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
It is not often that we have the opportunity to celebrate the patron saint of Scotland on the very day that we gather for worship. So I thought this would be a good time to refresh our memory about Andrew and how he came to have such a prominent place in the history of Scotland and the Scottish church. It is believed that Andrew was born between AD 5 and 10 in the village of Bethsaida the principal fishing port in the region of Galilee. His parents were Jona and Joanna. Jona and his friend Zebedee were business partners and their sons were coming into the family business. Jona had at least one other son besides Andrew – the one known as Simon who was later renamed Peter. Zebedee had two sons that we know of – James and John. It is also believed that Andrew had a strong sense of curiosity. No doubt this curiosity would have led him to inquire into many subjects and would have led him to be attracted to the one known as John the Baptist. It appears that Andrew - along with John – were followers of John the Baptist. According to the Gospel of John, he was present when John the Baptist pointed out Jesus and called Him the Lamb of God. And while the story of the calling of the first disciples as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels speaks of no previous encounter with Jesus, it is believed that this may not have been the case It is also interesting that Andrew – while not someone who is gets much press in the Gospels – is considered by many scholars to be the first person to become a follower of Jesus. Andrew is so excited to meet Jesus that he immediately goes and gets his brother Simon and brings him to meet Jesus. I don’t know about you but I find it hard to imagine the story of the disciples and their life with Jesus without Peter. Yet if not for Andrew and his enthusiasm, Peter may never have come to know Jesus. And while Andrew never seems to become a prominent figure in the early church, he does make critical contributions to the ministry of Jesus. First we know that he brings Peter to Christ; but he also is the one who brings the Gentiles to Christ. Philip is the disciple who hears that they want to meet Jesus but it is Andrew who makes it happen. Andrew is also the one who finds the young boy with the loaves and fish and brings him to Jesus. His curiosity comes through though when he questions whether such a small amount of food could possibly feed such a crowd. One author speculates that Andrew’s charming personality may have prompted people to reach into their sacks and share their food with others. No doubt Andrew was a warm, caring individual whose concern for others came through time and time again. Of course Andrew is with the others through all of the trials and triumphs of Jesus’ ministry and is with them on that fateful night of the Last Supper and on the day when they are visited by the Spirit of God in the upper room. But while others rise to more prominent positions within the early church, Andrew appears to just disappear. But this is far from the truth. Andrew – the introducer, the genial welcomer – goes on to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the region known as Scythia. It is also recorded that he spent time along the Black Sea and Dnieper River as far as present day Kiev and visited many parts of what today we know as Ukraine, Romania and Russia. It is believed that he was responsible for founding the See of Byzantium – modern day Istanbul. His mission took him to Thrace, Scythia and Achaia as well as other parts of Greece. Like many of those first apostles, Andrew did not die quietly in his bed. He was martyred by crucifixion at the city of Patras in the region of Achaia on the northern coast of the Peloponnese. Legend has it that he chose to be crucified on a cross shaped like an X because he did not feel worthy to be hung on a cross similar to that of Jesus. It is also recorded that his limbs were secured by ropes and not pierced by nails. He is said to have lasted three days and to continue to preach the message of the gospel until the end. Whether or not it is true, the image that has come down through the ages to us today is that of St. Andrew on an X-shaped cross. This became the symbol of St. Andrew and it has been adopted into the flag of many countries including Scotland. It should also be worth noting that Andrew is not only the patron saint of Scotland but that Russia, Greece, and Malta all claim him as their patron as well. Like so many things in the early days of the Christian church, there is much speculation over when and how Christianity first made its way to Scotland. But however it came, it came with the spirit of that Apostle whose curiosity, strength and ever welcoming spirit had led so many to faith in other parts of the world. Following in the footsteps of the one who would become its patron saint, the early leaders of the church in Scotland gave great emphasis to relationship and community. The church was founded and built not on a hierarchy of religious figures but rather on a community of believers sharing the gifts of God with one another, encouraging one another to live in the grace and peace of God with neighbour and nature. For the Celtic church, God was not to be found within the confines of a church building but was to be found and experienced in all of nature and society. To the Celtic church all life was sacred and worth cherishing. They believed that God had not only called them but destined them to be in relationship with Him. The Celtic church believed that redemption was about being reconnected to the presence of God’s glory that remains burning deep within each person and rekindling our lamps for the entire world to see as living examples of Christ living in us. The Celtic church celebrated that God created us in His image and that we are meant to celebrate our lives. Yes, we have flaws, weaknesses and failures but He has called us to rise above such things and not let them consume our life. We have been called to be children of God, children of the light. Perhaps it was Andrew’s infectious welcoming quality of bringing others to Christ that first attracted the church in Scotland to adopt Andrew as its patron saint. It is clear that Columba and others like him were people who desired nothing more than to introduce others to Christ. But in doing so their goal was not to add members or to increase the givings. It was to introduce them to the God whose incarnation in Jesus Christ had brought hope and peace to their lives. Michael T.R.B. Turnbull in an article written for the BBC on St. Andrew remarked that Andrew was a networker. Long before social media made its appearance, Andrew was creating his own face book page and collecting likes wherever he went. Turnbull also mused whether or not Andrew’s choice of a cross in the form of an X was not a sign – a multiplication sign. Andrew may never have thought of it that way but over the centuries his first introduction of his brother to Christ became the first of many introductions he made over his life. That one encounter was multiplied not only in his life but in the lives of all those who followed his example. And so we celebrate our patron saint, the one who was best known for introducing others to our Lord. As we come to the table of our Lord today, let us reflect on who introduced us to the Lord and also reflect on the relationship we share with one another and the community that is ours in this time.
