Bible Text: Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8 | Preacher: Speaker: Donna McIlveen Today, on this second Sunday of Advent, the focus is on peace. The advent of peace…or the coming of peace. The word advent is from the Latin word for ‘coming’…the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. And today we reflect on the coming of Christ…the gift of peace…given for us gathered here in worship, and for everyone. In the second hymn we sang today – People in darkness – each verse is a prayer longing for the coming of the four gifts of advent…love, hope, peace and joy. The third verse is peace and the prayer goes like this: People in trouble would like to be free…come, come, come, Jesus Christ. People with arguments want to agree…come, Lord Jesus Christ. These days of adventure when all people wait are days for the advent of peace.The two words the author of the hymn chose to focus on for peace are ‘freedom’ and ‘agree’. What are some other words that go hand in hand with the word peace? Tranquility…calm…restfulness… quiet… serenity… harmony…order… ceasefire… silence. When we picture such words, we might imagine a peaceful scene like a walk along a beach…or the quiet of early morning. We might reflect upon the sense of relief that is experienced upon receiving good news. Perhaps it was the peace of reconciliation with someone you had been having arguments with, or were estranged from. Or perhaps you pictured peace and freedom. Like the words in the hymn…People in trouble want to be free. Free from an abusive situation. Free from worries. Free from pain. Or perhaps you thought of freedom from war and conflict…poverty and hunger. The images are plentiful…the need for peace great. The Nobel Peace Prize this year is being awarded today to ICAN – the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons”. More than 70 years since atomic bombs were used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and as tensions flare over the North Korean crisis, the Nobel committee sought to highlight ICAN's efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons. ICAN was a key player in the adoption of a historic nuclear weapons ban treaty, signed by 122 countries in July. However, the accord was largely symbolic as none of the nine known world nuclear powers signed up to it.” The quest for peace continues and in our complex world…a world with short tweets that are herd around the world…there are no simple answers. The challenges are many. Today is also Human Rights Day. We know there are people around the world living in danger, hungry, exiled from their home land, longing for peace. Human Rights Day is observed every year on December 10th and commemorates the day on which, in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year Human Rights Day kicks off a year-long campaign to mark its upcoming 70th anniversary of the document that proclaims the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being…regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. We have the Nobel Peace Prize, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Strong messages that strive for peace. We know that the path to peace is not easy. Peacemaking involves more than the laying down of arms…though that is a necessary step. Peace is a gift from God that we are called to live, share, demonstrate, enact…in our daily living…in our corner of the world. And for Christians who follow the Prince of Peace, the path to peace begins with repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Peace is what God announced at the first advent…is a gift that Jesus left with us…a promise that his light will guide our feet into the way of peace. Our gospel reading for this second Sunday of Advent – the Sunday of Peace – is the opening verses of the gospel of Mark. He quotes from the prophets including Isaiah: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way – a voice of one calling in the desert. Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.” John – Jesus’ cousin – prepared the way for the coming of Jesus…for the advent of Jesus…the one who lights the path so we can walk in the way of peace. John the Baptist quotes from the prophets…words that would have been familiar to the people and that came at a time when the people would have been desperate for good news. It is thought that Mark wrote the first of the four gospel accounts, writing his gospel around AD 65-75. The city of Jerusalem was in ruins and the temple a pile of rubble. And into this setting arrives John. He is dressed like a prophet. His clothing is based on descriptions of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8 – a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist. And John’s task was to prepare the way. To tell the people to get ready for the Messiah. John’s whole life had been leading up to this time of baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John lived about 30 years and spent about 3 months preparing the people for the coming of the one who was more powerful than he. He called on the people to make straight their paths…to repent. John’s message was not an easy message… nor is it today. Repentance is a word we do not hear often today, but it is an ancient, good word. In Greek, it means “to change.” It indicates a change…a change of direction…a change from going one’s own way to going God’s way…to move in God’s direction…to be closer to God. It doesn't always mean a 180 degree turn, it may be a small re-direction onto the right path. At the same time, it may indeed call us to radically change the entire direction of our lives. What repentance does mean, is that we are willing to admit our mistakes and offer them over to God. It’s about living a life that honours Jesus Christ whose advent we wait for now and whose arrival we welcome at Christmas time. And in that honoring we are to live lives that are true to Jesus’ greatest commandment to love one another… to be concerned for one another…to have compassion for one another. When we live lives that honour Christ we are witnessing to others and sharing his gospel message – that advent message of hope…peace…joy…and love that we pray for this time of year. The Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson in his sermon Making Straight the Way, wrote these words: “As John set his life on a path of making straight the way for others, we are called to do the same. Jesus tells us time and time again, that the greatest of all commandments...of all laws, is the law of love – the law of concern for those around us. We, you and I, have an obligation to all those around us to take the skills and resources we have and make straight the path for others to reach the Kingdom, by pointing the way – as did John – to Jesus. That is why it is crucial that each of us give of ourselves beyond the simply Church attendance week after week. Not just by our actions, for that is merely humanism. Not just by our prayers and words, for that can dwindle into hypocrisy. We are called to – in all things – word and deed, prayer and action, by what we say and do, share the Christ story and thereby draw others into our journey to the end of the path.” Advent is a time for sharing the Christ story. And the Christ story goes beyond the babe in the manger which is sweet and lovely. The Christ story calls us to be peacemakers…to pray for peace in our families…in our community…and for peace in the world. We need to pray for peace during this Advent season as we prepare. As we prepare for God’s gift of peace, let us remember that however dark this world may seem some days…God has not abandoned us. God is with us and is always near. We can rejoice because Emmanuel, God with us, has come to us. God’s gift of peace comes as we know that we do not need to hide anything from God, but can bring everything, including our frustrations and disappointments with ourselves… all of our hostility and anger with the words and actions of other people… our confusion and concern for the world…we can bring it all to God in prayer. God’s gift of peace comes as we know that God has not given up on this world but is still at work seeking to encourage people to walk in his ways of peace. Today is December 10th. We are entering the second week of Advent. We know what is coming. So, prepare the way… make straight the paths… walk in the way of peace. Bring comfort to people. Share God’s word of peace. As you continue your preparations over the next couple of weeks… take time to reflect on advent…and who we are waiting for. The coming of Christ…the gift of peace…given for us all. Take time to prepare the way – ready your heart – for Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is coming. I would like to end with a prayer shared by the Rev. Herb Hilder of Prince George, BC. The prayer uses the opening verse of Isaiah 40: Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. So clear your mind of distractions. Close your eyes. Rehear Isaiah’s words as God’s words for you. