Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Eve 2014

Have you been listening to the Christmas radio these days?

I always have to smile during this season from Thanksgiving to Christmas.  In the midst of 24/7 Christmas music, with "Rockin Around the Christmas Tree" and "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer", you have other songs, - some of the ones we've just been singing.

And these songs are like messengers:

Christ by highest heav'n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!

"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!"

It's actually a pretty clear presentation of the gospel.

During the season of Advent that finished last Sunday we've been talking about preparation of our hearts and homes for the advent of the King.  Tonight we enter upon that celebration, lasting for 12 days - the infamous 12 days of Christmas - leaping lords, gold rings and a partridge in a pear tree.

For the rest of the world most things return to normal on Friday.  The music is over and "regular" - real life resumes.  But for us who believe in Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Son of God, every day henceforth is Christmas Day!

And our prayer is again one of the songs we have been singing: "Cast out our sin and enter in ... be born in us today.

"O holy Child of Bethlehem,
'Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sins and enter in,
Be born to us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell:
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

In a few moments this evening we will turn our attention to the table here and the sacraments that communicate to us the grace-filled reality of our redemption.

As we sing another verse of that song, O Little Town of Bethlehem, we are reminded of the the gift given so long ago, of Jesus Christ.

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous Gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

As the story goes the writer of that hymn, Bishop Phillips Brooks, knew and was a friend to Helen Keller.  From the age of one and a half, Helen Keller, grew up in a world without words or colour, without friends or stories or any word of scripture.  But she later told her friend, Bishop Phillips Brooks, the Rector of Trinity Church in Boston, that even growing up deaf and blind and unable to speak with anyone, she had always known about God, even before she had any words.  She had no name for God.  She had no name for anything.  She had no concept of a name.  She was not sure what to call the feeling of love within her heart.  But even in her darkness and isolation, she knew she was not alone.  She felt within her the draw of a relationship with Someone who was always with her.  She felt God’s love.

Makes you wonder if Bishop Brooks was thinking of Helen when he wrote that verse:

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given...
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
the dear Christ enters in.

Sometimes I wonder if Helen Keller and others with similar impairment are not free of other impairments that at times block our own hearing and comprehension of the gift of God given to us in Jesus.

Even in this season where we are surrounded by the music with the Christian messages, our own hearing is sometimes overwhelmed and we need to hear one simple song.

I want to end with this 3 min clip from this year's Sainsbury Christmas commercial.  This was inspired by an actual event that happened on the fields of battle in 1914, when the entrenched troops of WW I called a local Christmas Day truce and met on the field of battle to share the peace of Christ.


As we commune together this night and sing the same song again, I pray that we can make room in our hearts for the Christ of Peace and for the salvation that He brings, so silently yet so pervasively into the midst of our struggles in this life.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

How Can This Be?

DEC 21, 2014

How Can These Things Be?

This is our last Sunday in Advent.  Just a reminder that our Christmas Eve service is Wednesday evening this week - beginning with carols at 7 pm.

Advent is a time of preparation, as we've been saying.  And this morning I want to reflect a few minutes on Mary's predicament in our Gospel reading this morning and then on our own predicament.

I was struck by Mary's very natural question to the angel Gabriel at his announcement to her, "How can these things be?"  Have you ever asked God that question?

And I'm not talking about grilling God over bad circumstances as we so often do.  The "why" questions of life ...  particularly the "why me?"  What did I ever do to you?

No, I think Mary's question wasn't about her circumstances, though the announcement didn't portend well for Mary, as an unmarried pregnancy was not going to be a walk in the park in 1st century Israel.  No one was going to understand, least of all her fiance!

I think Mary's question was the question of "how God?", not "Why God?"   The reason for that is that Mary was in a place of willingness and availability to God - that is the reason that Mary was chosen from her blood line - it was a part of the "fullness of time" equation.  This wasn't a test for Mary, it was an opportunity.

