In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ 4At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. 5 ‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.’ 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’ 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’ Isaiah 6:1-8
4 When Jesus had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.’ 5 Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6 When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7 So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. 8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’ 9 For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.’ 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. Luke 5:4-11
“I’m not worthy.” Are you familiar with these words? Or you could have a variation on the theme. “I’m not good enough.” Or “You’ll never amount to anything.” All of them come from the insecurities that we carry. Some of them are very deep rooted, from our childhood. Others have from a bad experience we might have had in our adult life, a relationship breakdown, a tough workplace. Each day we feel that we have to prove our competence across all areas of our lives, and that others will judge us harshly if we don’t measure up to their expectations, let alone those that we place on ourselves.
“I’m not worthy.” Occasionally these words might be spot on, like a reaction to an unexpected and generous gift or a kindness bestowed on us. But in today’s readings, we come across two incidents where this phrase is apt. Isaiah encounters God while he’s going about his daily work, of serving as a priest in the temple. And much more surprisingly perhaps, Simon Peter meets Jesus, God in the flesh, while he’s at work fishing.
Now perhaps we might expect to meet God in his temple. After all, wasn’t this where God had promised to ground his presence. Even so, Isaiah wasn’t expecting this. He writes, “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple…” The majesty of God erupted before him. The heavenly choir shook the temple to its foundations with their singing: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;” they were singing, “the whole earth is full of his glory.” In automatic response, Isaiah himself began to shake out of abject fear and awe of what he was witnessing.
This was a dangerous place to be. No one can see God and live. Self-preservation was his immediate goal. Isaiah could only blurt out: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” In other words, “I’m not worthy” or worse than that, “I’m finished. I’m going to die.” In the blazing presence of God’s glory, the darkness of our human nature is floodlit in all its shameful relief.
Let’s freeze this scene for a moment and fast forward to Galilee, hundreds of years later. This is a very different setting for an encounter with God. Luke tells us that “Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God.” Jesus had commandeered Peter’s fishing boat as a marine pulpit, while Peter and his partners were washing their nets after the night’s fishing. There was always work to do, yet we can imagine Peter and his compatriots listening in to Jesus’ teaching about God’s kingdom.
When Jesus finishes with the crowd, he offers Peter a hint about fishing. “Put out into the deep water and let your nets down for a catch.” Peter answers somewhat sharply that they’ve been fishing all night without success, but then catches himself and does as Jesus suggests.
The result is overwhelming; so many fish that the nets are strained to breaking point and he and then his business partner’s boat are about to sink. But Peter isn’t overjoyed at this financial windfall. Instead, he’s filled with fear. The penny has dropped about who this itinerant preacher Jesus is. God is rolled up in this man. How else could you explain this incredible catch? “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Or to paraphrase, “I’m not worthy.” If you are God, what are you doing with me? What is going to happen to me?
The holiness of God is not something we much talk about. The picture of God that many in our society hold to is of an indulgent, accepting, kindly and somewhat enfeebled presence, who we can call on when we are in need. But he’s not to be taken all that seriously. And I think this attitude has rubbed off on the church. There’s no need for fear and trembling, for awe and wonder any more, in relation to God. However, we might want to think again as we observe wat happens to Isaiah and Peter today. The presence of the holy God prompts more than feelings of mere 3 inadequacy. At stake, instead, is our survival. As one theologian writes of these incidents, “we have our noses rubbed in the great gap between who we are and who God is.”
Some of you may remember the words of the confession of sins in the 1986 LCA Hymnbook: “Almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor helpless sinner, confess to you all my sins, and repent of all the evil I have done. I have deeply displeased you and deserve your punishment in time and in eternity.” I know from experience that these words are controversial to some, but they are nevertheless true. In the presence of the holy God, we have this blinding realization of how we have fallen short of God’s glory, majesty, and perfect love.
“We are not worthy.” But then come the most unexpected and life-giving response by God to Isaiah’s fear. As Isaiah quakes in his boots, a seraph takes a live coal from the fire that was burning on the altar and touches Isaiah’s mouth. This action symbolizes the reality of God’s forgiveness, the only way Isaiah can survive this awesome encounter. The seraph speaks, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” His mouth has been spiritually cauterized, his sins forgiven by an act of divine mercy.
And Peter, who stands rooted to the spot in both amazement and fear of Jesus, hears from Jesus’ lips a word of grace. “Do not be afraid…” We should be rightly afraid of God’s right to judge us fallen human beings, and to finds us guilty. On the hierarchy of fears, this should, be right at the top. At stake is our future beyond death. Most of the time we bury this fear through the busyness of our day to day lives. But come a time of crisis, or the reality of impending death, and people wonder whether what they’ve done and who they are will stack up when it counts before God, the judge of the living and the dead.
It won’t. No amount of restless human activity will bridge the great divide. What it took is God to do something, something unparalleled and unexpected. Enter Jesus. The holiness of God takes on human form. God himself gets his hands dirty as his Son interacts with the human race. The holy God is high and mighty, but also loving and merciful. God sends the Seraph to touch Isaiah’s lips.