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Hear these words you who face death and dreadful decrease – your own, or the life-threatening illness of a loved one. You who suffer as a result of HIV, AIDS, ALS, MS, Parkinson’s, cancer, heart attacks, strokes and tumors. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Hear these words you who are undergoing broken or strained relationships in your marriage. You who as children are living with such strain or brokenness. You who are at your wits end, confused or just plain exhausted and fed up dealing with family crises. You who are caregivers to aging parents, relatives or friends – hear these words from the Lord. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Hear these words you who live with underemployment, unemployment, redundancy, or too much work stress. You who live in or close to poverty, homelessness, or financial loss and bankruptcy. You, who have been persecuted, bullied, robbed and financially abused as a result of the greed of the powerful and influential. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Hear these words you who are children, teens and young people, intimidated or rejected by your peers, who have no friends, who feel abandoned by their family. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Hear these words you who are victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. You need and shall receive God’s comfort. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Hear these words from the living and loving God you who carry heavy burdens of self-blame, of guilt, of terrible self-image as a result of sin. Hear these towards as you are pressed down by stress hopelessness, sadness, loneliness, heartache and if you feel it is your entire fault. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Because the eternal God continues to come into our lives – especially in those times of despair and disorientation. God is here – today. Make no mistake about this! None of us are alone! Amen.
Bible Text: Epistle: Philippians 2:1-13 and Gospel: Matthew 21:23-32 | Preacher: Speaker: Donna McIlveen In today’s gospel lesson from Matthew we have question after question after question. And not your everyday type of question – what time is it? What’s for dinner? Why did the chicken cross the road? If something goes without saying, why do people still say it? If money doesn’t grow on trees, why do banks have branches? What was the best thing before sliced bread? No. The questions that chief priests and the elders asked Jesus were asked to challenge his authority. “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” The setting for the questions is inside the temple. It was the day after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – the day we call Palm Sunday. The crowds had cheered. They had spread their cloaks and cut branches on the road. They had cried: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” This crowd-pleasing event was then followed by Jesus entering the temple area… and overturning the tables of the money changers… clearing out the space for prayer… and then healing the blind and the lame. The following day Jesus moved even closer into the Temple Court… began teaching… and then found himself confronted by the chief priests and the elders… who a day earlier were indignant… and now were just beside themselves with disbelief that this man Jesus dared to teach in their space. They ask him a couple of questions – really demand to know: “By what authority are you doing these things?” “And who gave you this authority?” Two direct questions posed to Jesus in response to all that he had been doing… all of his teaching… all of his healing… all of his parables… his interpretation of the Law… his triumphant entry into Jerusalem… and his overturning of the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. All of which caused the blood pressure to rise in the chief priests and elders. Jesus was challenging their authority and they had seen and heard enough… and so they demand to know: “By what authority are you doing these things?” “And who gave you this authority?” Those in authority wanted to know about Jesus’ authority… who put Jesus in charge… and who gave him permission to do this. There seems to be only 2 scenarios. Either Jesus has just taken it upon himself to do all this stuff… or Jesus is operating out of some kind of mandate from God. If Jesus has taken it upon himself to do all this stuff, then, well, he could be subject to censure from the authorities, just like any other citizen. But if Jesus dares to tell them that he has authority from God to do all this stuff, he would basically be challenging their authority right to their face, and they could have legitimate grounds to accuse him of blasphemy. As they see it… no matter how he answers… he’ll be trapped… and the threat to their own authority will be stopped. What do you think? A good plan? Well… it had potential… but Jesus could see through their questions to what lay behind. He could see their motive which was to entrap him… discredit him before his followers… and expose him as a fraud. In good rabbinic fashion, Jesus responds to their question by posing a question of his own. He says: John’s baptism – where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men? Jesus knows the answer. Neither he nor John had any human authority. But the chief priests and elders weren’t about to answer the question that quickly. Upon hearing the question, they immediately realized they had a problem. So, they go into a huddle and try to figure a way out. If they say that John's authority came from heaven, then why didn't they honor John's authority? On the other hand, if they say that John's authority was assigned by people, then that would cause an uproar among the crowds of people who knew that John the Baptist was a prophet sent by God. And remember… the crowd was large. The city of Jerusalem was teeming with thousands of pilgrims in the city for Passover. And coupled with the large crowds of pilgrims… there was the extra security in place. Political drama. It sure goes back a long way. So, while in their huddle, the chief priests and elders tried to take all this into account… the reaction of the crowds of people… the reaction of their Roman overlords who allowed them to keep their positions of power and authority. What a dilemma. What a tight spot. If they respond one way, it won’t go well… and if they respond the other way, it won’t go well. What to do? Well, they weigh their options… and what do they do? They do nothing. Out of fear for their own standing and privilege, they do nothing. They shrug their shoulders… plead ignorance… and reply: “We don't know.”A cynic might say…has anything changed in the world of politics? Jesus hears their answer… and because their answer didn’t answer his question… he did what he said he would do… and he doesn’t tell them by what authority he is doing the things he is doing. But… Jesus doesn’t just walk away. He continues his teaching by telling them a story. And he begins the story by asking them… ‘What do you think?’ Jesus confronts them and wants them to think. To think about who they are… what they do… and why they do what they do. The parable of the two sons is straightforward. A father with two sons goes to the first and said, “Son, go and work today in the vineyard.” The boy immediately said, “No,” but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to his other son and said the same thing. This one answered, “Okay,” but he never did go and work in the vineyard. Then Jesus asks a simple question: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” The chief priests and elders answered, “The first.” And Jesus replies: “I tell you the truth – the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” So… what do you think? What is Jesus telling us? To repent and believe? What happens on Monday through Saturday is just as important as what happens on Sunday. The words we speak in the temple must be consistent and connected to our actions outside the temple walls. Actions speak louder than words. Practice what you preach. Talk the talk… and walk the walk. What do we see… what do we hear… what do we say… how do we live? The challenge that Jesus laid at the feet of the chief priests and elders is the very same challenge that is laid at our feet today. To practice what we preach. To talk the talk… and walk the walk. To walk in the way of righteousness. It’s not a call to be perfect, but a call to be faithful and obedient... in both word and deed… united with Christ. It’s about not simply talking about him… but by living out our relationship with Christ in all parts of our lives. Here in worship… and when we leave worship. When we are out and about in our neighbourhoods. When we are at work… at school… at the store… in the restaurants. The Christ that we profess should be evident in our lives… every day. As the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Church in Philippi… in his letter to the people he loved… “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Philippi while in prison…confined behind locked doors. He missed being with the people and he longed to be among them as they shared the gospel with the community around them. But he is far from happy with some of them who do not have the right attitude. As he writes he knows they are not perfect – no congregation is – but he wants the people to live their life in the light of the story of Christ. In all that they do, to be like-minded in Christ. As a community to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord…and to have that unity…that connection…to be what motivates them to action. To say yes to Christ in both word and deed. In his book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis depicts the devil, Screwtape, offering advice to his apprentice and nephew, Wormwood. Wormwood is charged with making sure a particular man doesn't come under the “evil” influence of God, certainly not submitting to the “enemy,” Jesus Christ (Remember, the story is told from the perspective of the devil). Unfortunately for Wormwood, though, the man does succumb to the grace of God and professes his faith in Christ. After lamenting this setback, Screwtape declares that it's still not too late to salvage the situation. His solution: don't let the man convert his faith into action. Listen to what Screwtape tells Wormwood: “It remains to consider how we can retrieve this disaster. The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert [his faith] into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy plants in a human soul. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will... The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.” It is a tough challenge to live in Christ. We are called to be like Christ – in what we do and how we do it. Christ engaged people in whatever circumstances he found them and spoke to their deepest needs. Christ saw their hurts and healed them. While Christ spent some time alone in prayer and worship, mostly he was with people – showing them love, faith, hope. He was present with them. He was available. And you know, sometimes being available is what is needed. Being present with someone in need…who is hurting…who is feeling alone. Let them know they are not alone. Being present is an encouragement we can all offer, no matter our technical training or skills. Have you heard about the man who applied for a job as a handyman?The prospective employer asked, “Can you do carpentry?” The man answered in the negative. “How about bricklaying?” Again, the man answered, “No.”The employer asked, “Well, what about electrical work?” The man said “No, I don't know anything about that either.” Finally, the employer said, “Well, tell me then what is handy about you.” The man replied, “I live just around the corner.” Sometimes the greatest ability we can have is availability. To be where God can call us, to be within whisper range of his summons…and to answer that summons. We may feel woefully inadequate to answer that summons. What will I say? I don’t have the answers. Why me? Why should I go? Well…what do you think? It’s a pretty big call, to be like Christ. There is assurance in the Philippians passage that we are not called to do this alone. We are reminded that it is “God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” If we do our part, if we are faithful and follow Christ, God will work through us. So, I leave you this day with a question. Is God working through us – to do more than we can imagine or ask for? What do you think? May God continue to surprise us with blessings beyond our imagination. Amen.
Bible Text: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11 | Preacher: Speaker: Donna McIlveen Remembering Who and Whose We Are Here we are…gathered together for worship on this first Sunday in Lent. The Lenten journey has begun. That journey that we take toward the cross of Jesus…and the celebration of the hope of resurrection on Easter. During Lent, we take time to reflect on God’s love for us…and to remember that love. As we reflect we take time to examine the ways we have fallen short and grown apart from God…and we remember the gift of salvation given to us. We remember that we are a child of God…loved by God. We remember who and whose we are. Today’s scripture readings from Genesis and Matthew invite us to remember that we belong to God. They remind us that we don’t need to wonder if we belong…but remember, for all of us from time to time are tempted to wonder. We hesitate in our belief…in our response…in our trust that God loves us. In the reading from Genesis we have the first story of temptation…the first story about losing trust, or failing to remember. God has placed Adam in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. God has told him that he is free to eat from any tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…for if he eats of it, he will certainly die. God then creates a helper for Adam and together they live in the garden. They have their responsibilities – caring for the garden – and they know that God their creator…the Creator…has provided plenty of food to eat. There is trust in God’s provision. All is good. But then one day…something goes terribly wrong. Doubt enters paradise. The serpent…more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made…sabotages the relationship of trust between God the Creator and his creation. The serpent first asks a question which places doubt in the woman’s mind: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” We know that God did not say that. God told Adam – the woman was not yet formed when God gave the command – the command that said that Adam was free to eat from any tree in the garden, but not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for when you eat from it you will certainly die. We assume that Adam told the woman – who was not yet named – for she was able to correct the serpent. But the crafty serpent was not finished. He continued his conversation. He offered up a suggestion…or using a more current phrase…he offered up an alternative fact. He states: “You will not certainly die…but you will be like God and know good and evil.” She succumbs…as does Adam. She takes that bite…as does Adam. And then when God calls them on it, what do they do? He blames her, and she blames the serpent. With one bite, everything changes. I’m reminded of the old joke about the oldest computer. Did you know that the oldest computer can be traced back to Adam and Eve? Surprise! Surprise! It was an Apple. But with extremely limited memory. Just 1 byte. Then everything crashed. That old joke aside…everything did change with that one bite. With that one bite the first humans…created by God…forgot who and whose they were. They forgot that they were children of God…loved by God…cared for by God. With one bite, they stopped trusting God… God’s love and provision. And with that loss of trust came the appearance of fear. And it wasn’t long before suspicion appeared. Then jealousy. Then hatred and violence. With one bite, everything changed. Everything crashed. In today’s gospel lesson – the temptation of Jesus – the traditional story for the first Sunday of Lent – we have another story of temptation…and with this story everything changed…for the better. We find Jesus alone in the desert surrounded by rocks and sand and blistering heat. No food, no water, no comforts of home. 40 days is a long time to do without. The temptations take place just after Jesus has been baptized. At Jesus’ baptism… according to Matthew 3:17: “…a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” All is good… and then. Then. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Did you catch the word ‘then’ at the beginning of the gospel reading from Matthew? The word ‘then’ connects what happened at Jesus’ baptism… God identifying Jesus as His son… to the temptation of Jesus when the devil attempts to tempt Jesus into giving up his identity as God’s beloved Son. He wants Jesus to forget who he is and whose he is. The story takes place in the wilderness. Jesus is alone in the wilderness…for 40 days and 40 nights he is alone. 6 long weeks. He is alone, fasting. He is alone waiting. He is alone learning to trust God’s mercy. He is alone in the wilderness seeking to understand who he was and what God wants him to do. 40 days is a long time. Others before Jesus endured 40 day periods. Noah and his family were on board the ark 40 days and nights. Moses fasted on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights while the words of the 10 commandments were being inscribed. The prophet Elijah went 40 days and nights without food or water while on Mount Horeb. The prophet Jonah prophesied to the Ninevites to repent and gave them 40 days to do so, which they eventually did. Jesus fasted 40 days and nights in the wilderness…at the beginning of his ministry, and then after he was raised from the dead he appeared for 40 days to the disciples and other witnesses. And for us today in the church we set aside 40 days to reflect on Jesus’ life and sacrifice…to repent of our failure, our sin…and to remember that we have been redeemed. We remember who we are and whose we are. There are three temptations that Jesus faces. The devil says turn stone to bread…fall from a tall building and let the angels catch you…and seize power by worshipping me. Three temptations that try to get Jesus to question who he was and whose he was. Three times the devil says…if. If you are the Son of God, do this. If you are the Son of God, worship me. If you are the Son of God …prove it…prove it to me…prove it to yourself…show it. Just a little miracle will do it. And so the tempting begins. The first temptation was one that went right to the gut. The devil tempts Jesus to turn stones to bread… a miraculous display of power that would satisfy his immediate desire. “If you are the Son of God command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The devil doesn’t doubt for a second that Jesus is the Son of God… but he thinks he can place doubt in Jesus’ mind and have Jesus doubt who he is and whose he is. Now as I said earlier 40 days is a long time. 6 weeks. I don’t know about you, but if I miss a meal – and I don’t miss too many – my stomach begins to grumble and my temperament begins to grumble. I can’t even begin to imagine not eating for 40 days. And yet…the text says: He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards – afterwards – he was famished. Talk about an understatement. But…would Jesus not have been hungry during the 40 days? I expect he was. Remember, Jesus is fully God and fully human, so he had to be weakened by the lack of food… both body and mind. But we also need to remember that Jesus was in deep communion with God during his 40 day fast. He was truly centered on God. When the devil entered the scene, he tried to un-center Jesus and take him down with the common staple of bread. The devil knew where to begin…or so he thought. But Jesus knew that the test had nothing to do with filling his stomach or anyone else’s. The devil tempted Jesus to doubt that God cared. Surely God will not see you starve? Is he that unkind? I think he even wanted Jesus to think back to his baptism and the words that God spoke: This is my Son, whom I love. Did God really say that you were his Son? If he did why are you here starving in the wilderness? Command these stones to turn to bread. If you are the Son of God, you will be able to do it. Look after yourself. Don’t depend on God. But Jesus answers the devil by turning to God, the source of life. He quotes from the book of Deuteronomy chapter 8, verse 3: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Well… if food wasn’t going to do the trick… than how about a great spectacle. And so for the second temptation, the devil tempts Jesus to command the angels to perform a dramatic midair rescue, which would make for great spectacle. “If you’re really God’s Son… push the limits of God’s love…and throw yourself down from the temple. No one will get hurt… for as the devil himself points out when he quotes scripture…using words we find in Psalm 91…that God will send angels to protect you… that the angels will hold you up… that not even your foot will be hurt? So come on. Jump off this high temple. I dare you. You’re the Son of God. Just do it. Just prove it.” But again, Jesus doesn’t succumb. He doesn’t put God to the test and reminds the devil… by quoting Moses once more, again from Deuteronomy (6:16): “Do not put the Lord Your God to the test.” Jesus knows that God is not a puppet who performs on request. Indeed, our God is not ‘ours’ at all… in the sense that we can possess God… or manage God… or dictate our desires and demands to God. As tempting as it might be… Jesus doesn’t go there. Well, if he won’t succumb to the temptation of a loaf of bread… and he won’t put God to the test… then it’s time to turn to power. If you’re really God’s Son, seize your royal power… and worship me.” The devil tempts Jesus with authority over the whole world. He lays before Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in all their greatness… and offers them to Jesus. The devil assumes that all the power in the world is his to offer… to whomever he chooses… and so he offers… but tied to a rather significant condition. The devil says: “All these I will give you…all this power is yours if… if you will fall down and worship me.” But Jesus doesn’t let power go to his head… or heart… and for the third-time Jesus responds with words from Moses found in the book of Deuteronomy (6:13) and this time Jesus says: “Away with you, Satan! Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” With these words, Jesus answered the final temptation, and the devil left him. At this point the angels came and tended to Jesus. Jesus was hungry… Jesus was tired… but Jesus was now stronger than he had been before. With each temptation, Jesus became stronger. In the wilderness, Jesus discovered that even as hungry and tired as he was…even as bleak and as lonely and as hopeless we think he might have been in the wilderness…Jesus knew that the wilderness was not God forsaken. Even in the wilderness God was there…and Jesus knew that God was with him…and he remembered who he was and whose he was. And from there Jesus ministered to the people. He taught them. He healed them. He shared God’s love with the people. So much so that he was willing to complete the journey to the cross. Jesus demonstrates for us just how deeply God loves us by going to the cross. He showed us how treasured we are. We are worthy of love – all of us – and God has promised to be both with us and for us throughout all of our lives. For remember…we are God’s children…and we belong to God…whose love for us knows no end. And that is good news for all us…this day and every day…as we journey through Lent and beyond. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Bible Text: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:41-13 and Matthew 3:1-12 | Preacher: Speaker: Donna McIlveen Denial, Excuses, Inaction – NOT! Today is the second Sunday of Advent… the Sunday of Peace… the Sunday when we consider the words of John the Baptist who reminds us what it is we are not to do…and what we must do. We meet John the Baptist standing knee-deep in the waters of the Jordan River, wearing camel's hair and munching on locusts and wild honey…and proclaiming a message that was loud and clear. For a preacher who liked to eat locusts and honey, I guess he never heard of the old adage that ‘You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.’