Monthly Archives: December 2015
Will you be alone this Christmas? There is such pressure from families to BE TOGETHER. It works of course when families live in the same town (or country!). These days we find our relatives dotted all over the globe.
The chances are you may be alone. More than that, some of us may well FEEL alone in the midst of our family gatherings and all the tinseled celebration. And we’re supposed to be so JOLLY – that’s what the carol says anyway.
The truth is that for many Christmas can be very cold and bleak. Our minds are bombarded with so many memories at this time of the year – memories of those we loved who are not with us any more – of moments in our lives that can never be recaptured. It simply hurts.
What is it really all about then? There is no snow (or “snowperson”) for us to make in the Southern Hemisphere. The Father Christmas bubble has long been popped. And even our gifts are often not well received (observe the queues on the 27th December as the exchange ritual begins).
There are those who suggest that we do it all differently. That Christmas as we know it has been totally hijacked by the commercial world. It is suggested that we have a spiritual Christmas – a totally “religious” celebration sometime in September, where we focus on the birth of Jesus and its implications for us as Christians.
I suspect that somewhere in that new tradition someone will pull out a mince pie and a turkey or some other tasty bird. Why then do we need to turn everything into a party? Is this really a commercial plot?
Perhaps not. Perhaps our party natures reflect a need for something deeper – a need to really celebrate life. The problem is that many of us are like an awesome sound system – unplugged. Or dancers in a choreographed dance of life – who are deaf and can’t hear the orchestra play.
The true source of joy and celebration is still the child in the manger. We fail, however, when we leave him there as an infant forever. As a man he fulfils all our human expectations. He is all we could ever become. As God, He is the source of real joy and delight that goes beyond the Christmas elevator jingles and jazzed-up carols.
Listen to what He says: “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ” `We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, `He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” (Matthew 11:16-19a)
They could not pin him down. Neither can we in this generation. One thing is for certain, you’ve never danced until you’ve discovered the depth of His tune.
There is a song that He plays that is wider and longer and higher than your favourite Christmas music, more enriching than your most esoteric experience, more profound than the movie that revolutionized your thinking, or the novel that grabbed your heart. The angelic beings sang His song, and simple shepherds were riveted to the spot. They then abandoned their posts to investigate the heralded good news. The starry hosts were disrupted and wise ones traveled many miles to determine the exact nature of the jolting in the cosmos.
A young girl and her beloved sang His song as they guarded and protected this refugee child from a paranoid King who committed infanticide and ripped open the hearts of many a mother. In time men and women from all walks of life sang His song. Through the generations millions have sung it. Will you sing His song? Will you dance His dance? I suspect that for many of you the celebration has not yet begun. It can. Today. There is no need to be alone.
Have a lovely Christmas wherever you are!
Sermon Advent 4 20 December 2015
REFLECTIVE VIDEO (Mary’s song)
Who was Time magazine’s woman of the year? Angela Merkel of course. The daughter of a pastor who believes that Germany can not say to refugees “no room in the inn”.
How about National Geographic’s most influential person? Mary of Galilee. The Virgin Mary.
The headline goes like this:
MAGAZINE | DECEMBER 2015
How the Virgin Mary Became the World’s Most Powerful Woman
Mary barely speaks in the New Testament, but her image and legacy are found and celebrated around the world.
I loved watching the current Pope on his recent tour to America. I was comfortable up to the point when he led a prayer involving the virgin Mary.
The line that features uses the words of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptiser.
Luk 1:42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!
You don’t pick it up as well in the NIV – listen to the KJV and NRSV:
(KJV) And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
Add “Jesus” to the end of this and you’ve almost got a Hail May.
Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
Okay you have to add verse 42, the greeting of the angel:
(KJV) And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
I’d like to know the virgin Mary a little more. Now that sounds scary I know. I’m not talking about having a visitation from her.
One of the reasons why National Geographic in its December article talks about her influence is because of those appearances. Have a look:
Have a look at this:
If I were to have anyone appear to me, I’d prefer it to be Jesus – which he is doing in middle eastern countries.
But truthfully – would you like Jesus walking into your living room? And talking to you about your life?
Mary was God’s chosen teenager. I wouldn’t mind hearing from her.
