Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany: The Book of Jonah

Reluctantly Sent to the Whole World

Today is the only day in the entire three-year lectionary cycle that we will hear a reading from the Book of Jonah. And since Jonah is my favourite book of the Bible, I can’t resist the urge to preach on this text today!

But I’m not just going to preach on the little passage from chapter three that we heard as our first reading, because we need to remind ourselves of the whole story of Jonah to be able to get the force of the message of this book. And this isn’t just a pretty children’s story about a guy who got swallowed by a fish and then got burped up alive three days later. This is a story about a God who loves his enemies, about a missionary who was told to go and spread God’s word and who chickened out and ran in the other direction instead, and who was angry later when his enemies repented because he was looking forward to seeing God wipe them out. I think you’ll agree that these themes are rather relevant to our world, and also to our own congregation as we think about how we help our neighbours experience the love of God in Christ.

There’s one question I’m going to set aside right at the beginning, and that’s the question of whether or not this story actually happened. This can be quite controversial and people who are interested in the Bible often have strong feelings one way or the other. On the one hand, people point out that it’s impossible for a fish to swallow a human being and for them to stay alive for three days inside its belly. They also point out that there’s no historical record that the people of Ninevah ever turned wholesale to the God of Israel as this story says they did, nor is it true that Ninevah was a city that was so big it took three days to go from one side to the other. This story, they say, reads like a folk tale, and a folk tale is what it is.

On the other hand, those who believe the story is literally true point out that if God can raise Jesus from the dead he can certainly make it possible for Jonah to stay alive in the belly of a fish for three days. They also point out that Jesus talks about Jonah in such a way as to give the impression he believed Jonah was a historical character.

I’m not going to take a position on this issue today, because I don’t think it affects the total message of the story. After all, we all know that Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son was a parable and never actually happened, but it can still speak powerfully to us about what God is like and what the Gospel is. And if it turns out that Jonah is also a parable, this still leaves us with the question of why this parable is included in our Scriptures; what is the Holy Spirit saying to us through it? So I will take the story as it stands in our Scriptures, leaving aside the question of historicity, and simply ask what God wants to say to us through it.

We don’t know very much about Jonah son of Amittai and we certainly don’t know how God communicated with him. The only thing we know is that God told him to leave Israel, go hundreds of miles to the northeast to the great Gentile city of Ninevah and try to drum up a revival by telling the people, “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown” (3:4). Ninevah, by the way, was not just another Gentile city; it was the capital city of Assyria, one of Israel’s deadliest enemies. Assyria was the nation that eventually destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century B.C. and took its people into captivity. Imagine God sending a prophet from occupied France to Berlin in 1941 with the message that if the people there didn’t repent, God would overthrow their city – that’s the sort of commission that God gives to Jonah.

Well, Jonah left Israel all right, but he went in the opposite direction – he took a ship across the Mediterranean Sea for Spain, trying to put as much distance between God and himself as he could. Apparently he wasn’t too enthusiastic about the call to be an overseas missionary. But God got a little stubborn and sent a storm to slow the ship down. Eventually the storm got so bad that the sailors began to talk about religion: “Whose god have we upset?” They did a little survey of the passengers and crew to find out about everyone’s religion, and when they got to Jonah and discovered that he worshipped Yahweh, who he claimed was the one who created heaven and earth, they got really nervous. “What have you done to annoy him so badly?” they asked, and Jonah told them he was running away from God’s call to be a missionary.

The sailors were pretty decent and they really didn’t want to kill Jonah, so they went back to their oars and tried hard to fight the storm, but when it became obvious that they were losing they came back and asked him what they should do. “Pick me up and throw me overboard”, Jonah replied; “It’s me he’s after, not you”. So they did, and down Jonah sank into an increasingly quiet ocean. That’s the last we hear of the ship and the sailors.

Jonah probably thought it was the last of him, too, and when he saw an enormous fish approaching he must have been even more sure that this was the end of the story. “This is it, God; I’ve disobeyed you, and now I’m going to get what I deserve”. But in the next few hours Jonah discovered an amazing new truth about God: God didn’t want his death, he wanted his obedience. And somehow, in an entirely supernatural way, in the belly of a fish, God saved Jonah for one reason and one reason only: so that he could have a second chance at the job he’d run away from the first time.

Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish and we can imagine that he did a lot of praying there. His prayers are summarised for us in chapter two of the book, and by the way, they consist almost entirely of quotations from the psalms. Say what you like about our Anglican habit of praying the psalms a lot, it’s useful to have these things memorised if you ever find yourself in the belly of a great fish! The writer of the book makes it clear that God was in control of how long Jonah stayed in that dark and unpleasant place; presumably he waited until he was sure that Jonah’s repentance was genuine, but at the end of chapter two we read that ‘the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land’ (2:10).

We can imagine how happy Jonah was to see the light of day again, but we can only guess at his feelings when the word of the Lord came to him a second time: ‘Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you’ (Jonah 3:2). No running away from God’s call, Jonah! But by this time he had learned a thing or two about God and so off he went to Ninevah, walked up and down in the streets and called out “Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown” (3:4) - rather like those people you see walking up and down the streets with placards saying ‘The end of the world is nigh’.

Then an amazing thing happened: instead of lynching Jonah, the people of Ninevah believed him, and they repented and turned to God. The king ordered everyone to fast and pray and wear sackcloth and even the animals had to join in the fast - involuntarily, no doubt! And the Bible says that ‘when God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it’ (3:10).

Now comes the funniest part of the whole book. Was Jonah pleased that the Ninevites had believed his message? He was not. He went off in a huff. “I knew this would happen!” he railed at God. “You’re such a wimp! You always come out with these big threats but then as soon as people say they’re sorry and turn from their sins you turn into a big cream puff! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish in the first place; I knew you’d make a liar out of me!” And Jonah sat down on a hill outside Ninevah with his nose in the air.

After a while it got very hot sitting there in dignified disapproval, and so God (who was no doubt watching and having difficulty controlling his laughter) made a bush grow up to give Jonah some shade. Jonah was happy about that and eventually he had a good night’s sleep under the bush. But the next day God sent along a worm to eat the roots and the bush died. When Jonah complained about what had happened to the bush God spoke to him again. “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons...?” (4:11).

And that’s the question with which the book ends. Should God be concerned with Ninevah, Israel’s deadliest enemy and the city that had killed many of Israel’s sons? Should God give Ninevah the chance to repent, or should he just wipe them out and get it over with, because after all, that’s what they deserve, isn’t it? You see, Jonah may be one of the quaintest and funniest books in the Bible, but the truths it teaches us are hard-hitting and highly relevant for us today.

