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December 20, 2020.

Message for December 20, 2020

The Fourth Sunday in Advent

Luke 2:1-20

It will never be a classic but a well-known children’s book about Christmas that also appeals to many adults is Barbara Robinson’s “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”.  The story centres around the six Herdman children who belonged to a desperately poor family.  The children were little terrors who cursed, smoked cigars, bullied their classmates and terrorized their teachers.  In short they were bad news and no one liked them.  One day though they decided to go to Sunday School, all because they thought that they would be given free cake if they did.  Then, when the Christmas pageant was announced, they decided that they would participate and wanted all of the main parts.  There was however one small problem; they knew absolutely nothing about the Christmas story.  The result was an anticipated disaster; why it was going to be the worse Christmas pageant ever!  And so it seemed at first.

The child playing the angel Gabriel portrayed him as a comic book hero and the three wise men were portrayed as being welfare workers who, instead of offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, offered a ham that came from a charity food basket.  The girl who played Mary looked and acted like anything but the typical Virgin Mary; why she even burped the baby Jesus!  The pageant was a full scale disaster in the making but the Herdman kids managed to pull it off.  To be sure their interpretation of the first Christmas was unique and, some would even say eccentric, yet they succeeded simply because the Christmas story was all new to them.  Since they weren’t bound by tradition or expectations, they portrayed Mary, Joseph and all the rest as more regular people.  It was certainly different but it truly was the best Christmas pageant ever.

As I have already mentioned, this book will never be a classic but it is both amusing and thought-provoking if only because it challenges us to remember that the first Christmas may not have been quite as sweet or as ‘perfect’ as it is often portrayed.  We can begin with Mary.

We think that it is so wonderful that Mary was chosen to be the mother of the messiah but did she think so?  Being pregnant and unmarried in that society at that time was positively scandalous.  Also, how could she ever explain her pregnancy to her parents or fiancé?  “Guess what Joseph, I’m having a baby!  Now I know and you know that you’re not the father but that’s okay, God is!”  And it is a big enough responsibility to raise any child, never mind the son of God.  Do we really believe that Mary thought that all of this was just wonderful?  Or what about how Joseph felt when he heard the news?  Yes, he came to believe but did he ever think to himself, “Perfect, just what I always wanted to be, the step-father to the Son of God!”

I’m sure that the word ‘perfect’ didn’t come to mind either when Joseph heard about the census; that they had to make the long tiring journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  “Perfect, just what I always wanted to do; to pay a visit to the town of my ancestors with my fiancé about eight months along!”  And how did Mary feel about it?  Then, when they arrived in Bethlehem only to be repeatedly told, “Sorry, no room here!”?   Just perfect!  And what about when they found out that they could spend the night in a stable?  I’m sure that once again the word ‘perfect’ didn’t come to mind.

If we want to we can even think of the actual birth itself.  We like to picture it as being so cute and sentimental with such as the lowing cattle, the baaing sheep and the cooing doves but was it really?  Even allowing for the primitive conditions of the first century compared to our own, I’m fairly certain that Mary in the midst of her labour didn’t tell Joseph how wonderful it all was.  And once again we may be tempted to think that it was all so nice when the shepherds went to see the baby but did Mary and Joseph think so?  “Look Mary, we have company!”  And what must Joseph have thought when he was warned in a dream to pack up immediately and move to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath.  “Wonderful, I’ve always wanted to see the pyramids!”

The truth is that despite the way we sometimes like to imagine it, that first Christmas was probably anything but perfect from the participants’ perspective.  Mary and Joseph may well have thought that everything that could have gone wrong had gone wrong.  Indeed that may also be how many of us feel as we celebrate Christmas this year pandemic style.

Our celebrations this year have been and will be anything but normal; indeed the words of a poem come to mind that reads in part:

And Christmas is a holy time,

we’ll treasure through the years,

as together we remember,

the laughter and the tears.

Laughter and tears may well describe how many of us feel about Christmas this year.  On the one hand there is still laughter and joy; after all it still is Christmas.  It seems for example that more people than usual have put up outside decorations and there are still some of the usual activities taking place such as shopping, baking and listening to the music of the season.  There is also the usual run of Christmas shows and movies on TV as well.  In some ways it all seems so normal and so it is a time of laughter and yet …   As we all well know, for so many different reasons things are anything but normal this year.  Indeed Christmas pandemic style may well seem to be more like a time for tears rather than laughter.  In fact this year we might well feel like Mary and Joseph on that first Christmas; that far from being perfect, what can go wrong has gone wrong.

If or when we feel this way what we need to remember is that there is another perspective on that first Christmas and that is God’s.  Mary for example had faith and was willing to be a participant in the great drama of salvation.  Joseph too came to have faith and was willing to do his part and raise God’s son as if he were his own.  From God’s perspective it was perfect too that the Roman Emperor issued his decree that all the world should be enrolled for tax purposes, thus ensuring that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem just as it was predicted that he would be.  Why even the circumstances of the birth were perfect.  A stable may not have been ideal from Mary and Joseph’s perspective but it certainly was from God’s because of the symbolism.  Jesus, God in the flesh, joined his people at the very bottom of the social ladder; why there wasn’t even a crib to lay the baby in, just a feeding trough.  And who were the first to be told and to respond to the birth?  It wasn’t the rich or the powerful; rather it was the shepherds who, because of their occupation, couldn’t keep all of the religious rituals and traditions and so were regarded as sinners by most people.  Truly from a human perspective the circumstances of that first Christmas were anything but perfect or ideal but from God’s perspective?  It must have exceeded all expectations.

This is something that we ought to remember as we celebrate our own less than perfect Christmas this year.  What we have to remember is what this special time of year is really all about. That of course is love; our love for one another to be sure but even more so, God’s love for each and every one of us.  That is why the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; Emmanuel, God is with us. Perhaps this message posted on the Church of Scotland’s website says it best as we celebrate Christmas 2020:

Even if we can’t gather in person,

Emmanuel.  God with us.

Even if some Christmas traditions have had to go,

Emmanuel.  God with us.

Even if we might not get to hug family and friends,

Emmanuel.  God with us.

Even if we can’t sing carols beside each other,

Emmanuel.  God with us.

Even if Christmas Cheer is hard this year,

Emmanuel.  God with us.

That is the message and promise of not only this Christmas but every Christmas.  Emmanuel.  God is with us.

 

December 13, 2020.

Message for December 13, 2020

The Third Sunday in Advent

John 1:1-14

I imagine that most people just drive by it without even giving it a glance never mind stopping and going in, and what I am referring to is the Willoughby Historical Museum.  It is to be found on the Niagara Parkway south of the famed falls and is operated by the Niagara Falls Museum.  It is located in what was formerly a one room school house and so it is quite small.  Even so, its collection is a good one and is dedicated to preserving the history of the township of Willoughby, which has been swallowed up by the city of Niagara Falls.  The museum has all sorts of artifacts going back to the community’s earliest days and these include a number of items from the War of 1812 battle of Chippawa which was fought about a kilometre away.  I must admit that it was the 1812 artifacts that inspired me to visit the museum in the first place but they are not what had the greatest impact on me.