SO WHAT DO WE MAKE OF THIS?
- Mary’s voice and message speaks to women because a lot of our Christian stuff, whether we like it or not, is dominated by men.
- Mary’s faith and trust is inspirational.
No need to say more. Just go home and read her response in the magnificat.
- It can’t have been easy for her as a teenage mother. A young mother pregnant and potentially shamed. We have seen how unhelpful it is to have “truths” unmatched with compassion.
I wrote my version of a Christmas letter this year. I’ve always been a bit allergic to them as people overstate the virtues and successes of their children. I mean come on – they didn’t just sail through their studies without major family issues and conflicts.
Here’s what I wrote after my story:
The greatest challenge and blessing – developing a more disciplined and reflective prayer life. Part of this is resting in the Lord, especially when we have absolutely no control over things. Which you discover in the second half of life is basically all the time. Richard Rohr’s “Falling Upward, a spirituality for the two halves of life”, is proving a slow and grinding yet rewarding read. He quotes Desmond Tutu: “We are only the light bulbs, Richard, and our job is just to remain screwed in!” Rohr, Richard (2011-02-11). Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life . Wiley. Kindle Edition.
May you have a blessed Christmas. For those who never write – bless you! For those who do – bless you especially! A thought for you to close my bit – then you can read Sheilagh’s epistle.
A comment by a Christmas shopper checking his list…
I almost forgot the most important thing of all – compassion. If I see some – no matter what the colour, size or shape – I’m going to stock up heavily regardless of the price. I have run out of it so many times and I always feel ashamed when it happens.
It’s just as well angels did speak back in the day when Mary fell pregnant. There might have been a kind of honour killing.
- It could not have been any easier for Mary at that first Easter crucifixion.
Sheilagh shared with me her thoughts last week when I spoke about Zachariah and Elizabeth and the conception of John. She was sitting at the back (probably wondering when I would finish) and thinking: “I hope that john’s mom and dad were dead when Herod Antipas had his head chopped off”.
Parenting never ends. You know the story of the 100-year-old lady who said the best year of her life was when she turned 90. In that year all her children were safely retired in rest homes.
- I would like to ask Mary lots of questions.
About Jesus as a child. Did he walk on water then in the bath? Probably not. 🙂
I guess his cousin may have had an interesting childhood too:
If we knew more from Mary about being a mother – and more about Jesus as a child, maybe we would relax more about parenting. Jesus has been through it all.
READING: Matthew 2:1-23
I loved teaching boys, especially little ones. We used to sing this song with our year 1s and 2s – “you can be happy…” and there is a verse which goes “you can be friends with me, I can be friends with you…” where they used to shake hands. I usually had 40 little boys “being friends” in a rugby scrum on the floor. Probably not best health and safety policy, but no one ever suffocated.
Celebrations of joy for boys are often quite robust. They keep doing it until about age 25 when the brain is finally fully formed and adolescence ends.
It would not be unusual in my year 1s and 2s when we did colouring in of the nativity scene at Christmas for dinosaurs and volcanoes to appear behind baby Jesus, or soldiers with guns and tanks to trundle over the hill behind the stable.
Actually – they were onto something. With the guns and tanks I mean.
Hence the delight in the gory version of “Jingle Bells” so aptly sung in the play today.
Our idyllic Christmas with trees and gifts is not the norm for most of the world.
We were watching the interview “Hillary meets Oprah” this week where Oprah Winfrey talks about the day when she heard that this big fella who dominates the season with a “ho ho ho” apparently is a legend. She was 12, and probably should have worked it out by then.
The thought was that there would be no Christmas. They were poor. Dirt poor.
That night some nuns dropped off food and gifts. It changed her life.
She learnt to give later and went through African villages setting up a tent and giving clothes and toys to kids who never had Christmas.
Later on she found that the clothes were valued the most.
I remember one of my three children at about 5 wailing “I didn’t want a jersey” – which granny had lovingly knitted. Captured on video forever.
Oprah’s kids valued the clothes because they were an equalizer. Everything before had been hand me downs. These were new clothes. They empowered those kids. The toys were secondary.
Which they are mainly. They break or get upgraded these days.
The point of this?