The book of Jonah talks about a God who is concerned about everyone on the earth, even his enemies. We might not think of that as such a revolutionary idea, but to the Jews of Jonah’s day it certainly was. At the very beginning, way back in the book of Genesis, when God first chose Abraham, he said to him ‘...in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). It was God’s plan to teach Abraham and his descendants his law and his ways, so that they in their turn could pass this knowledge on to others. Unfortunately, by the time of Jonah the people had become very inward looking and had forgotten all about God’s call to them to become missionaries. They had come to believe that God cared for the Jews and the Jews only, and that he had created the Gentiles for the express purpose of feeding the fires of hell. That’s why, when Jesus sent his apostles out as missionaries to preach the Good News, they had such a difficult time with the idea that it wasn’t only for the Jewish people. The Gentiles, especially the Romans, were still the enemy and the oppressor.

Luke tells a significant story about how that attitude changed in Acts chapters ten and eleven. Cornelius, a Roman centurion, had become a believer in the God of Israel and had begun to practice the commandments, but had not gone the whole way of circumcision. One day he was praying in his room when an angel appeared to him and told him to send a messenger to Joppa for a man called Simon Peter who would tell him what to do next. At the same time, Peter was having a nap on the roof of a house in Joppa. In his sleep, God sent him a dream which directed him not to call anything unclean when God had made it clean. Immediately afterwards, the messengers from the Gentile Cornelius appeared, and Peter concluded that the dream meant he was to go with them, back to Cornelius’ house.

This was a brave step for Peter to take – he was going to the house of the enemy and the oppressor, and he was doing so, not with the hand of judgement and death, but with the gospel message of Jesus and his love. When he got to Cornelius’ house he began to share the gospel message, but almost immediately the Holy Spirit filled the Romans who were listening, just as he had filled the Jewish disciples on the Day of Pentecost. Peter and the others were amazed, but Peter said, “I guess we’d better baptize them, then!” And so the gospel crossed the barrier between Jew and Gentile, and you and I can be thankful for that, because if it hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be Christians today.

God sent Jonah across the barrier between Israel and Assyria to preach to the people of Ninevah. God sent Peter across the barrier between Jews and Romans, to share the gospel with Cornelius and his family. And I believe that today God is still calling us to cross barriers and build bridges across the divides between people so that we can share the gospel story. I wonder which barrier he’s calling you and me to cross today? Is it a racial barrier? Is it a barrier between warring political ideologies – left and right or, as our American friends would say, red states and blue states? Is it about gay or straight, or rich or poor, or white collar and blue collar?

Let me close with one of the most dramatic stories I’ve ever heard of crossing a barrier to share the love of Christ. I read it in the book A Culture of Peace, by Alan and Ellie Kreider and Paulus Widjaja.

A Christian pastor in Indonesia saw an opportunity to do something risky. Through the local Association of Radio Broadcasting, he decided to approach the commander of a radical Muslim group, Hisbullah Shabillilah (which means ‘the Soldiers of God’), in the city where both the pastor and the commander lived. When the pastor first visited the headquarters of the Islamic group, he saw that on the walls were lots of swords and banners, with ‘No Compromise!’ written in big letters. But the pastor took time to befriend the commander of the soldiers and his followers, and to have dialogue with them about peacemaking.

On one of his visits he noticed that something symbolic had happened: the swords and banners had been taken off the walls. And the Muslim commander promised to send his members to attend the training on peacebuilding and conflict transformation that the pastor was organizing. Not long after this came the tsunami of December 26th 2004, and the Muslim commander was eager to work together with the pastor and a local Peace Centre in a relief and trauma healing project in their area of Indonesia.

One day the commander told the pastor, “If only I had known you four years ago, I would not have had to lose fifty of my people who died in a war between Muslims and Christians. I used to think that spilling the blood of the Gentiles and the Chinese was permissible, but why is it different now? Is there something strange within me since I have learned to know you?”

I have no idea how that pastor felt the first time he visited the headquarters of the radical Muslim group, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t feel some fear. We’re not told why he went; maybe, like Jonah, he felt that it was something God was calling him to do, and maybe he struggled against it for a while, wondering what the soldiers would do, wondering if he’d come out of that place alive. But he stepped out in courage and faith, and the result was that the name of Jesus was honoured as people came together in understanding and respect.

So let’s not be afraid to step out of our comfort zones and cross barriers to share the love of Christ. In the kingdom of God, all those barriers will be gone. But you and I are called to live into that kingdom now, building bridges, loving our neighbours and our enemies, and sharing the gospel with them, knowing that every single one of them was made in the image of God and is loved by God. And we might just be surprised at what happens as a result of our obedience to God’s call!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Weekly Calendar for January 19-25, 2009

Monday, January 19th
Tim Off

Tuesday, January 20th
8:30 am Morning Prayer @ St.Matthias’
1:30 pm Bible Study- Contact Maggie Woytkiw 780-434-0311

Wednesday, January 21st
8:30 am Morning Prayer
7:15 pm VESTRY Meeting

Thursday, January 22nd
7:00am Men’s & Women’s Bible studies @ Bogani CafĂ©
8:30am Morning Prayer

Friday, January 23rd
8:30am Morning Prayer

Saturday, January 24th
Pancake Breakfast Volunteers @ St. Faith’s
Bissel Lunch Prep at St. M's 1:00-3:30 pm

Sunday, January 25th
9.00 am Holy Eucharist, 9:45 am JOINT COFFEE
10.30 am Holy Eucharist and Sunday School

ICPM/Bissel Lunch Inner City Pastoral Ministry (ICPM) is an interdenominational ministry. They, together with over 100 churches and faith groups, serve a nutritious lunch after Sunday worship 52 weeks of the year. The image “http://www.bighornbarandgrill.com/image/2220139.jpeg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.St. Margaret’s in partnership with Stratheran United Church is responsible for providing and serving the lunch on Sunday January 25, 2009. We routinely serve over 300 people and are responsible for providing half of the food. Volunteers will be meeting to help serve the lunch on Sunday the 25th at the Bissell Centre.

7:00 pm YOUTH GROUP!! The image “http://ez-host.org/graphics/UploadFile/3763/kids_.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Upcoming: St. M’s is having a baby shower for all
our new babies February 22nd!! More info to come…


Growing Prayer @ St.Margaret’s:
Each week we offer special prayers for two families in our congregation.