Her question wasn't one of her obeying, because her obedience was already determined, in her heart.  It was one of logistics ... the question of "how" for Mary was not the deciding factor in whether or not she would obey this announcement.  That was settled in her heart, before the angel ever appeared.

And the point of my sermon this morning is that Mary provides a clear model for us, of the readiness that we have been talking about for the past weeks of Advent.  Readiness that is the three intertwined circles of willingness, availability and obedience.  That readiness is the place where the three interconnect!  And the place where God wants to use us - to use you - to call you to something extraordinary - something impossible without Him!

So often we see those three as parts of our mindset - and we see them as proceeding from an opportunity in God's Kingdom.  What I mean is that we see an opportunity and THEN we decide if we are willing, if we can be available and whether or not we will obey.  But what I am saying is that in Mary those things were already present.

Her question wasn't a question of willingness, or of availability or even of obedience.  Her question was simply , "How?"
I think if Gabriel had said, "that's above your pay grade", Mary would probably have said the same thing she is recorded as saying, anyway.  The question she asked was an information question, not a participation question.

The answer didn't really matter that much because Mary had already settled the bigger questions of her willingness, of her availability and her obedience, -- of her readiness to do God's will -- before hand.  Before ever being asked!

And so must we.

I have tended to separate the three into a kind of two plus one equation.  You work on your willingness and your availability, until God presents you with some opportunity and then you decide if you will be obedient.

If the opportunity is "reasonable" ;  If the opportunity fits neatly in my worldview;  if the opportunity doesn't incovenience me too much;  if the opportunity reflects well
on me personally and fits into my agenda for my life, THEN
I'll move to the plus one phase of obeying.

Does anyone else do that with God? 

I think though, that we are supposed to combine all three things, so that they form a kind of trinity.  A trinity at the heart of our heart.  A trinity of readiness to be called and used by God in the work of His Kingdom.  I'm convinced that they were present in Mary before the Angel showed his wings.

Each of those pieces represents a question of God:
Willingness is a question of what is the impact of God's presence and direction in my life?  Am I willing to set aside
my agenda, my timeline, my whole life - remember what Jesus said about losing your life to gain it? - in order to gain HIS?

And once I'm willing, my attention turns to the daily course of my life - it may have been easier for Mary to make time for God than it is for us to, but she - and WE - have to settle the question of availability.  Are we free to go, if God calls?  What is our job situation, our debt situation, our family and friend situation, our health situation.  You see all these things play in our decisions to "make ourselves" available.

And can you decide to obey, before the visitation?  yes I believe you can - obedience is a lifestyle choice that we have to make day by day, in the little things.

People so often say to me, "How can I hear what God is speaking to me about this or that?"  and I very often reply, "What did you do about the last thing God said to you?"

Is obedience a lifestyle choice we are making alongside the flow of the other choices?  While we may struggle with our willingness and our availability to God, we kind of set obedience on the shelf until some directive comes along.

What I am saying is that the directive probably won't come along, until all the three things are lines up and operational in your lifestyle!  

Isaiah wasn't planning on having a life-shattering encounter with the living God - he was going about his duties as a priest in the Temple just as he did every other day.  His was a lifestyle with a settled willingness, a settled availability and a settled obedience.

Mary wasn't planning on having a life-altering encounter with the angel this morning - she was already betrothed to Joseph and this was inconvenient!  To say the least!  It wasn't the best time for her to turn up pregnant!  And the explanation?  Everyone would have become like NOAH:  "RIGHT!"

lsaiah responded out of a heart, a mind - set on obedience.  Mary responded out of a heart that was set - a mind that was set to obey, and thus she was willing and available already.

You see all three have to be there, but they are not an equation, based on what God gives you, my friends.
They are settled before God speaks.

They are settled in prayer and in devotion and in decision.

Shall we pray this morning?

Lord Jesus Christ,

You stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the Cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.  So clothe us with your Spirit, that we,
reaching out our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, for the honor of your Name.

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.