Christmas is messy. Jesus ends up as a refugee. Hundreds of mums have their babies – little boys up to 2 year old – slaughtered by the aging Herod who had already bumped of a number of his own sons and many others in his paranoia. In fact, he gave instructions that when he died hundreds of Jewish nobles were to be killed – key people in every village whom he had rounded up and brought into the Hippodrome when he was dying – so that people would really mourn his passing and not throw a party. Thankfully they ignored that order.
He was a troubled man indeed. Mind you he had ten wives, two of whom shared the same name. Herod the great reigned for 33 years. The Jerusalem temple project he began took decades to complete, and was eventually finished in AD 63 only to be destroyed in AD 70 by the Romans.
Appropriately the only remaining part today is the wailing wall.
Jesus was a refugee. Suddenly the wisdom of the magi makes sense – they needed gold as a resource to finance their travels as a young family. They flee to Egypt on account of Herod – saved by the wise “wise men” who didn’t report back to the despotic king.
The passage is matter of fact as time progresses. God keeps in touch with Joseph through a dream:
Mat 2:19-21: After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.
Then of course the backstory is known to us. Herod was dangerous as long as he lived, but when he died it was still interesting. They say that where there is a will, there are relatives. Herod had written six wills, the last only 5 days before he died. Augustus the Emperor has to sort out the mess as each son (who had not been killed by their nice dad) had a claim to something.
The Kingdom is divided into three between Archelaus, Antipas and Philip. Herod. Antipas we meet again in March next year at Easter. Evil men and their evil children are part of the Christmas story. Not very joyful.
The story today ends with this:
Mat 2:22-23: But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
Joseph was a smart man. Any member of Herod’s family and he needed to keep Jesus safe and well away.
Lessons for you kids?
- Be thankful for the dad you have. It’s not that bad you know. An attitude of gratitude makes you healthier and happier anyway. He’s not horrible Herod. Parents do say weird things sometimes. Like “if you get yourself killed doing something stupid, don’t come running to me”. And when they say that they feel like killing someone, it’s not true. They don’t really do it! Anger is sometimes an expression of love.
- And be joyful at Christmas. Joy comes from knowing that you are really loved, never mind what gifts you get. And – people who love you don’t always give you what you want. They know better because they usually know best. Trouble is our kids only figure that out when they have their own children one day. Spare a thought for those who get nothing at Christmas.
- Don’t miss the point of Christmas either. Even when things are horrible, God still sticks around. Jesus was born in a messy place to make it better. Part of our job until he returns is to make the world better – right where we are.
Ask Him to help you if things are messy in your life. He likes that.
The end. (aka Amen – we agree).
Isaiah 9:1-7; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 1:66-79
Over the years we have had interesting people in our lives in the Presbyterian Church. Leaders were always fascinating. And occasionally they would visit you – especially when you lived 100km plus from the main centres.
I remember a brother Moderator coming along and sitting us down in the lounge and asking us this question:
“How are things with your soul?”
Great question. I think as a young couple with two small boys charging around, we were in a survival mode and hadn’t really thought about more than coping with the simple things of getting through the day. (And I knew him in a totally other capacity – it just sounded weird when he asked us that!)
- What fed us spiritually? Who knows, when you are always giving out?
- What feeds us spiritually?
That’s why going to New Wine each January is so important for us now as a couple, as were the renewal conferences we were part of back in South Africa. (And no – new wine is a Christian group supporting local churches and ministers without bottles of wine! It’s a different spirit if you like – although when we tell some of our friends who don’t know the biblical reference Jesus used about new wine, they are curious about what we actually do for four nights and days.) (Click here to have a look at New Wine and the summer festivals)
- What feeds us?
- What feeds you?
This time of year is saturated – flooded with amazing food. I confess mince pies alone are dangerous enough to cause the collapse of a nation.
John the Baptiser was not big on fancy foods. His sustenance was found in a desert, and locusts and wild honey seemed to suffice.
Something else would have kept him going I suspect. He ministered in the desert, and clearly listened to God. There had been no prophetic voice for nearly 500 years.
We’ve talked before about these desert experiences – do you remember the message that included Mendelssohn’s “O for the wings of a dove?” It’s from Psalm 55: Psalm 55:6 I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest— Psalm 55:7 I would flee far away and stay in the desert; Selah Psalm 55:8 I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.”