Church Families: E. Bai and the Banks Family
Weekly Prayer Cycle: Readers

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany: 1 Samuel 3:1-10

Connecting with the Living God

Like many of you here this morning, I grew up as a member of the Christian church. My parents gave me to God in baptism at the age of two months, and as I got older they continued to take me to church. I went to Sunday School, sang in the choir, and generally enjoyed my contact with the church. But looking back on those years now, I realise that my Christianity was entirely institutional. I had a connection with an institution called the Church of England, but I had not yet found a relationship with the living God.

At the age of thirteen I found that relationship, as a series of events in my life culminated one evening in March 1972, when my Dad challenged me to commit my life to Jesus. I did that later that evening, and for the first time in my life I experienced a genuine sense of connection with God. That experience laid the foundation for everything that has happened to me since.

As I read our first reading this morning, I realise that in some ways my experience was similar to that of Samuel. Samuel’s mother Hannah had been childless for many years, and eventually she went to the sanctuary of God and prayed hard that God would give her a child. Eli the priest was present at the time, and he assured her that God would answer her prayer. God responded, and nine months later young Samuel was born. When he was weaned – which in that culture was probably at the age of two or three – Hannah brought him back to the sanctuary and gave him to God, and he grew up there with Eli. He served in God’s house, but the writer of 1 Samuel says ‘Samuel did not yet know the Lord’ (v.7). In other words, like me, he had a connection with the rites and ceremonies of institutional religion, but he had not yet discovered a relationship with the living God.

God’s dream for every one of us is that we would not be satisfied with merely institutional Christianity. Our call is to press on to make a genuine connection with the living God. What can we learn about that from this story today?

Let’s think first about institutional religion as it is represented here by Eli and his sons. Over the years of my ministry, a number of times, people have expressed their sense of frustration to me in these terms: “There’s got to be more to Christianity than just going to church and giving our offerings!” Sadly, it is still possible to be connected with the institution of the church without enjoying a genuine relationship with the living God. Eli and his sons are examples of this.
The picture I get of Eli in the first three chapters of 1 Samuel is of a man who had once enjoyed a genuine relationship with God, but had fallen away from it. He was able to give genuine comfort to Samuel’s mother when she prayed, and he was able to guide young Samuel in how to respond to God’s voice when it came to him. However, he had not had this experience himself for a long time.

Why not? In 1 Samuel chapter two a prophet comes to Eli and warns him about his sons. These boys inherited their father’s priesthood, but they were abusing it. They were taking the best meat from the people’s sacrifices and claiming it for themselves. Also, they were seducing the young girls who served at the sanctuary. These boys seemed to have no genuine experience of God at all. Their father was a priest, so it was assumed they would follow in his footsteps, but they did not know God and they abused their position of trust.

The prophet warned Eli about this, and gave him God’s command to bring it to an end. We’re told that Eli rebuked his sons, but when they refused to listen to him he did nothing more. He did not remove them from their position, and so they were able to continue their evil deeds. We might feel some sympathy for Eli, but the fact is that his inaction allowed his sons to continue to abuse people and to show contempt for God’s commands. And this disobedience to God struck at the heart of Eli’s own relationship with God as well.

Eli is a person who has once enjoyed a genuine relationship with God, but has fallen away from it because of disobedience. My own personal view is that this is what happens in many of the horror stories we hear about TV evangelists; they start with a genuine call from God, but at some point the lure of money and power seduces them, and then the wreckage occurs, often very publicly.

Eli’s sons, on the other hand, seem never to have made any connection with God at all. And note that officially they were priests! We shouldn’t assume that just because a person is a priest or pastor they have found a genuine relationship with God. Malcolm Harding, a former Bishop of the Diocese of Brandon, has told of how he went to seminary and was at the point of being ordained when he drew back because of his realisation that he was empty inside; he had a degree in theology but had not found a genuine relationship with Christ. For a few years he worked as a social worker, while continuing his spiritual search. One evening he attended a mission led by Marney Patterson, an Anglican evangelist. At Marney’s invitation, Malcolm prayed a simple prayer opening the door of his life to Jesus Christ, and for the first time in his life he discovered a real connection with the living God. He went on to be ordained and had a wonderful ministry of leading others into a genuine relationship with Christ. But I want you to note that the Church had been ready to ordain him without this, and he would simply have been a professional institutional Christian!

Let’s go on to Samuel. Samuel also starts with institutional religion, but he doesn’t stop there. Let’s look at his story more closely now; it’s a story of genuine faith.

I myself have never heard an audible voice of God speaking to me as Samuel did here, but I know that sometimes it does happen. Bishop Victoria blew the socks off the young people at a ‘Christian Basics’ weekend I was running a few years ago, when she told them her own story of faith. She talked of how, as a young teenager at a boarding school with all kinds of problems in her life, she was curious about Christianity but was also resisting it. One night she was lying in her bed thinking about all this when she heard an audible voice speaking to her. The voice said two things. First: “You belong to me and I will never let you go”. Second: “And you will be my priest”. Understandably, that was the point at which things in her life began to change!

I think that this kind of thing happens more frequently than we imagine today. I think that there are many people who have had experiences of God, but are afraid to talk about them because they think people will dismiss them as cranks. As I said, I myself have never heard an audible voice from God, but I have had several experiences in which I knew without a doubt that I was being commanded by God to do something – and I also knew that disobedience would have serious consequences.

It’s interesting to me that when Samuel first heard God speaking to him, he thought it was old Eli. In other words, he thought it was a merely human voice. I suspect that sometimes when God speaks to us we do the same thing. “That’s just my friend talking to me”. “That’s just a book I’m reading”. “That’s just my Bible reading”. But beneath these natural voices there’s another voice speaking to us, the voice of God.

In Samuel’s case, his encounter with God was all about hearing the word of the Lord, but that isn’t always so; sometimes God just wants to give us a sense of his presence to comfort and support us. I remember a few years ago I was taking a quiet day for prayer, reading and planning for my ministry. I was specifically asking God for a sense of direction and focus; what ought I to be doing, and what ought I to stop doing? During the morning as I prayed, studied the scriptures and read a book I had brought with me, I did get a clear sense of God’s direction and of the things God wanted me to focus on. But it didn’t end there. Late in the morning I was out for a walk, still trying to listen to God but also very thankful for what had been happening so far that day. As I was walking I had such a strong sense of God’s presence in my heart; I found my heart welling up with joy and praise and thankfulness. I remember thinking “This is it; it doesn’t get much better than this! This isn’t play acting; this is the real thing!”