There was a plaque in the museum that really caught my attention, so much so that when we got home I emailed the museum and asked if they would send me a copy of the words on it which they graciously did.  The plaque reads in part:

“We are the chosen.  My feeling is that in each family there is one who seems called to find the ancestors, to put flesh on their bones and make them live again, to tell the family story.  To me doing genealogy is not a cold gathering of the facts but instead, breathing life into those who have gone before.

We are the story tellers of the tribe.  All tribes have one.  We have been called as if it were, by our genes.  Those who have gone before cry out to us ‘tell our story’.  So we do.  In finding them, we somehow find ourselves.

It goes beyond just documenting facts.  It goes to who I am and why I do the things I do.

So as a scribe called I tell the story of my family.”

These words spoke to me simply because I am one of the story tellers of my tribe.  As long as I can remember I have had a keen interest in my family’s story and I would probably be shocked if I were to count all of the hours I’ve spent working on the family tree down through the years.  Some people dismiss genealogy as a waste of time; who cares about those who went before us?  What does it matter who our ancestors were?  But it does matter if only because knowing something about those who have gone before us helps us to better understand ourselves.  Indeed whether we like it or not, their lives, for better or worse have an impact on ours. Their influence ranges from the physical characteristics that we inherit to perhaps what country we live in.  Truly their story is a part of our story but this isn’t just true of us, this is also, as strange as it may sound at first, even true of God himself.

They are very rarely ever read on a Sunday morning but both Matthew and Luke include Jesus’ family tree in their gospels.  Matthew included it at the very beginning of his gospel and in it he traced Jesus’ ancestry through Joseph all the way back to Abraham who was the ancestor of God’s chosen people.  Matthew did this because even though Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, he was his legal father and Matthew wanted to make it clear that Jesus was a Jew born of the House of David just as the prophets said the messiah would be.  For his part Luke, who put Jesus’ genealogy after his baptism, traced Jesus’ family tree through Mary all the way back to Adam.  Luke did this in order to show that Jesus is ultimately related to everyone in the world and is the saviour of the entire world.  Perhaps though you may be wondering; this is all fine and good but what has all of this to do with us or even Christmas itself?  The answer quite simply is more than what we may first realize.

I often joke that when people research their family tree they are secretly hoping to discover that they are related to someone famous and perhaps even a king or queen!  Sometimes there is someone famous but the reality is that most of our ancestors were people like us; a little bit good, a little bit not so good and usually rather ordinary.  And then again some of our ancestors were, how shall I say it, real characters!  And so it is with Jesus’ family tree.

We know little about most of Jesus’ ancestors other than the fathers’ names but what we do know about some of them may shock us.  Consider Tamar for example.  She seduced her former father-in-law, became pregnant and gave birth to one of Jesus’ ancestors.  We can also think of Rahab who was a Canaanite.  She operated what we would call a house of ill-repute in Jericho.  When the exodus was coming to an end and the Hebrews were planning to conquer the city, she discovered two of their spies hiding on her premises.  Instead of turning them over to the authorities which is what we might expect her to do, she sheltered them and then proposed a deal.  In exchange for her protecting them, she suggested that they protect her and her business when they attacked the city.  The Hebrews honoured the bargain and she later married a Hebrew named Salmon.  Rahab had a child who would become another one of Jesus’ ancestors.  Moving on we can think of the most famous name in Jesus’ family tree, King David.  The good news is that David at his best was, as the Bible puts it, “the man after God’s own heart”.  The not-so-good news is that at his worst David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then arranged for the death of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah.  To make things even worse Uriah was one of David’s closest friends and most loyal supporters.

Truly Jesus’ family tree, like everyone else’s, has its share of good and not so good characters but my point is this:  Tamar, Rahab, David and Bathsheba were Jesus’ biological ancestors.  Their genes were his and their blood flowed in his veins.  Yes, Jesus most certainly is the Word made Flesh and the divine Son of God but Jesus is also fully human too.  Born of the Holy Spirit and Mary, Jesus is both fully divine and human.  Now this of course is a mystery that we can never truly begin to understand or explain but think about what this means. How easy was it for God, being so holy, righteous and perfect to become a human being with an all so human family tree?  It couldn’t have been easy at all and this points to the holy wonder of Christmas, that God became one of us and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

While the parallel is far from exact, it would be something like one of us giving up all of our abilities and becoming an ant or some other bug in order to save them.  Could we or would we give up all that we have to be born a bug, to live like a bug and die like a bug in order that we might save them?  Could we or would we make such a sacrifice?  It’s not very likely is it unless of course we really, truly loved them.  And so it is with God.

It must have been far harder than we can ever imagine for God to become human and be born of Mary with her less-than-perfect family tree but nevertheless this is what God did.  He did so simply because he loves us so much.  And this is the holy, mysterious wonder that is Christmas.  The holy mysterious wonder of Christmas isn’t that a virgin conceived and bore a child.  Nor is the holy wonder of Christmas that Joseph had faith and believed that the child was fathered by the Spirit.  The holy wonder of Christmas isn’t the shepherds, the star or the wise men either.  Rather the holy mysterious wonder of Christmas is the simple fact that almighty God loves us so much that he willingly became one of us even if that meant becoming a descendant of people such as Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba and David.  God is love and that is why the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

December 6, 2020.

Message for December 6, 2020

The Second Sunday in Advent

Mark 1:1-8

“The Man Who Invented Christmas” is the title of a movie that was released three years ago.  For those of you who are not familiar with it, this fictional movie tells the story of how Charles Dickens was inspired to write his classic novel, “A Christmas Carol”.  I thoroughly enjoyed the movie though I have to question its title; Charles Dickens most certainly did not ‘invent’ Christmas.  Nevertheless his book has had a tremendous impact on how we celebrate Christmas.  Indeed all we have to do is think of all the movies and shows that it has inspired including such as the classic movie which stared Alastair Sim, Mickey Mouse’s Christmas Carol and the latest incarnation of the tale, “A Nashville Christmas Carol”.  These are all different takes on Dickens’ story but they all follow the basic storyline.