God sends his Son to reassure a more than anxious Peter. His Son Jesus is the ultimate expression of the fullness of his pure and holy love, a love which cannot abide evil and the separation it produces. Jesus embraces our sin and shame in his own body and carries it to his death. His love for his Father, and he and his Father’s love for us, will drive him to the cross, where he will bury our sin and the enmity between God and us in his death, and give us new life through his resurrection.
CS Lewis sums up the character of God’s holy love in the Narnia Chronicles. Mr. Beaver is having a conversation with Susan above the Great Lion Aslan. Beaver says, “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.” Safe and good. Or holy and just, if you prefer. In Christ, the mercy of God triumphs over judgement
When I was growing up, I had a strong sense that God was calling me to become a pastor. But the closer that I came to begin study at the Seminary, the more I was burdened by significant doubts that I could serve God in this way. “I’m not worthy.” This process was repeated throughout my theological study, and again in my ministry. Every new ministry places this thought at the forefront of my mind. As it did when I was installed as your pastor five years ago last week.
What I have learnt, the slow way, is to hold two truths together. “I’m not worthy.” Nor are you. Nor were Isaiah and Peter, and the rest of the prophets and disciples. But the good news is that we are loved through Christ. This truth sweeps away all fear of condemnation. And with the establishment of that truth in our hearts, we can respond to the call of God to serve him through our everyday lives. God says to Isaiah: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us.” His response is immediate. “Here I am; send me!” And Jesus commissions Peter after reassuring him: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” His response, and that of his partners, is to drop everything and follow Jesus.
Both Isaiah and Peter received their call to participate in God’s mission while going about their daily work. Our ordinary lives are the locations where we love both God and our neighbour. The good news of the forgiveness of sins, God’s love for the unworthy, is a message for all people in all circumstances and stations of life. We are not worthy to receive this precious calling, yet we are chosen by God’s grace, and we get to join God in catching people alive in his wide net of love. Where and to whom is God sending you. Amen.
21 Jesus began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked. 23 Jesus said to them, ‘Surely you will quote this proverb to me: “Physician, heal yourself!” And you will tell me, “Do here in your home town what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.”’ 24 ‘Truly I tell you,’ he continued, ‘no prophet is accepted in his home town. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27And there were many in Israel with leprosy[g] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman the Syrian.’ 28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. Luke 4:21-30
I’ve preached many sermons over 29 years as a pastor. It’s a real privilege, but it’s also the greatest challenge. How can I bring God’s word alive to you? I want you to be encouraged, challenged, inspired. But it’s hard to know, especially in the age of mask wearing, whether I have hit the mark or not? Over the journey I’ve had positive feedback, and negative critique. But I’ve never had the kind of reaction Jesus experienced after the sermon he preached in his hometown synagogue.
Remember the Scripture on which it was based: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…” The broken-hearted, the captives, the oppressed, the prisoners, all the forgotten people were going to be the focus on Jesus’ words and actions.
Initially, it seemed that Jesus had wowed the hometown crowd. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” But from what Jesus says next, and from how people respond to him, all is not well. Luke says that people “witnessed to what Jesus said.” He got them talking. Whether good or bad isn’t clear.
Secondly, they were amazed. Or astonished. Astounded. Shocked even. I don’t think they expected to hear what Jesus had to say. Perhaps these words of grace were more contentious than we might have expected. All this talk about the poor. Well, it’s their fault, isn’t it? They simply need to work harder. The blind. Well, they’ll have to live with their condition. The prisoners? Well, they deserve what has come to them. The oppressed. Well, that’s just the way the system is. There are always winners and losers. That’s the way it rolls.
But their chief objection is the last question they raise. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” He’s one of us, isn’t he? Nothing special, really. Who is he to talk to us like this? He needs to remember which side his bread is buttered on. We’d like some special favour from him before he talks about God’s grace for. We’re insiders. We’re God’s chosen people. We’ve got God’s ear.
The next shock is the way Jesus reacts. He clearly hasn’t read Dale Carnegie’s best seller, “How to win friends and influence people.” Jesus says out aloud what they’ve been saying and thinking. He quotes two well-known parables, “Physician, heal yourself,” and “a prophet is not welcome in his hometown.” And he goes on to speak about the two great prophets of Israel’s history; Elijah and Elisha, and how they encountered foreigner who listened to God and welcomed them when God’s people would not. Elijah was shown hospitality by the widow of Zarephath, and Naaman, a commander of the Syrian army, was cleansed of his leprosy, because he trusted in God’s power to heal.
Jesus words hit a raw nerve among the good people of Nazareth. They didn’t want to hear the bigger picture of God’s kingdom agenda as Jesus outlined it. They wanted to keep Jesus and his power for themselves. But Jesus was talking about something completely different. He was on about grace, God’s undeserved favour, for all people, not just those of the first covenant, but on those that God’s people looked down on, Gentiles, foreigners. God was doing a new thing, which was about more than their hopes and dreams and security.
Jesus’ fellow worshippers respond with fury, Luke tells us. They’ve now made up their mind up to oppose him. They march him to the edge of town and want to throw him off the brow of a hill. Luke uses the same word that describes Jesus exorcising an evil spirit. But here it is Jesus, good and holy, who is rejected. They believe that God couldn’t possibly be speaking through him. However, Jesus walks through the middle of them. His time has not yet come.