…because his message was in no way sweet. John’s message was to the point. He doesn’t hesitate at all in his delivery. He doesn’t beat around the bush, but simply tells us what it is we must do. And that is: Repent. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Not, repent OR the kingdom of heaven will come near. A do this, or else type message. It was not, repent AND the kingdom of heaven will come near. A nothing will happen if YOU don’t repent, type message. Not. What John the Baptist says is Repent, FOR the kingdom of heaven has come near. John is preparing the people to receive Jesus the Messiah. Now was the time. No more denial. No more excuses. No more inaction. The great American preacher Fred Craddock described John the Baptist as ‘the most famous preacher of his generation.’ People walked for miles just to hear this man and watch him preach. He got people’s attention. Some thought he was nothing more than a religious fanatic who put on a good show. Others thought he was a bit scary with his wild look and his images of snakes and axes and fire. He was dramatic and commanding in his delivery – a presence out there in the wilderness of Judea. The wilderness, by the way, is always a place of waiting in scripture, a place of waiting for God to act, to speak, to save. John is in the wilderness, and it’s not long before Jesushimself is led up by the Spirit into the wilderness. Following his baptism, Jesus spends 40 days and forty nights fasting in the wilderness. The wilderness is not that hospitable a place…and yet we are told that the people came. No church building…no church hall…nothing but the wilderness. John wasn’t a celebrity, a sports hero, a politician. He wasn’t surrounded by power and glory…and yet the people came. The people of Jerusalem and all of Judea, and all the region along the Jordan…were going out to where John was preaching. Before facebook and twitter the news travelled that the message John delivered was worth travelling to hear. And so they came. They listened…and were changed. They confessed their sins and were baptized. But not all. Not everyone that listened was changed. Not everyone felt the need to repent…to confess their sins…and be baptized. Some were into denial…excuses…and inaction. When I was reading the gospel account from the third chapter of Matthew, the three words – denial… excuses…and inaction – came through as the response from those who chose not to prepare. As we know John the Baptist was not one to hesitate in the message he delivered. When he saw the Pharisees and the Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them…You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Strong words. John doesn’t cut them any slack. John knew that they came to check him out. To try and find out what all the fuss was about. John could have been flattered by all the attention. What preacher doesn’t like a large crowd? But John saw past the number – the many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism – and challenged them as to why they had come. I like the way Eugene Peterson puts this verse in his paraphrase The Message: “When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do…he exploded.” John was not a shy, retiring type of preacher. He exploded. He exploded because the Pharisees and the Sadducees were coming for baptism because it was the popular thing to do. Repentance had nothing to do with it. They came for the show of it. They were going through the motions…but if pressed for a true confession, they would deny really needing to repent. John knew that theirs was an empty repentance. Repentance is a word we do not hear often today. In means to turn around, to change, to become different. It indicates a change of mind… a change of direction…to think differently after. To repent is to turn around and face the right way. It’s more than a feeling of regret.It’s more than a New Year's Eve resolution. Repentance is a turning away and a turning back. A turning away from sin and a turning back to God.It’s about a re-orientation… a change of perspective and direction… a commitment to turn and live differently. Repentance is not something to be dreaded, but a change that is good because it is about turning back to God. It is a commitment to offer all of life to God… and to live in a way that shows by our actions that we are truly repentant. Once a shoplifter wrote a note to a local store that said, “I’ve just become a Christian, and I can’t sleep at night because I feel guilty. So here’s $100 that I owe you for merchandise that I’ve stolen.” Then he added a P.S. “If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send you the rest of the money!” We often try to avoid true repentance, by just repenting part-way… or making excuses for our sin… or blaming others. True repentance is not easy. We need God’s help to really turn around our lives. And we need God’s help each and every day. The reformer Martin Luther declared that the Christian life should be one of daily repentance. Daily we confess… daily we repent… daily we turn, turn, ‘til we turn ‘round right.” It needs to be intentional. Too easily we become comfortable in our faith and in the practices of our faith. Too easily we fall into the trap of thinking that we are better than so and so and that we would never do that or say that or behave like that. We can make a list and check it off twice and say, hey, I’m pretty nice. But sin is not just the things we do…or don’t do. A Catechism for Today answers the question (#24) What is sin? with the answer, Sin is turning against God. To repent – to repent from sin – means to turn to God. We repent in response to the love of God. And the fact that we can repent is an act of God’s grace. Frederick Buechner has a little booked entitled: “Wishful Thinking: A Seekers ABC” and in it (p. 79) he offers this definition to the word, repent: ‘To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, I’m sorry…than to the future and saying, Wow!’ John the Baptist preached a message of repentance and he wanted everyone who listened to repent… to change… and for that change to be genuine. For it to be a real ‘Wow!’. But for the Pharisees and the Sadducees it was not. They were in denial that they needed true repentance. Nothing wrong with us. We dress nicely, with flowing robes. We spend all our time in the temple. We study the scriptures. We know the Law. Look at us. There is no problem. NOT. Their denial was their problem. Other people had sins for sure, but not them. They were living right. They prayed. They obeyed. They were faithful all the way. They were already right with God. In fact, they could prove their privilege by tracing their lineage back to Abraham. So not only were they in denial about the need to repent, they had an excuse at the ready. But John tells them NOT. In no uncertain terms does claiming Abraham as your ancestor get you a pass on needing repentance. The call to repentance is for everyone – without exception. And the call is now! The ax is lying at the root of the tree. John called them out on their mindset of denial. Their ease at coming up with excuses. And their blatant lack of action. John said, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” If not then the answer will be, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Words echoed by Jesus near the end of his Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7:19, Jesus said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John the Baptist – that great preacher out in the wilderness – reminds us…or rather gets right in our face with his message…that denial, excuses, and inaction are not the way to prepare nor the way to live. Repent. Turn to God. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. In her message on today’s gospel lesson, Alyce McKenzie, a preaching professor, includes this lesson from Rabbi Eliezer. He taught his disciples “Repent one day before your death.” One of them then asked, “How will we know when that day is?” to which he replied, “All the more reason to repent today, lest you die tomorrow.” The Pharisees and Sadducees were okay with waiting until tomorrow…or perhaps never. Denial. Excuses. Inaction. But John called them on their denial…their excuses…their inaction. It’s no way to live. The way to live is to daily turn to God and repent. We repent in response to the love of God. And the fact that we can repent is an act of God’s grace. The gift of God’s grace. And our response to God’s gift of grace is to live. Truly live…in a way that does not deny that we’ve been saved by God’s grace. Wow! Today is the second Sunday of Advent. We have lit the candle of hope and peace. Next week the candle of joy followed a week later by the candle of love. And we know what that means. That Christmas really is just around the corner. We know that Christmas is coming…we can’t deny it any longer. There is no more time for excuses…nor inaction. There is work to do…and not just checking off the to-do-list of chores…and preparations, no matter how special and traditional, and important they may be. John reminds us today what we must do today. Truly repent. Repent and produce fruit in keeping with repentance. All the preparations that we are busy fussing over are for the one whose birth we will celebrate in three weeks. As we continue to get ready, let us not forget to repent. Denial. Excuses. Inaction. NOT! Our answer should be YES! A resounding YES! For the one whom we wait for IS coming. Amen.
Bible Text: Deutoronomy 23: 1-11, Luke 4: 1-13 and Romans 10: 8-13 | Preacher: Speaker: Donna McIlveen Love for You be Lived Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. We read together the Lenten liturgy at the beginning of the service. In that liturgy we were reminded that Lent is a journey. We read together: “God is with us in our journey of becoming, guiding our steps all the way.” (author the Rev. Karen Horst). On the back of the bulletin it states: “We began the season of Lent this week, as season of reflection, repentance and renewal.” (author the Rev. Helen Smith). Expanding on those thoughts we can say that in our Lenten journey we are called to reflect upon how we are living our life…we are called to repent of those actions that are not loving toward God and our neighbour…and we are called to renew our life so that our living is a loving reflection of what God has done for us in Jesus. We take time for reflection…for repentance…and for renewal…so that the love we have for Christ Jesus our Lord is lived. Love for You be Lived. When I was looking through the Book of Praise for hymns for this service I came across the hymn we sang earlier, Teach Me God to Wonder. I chose it because it was in the Love section…and today is Valentine’s Day…a day for celebrating love. But I also chose it because throughout the season of Lent we are called to reflect upon the gift of love freely given to us in Christ Jesus. I like the way the hymn writer puts that call: love for you be lived. The refrain goes like this: “Praise to you be given…love for you be lived…life be celebrated…joy you give.” In Lent we journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter and in that time period…as we are drawn closer and closer to the cross…we experience with greater abundance the love of God and God’s redeeming grace. As we get closer to Easter Sunday and the victory of Christ over sin and death we realize the sheer joy that is the gift of salvation. That is of course something worth celebrating and that fills us with joy. “Praise to you be given…love for you be lived…life be celebrated…joy you give.” Lent is 40 days in length – about a month and a half – and began this past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, and will end Saturday evening, March 26th, just before Easter Sunday. The 40 day period commemorates the time Jesus spent in the desert, fasting and praising and engaging in scriptural debates with the devil. The story of the temptation of Jesus is the traditional story for the first Sunday in Lent. It’s a story that takes place in the wilderness – not the go to place for joy and celebration – and yet throughout the story we are reminded of God’s care and protection…and that when Jesus was in the wilderness, he placed his trust in God…and God was with him. As we reflect upon the story today it is good to remind ourselves that when we find ourselves in the wilderness… we are not alone. God goes with us into the wilderness. No matter how far we may wander… we are never too far from God. God loves us and by his grace, God sustains us. The story of Jesus’ temptations appears in the first 3 gospels and today we are looking at Luke’s version. The temptation of Jesus takes place following his baptism. Luke tells us that ‘Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.’ ‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit…was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.’ Now that is an understatement. In the wilderness – the desert – for 40 days and 40 nights…and fasting the whole time. Fasting not because Jesus didn’t have any food…but fasting or going without food as a means of spiritual discipline. I don’t know if any of you have ever fasted, for any length of time – I know I haven’t – but it is hard to imagine being without food for 40 days and 40 nights. The first thought that goes through my mind is that’s an awfully long time to be without food. We live in a part of the world where there is an abundance of food and we rarely go without for 40 hours let alone 40 days. Very few of us go to bed hungry and very few of us wake up not knowing where our next meal will come from. We know that many in this world do go without – and not out of choice but because there is nothing. It is hard for us to imagine not being able to provide a basic meal for our children…for our loved ones. It is hard for us to imagine being without…and what that might cause us to do. Food is a staple…a basic need. What better place for the devil to start. The devil played on Jesus’ hunger. The devil invites him to tell a stone to turn to bread. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” The devil knows Jesus can do it… Jesus knows he can do it… but he doesn’t. As the Son of God, Jesus knows that he is not to use his divine power for himself. His power is for healing, feeding and ministering to others. Even in the wilderness… after forty long and hungry days… he trusts in God to provide and sustain him. He responds and quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3 “One does not live by bread alone.” The remainder of the verse is not recorded by Luke – it is by Matthew – but we can probably all recite it: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ‘Then the devil led Jesus up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.” The devil offers to give to Jesus all their glory and authority. You can rule the world… if…you worship me… says the devil. But again Jesus places his trust in God. He does not deny who he is… nor whose he is. His allegiance is to God alone, and all the power in the world will not tempt him to switch allegiance from God to the devil. Jesus quotes this time from Deuteronomy 6:13 stating: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” And then for the final temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, and said: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” Using Jesus’ tactic of quoting scripture, the devil quotes from Psalm 91, verses 11 and 12 – which we read earlier. He quotes saying: “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” The writer of the Psalm wasn’t promising protection for recklessness. The words preceding the words recited by the devil tell us that the Psalmist was speaking of obedience: “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.” The devil…once more…attempts to separate Jesus from God. But as quickly as the devil quotes scripture to Jesus…Jesus responds. This time Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:16 stating: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus understands that if he put God to that kind of test it would be a clear sign that he did not trust God. And so after trying three times… and not succeeding… the devil leaves…for the time being…for that opportune time. Jesus’ time in the wilderness was long. It was difficult. It was tough. And though we ourselves will likely never be in the desert without bread…or shown all