Some people have very dramatic experiences of this. John Sherrill, for instance, who worked at Guideposts magazine, talks about the first time he experienced the presence of Jesus in a dramatic way. He had just undergone cancer surgery and was recovering in a hospital ward the night after the operation. He woke up in the night in a great deal of pain. Suddenly he became aware that there was a light in the room. It was not the light from the corridor; it seemed to be centred close to the ceiling in the far corner of the room from him. He watched it for some time, and then he said “Christ?” Instantly, although the light did not move, it was somehow with him, and immediately he felt the pain in his body subside.

There was another patient in the room, a boy who had also had surgery and was groaning in his sleep from pain. John Sherrill said, “Christ, could you help that boy?” Immediately it was as if the light enveloped the boy; his groans stopped and for the rest of the night he had a quiet sleep. And then the light was gone, but for weeks afterwards John Sherrill found that when he tried to tell that story he choked up with tears.

When I hear people tell stories like this – and much less dramatic ones, which nevertheless make it clear that the people concerned are experiencing a living relationship with God – I find myself less and less inclined to dismiss Bible stories, like this one about Samuel, as fanciful tales. So what can we learn from Samuel’s story? First, this was God’s initiative. It wasn’t something Samuel manufactured; God spoke, and Samuel responded. This is true of all genuine experience of God – God takes the initiative, and we respond to God. We don’t try to will ourselves into this experience or psych ourselves up in some way; if we do, it isn’t genuine.

But sometimes God’s call is coming to us and we aren’t hearing it. I think that’s what the author of 1 Samuel is getting at when he says in verse 1 ‘The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread’. I don’t think he means that God wasn’t speaking to his people; I think he means that the people weren’t listening and so were unable to hear the message. I suspect the same is true today. I suspect that God is calling each one of us, and we simply have to get ourselves into a space where we can hear what God is saying to us.

We may need human help here. Samuel needed the help of old Eli to know how to respond to God’s call. This was my experience too as a young teenager. I read books about people’s experiences of God; I longed for such an experience myself, but I didn’t know how to enter into it. Then one evening my Dad supplied the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle for me when he challenged me to give my life to Jesus. That little piece of human guidance was vital in helping me to connect with the living God.

When Samuel did hear God’s voice – when he said, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening” – then God gave him a message for Eli, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. It was a word of God’s judgement on Eli’s family because Eli had not removed his sons from the positions of trust they were abusing so blatantly. In fact, it was such a hard word that Samuel was afraid to pass it on. This was the acid test: would he be obedient to God’s command? Fortunately, Eli encouraged him to pass on the message, even though it was a word of judgement against Eli himself. I’m convinced that this act of obedience held the key to the rest of Samuel’s ministry. He obeyed the word he had from God, and so God continued to speak to him and give him messages to pass on to others.

God spoke to Samuel; under Eli’s guidance, Samuel responded. Samuel was obedient to the word he received from God. Finally, this process continued; Samuel had a continuing relationship with the living God. At the end of the chapter we read these words:
As Samuel grew, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD. The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, for the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD. And the word of Samuel came to all Israel (1 Samuel 3:19 – 4:1).
I get discouraged sometimes when Christians only tell stories of what God did in their lives long ago. I want to ask, “But how is God leading you today? What issues in your life is God speaking to you about now? What difference is Jesus making to you this week?” Samuel didn’t live in the past. He didn’t stop with his initial experience of the living God; he continued to hear and obey, and so his relationship with God grew and developed. And that’s what God wants for us, too.

So don’t be satisfied with a connection to an institution called ‘the Christian Church’. Press on to know the Lord, as Samuel did. Seek God with all your heart. Slow down from your frenetic activity, learn to listen to God’s voice, and be obedient to his call. He longs to have that kind of relationship with every one of us. And in the end, we’ll never find real satisfaction with anything less.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

February Volunteer Roster for 10:30am Services

February 1 - 4th Sunday after Epiphany

Greeter/Sidespeople- Hughes

Counter- Hughes/B. Rice

Reader & Psalm - Chris Aasen

Readings: Deut. 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Cor. 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

Lay Administrants: D. MacNeill, M. Penner

Intercessor- D. MacNeill

Lay Reader- E. Gerber

Altar Guild- (white) 9am M Woytkiw /10:30 T. Wittkopf

Prayer during Communion- M. Rys, L. Sanderson

Nursery Supervisor - M. Aasen

Sunday School- B. Rice

Kitchen - D. Molloy


February 8- 5th Sunday after Epiphany

Greeter/Sidespeople- Mittys

Counter - Mittys/D. Schindel

Reader & Psalm- T. Cromarty

Readings: Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12; 1 Cor. 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Lay Administrants- M.Rys, A. Zinck

Intercessor- C. Aasen

Lay Reader- L. Thompson

Altar Guild- (white) 9am J. Mill /10:30 L. Schindel

Prayer during Communion- K. Hughes, J. Penner

Nursery Supervisor - C. Ripley

Sunday School- M. Cromarty

Kitchen - M. Chesterton

February 15- 6th Sunday after Epiphany

Greeter/Sidespeople- Willacy

Counter- Willacy/G.Hughes

Reader and Psalm- T. Wittkopf

Readings: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Cor. 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

Lay Administrants- D. Schindel, L.Thompson

Lay Reader: D. MacNeill

Altar Guild- (green) 9am M Lobreau /10:30 am K. Hughes

Prayer during Communion- M. Chesterton, L. Sanderson

Intercessor- M. Penner

Nursery - G. Hughes

Sunday School- S. Chesterton

Kitchen- J. Holmes

February 22- Transfiguration Sunday JOINT COFFEE & INFORMAL SERVICE

Greeter/Sidespeople- Aasen’s

Counter - Aasen/ T. Wittkopf

Reader - T. Rayment

Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9

Lay Administrants- G. Hughes, E. Gerber

Intercessor - T. Chesterton

Lay Reader- E. Gerber

Altar Guild- (green) 9 am M. Woytkiw /10:30 am P. Major

Prayer during Communion- K. Hughes, M.Rys

Nursery Supervisor - M. Aasen

Sunday School- P. Ripley

Kitchen- A.& D. Wilson


Friday, January 16, 2009

1 Corinthians 13:1-13: Love Never Ends

A sermon preached at the memorial service for residents who have died in the past two months at St. Joseph's Hospital, January 15th 2009.