It was Christmas Eve and Ebenezer Scrooge, who was a miser and a thoroughly unpleasant man, was visited by three spirits; the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas yet-to-come.  After these encounters Scrooge realized how he had misspent the years gone by, was still messing up, and what would happen if he did not mend his ways.  In response he repented and changed his ways altogether.  He sent the largest turkey that money could buy to his long-suffering employee, Bob Cratchit, and then made him a partner in his accounting firm.  Scrooge also donated a large sum of money to a charity dedicated to helping the poor, something that he had always refused to do before.  Last but not least, Scrooge also went to spend Christmas with his only living relative, a nephew from whom he had been estranged for years because he disapproved of his choice of wife.  Scrooge in fact went from one extreme to another; he went from being a very miserable and unhappy person to being a very contented man and a pleasure to be with.  In short he repented and because he did, he was set free to enjoy Christmas and be the man that he was always meant to be.  Scrooge was set free to be at peace with both his self and with others.  This in fact, being set free and being at peace with both oneself and with others explains the story’s enduring popularity down through the years.  Indeed, being at peace with both ourselves and with others is one of the things that is supposed to characterize this special time of year.  After all we are celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace!  Sadly though, such isn’t always the case.

I have never forgotten a conversation that I had with a police officer years ago.  He spoke about how much he hated working on Christmas Day and I naturally assumed that he didn’t like working that day because he preferred to be at home with his family.  Well yes, he said, he’d much rather be at home than working but that wasn’t the main reason why he disliked it so much.  It is the domestic calls he said.  Family members don’t always get along and so they do their best to avoid each other all year long.  But then, just because it is Christmas, they feel that they have to get together.  And they think that just because it is Christmas they will get along too.  Well he said, they don’t always get along and it is us poor cops who have to deal with it.

The truth is that we cannot truly celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace if there isn’t any peace within us or between us.  Certainly John the Baptist knew this.

John the Baptist was the last and greatest prophet of them all and he was the one whose ministry proclaimed the imminent revealing of the Messiah.  But how did John tell the people to prepare for the coming of the Christ?  Not by throwing a party or by feasting and eating too much.  Nor did he tell the people to prepare by giving presents either.  Instead he told them that they were to prepare for the Prince of Peace by being at peace with themselves, with oneanother, and with God himself.  And John insisted too that the only way that this could happen was by confessing and repenting; by letting go of the painful past, saying ‘I’m sorry’ when warranted and by trying to make things right.

Now what went for those people so long ago as they awaited the revealing of the Messiah still goes for us today as we prepare to celebrate his birth.  Repentance however is far easier said than done.  It is hard on the ego to admit that we were wrong.  It can be embarrassing and perhaps even humiliating for us to try and make things right; in fact it is oftentimes easier just to leave things the way they are.  To return to “A Christmas Carol”, how easy was it for Scrooge to accept his nephew’s long-standing invitation to go to his house for Christmas dinner, knock on the front door, go in and then apologize to his nephew’s wife; “Can you forgive a stubborn old fool?”  Repentance wouldn’t have been easy for Scrooge and it isn’t always easy for us either.  Nevertheless we cannot truly celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace unless we are at peace with ourselves, others and God as well.  The well-known Christian author, Rick Warren makes this point in one of his many books.

In his book, “The Purpose of Christmas”, Warren claims that far too many of us really don’t enjoy Christmas simply because we have lost sight of what it is truly all about or, as he says, its purpose.  The purpose of Christmas however is really quite simple.  Christ was born to be our saviour; to die for our sins and so bring about peace and reconciliation between us and God.  If the life, death and resurrection of Christ have any real meaning for us, then we must seek peace and reconciliation with oneanother.  As I have already noted though, this is far easier said than done.  Warren however quite rightly points out that all too often we lose sight of what forgiveness really means.  To quote Warren himself:

“Many people are reluctant to reconcile strained relationships because they don’t understand the difference between forgiveness and trust or the difference between reconciliation and resolution.

First of all, reconciliation is not the same as resolution.  Reconciliation ends hostility.  It doesn’t mean you’ve resolved all the problems in the relationship.  You continue to talk about the issues and work on them, but now you do it with respect and love instead of sarcasm and anger.  You can disagree agreeably.

Second, there is a big difference between forgiveness and trust.  We forgive so we can get on with our lives instead of getting stuck in the past due to resentment and bitterness.  Forgiveness takes care of the past.  Trust is all about the future, and it must be earned over time.  Trust can be lost in a second, but it takes a long time to rebuild it.

Christmas, the season of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’, is the perfect time to offer the gift of grace to others, while celebrating the grace God has shown you.”

As God has forgiven us so too we must seek to forgive others.  Indeed this is what we even ask God to do every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” or, to put it more simply, forgive us our sins to the degree or extent that we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.  If we take forgiveness seriously, then we will realize that it can be very hard to do and perhaps even seemingly impossible.  What we must remember though is that there is a very real difference between reconciliation and resolution, forgiveness and trust.  As distasteful and as challenging as it may sometimes be, we as the disciples of Jesus are called to be a reconciling and forgiving people and not just at Christmas either.  Indeed only if we are prepared to at least try and do this, and I mean really try, can we experience the peace and goodwill of the Christmas season or, as some people call it, the Christmas Spirit.

November 29, 2020.

Message for November 29, 2020

Advent 1

Isaiah 64:1-4

A number of years ago the well-respected Lutheran pastor and thinker Martin Marty wrote a very thought-provoking book entitled “A Cry of Absence”.  In that book he claimed that all of us are on a spiritual journey that goes in cycles which, in many ways, parallel the four seasons of the year.  First of all there is spring which is of course the time of beginnings and new life.  At that time the seeds of faith are planted and everything seems to be so fresh and alive; God and his presence, love and forgiveness are so very real to us.  And just as spring is followed by summer, so it is in our spiritual journey.  Summer is the time when the seeds of faith sprout and grow and life is generally good.  To be sure there may be a few storms but overall the journey is a positive one.  And of course we all know what comes after the summer.  Autumn is the time of harvest and taking stock and it is then that we can look back and take satisfaction in what we have done and accomplished.  After that however comes winter and that, the winter of the soul, is the prime focus of Marty’s book.

Marty says that just as the winter season comes every year bringing ice, snow and cold, so too does it come on our spiritual journey.  The winter of the soul can be caused by many things.  It may be triggered by such as illness or failing health whether it be our own or someone else’s.  The winter of the soul may also be triggered by the death of someone near and dear to us or perhaps by what is happening in the world around us, and the present pandemic with all of its upsets comes to mind.  Whatever the cause may be though, in the winter of the soul we feel lost and everything seems to be so bleak, hopeless and maybe even pointless.  In the winter of the soul even God himself seems to be absent and this is a terrible feeling, especially for us, the people of faith.  “Where are you God?  Don’t you care about us?” we cry.  “Why don’t you do something to help us?”  In our heartache and pain we utter what Marty calls “a cry of absence”.  The cry of absence; that may well describe today’s scripture passage too.

Today’s passage was written at the time of the Babylonian Exile and it is hard for many of us to appreciate just what an unmitigated disaster it was for God’s people.  Perhaps some of the numbers may give us a better understanding.  It has been estimated that there were approximately 250,000 Jews living in the Holy Land before the conquest and exile but afterwards there were only 20,000 left and virtually all of them were living in Babylon.  To put that in perspective, it would be like a disaster befalling our own nation and everyone in Canada outside of the GTA perishing.  Indeed the scale of the disaster was the ancient equivalent of the Holocaust and the words of the 137th psalm reflect how many of the people felt:

“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,

when we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars we hung our harps,

for our captors demanded songs of joy.