the kingdoms of the world…or placed on the top of a tall building…we all face temptations. We all find ourselves in situations where the choice is to go with God…or not. I’m currently working through a Lenten study called “Lent 2016 – The Gift of New Creation” written by Thomas Ehrich. In his reflections on the temptations of Jesus as recorded by Luke, Thomas Ehrich writes: “This Gospel reading isn’t just a quaint story from the mythological prehistory of Jesus. It connects directly with the worlds we know, and its message is clear: When times are tough – as they inevitably will be – the evil one tries to draw us inside a bubble where we lose touch with reality. In such times we must remember with renewed dedication to worship God, cling to God, listen to God, and serve God alone.” In the wilderness Jesus shows us that he belongs to God. Jesus shows us that he will use his divine power not to meet his own needs, but to serve others. Jesus shows that he will not put God to the test. Jesus shows us that love for you be lived, is possible. Jesus spent time in the wilderness. We spend time in the wilderness. All of us have been… are in… or will face a wilderness of some type. All of us face such wildernesses no matter our age or circumstance. We face temptations. We experience struggles. We are challenged. But we don’t face them alone. We are not alone now, nor will we ever be. Jesus…God with us…is with us now and always…and will be until he returns, just as he promised. As we find ourselves in the wilderness…what can we learn from Jesus’ time there? Jesus shows us that we belong to God, and that our allegiance is to God first. Jesus shows us that the gifts of God are for service to others. As followers of Christ, it is not a me, myself and I way… but love the Lord your God and your neighbour as yourself. Jesus shows us that we are not to put God to the test. We are all guilty of quietly… or not so quietly… asking God to follow our will. After all we know what’s best. So…change this…stop that… get rid of this…do this. God if you’ll only do this…then I know the situation will get better. Too often we try to trump God with our desires. Another way we ask God to follow our will is by telling God to show us a sign. Just show me a sign, we say. Sometimes we’re a bit silly in our seeking a sign to justify something we want or want to do. We’re out shopping and if we see something we’ve wanted, and it’s on sale, then, well that must be sign we are meant to buy it. We can all think of other silly examples. But we can just as easily think of times when we have asked for something from God…prayed that God will come through with it…tried to manipulate God into doing what we want…and then when we don’t get what we want…we have trouble trusting God. But was our prayer really ‘Thy will be done’…or was it ‘My will be done’? Seeking our will is a real temptation we all face, and are challenged with. Each day, we are called to trust that God is there and is sustaining us…even when the wilderness seems like it is never-ending. In Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians he reminds us to place our trust in God. We will not be put to shame…and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. There is nothing wrong with calling out to the Lord – the Lord of all who loves even us – but we don’t call out to put the Lord to the test. We call on God to forgive us…to help us… to strengthen us to live the love we have been given. Loved for you be lived. Our desire should be to live more and more in God’s loving ways. Our Lenten journey is just beginning. During the season of Lent…we can use the time to get closer to God. No matter how busy and preoccupied our lives are…or how tired and overwhelmed we may be…there is always time for God. God is there… we just need to give ourselves to Him and let Him work. Lent is the perfect time to put into practice those spiritual disciples we all know are good for us…and yet don’t always follow. It takes practice…but we have 40 days. During Lent, take time to read God’s Word. Take the suggested scripture readings for the season of Lent and read them. You can find them all listed on the internet. Spend time with God in daily prayer. Spend time in reflection…repentance…and renewal. Take time to reflect upon how you are living your life. Take time to repent of those actions in your life that are not loving toward God and your neighbour. Take time to renew your life so that your living is a loving reflection of what God has done for you in Jesus. Let us all do so…so that the love we have for Christ Jesus our Lord is lived. Love for You be Lived. Amen.
Bible Text: Proverbs 3:1-6, Hebrews 10:19-25 and Luke 10:38-42 | Preacher: Speaker: Donna McIlveen Stir the Pot Thank you for the invitation to be with you on this, St. Andrew’s anniversary Sunday. Anniversaries are a great time for celebration and that’s what is happening today. It is good to celebrate – to come together, brothers and sisters in Christ, together in worship – to make a joyful noise to the Lord…as the Psalmist puts it…for the Lord is good and his steadfast love endures forever. On days like today we look back over the years and remember gatherings, other special occasions, and of course the people who we shared them with. Anniversaries though not only provide an opportunity for reflection on the past, but remind us to look around, to give thanks to the Lord our God who has gathered us here today, and to look down the road as a congregation, encouraging one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. As we look back we know that throughout the years this congregation has been a place where many families have gathered to worship…to pray…to sing…to study…and to enjoy fellowship together. Families have gathered for baptisms…for weddings…and for funerals. Some of those memories are shared by just a few people…others by many families. Some memories are precious…some bring a tear…a sigh…and some bring a smile to your face. But whether the memory is special for one or many…the link for all memories is that they are a part of the story of St. Andrew’s…a branch of the fellowship of Christ’s people. And if it was not for Christ, we would not be gathered here this morning. If it were not for Christ’s death and resurrection we would not be here. It is not what we have done in the past…as good as those deeds were. It is not our relationships with one another…as cherished and as caring as they are. It is Jesus Christ that has loved us and chosen us and given us life…and without him this building is nothing but an empty shell. But thank God, this building was built with the desire to share the gospel message in this community… and that it was built with Christ as its cornerstone…and it is Christ’s message that continues to be its reason for being today. And we must not forget that. The words we read earlier from Proverbs remind us to not forget. “My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Trust in the Lord. In all ways acknowledge him. Words that we should heed as we look down the road. We know that the road a congregation travels is not always easy. The challenges of being a congregation today are many. It is easy to become discouraged. But the challenges of being the church are certainly not new. Read through the New Testament letters and you quickly see the many challenges that the early church faced…way back when. And even in the Presbyterian Church in Canada there are challenges. I found an old article that speaks to some of those challenges…challenges that even 100 years ago, congregations faced. The following article appeared in the April 1910 edition of the Presbyterian Record. The article bemoans the trend towards a lack of religious obligation. “Escaping from God would fittingly paraphrase the notion that some people… especially young people… seem to have… if one may judge from their lack of any evident feeling of religious obligation… when, on week end parties… they spend Sunday in the country. There is nothing more startling to any thoughtful… not to say religious observer… than the way in which Sunday is being made a day of strenuous pleasure taken by ‘Saturday to Monday’ city people invading quiet country haunts or lakeside watering places, with noisy disregard to the hours of the day of rest and worship.” So even a hundred years ago, church attendance was a concern… and the distractions of other activities being undertaken on Sunday… and the misplaced priorities of the youth… my goodness that all sounds so familiar. If only stores weren’t open on Sunday… if only hockey practices were scheduled for other times than Sunday morning… if only people didn’t head off to the country and make Sunday a day of strenuous pleasure as apparently was the case 100 years ago… if only… then our churches would be filled. 