We’ve come together this afternoon to give thanks to God for the lives of those we loved, and to ask God’s help as we continue our lives without their physical presence. When someone we love dies, they leave a hole, and we keep bumping into that hole, hour by hour, day by day, week by week. Every time we think of a joke they would have laughed at, we bump into that hole. Every time we do something that we used to enjoy doing together with them, we bump into it again. Birthdays and anniversaries, Thanksgiving and Christmas - there’s that hole again! Bereavement isn’t a one-off thing, is it? It’s a daily journey that we gradually learn to travel, probably with the help of friends and with others who’ve travelled this road before us.

As I was thinking about this, one sentence in our first reading for this afternoon really jumped out at me, almost like a slap in the face. In 1 Corinthians 13:8 St. Paul writes, ‘Love never ends’. When we’ve experienced the death of someone we love, this sentence can be so jarring to us that it almost hits us with the force of an insult. It may be true that love never ends, we might say, but what good is that to us when we can no longer share that love with the person who has died? All we have left are memories, and even the memories are a mixed blessing because sometimes they simply serve to remind me of the finality of my loved one’s death. So don’t tell me, Paul, that love never ends; what do you know about it?”

It’s natural for us to feel this way, but we must remember that Paul is talking from the perspective of eternal life. He himself had not been a follower of Jesus during his earthly ministry, but he had certainly heard the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We know that Jesus had said a lot about love – about loving God with all your heart and loving your neighbour as yourself – about loving action to care for the poor and needy – about loving your enemies and praying for those who hate you. Jesus had lived his whole life on the principle of love – you might say that he believed in the power of love, rather than the love of power - and he obviously believed that love was the strongest force known to humanity. But his death seemed to make a mockery of that belief. Those who lived their lives on the principle of the love of power had arrested him, put him through a fake trial and handed him over to the forces of Rome, who had nailed him up on a cross to die. “So much for your belief in love, and a God of love, Jesus; this is where it all ends up. In the end, God is on the side of the big battalions”.

Humanly speaking, they were right, but Christians are not limited to human speech. And Christians believe that on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead. The tomb was empty, the eyewitnesses saw him, and when they finally got it through their heads that no, this wasn’t a ghost they were seeing, because they could touch him and watch him eat and hear his voice again, the voice they had loved so much – when they finally got this through their heads, then they realised that he had been right all along, and that love is the strongest force the world has ever seen – God’s love, that is. The representatives of humanity took the Son of God and nailed him up to die one of the cruellest deaths that human ingenuity has ever devised, but even though they could kill him, they could not kill his love for them. While they were busy crucifying him, he was praying for them – “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”. And three days later, love had the last word.

This is how we know that love never ends – because we have seen it in Jesus, and because he has promised us that we will experience it as well. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25). And when we are raised from the dead with him, we will see God face to face, as Paul says in our reading for today: ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face’ (v.12). We will look perfect love straight in the face, and don’t you think that it will be the most beautiful, the most magnificent, the most stunning, the most thrilling thing we’ve ever seen in our lives? If the majesty and beauty of nature sometimes takes our breath away, how about the majesty and beauty and goodness and love of the Creator of nature?

I imagine that when we see God face to face, a lot of things will be put into proper perspective for the first time. In our reading Paul says, ‘Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end’ (v.8). You need to know that the Christians in Corinth, who were the first readers of this letter, really liked spectacular things. They loved stories of the weird and wonderful – miracles and speaking in tongues and prophecies and all that sort of stuff. Paul doesn’t say that these things aren’t important, he just says that one day they’re going to come to an end. Don’t focus your attention on them, he says, because if you do, one day you’ll have nothing left.

I expect we can all think of things like that without too much effort. Some people focus their whole attention through their lives on getting rich and buying more and more things with their money, but when their life comes to an end, what good does it do them? The one who dies with the most toys doesn’t win: they just die, and that’s that. Other people focus their attention on being popular, or being successful, or experiencing all the pleasures that life has to offer. What these things all have in common is that they’re part of a self-centred view of the world; these folks are out for themselves alone. But as their life progresses, it’s as if the real person inside is shrinking and shrinking, and when they come to the end of their life, they come to the end; there’s nothing left.

When we see God face to face we’ll realise that some of the things we thought were really important aren’t really that important at all. Also, when we see God face to face, there are things we’ll understand for the first time. Paul says, “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part, but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (vv.9-11).

When I try to understand the mysteries of life, I sometimes do feel like a child. There’s the age-old question of evil: if God is all-loving and all-powerful, why do bad things happen to good people? Why are there tsunamis and earthquakes and deadly diseases that spread like wildfire and kill hundreds of thousands of people around the globe? If God is all-powerful, does that mean he can create a problem too big for himself to solve? Why is the world so beautiful and yet so savage? Why does so much of life seem to depend on the deaths of others – higher forms of life eating lower forms, and so on? There are so many mysteries, it makes my head ache just to think of them. I feel like a little child trying to read a book by Albert Einstein; it’s just too much for me.

But one day, I’ll understand. When I see God face to face, all the mysteries and all the seeming contradictions will be resolved, and maybe I’ll realise that they aren’t really as important as I thought they were, anyway. Maybe when I see God in all his splendour and love, I’ll be able to really trust him fully and say, “Well, now that I see you, I know that you really do know best. It didn’t make sense to me before, but now it does”.

Some things won’t seem as important as they once did; some things will make sense to us for the first time. But one thing will be absolutely clear: the reality of God. Paul says, ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’ (v.12).

I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to get to know God. I fell in love with him when I was a teenager, when I first gave my life to Jesus at the age of thirteen. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to get to know him better. But I have to say, there are long periods of time when he doesn’t seem very clear to me. It’s a bit like a cloudy day; it’s daylight, so I know the sun must be up somewhere, but I can only see it dimly, through the clouds. Often that’s what God’s presence feels like in my life; I can tell he must be there somewhere, but I’d just love it if the clouds would break! Occasionally they do, and what I see when they do is so good that it just spoils me for everything else. But then the clouds come together again, and I have to walk in faith.

One day the sky will clear completely, forever. One day, Paul says, I’ll know God as fully and completely as God knows me now. I have absolutely no idea how that can possibly be true! God is infinite – how can I know him as fully as he knows me? It’s a mystery – but remember, one day the mysteries will become plain to us.

So as we think about this – as we think about our loved ones who have gone before us, and as we think about the day when our lives also will come to an end and we’ll join them in this wonderful vision of God – what really matters? What are the things we should really be concentrating on, so that we will be ready to see God face to face? There are three of them, Paul says. ‘And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love’ (v.13).