This incident sets the scene for the rest of Jesus’ ministry. He will be constantly rejected by the insiders he is calling back to God. He will die outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem, sentenced to death by the power of Rome, egged on by a coalition of religious leaders. He will die on behalf of all people, showing the most excellent way of love that seeks not self but trusts, hopes and perseveres in God his Father, and in the confidence that God will vindicate him. And that’s exactly what happens. God raises Jesus from the dead and announces that the rejected one is the Saviour of the world.
If you and I had heard Jesus interpret Isaiah 61 that day, how would have we reacted? Would Jesus have found himself on the outer amongst his own people once again? You might be asking yourself, “What could possibly be wrong with words of grace that bring healing and hope, and lifts the poor out of despair and frees the prisoners?” Well, I can think of a few things. Jesus’ words of grace are bad news if you don’t think there’s anything wrong with your life, your actions, your motivations, the world you live in? It’s bad news if you think God has done you a favour in calling you his child? It’s bad news if we try to domesticate Jesus, to keep him for ourselves, rather than allow his message of love, grace and mercy to circulate widely through our lives and community.
The good news that Jesus preaches and lives constantly challenges me. It calls me to repent of my lack of care for those who are different from me, outside of my circle of family and friends. It convicts me about my selfishness and self-interest, my love of the good things in life and my lack of concern for those who don’t enjoy what I have. It reminds me that I am a sinner who Jesus has so graciously made a saint through his suffering, death and resurrection. The good news is not what other people need; it’s what I need each and every day. That’s why we welcome Jesus today as he serves us with his grace and mercy again today, in the soothing word of forgiveness in the absolution, the good news in his word, the gift of his own body and blood, tangible signs of his love.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that the love of God “does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” The inverse of this is that evil does not delight in the love of God but seeks to undermine it at every turn. If Jesus experienced a less than gracious response to his message, so his followers can expect the same, just as the prophet Jeremiah did when he was speaking for God to a recalcitrant covenant people. Living as people who trust in Jesus and who seek to model his sacrificial love will not always produce a positive reaction. The good news presumes the bad news that all people have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. This doesn’t sit well with the narrative that all people are essentially good and are just victims of the choices of other people, who are presumably not quite as good. The good news also calls out the kind of behaviour we see on social media, where people rip into other people, reasoning that they are not worthy of respect because they hold a different political opinion. Jesus’ followers are called to exercise patient, kind, humble love, because that’s the love Jesus has shown them.
’ve just finished reading a book by a Christian blogger, Stephen McAlpine. It’s called, “Being the Bad Guys.” His main point is that in the space of a few generations, “Christianity is [now] viewed as the bad guy. Christianity is no longer an option; it’s a problem.” The long-held teaching of the Christian faith for the way we view human flourishing, sexuality, marriage and relationships, money, power are seen as “not merely as laughable or outdated but as shameful, harmful and repressive.”
I think of the Walk for Life March in two weeks. Standing up publicly for the rights of the unborn, and in protest against SA’s recently passed liberal abortion laws is not the easy path and is guaranteed to provoke a strong reaction for some in our society. And there’s a flip side. God calls us show great compassion and mercy, rather than condemnation and hate, to woman who have chosen to have an abortion. We have good news of a God whose love overflows with grace and mercy, and who brings forgiveness and healing.
I think also of refugees in the Park Hotel in Melbourne, where Novak Djokovic was recently held. Some of these men have been waiting for a decision on their asylum claims for almost a decade. We read in salm 146 that “The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow.” It is clear that on some key issues, Christians find themselves on the wrong side of popular thinking. Neither left nor right but seeking to live out the love of Christ for the world.
McAlpine closes his book with these words, “You can accept in this time and this place in history, we just might have to put up with being the bad guys. And that can drive you back into the community of God’s people and to all the richness that dwells there, thanks to the unity gifted to it by the Holy Spirit…You can go forward together to engage with the world bravely and courageously and with love and concern: to continue to be all that Jesus has called us to be…humbly and resolutely to hold out a different story and a better way and a happier ending.” Through faith in Christ, hope in him, and in the power of his love.
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ Luke 4:14-21
I love January. I love the way that the world slows down for a couple of weeks. There’s less traffic on the road. Especially so given that those of us who are working have been encouraged to work from home due to the current Omicron wave.
I love January. A new year represents a new start. Last year there were some wonderful experiences and highlights. But there were also many challenges, and some things I’ve would have preferred didn’t happen. And then there were things, many things, which I should have done but I didn’t get to.
January is a month of anticipation. It’s also a time to set the agenda for the year. That’s true for me personally, for my work, and for St John’s. What’s on our agenda? What are our hopes? The pandemic we had hoped would splutter out in 2021 continues. We’ve almost completed the refurbishment of the ministry centre. What now for our mission and ministry utilising this wonderful resource and the gifts that God has poured out on the St John’s community, for the sake of the world around us. What’s God’s agenda for us?