100 years ago the expectation was that people would just come to church. They would attend the church of their fathers and forefathers. Church buildings were geographically located so that they people could get to them with horse and buggy. Times have changed, and no longer is the church building the focal point of a community. And for some it is not a part of life at all. How many of you have heard of the ‘Nones’? Not ‘nun’…but ‘none’. The Nones are the non-religious, who when asked to identify the group they belong to, they opt to tick the box for ‘none’. According to the Pew Research Council in the USA, 1/3 of adults under the age of 30 identify themselves as ‘nones’. In Canada, the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences states that one in four adults declare no religious affiliation. The reasons are varied, including bad experiences and negative undertones, but for some they simply just don’t see any need of it. They haven’t totally thrown out belief in God, but don’t want the trappings…the perceived negative trappings…associated with organized religion. The nones are known as believing without belonging. Or as one writer put it, rather than referring to the group as ‘nones’ we should say ‘somes’…for some of the nones are seeking more. They are caring and compassionate, but they just aren’t participating. Diana Butler Bass in her book “Christianity After Religion” calls this trend ‘participation crash’. There is a weariness with the institutional church. The church – whether it means to or not – is driving away those who care about the faith but have grown to dislike the organized church. If the current trend continues, today’s church will be remembered not for evangelizing the world but for creating the largest religious group known as the ‘nones’. Well that’s a bit of a downer message for an anniversary service. Or is it? The church is Christ together with his people. All people. The gospel message that the church proclaims is for all people. The challenge for the church is to keep its focus on Christ and the gospel message. Too easily the church gets distracted by many things. Just like in that wonderful, challenging gospel story of Martha and Mary. Not a traditional anniversary reading, but a story that reminds us to keep focused on the better part. When looking at the story of Martha and Mary, we often see it as a story about the merits of doing or not doing tasks. Of action versus contemplation. But we know that there is merit in action and merit in contemplation. Both are important. And Jesus never says to Martha, your gift of hospitality…of stirring that pot of soup…is not important. His words to Martha are said in response to her words of judgment against Mary and the implication that Jesus himself didn’t care that Martha was left to stir the pot all by herself. Martha was weary of stirring the pot…and her weariness distracted her from the reason she was stirring the pot in the first place. Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. She saw that he was tired and hungry and so she went to prepare some food for him. But her gift of hospitality went from being an offering to a chore when she looked at her sister Mary…then put her expectations onto Mary…and then finally told Jesus to tell Mary what for. With every passing moment Martha was becoming more and more resentful of her sister Mary… and rather than ask Mary herself, she asks Jesus to intervene. From Martha’s perspective Jesus should have seen that she was becoming overwhelmed and then responded to her need by telling Mary to stop sitting there and do something useful. She wanted Jesus to get on Mary’s case. Why Jesus can’t figure it out is beyond Martha’s reasoning at the time and instead of asking Mary directly, she goes to Jesus and says: “Can’t you see what’s happening here! Do something about it. Lord, don’t you care?” Martha was tired of stirring the pot…and so rather than stir the pot of soup she was cooking…she decided to stir the pot of resentment. But Jesus doesn’t do her bidding for her. Jesus doesn’t tell Mary to get up and go help her sister Martha in the kitchen. Nor does Jesus scold Martha. What he does is gently correct her. He says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.” The one necessary thing was fellowship with Jesus. Time with Jesus… listening to him… and Jesus was not going to take that away from her. When we think that the better part is what we are doing, and the accolades we will receive from doing…over and above who we are doing them for…then we have not chosen the better part. The busyness is a distraction from the better part. As the writer of Hebrews put it: “Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” The better part is not judging the actions of others by how we would act and then by extension putting that action…or lack of action…on another. The better part is keeping the focus and remembering why we stir the pot. How does the writer of Hebrews put it: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Provoke. Not usually a positive word. Nor is stir the pot usually used in an encouraging way. Provoke…stir the pot…and do so, not with distraction, but with encouragement to love and good deeds. Provoke one another to love and good deeds. Stir the pot to love and good deeds. Encouragement is a powerful tool that we should embrace as Christians. I believe that encouragement can transform the church and our relationships in amazing ways. Way back when the letter to the Hebrews was written, encouragement was at a short supply. The people had become discouraged and default setting was to not bother showing up for worship. If you read further on the 10th chapter you get a pretty good sense that life as a Christian had been anything but easy. The congregation had endured abuse…persecution…suffering…and the loss of property…and now they were plain weary. They were weary in well-doing. They were weary of the demands put upon them. They were weary of following the Christian way. And in their weariness they started to drift away. They started to neglect their faith. And as the years went by the weariness grew. The early church had challenges. The church today has challenges. But when we keep the focus on Christ and Christ’s message. When we stir the pot to love and good deeds…then we are heading in the right direction. On this anniversary Sunday as we reflect on the church…as we remember the stories…and we ponder the challenges…I want you to look around this sanctuary. Today the pews are full. But we know that is not always the case every Sunday. My challenge to you today…on this anniversary Sunday…is to take time this week to pray asking God to bring someone to mind who you can then invite to church. Perhaps that person is a ‘none’ or a ‘some’. Invite them to church…for worship…for fellowship. Invite them to come and see. Invite them to come and be a part of this community. They will be every bit as much of a part of our congregation as we are…if we invite them in. Some will come without any church background. Some will come with a church memory from childhood. Some will come from different faith traditions. Some will challenge us to stretch ourselves…to see the world through different eyes. Some will challenge us to change…if we let them. It is not up to us to grow the church. But it is up to us to plant the seed…and water the soil. As the apostle Paul put it so well when writing to the Church in Corinth: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.’ God gave the growth. So as we celebrate St. Andrew’s anniversary this day…may we all rejoice in the blessings of God. Blessings that God has poured out on this congregation over the years. And as we move into the future, may God continue to bless this congregation as we stir the pot of love and good deeds, doing so always in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.