Faith – learning to trust God every moment of our lives, so that when it all seems overwhelming, as it so often does, we simply put out our hand and trust that he will be there to give us the help we need, and that he will guide us into the way of life. Hope, the sure confidence that the best is yet to come, that even though our world seems full of suffering and our lives seem to lead downhill to the grave, yet death is not the end and evil doesn’t have the last word, because God’s love is stronger than death. Love – the decision to spend our lives, not in selfishness and self-centredness, but in giving of ourselves to others and to God, because we know that this is what God is like, and our greatest desire, like kids who look up to their parents, is to be like God and to please God.

Love never ends, and so a life given to others in love is never wasted. God give us the strength to believe this and to live by it. Amen.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sermon for the Baptism of the Lord: Acts 19:1-7 and Mark 1:4-11

The Baptism in the Holy Spirit

Today I want to talk to you about the Baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Now I’m guessing that some of you are feeling a little puzzled at this phrase. I can almost hear you thinking, “What the heck is ‘the Baptism in the Holy Spirit’?” We all understand baptism in water – we’ve seen it lots of times. Sometimes it happens when adults come to faith in Jesus and then step forward to be baptized as a symbol of their commitment to Christ, but most often it happens to babies, when parents present them to be baptized, or ‘christened’ as it used to be called. But what on earth is ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’?

If you feel confused about this, you’re in good company! In our reading from the Book of Acts today, we heard that when Paul was traveling through what is now Turkey, he came to Ephesus and found some people who claimed to be Christian disciples. But when he asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” they replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2). Christian people today often share their confusion. We understand about God the Father, who created the world and everything in it, and we understand about Jesus the Son of God, who lived and died and rose again to save us. But we find it hard to understand or even imagine the Holy Spirit; this third person of the Trinity seems rather shadowy and vague, and perhaps it seems appropriate to us that we once called him ‘The Holy Ghost’! And as for the idea that you can somehow be ‘baptized’ in the Holy Spirit in the same way that we are baptized in water – well, that sounds very strange indeed to a lot of people. But in fact, it is something that is clearly taught in the Gospels and the Book of Acts.

So let’s think for a few minutes about water baptism and baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Baptism in water, of course, is something we got from Jesus himself, and Jesus teaches us that it is part of the process of becoming his disciples. He says in Matthew 28 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (18b-19). The early Christian missionaries enthusiastically obeyed this command; they traveled all over the Mediterranean world, preaching the good news of Jesus. People heard their message, and some believed it and wanted to commit their lives to Jesus and become his followers. So they were baptized and they joined the Christian community where they learned to put his commands into practice. At first, all those who were baptized were adults as new believers flooded into the Church by conversion from paganism. Later, many Christians came to believe that it was right and good for the children of Christian parents to be received into the Christian community by baptism so that families could be united as followers of Jesus, just as we are baptizing Alyssa today so that she can join her Mom and Dad in their faith in Christ. But whether adult or infant, from the beginning baptism has been a missionary act: the Christian message goes out, and those who believe and want to practice it are baptized, along with their children, as a sign of commitment to their faith in Christ. It’s part of the process of becoming a Christian.

One of the challenges we face when we read the Bible is that the different books were written by different people, and they don’t always use words in the same way. This is true with this phrase, ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’; it’s used by Paul in one sense, and by the gospel writers in another. Paul only uses it once, in 1 Corinthians 12:13, and it’s pretty clear that he means exactly what we’ve just been talking about – the experience of becoming a Christian. He says, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’.

Here Paul is talking about the experience of becoming a Christian – you put your faith in Jesus, you are baptized, and you receive the Holy Spirit, whatever order those things come in for you. We’re all alike in this, Paul says – all of us Christians have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This is something incredible that we so often take for granted, but we shouldn’t. In the recent season of Advent we were thinking about Mary becoming pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, and for nine months carrying the Son of God in her womb. She was literally a human temple – a place where God lives. But what was true of Mary in a physical sense is also true of you and me in a spiritual sense – as Paul says in another place, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul means by being ‘baptized by one Spirit into one Body’ – we put our faith in Jesus, we are baptized, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So let’s be clear about this. This service of baptism today is not just about Nick and Christine and the godparents standing up here and making promises. And an adult conversion – when a person turns from unbelief and commits themselves to becoming a Christian – isn’t just a human process either. It’s not just human reasoning, human decision, human willpower. The Holy Spirit is at work, coming to live in you, marking you as belonging to God, connecting you with God, giving you the power to follow Christ. In fact, it’s a miracle! So please, let’s not take it for granted! Let’s thank God every day that we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and let’s learn to recognise his presence and follow his leading.

And this leads me to the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ in the second sense – the sense on which the gospels writers and the Book of Acts use the phrase. In our gospel reading for today we heard about John the Baptist and his preaching of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People came to him from all over the place and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins for all the world to hear. It was a powerful religious revival and must have had some people wondering whether John was in fact the Messiah that they’d all been waiting for. But he said ‘no’. Look at Mark 1:7:
‘He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”’.

The Greek word ‘baptizo’ means to be totally immersed, to be sunk, to be surrounded and filled with water, like a sunken ship sitting quietly on the bottom of the ocean, or to be overwhelmed, like a house swept away by a flood. This, says John, is what the Messiah is going to do for you. Baptism with water may seem pretty exciting to you right now, but it’s pretty tame compared to what you’re going to experience when the Messiah comes – you’re going to be totally flooded, overwhelmed, immersed, sunk - filled to overflowing with the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

In the Book of Acts, after Jesus’ resurrection, he himself confirmed this promise to his disciples. He told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for ‘the promise of the Father. “This”, he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”’ (Acts 1:4-5). And so it was; a few days later we read that the early Christians were all together in one place, when ‘suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’ (Acts 2:2-4). People heard the noise, and a crowd gathered, marveling because they could each hear the Christians speaking in their own language. Eventually Peter got up to speak, and the Holy Spirit used his words so powerfully that three thousand people decided to become Christians that day. They saw that God wasn’t just a theory or a theological symbol: there was a real God who did real things in the real lives of real people. They had seen it in the newly Spirit-filled Christians, and they wanted it for themselves.

I should add that this wasn’t a one-off thing in the lives of these early Christians – they had a very similar experience in Acts chapter 4, after they had been persecuted for the first time by the religious establishment. We read that they gathered together and prayed, and when they were finished ‘the place where they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (v.31).

