us in a way that would finally pierce our stubborn core and impress upon us in an ultimate way that He truly did care about us and that He wanted nothing less than for us to experience not only the joy of life in these years but to have the promise of joy eternally. But where should He start? Where did each one of us start? According to the prophets, we all begin life in the womb. By the grace of God, the miracle of conception takes place and we grow till we can no longer be contained in that space. Then we are born into this world, to live the life we have been granted and to learn how to find our relationship to the God whose grace created us. And so God determines to come into the world through the womb of a woman. But it couldn’t be just any woman! It needed to be a virgin so that people could not dismiss the birth as just another child. It needed to be a person related to David the King because God had promised the people that a descendant of David would always reign over the house of Jacob. It needed to be a humble birth because people needed to know that everyone counted from the least to the greatest. And so God determined that the one who would be the bearer of His seed would be the one we know as Mary. An unplanned pregnancy; an embarrassment to her family; no doubt these were things being said about Mary when her family found out but it was far from the truth. Her kinswoman, Elizabeth, far beyond the age to conceive, was pregnant herself. The child within her womb leapt in the presence of Mary; and Elizabeth herself confirmed to Mary that indeed she was most blessed among women for she had been chosen to bring the Lord into the world. The visitation of the angel to Mary, the subsequent visit of the Holy Spirit and the life begun in Mary’s womb all combined to usher into the world the God who had been present through all time but now was to come in flesh and blood – a person capable of being held, looked upon, and listened to. The story of John is a story of a strange man who came with a message calling people to repent and be baptized to ready themselves for the coming of God’s Spirit to be granted to them through the one made known by the descent of a dove. The story of Jesus is a story of an incredible man who came with a message calling people to receive salvation from God, eternal life, healing, peace and love. But this is more than a story of an incredible man. This is the story of an incredible God – one who realized that nothing less than His appearance in the world He created as one of us would ever convince us that He sincerely desired nothing less than for us to be in a place where we could not only embrace life but live it fully without fear or pain or death. No other way could ever overcome the chasm that had appeared between us. And so through the one known to us as Jesus, God Himself provides the path by which we can find ever find our way through this life and discover at the end that we will ever be in a relationship with the One who has never stopped loving us! AMEN