They said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How can we sing the songs of the Lord

while in a foreign land?”

This was the situation when Isaiah wrote his “cry of absence” which makes up today’s scripture passage.  But even as he gave voice to his pain, Isaiah still clung to the hope that God could and would do something for his people.

“O that you would rend the heavens and come down,

that the mountains would tremble before you!”

Even in the winter of his soul, Isaiah clung to the hope that all was not lost and that spring would return for both him and his people.  One day, some day, God would rend the heavens and the Messiah would come!  Not surprisingly, many people took Isaiah’s words of hope literally and believed that the Messiah would come from heaven like a great warlord and rescue them from of all their trials and tribulations.

Well, as we all know Isaiah’s cry of absence was answered but not in the way that most people expected it to be.  When the Messiah finally came, God did not rend the heavens and neither did the mountains quake.  In fact at first no one even knew that the cry had been answered except for a peasant couple, some humble shepherds and a few traveling magi.  In the words of that great Christmas hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!”.

This is how the cry of absence was answered; it was answered with a baby lying in a manger rather than with a warlord rending the heavens.  In that child God became a part of us rather than apart from us.  In Christ, God joined us so that he could know, share and experience life as we do.  In Christ, God also became one of us so that one day we will know, share and experience life in all of its glorious abundant fullness just as he does.  And God has also promised that he, in the person of Christ will return again.

This is the theme of today, this being the First Sunday in Advent.  Our cry of absence will be answered by the eventual return of Christ in the Second Coming.  Of course in virtually every generation there have been those who expected the cry to be answered right then and there.  The early Christians for example expected Jesus to return sooner rather than later and for that reason were reluctant to marry and have children.  With the fall of the Roman Empire and the resultant chaos, many expected the return of Jesus.  Some were sure that the Second Coming would happen in the year 1000 AD and then, more recently, in the year 2000 AD.  Even now during the present pandemic there has been no shortage of self-styled prophets who have loudly proclaimed that Christ is returning at any time.

The truth of course is that no one really knows when Christ will return and even Jesus himself said that he didn’t know when.  But where does this leave us if we feel trapped in the winter of the soul and God seems to be as far away as the stars in the night sky?  It is fine to say that Christ was with us 2000 years ago and that he will return again some time in the future but how does that help us here and now?

The truth of course is that God is never truly absent.  To use an analogy, God is like the sun.

There are days when there isn’t a cloud in the sky and we bask in the sun’s warmth and light.  On other days though, the sun is obscured by the clouds and everything seems rather dull, grey and gloomy.  And there are days when it is raining or even storming and there is no sign of the sun whatsoever.  And yet, as we all well know, the sun is still there, it’s simply a case that we aren’t aware of it.  And so it is with us and God.  Even when God seems to be absent, he really isn’t.  He is still there; he is still here, even when everything seems to be so bleak and hopeless.  In the words of the 139th psalm:

“Where can I go to escape your spirit?

Where could I flee from your presence?

If I climb the heavens, you are there!

There too if I lie in Sheol.”

 

And of course there are also the words and promise of Christ himself:  “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of time”.

It doesn’t matter what season we are in as we make our way on our spiritual journey, whether it be spring, summer, autumn or winter; God is always with us.  And we should remember too that no matter how long or harsh the winter may be, even when it seems as if it will last forever, it won’t.  Spring always returns and as it is in nature, so it is with us and our spiritual journey.  As cold, bleak and seemingly endless as the winter of the soul may seem to be, it will not last.  Spring will come and the cry of absence will be answered.

November 22, 2020.

Message for November 22, 2020

Christ the King Sunday

Matthew 25:31-46

Morris L. West was an Australian author who wrote several best sellers including “The Shoes of the Fisherman” and “The Devil’s Advocate”.  Oddly enough though, it is one of his lesser known books that is one of my all-time favourites; “Summer of the Red Wolf”.  This novel is set on the Isle of Lewis off the west coast of Scotland and it is a story about love, hate, death and redemption.  One of the book’s characters is a woman named Hannah who was reputed to have the Second Sight; the ability to catch glimpses of the future.  In one episode she told the main character that she thought that he would end up with the woman of his dreams.  This of course was exactly what he wanted to hear which prompted her to say “Aye, we all love the preacher with heaven in his hand and not a word about the other place”.

How very true; we too so to speak love the preacher with heaven in his hand and not a word about the other place.  At one time we Christians were almost obsessed with the final judgement but not any longer; in fact by and large we like to ignore it altogether.  Then however we come face to face with the prospect of being judged in today’s scripture passage.

Today’s passage is one of the most disturbing ones of the entire Bible.  In it Jesus said that the day is coming when he will return to this earth as a glorious king, take his throne and then sit in judgement.  At that time the nations will be divided into two groups:  the sheep and the goats.  The sheep are the saved and they are saved because they cared for Christ in his time of need.  “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.  I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.  I was a stranger and you invited me in.  I needed clothes and you clothed me.  I was sick and you looked after me.  I was in prison and you came to visit me.”  Some people however say that they never saw Christ in need, and what will his reply be?  “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”.  And so off they will go to paradise.  The goats on the other hand will be banished to the eternal fire simply because they did not care for Christ in his time of need.  When they object saying that they never saw Jesus in need, he will reply:  “Whatever you did not do for the least of these brothers of mine, you did not do for me”.

Thus goes today’s scripture passage and our interpretation of it is almost predictable.  Indeed virtually every sermon that I have ever preached or heard based on it goes along these lines; in the end we will be judged and when we are it will not be based on how overtly religious or pious we were.  Nor will we will be judged on whether or not we held the correct religious beliefs either.  Rather we will be judged on the basis of how much we did or did not love.  Did we at least try to love our neighbours as ourselves?  Did we care, at least a little bit, about those less fortunate than ourselves?  In the unforgettable words of Mother Theresa:

“At the end of life we will not be judged by

how many diplomas we have received,

how much money we have made,

how many great things we have done.

We will be judged by

I was hungry and you gave me food to eat

I was naked and you clothed me

I was homeless and you took me in.

Hungry, not only for bread

but hungry for love.

Naked, not only for clothing

but naked of human dignity and respect.

Homeless, not only for want of a room of bricks

but homeless because of rejection.

This is Christ in distressing disguise.”

Do we always see Christ in his distressing disguise?  If we are honest, then the answer is no, we don’t.  In the words of one poem:

“Jesus, why didn’t you tell me that you were hungry?

Why didn’t you tell me that you were thirsty?

Why didn’t you tell me those were your toes

sticking through cracked shoes?