In our first reading today, after God has brought his people back to Jerusalem after exile, Nehemiah gathered the whole community together and told the scribe Ezra to read “from the book, the law of God, with interpretation.” God’s law set the agenda for how God’s covenant people were to live, to learn, to work, to build a functioning, stable community.
It wasn’t easy to hear what God said. “The people wept when they heard the words of the law.” They grieved that they had failed to live as a faithful, obedient, God-honouring community. But Ezra pointed them to God’s grace in the face of their faults: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Perhaps you look back on 2021 with some sorrow about what you didn’t do, or perhaps what you did. And I’m sure that’s true for St John’s as a whole. There have been opportunities missed, mistakes made. What do we do with this? The good news is that God give us a new start. That’s what forgiveness means. Ezra’s words are true for us too: “the joy of the Lord is our strength,” because of Jesus, the one of whom God says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Today we meet Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry. He has been baptised, and steeled by the experience of his temptation, he is ready to go. He has work to do, “teaching in their synagogues”, speaking about God’s kingdom rule.
Today we are privy to Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown Nazareth synagogue. We know that Jesus was a regular worshipper there throughout his life, and as an adult male, and someone with an increasing profile, he had the privilege of reading God’s word and interpreting it to the congregation.
Jesus unrolls the scroll and finds these pivotal words from the prophet Isaiah. He makes these words his own, because they have been written for him. They are a position description for God’s Messiah. They describe his life, and they set his agenda. And they are words for us too, because of the way that we are connected to Jesus. “We are the body of Christ…in one Spirit we were baptised into one body.” Our baptism is life changing, life shaping, agenda setting from that point onwards.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me…” Jesus knows who he is, and what he does flows out of this precious relationship with his Father. As the Apostle Peter tells us in his first letter, the Spirit of the Lord has also anointed us as God’s “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special people, that [we] might declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We belong to God and our mission is to live for him. God gets to see the agenda of our lives.
Agenda Item One: “To proclaim good news to the poor.” What is this good news? It’s the sum total of Jesus’ life, everything he said and did, and it culminates in his death on the cross. It’s here that Jesus reconciles the broken creation to God. It’s there that he pleads his perfect life of love for the mess that we’ve got ourselves into; our determination to do it our own way, and to hell with others, and especially with God. Isaiah speaks of the good news that comes from Jesus’ cross: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate, new, unprecedented thing, and through his Holy Spirit he shares this new life with us. New life in the Spirit means a new spirit, a new heart, a new focus. Now we are called “To proclaim [this] good news to the poor.”
Who, then, are the poor? They are people who’ve got nowhere left to turn, no mean to support themselves. Poverty is certainly a lack of material goods, and we have many opportunities to serve through agencies like Lutheran Care and others, and to practically help people we come across in our daily lives. But poverty is deeper than a lack of money; for many in our community there are a paucity of relationships and emotional and spiritual support, which can transcend income levels. This poverty can only be alleviated by an infusion of God’s grace. We are called to speak hope into both life situations.
Agenda Item Two: “God has sent us to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.” The word freedom can mean both releasing someone or forgiving them. Jesus physically heals a paralysed man as proof also that he has the power to forgive, to release people from a debt that they can never pay back to God. His life is the payment that secures release, and the mission of the church, as it’s given to the first disciples, is that “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in Jesus’ name to all nations.” Guilt and shame imprison people: unforgiveness, resentment and deep hurt trap people.
You and I need this forgiveness, especially if, in this new year, we are imprisoned by the hurts done to us or done by us. And we know plenty of people who are in the same place. How is the Holy Spirit calling you to admit your fault and know the freedom of a new start in a new year? How is the Spirit is calling you to both comfort and challenge others with the forgiveness that God wants to offer them, and them to others?
My theme verse for 2022 is one I read in my daily devotion around Christmas: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” Repentance is freeing because it means I no longer need to carry both the hurt I’ve caused and that which I’ve experienced. Jesus has taken this to his cross. This is the heart of the good news.
Agenda Item Three: “recovery of sight to the blind,” Jesus’ mission is to bring in God’s new creation, which involves healing all the broken things in this world. Read through Luke’s gospel and see how many times Jesus physically heals people, and a sign of the gospel’s power and peace. But see also how he opens the eyes of people’s hearts and understanding. Still today the Holy Spirit gives the gift of physical healing, and spiritual insight. And we have the privilege of walking alongside people as the Spirit enlightens them, and praying for both spiritual and physical healing, as signs of God’s kingdom coming to life.
Agenda Item Four: “to let the oppressed go free.” In the kingdom of God all are equal beneficiaries of grace. Any kind of injustice, when one group of people is mistreated, is an offence against God who has made all, and who loves all equally. People of God’s kingdom have a special concern for those trapped by injustice, addiction, prejudice, and hate.
Today many Christians are celebrating Aboriginal Sunday. On January 26, 1938, Aboriginal leaders including William Cooper met for a Day of Mourning, seeking equality and full citizenship (though it would take another 30 years). Then, William Cooper asked the Australian Church to set aside the Sunday before January 26 as Aboriginal Sunday. Today this is sponsored by Common Grace, a Christian advocacy group, whose focus is that a “life of faith should be centred on Jesus and the justice, beauty and generosity we see lived out abundantly by him. We believe both personal spirituality and social engagement are integral parts of following him. Aboriginal Sunday is a day for Christians to act in solidarity with Aboriginal peoples and the injustices being experienced.”