Experiences like these seem to be just part of the normal Christian life in the New Testament. In our reading from Acts this morning, as we’ve seen, Paul notices immediately when the Spirit seems to be missing. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” he asks them, and they reply, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. On further inquiry he discovers that they haven’t actually received Christian baptism yet, only the baptism of John, so he baptizes them. Afterwards we read that ‘When Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied’ (Acts 19:1-7).

Now in case you’re thinking that this is just a pretty story from the Bible and not part of normal life for today, I want to tell you that throughout the history of the Church Christians have continued to experience the infilling of the Holy Spirit in their lives. One of the most helpful descriptions I’ve ever read of this sort of experience was written by my Dad. I included it in my book ‘Starting at the Beginning’, but in case you haven’t read it, I’ll share it with you now. Dad had actually heard about the baptism in the Holy Spirit some years before this experience, and he had been praying and waiting for it for a long time! Here’s how his prayer was answered:
On Shrove Tuesday 1971, I was part of an ecumenical prayer group and all the members knew that I was waiting, in obedience to the Lord, to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Two of the group asked me if I would like them to pray with me. I agreed and they prayed but nothing happened. I was trying to will myself into the experience but that isn’t how it happens. So, in my heart I prayed, “Well, Lord, I’ve waited twelve years, I can wait longer, if that’s what you want”. And that was what the Lord was waiting for… And so it happened. My heart was bursting with a joy and peace and love I had never known before.

The way I would describe it is that it’s like standing under a great waterfall but the water not only cleanses the outside but pours through the whole body, soaking and enriching every cell. It’s realizing that every drop of that water is the Spirit’s power filling me to overflowing with the love of Jesus.

In recent years many people have experienced the infilling of the Holy Spirit through the ‘Alpha’ course. For those of you who may not have heard of it, ‘Alpha’ is a course in basic Christianity developed at an Anglican church in London and now used all over the world. The course includes a ‘Holy Spirit weekend’ designed to help people experience the power of the Holy Spirit in their own lives. It’s done in a very simple way; after some teaching on the Holy Spirit, the leader simply prays and invites the Holy Spirit to come and fill everyone in the room. Remarkable stories have been told about how the Holy Spirit has answered that prayer. On an Alpha course I was leading in my previous parish a few years ago, one of the participants afterwards said that it was as if ‘the Holy Spirit came into the room and touched everyone there’.

But some people are afraid of this. We had a couple in that parish who went through the Alpha Course but intentionally avoided the Holy Spirit weekend because they were afraid of it. They were afraid that something fanatical was going to happen to them. And perhaps you feel that way too. Perhaps you feel that what I’m describing for you about Christian experience this morning is only for extremists and Pentecostals and people like that.

I can understand that. I’ve felt that fear myself. I like a form of Christianity where everything is under my control, where everything is predictable. I can preach a pretty good sermon and do a half decent job of running a parish all by myself, thank you very much, without having to call on God for help. God’s so unpredictable; if I pray for the Spirit to come, he might and he might not, and I’m going to look pretty foolish if he doesn’t. So I’d rather just avoid the whole thing.

Except that I don’t think that’s normal biblical Christianity. And if you’re worried about it, I invite you to discover it for yourself. Read through the New Testament, especially the Book of Acts, and see the place of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the early Christians. See how Jesus promises this gift to his followers, and how he reminds us that the heavenly Father gives good gifts to those who ask him. Ask yourself, “If I pray to be filed with the Holy Spirit, would God give me something bad in response?” And if you decide, as I have decided, that this is meant to be for us today too, then you pray, and keep on praying, trusting the Father who loves you, until you also experience a baptism in the Holy Spirit, as the early Christians experienced it and as other Christians down through the centuries have experienced it.

Let me close with this thought. In Psalm 34:8 the writer says, ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’. He doesn’t say, ‘Think about eating’ or ‘Do a study on eating’, or ‘listen to the experiences of others who have eaten’. He says, ‘taste’. In other words, for this Old Testament writer the experience of the presence and power of God was as tangible as the taste of his food.

Now whether you have experience that for yourself or not, I think you can agree that it would be a life-changing experience. So let me encourage you to cultivate your hunger for God. Don’t be satisfied with anything less than the touch of his Spirit. Ask, seek, knock, and keep on asking, seeking, and knocking until the Lord answers your prayer – and then come back and tell your brothers and sisters in Christ what the Lord has done for you.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Upcoming Courses

Christian Basics

A chance to explore the basics tenants of Christianity for those who are new to the faith or those looking to take a fresh look at their faith. Running Thursday evenings 7:30- 9:30pm February 5, 12, 19, and 26 at the church. Contact Tim (stmrector@gmail.com) or 780-437-7231 for more information or to register

"Show Me Your Face, O God": A Lent Course on Prayer

For prayer beginners or for some refreshing on basic themes. To be held Tuesday evenings
7:30 to 9pm March 3, 10, 17, and 24. Location TBA. Contact Tim (stmrector@gmail.com or 780-437-7231) for more information or to register.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Sermon for Epiphany: Isaiah 60:1-6

The Light of the World has Come

The desire to be included is a natural part of our makeup as human beings. You sometimes see it in family gatherings when a new member has been added by marriage; the new person hovers around the edge of the conversation, trying to make sense of the ‘in’ jokes and understand the family customs. Some families are very good at including newcomers; they have their unofficial ‘gatekeepers’ who explain the customs and traditions, and they reach out and welcome the new member. Other families aren’t so good at this. Most of them aren’t being malicious, they just never think of what it feels like to be on the edge of the family circle. Some churches are like this too – people find it hard to get into them because they don’t find a welcome and a way of learning what the congregation’s customs and traditions are all about. Other congregations have given careful thought to this and have developed effective ways of welcoming and including newcomers.

The Feast of Epiphany, which we are celebrating today, is all about outsiders being welcomed into God’s Kingdom. The Wise Men, or Magi, were astrologers from the east. They were not Jewish and were unfamiliar with the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew is the most Jewish of the four Gospels, but he is the one who tells the story of how these Gentiles were summoned by God to greet the birth of the one born to be King of the Jews. Apparently the God of Israel wants to reach out to outsiders. He doesn’t only welcome them when they happen to stumble in – he sends an invitation to them, in language that astrologers can understand – a star in the heavens!