I didn’t know you needed help.

I want to open the door and invite you in.

Please tell me who you are the next time you knock.”

As I said a moment ago, virtually every interpretation of this passage goes along these lines; be a sheep!  If need be, mend your ways and start caring more about others and their needs and not just at Christmas time either!  And of course when we are not as loving, caring and sharing as what we could be all is not lost for surely Christ will forgive us. Just imagine for a moment though that this interpretation is wrong.

I recently read a sermon by the well-known American preacher William Willimon and in it he challenges our usual understanding of today’s text.  He points out for example that according to Matthew when Christ returns and takes his throne, all of ‘the nations’ will be assembled before him.  Now we usually just pass over this phrase without giving it a second thought but as Willimon points out, ‘the nations’ has a very specific meaning in Matthew’s gospel.  In his gospel ‘the nations’ refers to all those people who are not disciples of Jesus.  If Willimon is right, and I do believe that he is on to something, than this parable isn’t really about us at all.  Rather it is about what will happen to all those people who, for whatever reason, do not follow Jesus.  They will be judged but not on the basis of their faith or lack thereof.  Rather they will be judged on how they behaved, and this brings us to Willimon’s second important point.

When ‘the nations’ object that they never saw Christ in need, Jesus will tell them that whatever they did not do for the least of his brothers they did not do for him.  Now what we have to realize says Willimon, is that in Matthew’s gospel the term ‘brother’ also has a very specific meaning; it refers to the disciples or followers of Jesus.  In other words, in the end ‘the nations’ or non-Christians will be judged on how they have treated us, the disciples of Jesus.  If Willimon is right, and I do believe that he is, then what Jesus said about the Great Judgement is not, directly at least, about us at all.  Rather Jesus was talking to those who are outside of the church.  But if this is the case, does this mean that today’s passage has no real meaning or relevance for us?

Of course not.  It may go without saying but if Jesus expects so much from those who, for whatever reason do not follow him, then we can be sure that he expects at least the very same of us.  We, the disciples of Jesus, are called to follow both his teaching and example; to love, understand and be as compassionate as he was.  But of course this is impossible, after all we are only human!  And this is when we should remember such as the wonderful words of Paul.

“Who would dare accuse us whom God has chosen?  The judge himself has declared us free from sin.  Who is in a position to condemn?  Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us!  Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

The good news of the gospel is that Christ died for us, rose for us and is even now praying for us.  Yes, we may be sinners but we are forgiven sinners and in response to the overwhelming love of God made known to us in Christ, we should at least try and live the lives that God would have us do.  We should strive to do this all of the time, and not just in the coming weeks leading up to Christmas either.

 

 

 

November 15, 2020.

Message for November 15, 2020

1 Samuel 1:9-18

It was about 3,000 years ago back in the days of the Judges and at that time it was considered quite normal for a man to have more than one wife.  A man named Elkanah had two wives; Peninah and Hannah.  The one wife, Peninah, had a number of children but Hannah had none.  Hannah wanted a child of her own more than anything else but it never happened.  Even so she did not give up.

One day she went to worship God in the sanctuary at Shiloh and, as she usually did, she prayed passionately about her desire to have a child; indeed she was so caught up in her prayer that the presiding priest thought that she was drunk.  He told her off but when she explained her situation, his attitude changed altogether.  Indeed inspired by God, the priest told her that she was going to bear a son and sure enough it happened.  While that is where today’s scripture passage ends that is not the end of the story.

When her son was old enough Hannah took him back to the sanctuary and dedicated him to God’s service.  Now what this meant in practical terms was that the boy would now live at the sanctuary permanently.  But why did Hannah do such a thing?  What was her motivation?  The realization that her child was a gift from God and that while God gives good gifts, all good gifts should be used in his service.  To Hannah that meant giving up her boy; she believed that by returning the child to God she was making the world a better place.  And the world would become a better place because of her choice since that child would grow up to become one of the greatest prophets of all time, Samuel.

In one of his books a German author named Christian Schwarz notes that we Christians usually think of heaven and hell as being places that pertain to the future.  Heaven so to speak is “up there” and is the place where we go if we have faith in God and strive to live good lives.  Hell on the other hand is “down there” and is the place where we go if we don’t believe and live bad lives.  Fair enough says Schwarz but he notes that when we read the gospels, Jesus also talked about the Kingdom of God or heaven as we usually call it, as being here and now.  But how Schwarz asks, can this possibly be?

He concludes that the Kingdom of God or heaven is here and now wherever and whenever people use their God-given gifts, talents and abilities to serve him and others.  When we seriously try to live as Christ’s disciples we give the world a foretaste of what the life yet to come is like.  Conversely Schwarz says, hell can also be here and now too.  It occurs whenever and wherever people live primarily for themselves without a care or concern for others.  In short, heaven and hell aren’t just future destinations, they are also present realities.

After a closure that has lasted eight months to the very day, today is Boston’s re-opening service.  I must admit that I would have never believed it that March morning if anyone had told me that we wouldn’t be gathering for worship again in Boston till mid-November.  Likewise I wouldn’t have believed it if anyone had told me what things would be like we when we finally did so; no singing, pews marked off and the wearing of masks for example.  So much has changed both here in church and in the world around us.  The last eight months have been a long haul and unfortunately it is going to continue for a while longer.  To be sure, even if a covid vaccine does pan out we will probably be well into next spring before a mass quantity can be made, distributed and enough people inoculated so that the restrictions can be lifted.  For many of us this is not only disheartening but discouraging and fatigue is now setting in.

When the pandemic began last spring there was a strong sense of caring and sharing along with a widespread feeling that we were all in this together.  Sacrifices were demanded and made.  Now however many people are tired of the restrictions and are still worried about health, livelihoods and countless other things.  It sometimes seems as if we are going nowhere fast and this may make it harder for us to continue to care as much about others.  It is however even more important that we do so now than ever before.  It is because even as it seems that life is becoming more of a ‘hell’ for so many, it is through the choices great and small that we make each and every day, that we can help alleviate some of the pain and help make God’s kingdom here on earth a reality.  It is by our caring that we offer hope and light to what is for so many people today, a dark and hurting world.  This was something that one of the great preachers of days gone by learned.

He passed away five years ago but Fred Craddock is still considered to be one of the greatest preachers that the United States has ever produced.  Years ago he and his wife were spending the last day of their summer holidays in their favourite café in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.  They just wanted to be left alone but then an older fellow walked in and much to their annoyance wandered over to their table and started talking.  When the man found out that Craddock was a preacher, he announced that he had a story that he just had to tell.

“Yeah”, the man said, “I was born back in these mountains.  My momma wasn’t married.  We lived in a shack outside of town.  The other women in town used to spend their time guessing who my daddy was.  And I didn’t know who my daddy was.  That was a real problem back then.”