So many aid agencies have been started out of a Christian concern for injustice, illness, or disability. That’s because Christians know that the ultimate release is to be found in the freedom of knowing and living as a disciple of Jesus, and that we are called to do whatever we can to proclaim this spiritual reality, and model it concretely.
This is God’s agenda, and God wants this agenda to shape us as a community of God’s people, and as individual Christians. Our message is that now, today, is “the year of the Lord’s favour.” God loves the world. Jesus is alive and at work today, in his Spirit, through his church, pouring out his gifts and his love for the world, in us and through us. We can be confident. We can be bold. We can be sure that God will bless us as we seek to put his agenda into practice in 2022. Amen.
12 Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to dumb idols. 3 Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit. 4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. 7Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. 1 Cor. 12:1-11
When I was a child, schools used the word ‘gifted’ to refer to students who were exceptionally talented and who had a high IQ. One of my best friends at high school, who went on to top the state in Year 12, would certainly have been included among that number. But calling some students ‘gifted’ was highly problematic. What about the kids that struggled, those who had learning disorders, intellectually disability, or who came from difficult home settings where learning wasn’t supported by their parents? Were they ungifted? We don’t use that language anymore, and schools seek to bring out the best in all their students, just like parents treasure a child, no matter how they might differ from a sibling or a cousin or friend.
What I can say with absolute confidence is that all of you are gifted. In the first place, you, and every other person that has lived, and lives today, has received the gift of life from God, and has been created in God’s image. This is a foundational truth that we must hold on to in a world that appears to be fracturing at the seams, and where people increasingly contest the idea that those with whom they disagree are worthy of their respect and have an essential human dignity.
But we are all gifted in another, equally as profound way; through our baptism into the Triune God, we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. And this is where Paul wants to take the church in Corinth today-to understand what it means to be the community of Christ, created and nurtured by the Holy Spirit to worship and serve God through Jesus Christ.
Paul begins his letter with these words: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours…I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus…Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.”
It is the Holy Spirit that has birthed this church, as he goes on to say in chapter 2: “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.” The existence of the church is gift, and so is their presence in it. And there’s more. The Spirit gives grace-gifts, charismata, as Paul calls them today. He lists them here and in other places in his writings. God has given these to build up the church. And this is where the problem lay for this church.
The church in Corinth wasn’t the best example of what it meant to worship and follow Jesus. There were significant tensions between people. The practice of communion was a free for all. One member was taking another to court. There was a shocking case of sexual immorality. And the grace-gifts of God, a word of wisdom or knowledge, deep faith, healing, speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues, were turned into an exercise in spiritual one-upmanship. It was an unholy mess, but one that God had called Paul to rehabilitate through this letter.
So Paul starts with the foundational truth I mentioned earlier. “I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Later on, when Christians faced active persecution under the emperor Trajan, they could save their skins by bowing down to an idol and pray to it, and then curse Christ. But the emperor observed that “those who are really Christians cannot be made to do so.”
The confession that Jesus is Lord is a supernatural gift of the Spirit that we share. Remember how Luther puts it so eloquently in his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified me and kept me in true faith. In the same way he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
Believing in Jesus is no simple matter. We believe that the baby born in humility in Bethlehem and laid in a manger is God with skin on. We believe that the man who carries his cross and stumbles toward his death is the Saviour of the world. We believe that he accomplished his mission to reconcile the world to God as he spent his last breath. We believe that God raised him from the dead and confirmed his rule over all creation. We believe that this Jesus is alive today, ruling over all creation, and alive in his church through his Holy Spirit in the word, in baptism and holy communion, in the people that he has called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified. All of this, our faith, and community of the faithful, is the gift of God through his Holy Spirit.
God is the source of our lives, physical and spiritual. God is the giver of all good gifts. “There are different kinds of gifts,” Paul goes on to say, “but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.”
We are clearly different people, different ages and backgrounds, different education and experience, but we stand on the common ground of the gift of the Holy Spirit at work in and through us. In this gift, the same gift given to all of us, is our shared identity. Our culture ties our identity to how we differ from other people. We are different, unique. But the Gospel ties our identity to our sameness. We are identical in this; that we all confess that Jesus is Lord. This is the gift that makes us equal. But not identical.
Notice also how Paul connects these grace-gifts with serving. This was not the experience of the Corinthian church, who waved their gifts around as a way of big noting themselves and getting their own way. It was happening in worship, in fellowship time. People compared and ranked gifts, and some people were seen as second-class Christians, when the truth is that we are all Spirit-class, or we are not Christians at all. The working, the power inherent in these gifts comes from God alone and is not a sign of any special self-endowment. God alone is the equipper, and he energises us through his Spirit with the grace-gifts that the church needs to fulfil God’s plan for us to share the good news with the world.