Bible Text: Matthew 25:31-46 There are places in the world where goats are highly prized because they seem to be able to exist on almost anything, they give milk which can be used for yogurt, cheese and butter, they provide meat and their skins can be used for clothing. Now to be sure the sheep is no slouch when it comes to usefulness but of course you can keep a sheep a little longer and use its wool for clothing for a few years before using it for food. But you need to be cautious because the older it gets, the tougher it gets – and I have had my fair share of mutton over the years! For whatever reason, sheep have been more prized by the people we have come to know as the Hebrews. Goats seemed to get the short end of the stick. When the Day of Atonement would come, it was a goat that was symbolically charged with the sins of the people and sent out into the desert to die. And while sheep met their end at the hand of the butcher, their fate was more blessed. Goats meant release from sin but sheep meant life. We all know that sin is something that happens again and again in our lives but life happens only once. And while it is important to rid our lives of sin and acknowledge our desire to be rid of our sins, it is even more important to ensure that we remain alive. And so it is that God ordains that the blood of a lamb and a lamb only will be the mark of salvation – not the blood of a kid by which I mean a goat. Now we may debate whether it is fair to the goat that it has been chosen to represent sin and the sheep to represent salvation and life but we are in no position to ask God to change His mind. It is what it is. So we are left with the metaphor of the goat and the sheep – one representing our sin and one representing our salvation. Now I am not sure what kind of animal one would get if a goat and a sheep ever got together but obviously it was not a desired result. Obviously shepherds went to great lengths to keep goats from sheep. And Jesus uses this image to speak of the time when He will return in glory for the final judgment. First he speaks of gathering the nations before Him. Obviously there will be a sifting of the nations. Some will be like goats and some will be like sheep. He speaks this way because He knows that the nations of the world will make choices that will reflect the ethos by which they will live. Some nations will choose to be nations where compassion, care for the poor and the needy, concern for those who are ill or troubled is encouraged and expected and other nations will be those who choose to ignore the plight of the needy at best or even persecute them at worst. But there is a second sifting and that is the sifting of the people who come from the nations of the world. The second sifting will be one in which those who chose to see the need of humanity and act according to the justice of God will be like the sheep. They will be set at the right hand of God – the place of honour. And those who chose not to see the need of humanity and chose to act in their own interest will be like the goats. They will be first placed on the left hand – a place of dishonour. Concern for the community as a whole has ever been front and centre in the heart and expressed mind of God. The very fact that the two greatest commandments concern love for God and love for neighbour give a clear indication that we are not to ignore the plight of those who share our community locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. And while we may never be able to meet the needs of everyone in the world, we must ever be conscious of the needs around us and continue to encourage our nation to be one that seeks to be truly equitable in its dealings with all members of society. One more thing that we can glean from this passage is the fact that those who are considered sheep responded to the needs of the poor, needy or oppressed not even imagining that God in Christ was present. Those who are considered goats would no doubt have responded differently if they had known that God in Christ was present. But that’s exactly the point Jesus is trying to make. Those who desire to be God’s people and wish to be welcomed into the kingdom of God and receive eternal life act not out of selfish self-preservation or for their own glory but out of that true love for neighbour which is an extension of the love they have for themselves. I will freely admit that it is not an easy thing to imagine that Christ is indeed in the one who appears to us as a hungry family or a thirsty child or a homeless beggar. I admit that it is not easy to imagine that Christ is present in anyone who is sick or in trouble. But perhaps that is exactly the point. If it were an easy thing, we might never have a struggle within ourselves over how to respond to the need before us. If indeed we always believed it was Christ, I am sure we would always do the right thing. Even a goat might act like a sheep if it knew its fate depended on it. But it is what it is. There are goats in the world and there are sheep. Perhaps we don’t like the image. Perhaps we like goats better than sheep. But that’s the image Jesus chose because it was a traditional way that the people had understood God. Being a goat is something that in many ways we cannot escape. Each day of our lives brings opportunities to be a sheep or a goat. We will be goats some of the time. My prayer is that we will strive to become like sheep. But being a sheep is not about blind faith; it is not about following God without thinking; it is about choosing to live for God and to one day live with God in eternity. I invite you to think on this prayer which I use as part of my preparation for the day: My Father, I come to you at the beginning of this day to ask you to guide me and help me. Give me courage to face the problems that lie ahead and give me a heart wide open to the joys you have prepared for me. Forgive my many sins that I may start this day anew. And as you forgive me, may I learn to be forgiving and compassionate to others in return. My Father, I long to serve you aright. May all that I do and all that I say be pleasing in your sight. AMEN.