“The other kids weren’t allowed to play with a boy like me so I would hide at recess, and I ate my lunch alone.  They said I wasn’t any good and I’d never amount to anything.”

Remembering those painful days of childhood, the old man was now weeping but he collected himself and kept going.

“Well” the old man said, “there was a church in Laurel Springs.  I knew church wasn’t a place for boys like me.  Sometimes I’d sneak in and sit towards the back so I could sneak out before the service ended.  But this one day I just got lost in what the preacher was saying.  Before I knew it, church was over.  Folks were looking at me.  I was making for the back door as quick as I could when all at once I felt this big hand on my shoulder.”

“This big voice boomed.  It was the preacher man himself!  He talked so loud everybody heard as he said, ‘Boy, who’s your daddy?  I know who your daddy is.  Now let’s see … why you’re a child of …,’ he paused and everyone listened, ‘Why you’re a child of God, and I see a strikin’ resemblance!’  Then he swatted me on the bottom and said, ‘Now you run along and go claim your inheritance.’

The old man looked familiar to Craddock and so he asked him his name.  He replied, “Ben Hooper.”  Fred thought to himself that he recognized the name and then clued in.  “Oh yes!  I remember my daddy telling me about you, you’re the illegitimate boy who was elected the Governor of Tennessee two times.”

Old Governor Hooper looked up at Fred and with tears in his eyes said, “I was born that day.”

Everyone else had looked at Ben Hooper and only saw an illegitimate child; a person to be scorned and shunned.  That preacher though saw what was really there; a child of God who could accomplish something with his life if he was given half a chance.  What was ‘hell’ for that child became ‘heaven’ that Sunday morning.  Indeed heaven itself was revealed in that church that morning all because one person, a disciple of Christ, chose to love and care.

With privilege comes responsibility.  Our privilege is to be the people of God and the disciples of Christ.  Our responsibility, especially in a time such as this, is to love and care for it is by doing so that we help create the kingdom of God here on earth and in doing so give a foretaste of what is yet to come.

November 8, 2020

Message for Remembrance Sunday – November 8, 2020

Luke 20:27-40

Even though it was written thousands of years ago, Homer’s “The Odyssey” is still considered to be one of the great classics of world literature.  The story begins with Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, and his decision to leave his family and join his fellow Greeks in rescuing the beautiful Helen of Troy.  A ten year siege of Troy followed and the Greeks were finally victorious when they managed to enter the city using the famed Trojan Horse.  The war was over but instead of returning home to his family, Odysseus  travelled all over the Mediterranean world having one marvellous adventure after another, battling fearsome monsters, ferocious sea creatures and the like.  He did this in order to gain fame, believing that if he became famous enough, his name would never be forgotten and so in a sense he would gain immortality.

Finally his adventures led him to the very end of the known world; to Hades, the dreaded place of the dead.  The ancient Greeks believed that when a person died they went to Hades which was a gloomy place where people weren’t quite dead but not quite alive either; it was a sort of twilight zone.  While there Odysseus met all of the great heroes of the past.  With horror he realized that they were just that, figures of the past and long forgotten; they most certainly were not living on through their great deeds.  And if immortality was not to be found in what you did here on earth, then where was it to be found?

Upon leaving Hades Odysseus promptly headed back home to Ithaca and his family.  He had come to the conclusion that immortality was not to be found as a soul living on in Hades.  Nor was immortality to be found in having a great reputation either.  Rather he concluded that immortality was to be found in living on through ones descendants.

Now this may sound rather odd to us but this is what many people in the ancient world, including God’s people in the days of the Old Testament, firmly believed.  Yes, a person died but they still gained a sliver of immortality through their children, grandchildren and the following generations.  In fact it is this belief that partially explains why the people in the days of the Old Testament thought that having children was so important; they were so-to-speak a ticket to immortality.  Indeed this is why a religious law stated that a man had to marry his dead brother’s wife and have children with her; this was done in order to ensure that his brother would live on.

When people started giving this some thought though, they quickly saw the weakness of the theory.  How much for example did they really know about their ancestors?  Generally not much.  Could they really say that their ancestors were living on through them?  Or how much would their own descendants really know about them?  Once again the answer was probably not much.  Slowly but surely the horrible truth dawned throughout the ancient world; that immortality cannot be achieved through those who will come after us.

The result of all this for many people was a numbing sense of despair.  They concluded that their lives had no real purpose, value or meaning.  What did it matter if a person was good or bad?  So what if a person made sacrifices for others and always tried to do the right thing?  In the end it made no difference.  Others, far from giving in to despair, made personal pleasure their only goal in life.  Since this life is all there is, live it to the fullest!  Do whatever you want be it good or bad since there are no consequences unless you get caught!  Not surprisingly perhaps, this attitude even found a place amongst God’s people.

The Sadducees were the sophisticated and well-off group of people who ruled the Temple.  While they certainly believed in God, they also firmly believed that this life was all there is and that there was no life yet to come.  For this reason they were firm believers in what we could call the pleasure principal; eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die.  They reasoned that how we live our lives here on earth has no consequences. Then however along came Jesus who dared proclaim that there is in fact a life yet to come.  Now what was hailed as wonderful news by most people came as quite a shock to the Sadducees; why if Jesus was right then they would have to change their ways!  Some of the Sadducees then decided that they would take Jesus down a peg or two.

Suppose, they said, a woman was married to a man who died.  She then married his brother but he too died.  After that she married the next brother and on it went till she had married and outlived all seven brothers.  Now the Sadducees wanted to know, if there really is a life yet to come then which of the brothers would she be married to?  Would it be to husband number one or one of the others perhaps?  Or maybe she would be married to all seven at the same time!  The Sadducees were obviously trying to hold both Jesus and his belief about an eternal life up to ridicule but Jesus would have no part of it.  He told them that they really didn’t know what they were talking about.  Yes, there most certainly is a life yet to come and in it we do keep our identities but even so, the life everlasting is not just a continuation of this existence.  Rather the life yet to come is a whole new mode of existence.  And it is this, our eternal existence that gives all of our lives here on earth value, purpose and meaning.

It was shortly before I left my first charge and there was a bit of a tempest in one of my congregations.  There was a member there who had retired to the village and was a World War Two vet; indeed he had served with distinction.  One day he came to me and said that he wanted his name added to the church’s memorial plaque that commemorated all those associated with the congregation who had served in the armed forces during the Second World War.  Well, to say that there was a debate when his wish became known would be an understatement.  On one side were those who saw nothing wrong with the request; if this would make him happy then why not?  Other people though, if you will pardon the pun, were up in arms about it; that plaque was a part of the congregation’s history and it wasn’t meant to be open-ended, adding more names to it decades later.  As the debate went on, one of the elders asked me why this fellow wanted this to be done anyways.