The grace-gifts that Paul mentions in today’s text are like a sampler of a larger list of gifts in the New Testament: • A word of wisdom, a way of giving practical insight into the way God is working in someone’s life. • A word of knowledge, a revelation from God, an opening up of his written word • Faith, that is, a deep faith that encourages others, especially in the face of suffering. • Healing, praying for people to be healed. • The working of miracles, being able to tap into God’s power to change hopeless situations for good. • Prophecy, to be able to articulate God’s will for a person or community. • Discerning of spirits, knowing what is of God and what is not. • Speaking in tongues, an intimate, personal language of prayer with God; • The interpretation, through God, of what is being spoken through the prayer of tongues.
Now many Lutheran Christians, and I include myself in this, necessarily feel comfortable talking about the gifts of the Spirit. We’re not sure what to make of the word’ charismatic.” We may have friends who would describe themselves this way, and perhaps we feel in some way spiritually inferior to them. Paul’s words to the church in Corinth is not to quash the work of the Holy Spirit through his gifts, but to call God’s people to remember that these gifts are from God, and they exist to build up the church, so that God’s people grow in faith and love, and the good news gets legs through the Spirit’s work.
Some of us limped across the line at the end of 2021. The first weeks of 2022 have been extremely anxiety provoking as we live through an uncertain time as the pandemic courses through our community. We appear powerless to stop it beyond taking the precaution of vaccination and wearing masks. We feel helpless in the face of this hidden enemy.
Yet the Holy Spirit is at work, in and through us. The Spirit continues to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify us, by what we are doing here in worship, by our dwelling in the word in our daily lives, by our prayer for one another and the world, and also our prayer for the spiritual gifts that God gives. These gifts are given not for our benefit, but to bring God’s blessing to others. So a word of Scripture given to a friend in need, a prayer for healing, a strong faith under suffering that encourages others, praying in tongues when words run out. These are the gifts that God has given this community through his Spirit. And these are the gifts that will grow us in love for one another and the world. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written: 6 ‘“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”’ 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’ 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. Matthew 2:1-12
The four-year-old twins are playing. Acting out the Christmas story. Dressed up in white sheets, one is waving a broom handle for a shepherd’s staff, the other is wearing a box for a hat. They are pushing a doll’s pram, and in it playing the part of Jesus, is the family cat, all wrapped up in straw and swaddling clothes — it’s really an old towel. But the cat isn’t very happy with the rules of the game, which confines him to the pram. So he wriggles free from the towel and the straw, jumps out of his crib and runs for his favourite place under the bed in the back room. The twins race through the house after the cat, crying out, “Jesus, get back in your manger.”
That first Christmas would perhaps have passed unnoticed if the new-born Jesus had stayed in his manger, almost unnoticed by the folk around him. But shepherds came visiting shouting out that the Saviour had been born. That threatened to catapult Jesus out of his lowly straw box into a role of world-wide significance. And at the say-so of shepherds? — who were way down on the social ladder, as well as the religious ladder. Their shepherding duties didn’t permit them to worship God on the Sabbath or to take part in many other religious observances and practices. The fact that the angels announced the birth of God’s Son to ‘outcasts’ and ’sinners’ — that’s exactly how shepherds were regarded — was enough, for God’s people of that day, to keep this baby in his manger, where he belonged.
But now there are ‘Gentile sinners’ from the East, summoned by God, or so they said, to worship this toddler as the King of the Jews. These people were even worse than shepherds. For a start, they’re astronomers — and the practice of using stars to get messages about the future was forbidden in the Scriptures. And look at the strange animals they rode — camels, you say? — what an unscriptural animal — nothing like donkeys or sheep or oxen. And look at the strange gifts they bring — gold, frankincense, and myrrh — for a toddler! They’re obviously not the sort of folk who attend church very often.
Jesus, stay in your insignificant manger, stick to our script for you. You can’t be our Saviour, you’re not attracting the kind of people we expect the Saviour to attract. We know the OT said these kind of things could happen — but, believe us, this isn’t right.
But it didn’t stop. This Jesus kept on jumping out of the manger in which the people of God of that day wanted to confine him. He kept on revealing more and more about himself. And during this Epiphany season, we’ll hear about epiphany after epiphany, revelation after revelation. The Father giving his testimony that Jesus, this ordinary looking man, is his Son. Jesus choosing disciples and showing himself as a teacher with far more wisdom and authority than all the other teachers who were around. Jesus performing miracles and signs to prove the claims he made about himself. And then the most spectacular revelation of the glory of Jesus in his transfiguration.
But even there the story doesn’t end. Jesus goes on through temptation and suffering, into the very depths of hell and sin and death. And emerges victorious over sin and death in his resurrection.
None of these is the action of someone who stays in a manger, peaceful sleeping, sticking to the script that we human want to impose on him. They’re the actions of the Lord of history, the King of kings, who acts in sovereign freedom and might. And does things beyond our imagining. And just as well he ignores our wishes and discomfort and protesting, and does just as he pleases. Just as well he has beyond-our-imagination plans for the human race.
And yet we constantly find ourselves in situations in our life where we tell Jesus, or at least want to tell him, ‘get back in your manger.’ Stay a helpless baby. Get back where we can cuddle you, sing lullabies to you, and control you. Stay where you pose no real threat to our thoughts or our life. Be with us, Jesus, go with us through life — but be as harmless as a baby in a manger. Don’t we sometimes wish Jesus was like that?