I shared this quote with you about the voices we hear: But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still, small voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved, my favour rests on you.’ That’s the voice we need most of all to hear. To hear that voice, however, requires special effort; it requires solitude, silence, and a strong determination to listen. That’s what prayer is. It is listening to the voice that calls us ‘my Beloved.’” (Henri Nouwen).
We need to hear that voice. And we need our souls fed.
There are some amazing hymns in our tradition. And then there are exceptional ones. Guide me o Thou Great Jehovah/Redeemer is one.
“Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more!”
Our soul is fed by God’s word and His presence.
Didn’t Jesus say at his temptation (to the devil of course): “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:4 quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)
And the starting point is meeting Jesus – the Word of God in John 1 – the one who speaks by his life and words, and who is described prophetically by Isaiah in the prophecy read today in these words:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:2).
Wonderful counsellor – what a comfort. Mighty God – how strong that sounds and is. Everlasting Father – contrast with human fathers who abandon us by jumping ship or dying too soon. Prince of Peace – is such a joy to hear.
If our souls are disquieted – troubled – deficient of anything – it is probably peace.
- Sleepless nights (money, work, family, health – you name the cause)
- Troubled days (wondering if we will have sleepless nights again)
- Anxiety about being anxious (that vicious circle which feeds itself)
- Plain unadulterated fear (fed in my case by nightmares and post-traumatic stress)
It’s all something that needs the prince of peace to park in the troubled zones of our minds, our hearts, our souls – out deepest recesses of darkness and sin.
As an aside – on that matter of sin – It’s interesting when people tell me they are perfect. Without sin. 1 John always comes to mind: 1 John 1:8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
And then I wonder about this verse, when Jesus spoke to the woman caught in adultery: John 8:7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Would they then throw the first stone?
Of course John in chapter 1 of his first letter says this: 1 John 1:9 – 10: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
The prayer of a little boy comes to mind: “Dear Lord, please forgive us our sins – those we have done, those we have not got around to doing, and those we haven’t yet thought up”.
Clearly he had an irritating sister or brother.
Sometimes we lack peace because people have sinned against us. Either way we get hurt because of the sinful nature of human beings. We need peace – healing and nurturing deep within our souls.
The absence of Peace – and the need to nurture our souls
Discussions about the soul are about the inner life. Our inner life – involving thoughts and emotions (minds and hearts if you like). And our souls. The word soul crops up a lot in Scripture.
In the Psalms the writer’s speak of their soul in these ways: A soul can be in anguish (6:3); it can be revived (19:7); it can be restored (23:3); it can grow weak with grief (34:2); It can rejoice in the Lord (35:9); it can be left forlorn 35:12); it can be poured out in worship (42:4); and often downcast (42:5,6,11; 43:5); It can be called to awaken (57:8); it can find rest in God (63:1,5)
In fact it’s worth looking at these verses from Psalm 62 and 63:
Psalm 62:1 For the director of music. For Jeduthun. A psalm of David. My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him.
Psalm 62:5 Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him.
Psalm 63:1 A psalm of David. When he was in the Desert of Judah. O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Psalm 63:5 My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
Psalm 63:8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
Today we sang: “Find rest my soul – in Christ alone – I will be still and know you are God!” It’s a great song.
The reading from Philippians is a timely reminder if you are lacking peace. And listening to the news on Friday about family violence over Christmas, how the shelters have to stay open because stress leads to domestic violence, it’s always a great passage:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
Of course people facing violence can’t just depend on this peace – they also need safety and help. Thankfully there are people who can help us.
The point is that Christmas is not always an ideal time. There again, the first Christmas also had challenges.
Peace with God – a right relationship
Peace is achieved with God – in the realm of salvation through trusting in Jesus as our Lord and rescuer from sin. Romans 5:1 puts it like this in the NLT: Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.
I take that as a given. We need to trust in Christ and find forgiveness and peace with God at that level.
Peace in the turmoil of life.
Peace in the turmoil of life comes when you hear God speak to you. Being well in our inner life – our souls – comes out of hearing his voice of assurance, of guidance, and of peace.