By the time Matthew wrote this story, Christian missionaries were carrying the Gospel all over the Mediterranean world, and Gentiles were flooding into the Church of Jesus Christ. For Matthew, the wise men are a symbol of this later Christian mission beyond the borders of God’s chosen people. Jesus is not just the light of his own people; the light of the world has come among us.

But to anyone who was familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures this would not be a surprise. It’s a common theme in the prophets: when God restores the fortunes of his people in the Messianic age, foreign nations will come to be included in the blessing. This is very clear in our Old Testament reading for today. Let’s look again at Isaiah 60:1-6:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawning.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

Let’s look at this passage under two headings: first, the light has come, and second, the light draws people in.

First, the light has come. In human communities, two powerful symbols of anger are, first, walking out, and second, banishment. When people are angry at what is happening in a meeting, when they want to completely disassociate themselves from what is going on there, they sometimes walk out in protest. Banishment, when a community sends offenders away in penalty for their crimes, is also a powerful symbol of the community’s displeasure. It is especially powerful in cultures with a strong sense of community identity, such as First Nations communities..

Both of these illustrations are used in the Bible to explain the disaster that happened to Jerusalem in 597 BC when the Babylonian armies sacked the city and took the leaders and literate folk off into exile. The prophets explained that God had in fact ‘walked out’ on his people because of their refusal over hundreds of years to obey him; it was this departure of God from among them, said the prophets, that led to their defeat and exile. And then the people were banished from their own land, just like Adam and Eve being ejected from the garden because of their sin.

Given these ideas, how would the people know that God had forgiven their sins? The answer was obvious – if God returned to Jerusalem, and brought his people back there, they would know he had forgiven them. We can see promises of both these things in today’s passage.

First, in today’s passage God is seen as returning to his people like the sun rising after a dark night. Jerusalem is a city built on a hill, with other hills around it. As you may know, in the Mediterranean world sunrise and sunset are very quick; it can be very dark one moment, and then light the next. In Old Testament times the white buildings of the Temple were high up in the city; the sun would shine first on them, and then later on the lower parts of the city. So for a time it would still be pitch dark in the lower quarters, but bright up in the Temple and the buildings around it. It’s possible that Isaiah has this picture in his mind when he talks about the contrast between darkness and light in verses 1-2:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Then in verse 4 we read about the return of God’s people from exile:
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

Now the interesting thing to me is that many modern biblical scholars think Isaiah chapter 60 was written after many of the Jewish people returned from their Babylonian exile. Why would our author prophesy these things as still in the future? I think it was because the return had not fulfilled all their hopes. Life in Jerusalem was very hard, and many people had in fact elected not to return at all. So the prophet looked forward to a further visitation from God, which would bring about a true return from the community’s spiritual exile in sin.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is described as ‘Emmanuel’ which means ‘God is with us’. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God came to his people as never before; he was present as a human being and lived among them. Through his life, death and resurrection, God was acting powerfully to forgive our sins and bring us home from our spiritual exile into the life of God’s family. It is no accident that Matthew records that the wise men were drawn to Jesus by the light of a star – or that Jesus calls himself ‘the light of the world’. In Jesus Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled – God comes to live among his people like a great light. Even today, when we no longer see him physically, the prophecy is still fulfilled, because he promised us that he would be with us always, to the end of the age.

Think back for a moment to the picture of sunrise in Jerusalem, with the lower city still in darkness but the upper city in the light. It would of course be possible to move into the light, by simply climbing a little higher!

We can make this move from darkness to light in a spiritual sense as well. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). If we follow Jesus there is no need for us to stay in darkness; we can have the light of life. This is God’s invitation to us this morning – to follow Jesus, to trust him, to build our lives around his teaching, to look to him for help each day. This is what it means to ‘walk in the light’.

So we’ve seen that in Jesus, the light of the world has come. The second thing this passage tells us is that the light draws people in. In Dennis Bennett’s book Nine O’clock in the Morning he tells of his wife Elberta’s comment when she first met some Christians who had experienced God’s Holy Spirit in a new and powerful way. She said, “I don’t know what these people have, but I want it!” True Christianity has always had this compelling attractiveness too it. People may balk at the challenge of commitment, but they are also drawn by the presence of God.

The Old Testament scriptures tell us that when God returns to his people and restores their fortunes, it will not just be for their benefit but for others as well. In Isaiah chapter 2 we read these words:
In the days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths’.
We can see the same theme in our passage for today, in verses 2 and 3: ‘but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning’. Instead of the nations coming as conquerors over Israel, they will come humbly, to honour Israel and to learn from Israel’s God. It will not just be Israel attracting them, but her God. And in verse 9 we read, ‘For the coastlands shall wait for me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your children from far away, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the LORD your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has glorified you’.

This prophecy was never fulfilled in a literal way in the history of Israel. However, the New Testament writers see the Church of Jesus as a major fulfilment of this prophecy. The wise men who came to Jesus were the first of millions of Gentiles who have come streaming to Israel’s God as he has been revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus. Popular author Thomas Cahill has written a fascinating book called The Gifts of the Jews, in which he documents all the Jewish ideas which have been adopted into mainstream culture and are now widely accepted. Many of them have been accepted through Christianity, and so it can be said that in a true sense Judaism has been a blessing to the world through Christianity. The idea of one Creator God rather than many gods – the gift of the Ten Commandments – the idea that time moves in a line rather than being circular – in these and many ways Christianity has taken Jewish ideas and presented them to the whole world. In Jesus, Judaism has been fulfilled, and his light has drawn the Gentiles to faith in Israel’s God.

That movement has not ended today. There are still millions of people who, in Paul’s words, are ‘without Christ…, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’ (Ephesians 2:12). Today, still, we need to remember that the light of Christ was not given to us just for ourselves, but to share with others. As we truly follow him and pattern our lives after his teaching, others will see his light in us. It’s up to us to tell them where that light comes from and to love them into his kingdom.

Let me close by reminding you of the two ways that Jesus uses the symbolism of light in his teaching.

First, as we’ve seen today, he says, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Jesus is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy; in him, God comes to live among us as a light. As we follow him, we do not walk in darkness, but we have the light of life.

But there’s a second way Jesus uses this symbolism as well. In Matthew 5:14 he says to us his followers, “You are the light of the world”. You and me – flawed, imperfect disciples as we are – we have taken over the job of the star of Bethlehem! Like the wise men, there are many people today who are on a journey to find Jesus, whether they know it or not. They are looking for spiritual reality. They are hungry for God. It’s your job, and mine, to draw them to the place where Christ can be found. So, as Jesus says, ‘let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16).