If only he’d only attract followers who didn’t rub us the wrong way, fellow believers who don’t keep on making life difficult for us. Doesn’t he know that we have trouble getting on with people like that? Doesn’t he know that we feel justified in looking down on, and sometimes despising people who treat us badly? Doesn’t he know that some of our fellow believers have such vastly different ideas and opinions about so many topics that it’s difficult even talking to them? Doesn’t he know that some live immoral lives — and even boast about their immorality? They don’t come anywhere near to measuring up to God’s standards — and we have to accept them and show them love?
But we don’t measure up either. In his divine freedom he’ll continue to place us among folk who may upset us, just as we are going to upset them. The ‘sinful’ and ‘godless’ wise men are the forerunners, the pioneers, of all who would come to worship the Saviour sent from God.
The real challenge and joy of the Christian life, and of congregational life, lies in the fact that each and every one of us did not, and does not, deserve love and mercy and forgiveness by God, yet we have it — we have it abundantly. Together, with each other, we rejoice in that gift. We rejoice in it by the way we accept those around us. Despite all the weird ideas they may have about Christian morality, or about some points of Christian belief which we think are so important, or about how the church ought to be run.
God calls us to let Jesus be the Lord, our Lord. To let him get out of his manger. Even to let him roam free in our life, to interfere in our lives, to throw a spanner into our plans, to challenge us, to tread on our toes, to meddle in our Page 3 affairs. That’s the way in which he does the wonders and actions, the deeds of mercy and love, that he’s so good at, in us and around us. And that he delights in doing.
Jesus get back in your manger. No, he refuses to do that. He is our God, he has chosen us, and he wants nothing else to take his place in our lives, and he will disturb us until we acknowledge his Lordship.
Jesus, let us climb into the comfortable mangers we set up in our life, and to which we like to retreat. No, he refuses to let us do that, too. He calls us to let him be our God, and to let him demonstrate in our lives, and through our lives, the acceptance and mercy and love he has for all those among whom we live. He calls us to be an epiphany, a revealer, of the Saviour. And he gives us his power, the Spirit-power, to move us to do that.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us John 1:14 1.
- Immanuel = “GOD WITH US”
“WITH” is an incredibly powerful word.
A tipping point word. When you add the word “with,” it changes things… a bond is created. “She’s with me.” “She’s with child.” “Play with us.” “With” is a preposition, which means it’s a bridging connecting word -a word that connects people together. When you are with someone sometimes it turns to love -you want to be “with” them to hold hands, to talk, to look into each other’s eyes to eat together - you can’t bear to be apart . It’s the deepest longing, what makes us fully human - what holds life together come what may. - to have someone with you - richer poorer, sickness health. Think of the opposite - “without” - without friends, without love, without purpose emptiness, aloneness, separateness, fear The best way to show love is not to say it, but to do it as Eliza told Henry Higgins If you're in love, show me! That’s Christmas, Immanuel God WITH us - Incarnation God is love, infinite love, unconditionally being there for all - the love letter of God
2. “ I have always loved you”
I believe God loves things by being totally 100% with them , by becoming them. God loves things by uniting with them, not by excluding them.
Total involvement, immersion is God’s operating system. The Incarnation pattern was there at the beginning and was expressed in Jesus and continues with us and into the future. God created a universe for something to be connected with something to love. And this became someone to love. The Bible begins with a separate God - above all things - the CEO, the organiser, the designer, the builder separating stuff and then filling the spaces with stars and birds, fish and plants and people. The hidden God behind things, the almighty Creator. And then comes incredible twist in a second account of creation
3. Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
God puddling around in the mud totally involved, totally committed, creating someone to love, someone who would be completed and perfected by being totally loved, transformed by love and by loving in return. An intimate deeply personal relationship. Scripture tells us that the human race has been made in the image of God, who is Love. So the connection was there from the beginning as John says echoing Genesis 1 In the beginning was, the LOGOS - often translated as Word but more than this - the wisdom of the universe, the truth , the connecting of all things, the truth that gave order to the universe. And the logos plan was love. Connecting, being with. So getting involved with creation was there from the beginning . Incarnation was plan A from the beginning because infinite love was the plan from the beginning. Sin didn’t cause the God to think of Jesus - Christ has always been the ultimate expression of God’s love for the creation he brings about
4. God joined our lives in Jesus the Christ because God is Love - Infinite Love;
Christmas is a celebration of God’s love and God’s decision to enter totally into the universe he had created. To meet us on our terms, not ask us to do the impossible and meet him on his. Love totally frail and vulnerable. We know the power of a baby - babies create love. The longing of grandparents to be with a grandchild - to give the love created in them by the baby This is the power of Christmas - of the incarnation - God joins our lives in a baby as an expression of love and the baby speaks to us and creates an answering love. The Christ who came to express in his life, words, actions, relationships and death the unconditional love of God who sacrifices all, who holds nothing back
5. This is the Good news we long for all our lives.
To be loved - hear a loud YES to my life that can set me free of all the fears that I am not enough, self-doubts and fears and shame and guilt, The Incarnation and what comes later, God’s affirmation on the cross is God’s reply God’s YES - “I have always loved you”
God’s involvement began before creation. Creation was the implementation of his plan which led to Christmas and Easter and continues. God is permanently incarnated, committed to human history, in our individual lives. The Incarnation was not simply for a moment in the past, but for now— always and forever.