You can be forgiven if you sometimes doubt that God knows what he is doing when things are tough in your life. The Christmas characters had some serious challenges too.
There are secondary characters in the Christmas story that teach us about this kind of soul life – stability and peace through hearing God. Simeon the priest for one – waiting for the messiah – filled with the Spirit – knew he would not die until he saw the messiah. He’s led by the Spirit into the temple when Mary and joseph bring baby Jesus there. And listen to what he says: “Sovereign Lord, now let Your servant die in peace, as You have promised. (Luke 2:29).
I wouldn’t mind that – knowing that I am exactly in God’s plan and when the day comes I can die in peace. Pretty cool hey? His prophecy is powerful. (Read verses 34-5 of Luke 2).
CLOSING THOUGHTS ABOUT JOHN’S MUM AND DAD
And this is John in the Bible. John the Baptiser. Like Mary and Joseph, spare a thought for the lack of peace in their lives. Cousin Mary and Joseph have to deal with politicians and their decisions and go to Bethlehem on a precarious four legged taxi (no Uber here for them) when she is about to pop.
Zachariah and Elizabeth had to deal with the curse of being barren – even though he was a faithful priest.
But its to chapter 1 in Luke where we have to go to see what happens when God speaks and we start our own ideas in response.
John’s father has an angelic visitation in the temple when on duty. He’s rostered on. Funny how the Levites came to our attention last week. This week it’s a priest again. And an angel appears and speaks to him.
He is terrified. The angel assures him. He doubts. (1:18) and gets this response: Luke 1:19 Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was He who sent me to bring you this good news! Luke 1:20 But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”
Oops. It’s taken up a notch. Gabriel reminds him that although he is a professional in God’s presence in the temple. Gabriel is not to be argued with – “ I stand in the very presence of God”. Stilte! (An Afrikaans word). He is silenced.
It helps us understand the passage we heard today – the power of Zachariah’s prophecy, seeing that he had been silenced for 9 months. The silence is lifted when this happens:
Luke 1:57 When it was time for Elizabeth’s baby to be born, she gave birth to a son. Luke 1:58 And when her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had been very merciful to her, everyone rejoiced with her. Luke 1:59 When the baby was eight days old, they all came for the circumcision ceremony. They wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. Luke 1:60 But Elizabeth said, “No! His name is John!” Luke 1:61 “What?” they exclaimed. “There is no one in all your family by that name.” Luke 1:62 So they used gestures to ask the baby’s father what he wanted to name him. Luke 1:63 He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, “His name is John.” Luke 1:64 Instantly Zechariah could speak again, and he began praising God.
It’s amazing what silence does. He prophecies – after all that time of silence and clearly listening to God. He says this:
Luke 1:76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, Luke 1:77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, Luke 1:78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven Luk 1:79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
The King James version captures the beauty of the words of the man who had to be still for 9 months: Luke 1:78 Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, Luke 1:79 To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The dayspring is another word for the rising sun – Jesus. Zachariah’s prophecy is a perfect blend of Isaiah 9 which we heard as well today, and Malachi 4:2.
Isa 9:2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
Mal 4:2 But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.
Ring any bells? The Christmas carol “Hark the Herald Angel sing” by Charles Wesley – who didn’t make these songs up. It’s all from scripture:
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings;
Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”
Interestingly the “Sun of Righteousness” has often been changed to “Son of Righteousness” on the assumption perhaps that this is a spelling mistake. Malachi 4:2 speaks however of the sun, referring to the brightness of His glory perhaps (Hebrews 1:3) or His being the light of the world (John 8:12).
One writer put it like this: The sun which is righteousness, in whose wings, that is, rays, are healing and salvation. This Divine righteousness shall beam upon them that fear the Name of God, flooding them with joy and light, healing all wounds, removing all miseries, making them incalculably blessed. The Fathers generally apply the title of “Sun of Righteousness” to Christ, who is the Source of all justification and enlightenment and happiness, and who is called (Jeremiah 23:6), “The Lord our Righteousness.”
Wesley writes of the healing here in these words: “His beams shall bring health and strength, with delight and joy, safety and security.”
How are things with your soul today? May you find this healing and life, his warmth and peace.
May the prince of peace speak peace into your soul today.