To me the answer was obvious.  His name was not recorded on a plaque or memorial anywhere and he was afraid that he and the sacrifices that he had made would be forgotten.  He wanted, as if it were, a sliver of immortality and an assurance that he and his life really did mean something.  Turning to us, do our own lives really have any value, purpose and meaning?  Do the sacrifices we make for the sake of our families and others in the world around us really mean anything?

The message and promise of today’s lesson is that they do.  Our lives really do have value, purpose and meaning.  The longing of the man to have his name inscribed on a plaque is understandable but quite unnecessary.  It is simply because neither he nor his sacrifices will ever be forgotten.  Neither will those of all the others whom we honour during these days of remembrance.  What they did will live on forever simply because both they and we will live on forever.  As I read every year during the Act of Remembrance on Remembrance Sunday:

“Let us remember the continuing grace of God, whose love holds all souls in life and to whom none are dead, but all are alive forevermore.”

To God none are dead but all are alive forevermore; this is the gospel truth.  Their deeds and ours too will live on forever.  Sometimes people say that eternal life minimizes the importance of our existence here on earth; after all what are 70, 80, 90 or even 100 years compared to all eternity?  In reality though, it is the exact opposite.  It is eternity that makes our lives and those of everyone else here on earth so precious; it is eternity that gives them value, purpose and meaning.

November 1, 2020.

Message for November 1, 2020

Revelation 7:9-17

I was amused by the editorial cartoon that appeared in last Sunday’s edition of the Toronto Star.  It depicted a man walking by a rather old-fashioned looking cemetery.  There was a monster, a skeleton, a ghost and a witch in the graveyard and all four of them were doing their best to scare him.  The man however was reading a newspaper and totally ignored them.  “Meh”, he said.  The message of the cartoon was obvious.  What are monsters, skeletons, ghosts and witches compared to the news of the day, especially with the current pandemic?  What is actually happening in the world around us is far more frightening than any creatures of our imagination could ever be.

Last evening was of course Halloween and the weeks leading up to it were marked by debate and controversy over whether or not  the children should be allowed to go trick or treating.  On one side were those, including medical experts, politicians and others, who vehemently said that the answer was ‘no’ as it was too dangerous.  On the other side of the debate were those including once again medical experts, politicians and others who just as vehemently said that the risks of celebrating Halloween were in fact fairly low, especially when compared to other activities that many of the children are doing including going to school.  And besides they said, the kids have already seen so many of the activities and events that they normally enjoy cancelled.  Indeed looking ahead, so many of the events and activities that they enjoy at Christmas have already been cancelled as well.  Was it really necessary then to cancel Halloween too?  The debate raged and in the end it was pretty much left to the parents to do as they best saw fit.

I must confess that I have always rather enjoyed Halloween.  As a child I loved dressing up and going around the neighbourhood collecting candy.  As a parent I enjoyed carving the pumpkin and taking our kids out around the neighbourhood.  Now I get a kick out of looking at the kids dressed in their various costumes who come to the door to collect their candy.  Halloween however is no longer just for the children; in recent years more and more adults have been celebrating Halloween too, dressing up and having their own parties and get-togethers.  Indeed Halloween is now big business and is generally regarded as an occasion for everyone to have some good innocent fun.  It wasn’t always this way though.

The roots of Halloween go back thousands of years and it originated as a festival celebrated by the ancient Celts.  They called it ‘Samhain’ and believed that sunset on the last day of October marked the end of summer.  With the end of summer the time of darkness was upon them and they knew, they just knew, that on that night the spirits, monsters and the like were let loose to roam the earth.  In an effort to scare them off they lit huge bonfires and for the same reason carved scary-looking faces on hollowed out turnips.  Truly the original Halloween, unlike our own, was a spooky and even terror-filled occasion when the people huddled around their fires waiting for the dawn.

In an effort to combat this, the church introduced what was called ‘All Saints Day’.  It was held on the day after Halloween and on that day, November the 1st, everyone was supposed to remember the great Christian saints of days gone by.  It was hoped that by doing this the people would forget about the fear of the night before.  Then, some time later, the church brought in yet another special day.  November the 2nd was called ‘All Souls Day’ and on that day everyone was encouraged to remember all of the people whom they knew who had died and were now with God in heaven. And since they were with God there were no ghosts to be feared!  Why then get all worked up at Halloween?  But while the intent was good, it failed.  The old superstitions continued to thrive and in fact Halloween even cast its shadow over both ‘All Saints’ and ‘All Souls’ days.   They became gloomy occasions when some people, far from just remembering that their loved ones were with God, actually started to worship them.  Some people even began taking gifts to the graves so that their dead relatives wouldn’t bother them in the coming year!  But then came the Reformation.

The response of the Reformers was simple and to the point; they decided to do away with it all.  They abolished both ‘All Saints’ and ‘All Souls’ days but they failed to get rid of Halloween.  After thousands of years, it couldn’t be abolished so easily and so Halloween, continually evolving, has survived to this day.  But while we Protestants abolished ‘All Saints’ and ‘All Souls’ days hundreds of years ago, an increasing number of people in recent years have been asking whether the Reformers threw out the good while trying to get rid of the bad.  Is it possible that there is a legitimate and perhaps even a necessary place for these two days in our church calendar?

For a growing number of Protestant theologians the answer is ‘yes’.  For this reason many churches now celebrate today, the first Sunday in November, as ‘All Saints Sunday’.  Today, like next Sunday, is a day of remembrance but while next Sunday we will remember our war dead, today we remember our own who have passed away.  Today is an occasion when, without being sad or depressed about it, we are encouraged to remember our loved ones who are no longer with us and to thank God for their lives and all that they have meant, still mean and always will mean to us.  Today however we are not just encouraged to remember and thank God for our loved ones now with Him; today we are also encouraged to remember our own ultimate future as well, that there is indeed a life yet to come.  That in fact is the principal message of this morning’s scripture passage.

John’s Book of Revelation is easily the hardest book of the Bible to understand and it’s not hard to see why.  Some of what John wrote was a commentary on what was happening in the world around him at that time.  The Christians were being persecuted by the government and so John wrote to offer his fellow Christians both strength and courage.  For safety reasons though John didn’t identify Rome by name, calling it Babylon instead.  His book in fact is full of such code words that while largely unintelligible to us, made perfect sense to his original readers.  Besides writing about his present times though, John also prophesied about the future as well and once again he used different code words.  The result of all this has been mass confusion.  When was John writing about what is now history?  When was John making predictions about the future?  What do the code words mean?  It seems as if no two Biblical scholars can agree.  The one thing that the scholars do agree on however is that John most firmly believed that there is in fact a life yet to come, and that he was attempting to describe it.  I like the way the well-known preacher, William Willimon sums up the theme of John’s Book of Revelation which includes today’s passage.

 

“Revelation’s emphasis is upon the ‘myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands’.  A huge crowd is gathered before the throne, a massive, constantly processing choir made up not only of myriads of people, but even ‘of every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea.’