Perhaps you have the heard the saying: Make a friend; be a friend; bring your friend to Christ. But to make a friend, you must show yourself friendly and so we have to be someone who is approachable. If we do not seem like a person someone may want to get to know, chances are we will not find making friends easy. If we show by our words or actions that we are not interested in making friends, then chances are we will have difficulty finding friends. New situations are difficult for most of us but even more difficult for introverts. And yet we know that all of us need at least one friend in life. So if we decide that we will show ourselves friendly and start to talk to people, chances are we may find a friend. Of course making a friend is not the end of the process. After all, friends are not possessions. They are not something we can simply see as a moment in time. Friends may be part of our lives for a short or a long time but they are not an achievement to be put in the history folder as we move on. And so it is that we not only are asked to make a friend or make friends, we are asked to be a friend. And what is a friend? Well, hopefully a friend is someone we can count on to be there for us in good and bad times. Hopefully it is someone we can confide in and know that our confidence is respected. Hopefully it is someone who cares about us and is interested in our welfare. Hopefully it is someone who we will get to know better as time goes on – someone with whom we will want to share our lives. Being a friend is about all that. It is someone with whom you can discuss just about anything – even politics or religion. Hopefully it is a person with whom you can share your deepest dreams, hopes and fears. Hopefully it is a person who will come to know you well enough to be able to speak to you when they have a concern for your well-being – be it mental, physical or spiritual. Only then can we truly bring our friend to Christ. We bring each other because we believe that our friend needs to meet Christ in this time and place. Now let us take that credo and apply it to our life. Most of us probably didn’t know each other well before we came to this community – but maybe we did and that is why we are here. But let’s imagine that we were strangers. Something led us to be here. And even if it was not the first thing in our mind, somewhere inside we hoped to be able to make friends. After all, it is only when we begin to make friends that we begin to feel accepted within a community. But making friends was just part of the process. Once we had made friends, then we needed to be friends to one another. And as that friendship grew, we could begin to share personal details, confident that our thoughts and feelings would be respected. Then we could bring our friend to Christ for we would have come to a place where we could help to guide our friend as they sought for answers to their questions or concerns or perhaps be guided ourselves. One of the great strengths of the early Christian communities was their commitment to one another. They knew that they had chosen a path in life that was not generally accepted by the wider society. They also knew that there was an inherent danger in declaring they were Christian. They had a responsibility to encourage and support one another until the end of the age. And they took that responsibility seriously. Belonging to the church was a matter of life and death. They felt a strong bond to one another and shared with each other the joys and sorrows of their lives. They would speak to one another of their struggles and would pray for one another. They knew that they needed each other in order to maintain their faith in God until the end of their lives or the end of time. They came as strangers to each other, drawn together by a common confession of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. But they would come to bond with one another knowing that they needed one another to hold true to that confession. They made friends with one another; they were friends to one another; and they brought their friends to Christ. I have told you before that I believe that everyone who comes to this place is here for a reason. God has drawn us here and has given us to one another in this place to care for one another’s life. That care may take the form of listening, of holding each other’s hand, of praying for one another or giving counsel or advice. But whatever we may do for or with each other, it is to be done with care and love. We need to consider carefully what we say and what we do and be ready to ask forgiveness of one another. Our lives and our community life will not always be perfect or match the ideal but if we are willing to build one another up and encourage one another, we will go a long way to creating a community in which we can share our joys and our struggles with one another – assured that what we share will be respected and honoured and that we can feel secure and safe.