Surely we are meant to see in this vision at the end of the Bible a completion of God’s work that begins in Genesis 1.  ‘Every creature’ is caught up in the re-creation.  Our post-Genesis situation has been fixed.  One day, there before the throne, we shall take our places among the myriads of myriads, with the hump back whales and bull-finches, the wolves and the lemurs, with those whom we have loved (and, presumably, with those whom we have despised), all singing with one voice, ‘Blessing and honour and glory and might to the Lamb!’  ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!’”

 

Salvation; this in a nutshell is what today, this day after Halloween, is all about.  Today we remember and affirm not only our destiny but that of the entire creation itself. God’s salvation, achieved through Christ, is for everyone and everything.  Ultimately all shall be well for salvation belongs to God.  Salvation; both ours and that of the creation and all therein is our destiny.  It is simply because in the end God is going to get what God has wanted from the very beginning.

October 25, 2020.

Message for October 25, 2020

Psalm 46

          Sunday March the 15th:  it almost seems like a lifetime ago now.  During the previous weeks there had been growing concern over the spread of the new virus that had first emerged in China earlier in the year.  The concern grew as we witnessed what was happening in Europe and especially in Italy and Spain but even so, most of us did not appreciate either the seriousness of what was happening or its implications.

The concern grew substantially in the week leading up to the 15th and yet, with the exception of using hand sanitizers, life went on as usual; indeed our premier even encouraged people who planned on going south for the March Break to go ahead and have a good time.  There was a pot-luck dinner and euchre night scheduled for the Friday evening at Boston and, after some debate, it went ahead as planned but then?  On the Saturday afternoon the alarm bells so-to-speak started ringing.  I got a flurry of emails that afternoon that all shared a common theme; are you having a worship service the next morning?  If so, what precautions should be taken?

It was a bright, beautiful late winter morning and the service was held at Boston though with a lower attendance than usual.  Upon my arrival at Omagh it was very quickly decided that we would not go ahead with the worship service that morning and I remember chatting with some people outside, admiring the deer in the field across the road from the church.  Looking back I think that we realized that there might not be any worship services for the next little while but in all honesty, none of us were prepared for what was coming.  Indeed I would have been flabbergasted if someone had told me that morning that we would not come together again for worship until the end of October or, in the case of Boston, mid-November.  Likewise I would have been absolutely shocked if anyone had told me what things would be like when we finally gathered again; pews roped off to restrict the seating, no singing or verbal responses and of course the wearing of masks.  So many things are now so different both in the church and the world beyond; in the words of a popular song from years ago, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.

While it wasn’t planned, in a way this Sunday is a good one for a church’s re-opening; it is because today, the last Sunday in October, has long been observed by us Presbyterians as Reformation Sunday.  The theme of today’s service is traditionally that of remembering and honouring those who have gone before us in the faith; their faith and commitment.  With this in mind, we have for years begun that service with that great hymn of the Reformation, Martin Luther’s “A mighty fortress is our God”.

In my Thanksgiving message two weeks ago I made reference to one of the greatest hymns of thanksgiving of all time, “Now thank we all our God”.  In my message that morning I noted that that hymn was written during the Thirty Years War, a three decades long struggle between the Protestants and Roman Catholics in Europe for supremacy.  That time however was not just scarred by physical violence, it was also marred by famine and disease; in fact it is estimated that between 4.5 and 8 million people lost their lives.  Despite all of the suffering though Martin Rinckart, who wrote the words of “Now thank we all our God”, believed that there was still so much to be grateful for.  Like this hymn, “A mighty fortress is our God” was also written during the same time period but while Rinckart emphasized gratitude, Martin Luther emphasized something else altogether.  Inspired by the words of the 46th Psalm he urged everyone to have faith and put their trust in God no matter how grim things seem to be.  Think of the opening words of that hymn:

“A mighty fortress is our God,

A bulwark never failing;

Our Helper He amid the flood

Of mortal ills prevailing:”

 

Yes, life can be and in fact sometimes is both hard and dangerous but even so, we are not alone.  God, our bulwark never failing, is with us and this of course is one of the great promises of the Christian faith.  We can think of the words of the beloved 23rd Psalm for example and, as I wrote in one of my messages months ago, it can be comforting to simply recite it to ourselves when we are feeling overwhelmed.  There are also the famous words of Paul taken from his letter to the Romans.

“I have become absolutely convinced that neither life nor death, neither a messenger of heaven nor a monarch of earth, neither what happens today nor what may happen tomorrow, neither a power from on high nor a power from below, nor anything else in God’s whole creation has any power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Almighty God, the one who created us, redeems us and loves us is also the one who is always with us.  This is something that we need to remember, especially perhaps at this time when we are caught up in the dreaded second wave of the current pandemic.  But of course it is not just enough to remember this; something else is required on our part and that is faith.  It is not enough just to know that God is with us, we need to believe this.  And it is this faith that sets us free to live our lives without either dread or fear.  Yes, we still worry and fret about what may or may not happen, we are only human after all but even so, we should not let our fear overwhelm us or paralyse us.  In Luther’s words:

“Let goods and kindred go,

This mortal life also;

The body they may kill:

God’s truth abideth still,

His kingdom is forever.”

 

Of course it is a lot easier to sing these words than actually believe them and live them.  This is certainly more challenging for many people today than what it was before the present pandemic started but even so, this is what we are called to do; to put our faith, hope and trust in God no matter what.  A pastor down in Florida named Larry Brincefield once told this story which may well speak to us today.

 

It was an adult Bible study group and the participants were asked which scripture passage gave them the most encouragement when they felt tired, discouraged and overwhelmed.

One young man quoted the well-known 23 Psalm.  Another quoted from today’s Psalm:  ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble’.  Some of the students quoted other passages but then an 80 year old man said that his was ‘and it came to pass’.  In fact he said, that phrase occurs a total of 396 times in the Bible.  The class greeted his words with amusement and he was asked to explain.

At age 30, he said, I lost my job and had six hungry mouths to feed.  At 40 my oldest boy was killed overseas in the war.  At 50 my house was burned to the ground and nothing was saved.  At 60 my wife of 40 years got cancer.  At 65 she died.  I still miss her today.  The agony I went through in each of these situations was unbelievable.  I wondered; where was God?  But each time I looked in the Bible and saw one of those 396 verses that said ‘And it came to pass’, I felt that God was telling me that my pain and circumstances were going to pass and that God would get me through it.

 

This is a wonderful example of faith; this man’s absolute conviction that God was with him and would get him through.  The loving sustaining presence of God:  the old man in the story knew it, Martin Luther knew it and the psalmist who composed today’s psalm knew it.  A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing or, to quote from the scripture passage that inspired this hymn:

“God is our refuge and strength,

A very present help in times of trouble.

Therefore we will not fear.

The Lord of Hosts is with us,

The God of Jacob is our refuge.”