6. It is in the meal he gives - Christ with us - the meal we share
We talk of the “real presence” - not of two things bread and wine, and two gifts body and blood. That makes no sense. It's a personal thing - My body is my self, me; my blood is my life The real presence is of a person - the risen Jesus the Christ. 3 My body is my self, me, my blood is my life - All that God is — given for you -continuing the love letter of God, Christ continuing to be among us expressing the total loving commitment of God to us Sharing the meal is the continuing Christmas incarnation. Babies are incredibly winsome. Look at young parents and their intense love for their children - their eyes, their smile their scent -“Oh, you’re so beautiful, I could eat you up!” When you are with someone whom you love very much you long for them to live with you - you want to consume them, get them inside you. You want to be one together forever. God has always wanted to live this way with us, to be one with us Dare I say the incarnate Christ offers himself for us to eat up - as a profound expression of his love
7. The incarnation continues in the community - the Body of Christ - whenever two or three gather in his name.
All of us want to be with those who love us and whom we love. We want to spend time together, to get to know one another. Christmas is a message to all living in fear and despair, all who feel they are not enough in some way, all the waifs and strays and smart alecks - all longing for love, for belonging, for community, for acceptance and welcome and affirmation - there are no prior conditions for being loved by God No racial qualifications, educational, gender orientation, good habits, ability to save, nationality, blood group or appearance. And Christmas makes love real - even if you don't know about God the incarnate word is there expressing love - nudging people towards love and connecting - people with longing The incarnation is bigger than church - our challenge is to express this - Paul and early Christians knew this when they exploded the incarnation into the world of women and Samaritans and Ethiopians, middle eastern Semites, Greeks and Romans -
8. Christmas is being overwhelmed by the deep, infinite longing of God, - the message “I have always loved you”
And this opens our spirits to recognising God’s love in other times - the beautiful wonders of his creation in the miracle of a newborn baby, the artistry of musos and the grace of ballet dancers So what am I supposed to do now? Simple answer - As it is always when someone says “I have always loved you” - and all we can do is hold out our hands, humbled by the mystery of love Simply put -just let yourself be loved. And as always once you realise you are loved you’ll know what to do
6 Jesus told this parable: ‘A man had a fig-tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig-tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?” 8 ‘“Sir,” the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”’ Luke 13:6-9
I’ve never lived in a house with a lemon tree. So, when we moved into our current home three year ago, one of the first things we wanted to do was to plant a lemon tree. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough room in the garden for the tree, so the next option was to buy a large pot. Hence this lemon tree. I have enjoyed watching this tree grow. I have watered it fastidiously and fertilized it somewhat less regularly. One of my holiday tasks is to buy some citrus food from Bunnings.
This year the lemon tree budded, and it looks like it will bear some lemons this year. They are small and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to pick them, but for the moment I’m pretty excited to see the tree doing what God designed it for. A fruit tree without fruit is frustrating, to say the least. I think I’ve been lucky with this lemon tree, because this is my first experience of trying to grow citrus.
If I don’t know much about lemons, I know even less about fig trees, and even less about vineyards, but its clear from the Scriptures that God is much more knowledgeable. Figs and vines are companion plantings, but more than that, they are widely used symbols for God’s people, Israel. In Isaiah 5, Isaiah sings a song about God’s vineyard:
“I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: my loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.”
There’s a recurring theme throughout the Old Testament. God has settled his people in a fruitful land, one flowing with milk and honey. He has provided for their physical needs. But he has also created the conditions for them to flourish spiritually. Psalm 1 describes the way that God’s people grow:
“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither –whatever they do prospers.”
Sadly God’s people neglected both his word and his ways, with the outcome being that he allowed his vineyard to become a wasteland. By the time of Jesus’ coming, God’s people had been returned to the land of covenant promise. But not only did they live under Roman occupation; they also struggled to be fruitful, in the same ways as they had failed before.
This is the situation Jesus encounters as he proclaims God’s good news to his people. He faces an audience tired and spiritually disheartened by the heavy weight of God’s law. 10 Commandments were hard enough, hundreds of extra interpretations even more so. The Sadducees had pretty much given up on the Torah and were more interested in politics. The Pharisees kept driving people harder and harder, in the hope that this would provoke heartfelt obedience. But still the fig tree, the vineyard, was not fruitful.
Where to now? In the verses leading up to tonight’s parable, Jesus speaks about repentance. He cites two examples of terrible tragedies: the collapse of a tower, where 18 people had died, and a massacre by Pilate of Galilean worshippers in the temple. Some people were drawing the conclusion that these people died because they were greater sinners than the others. But this is how Jesus interprets what has happened: “No,” Jesus says.” But unless your repent, you too will all perish.”
This is a pretty confronting statement, both then and now. Is Jesus using repentance as a threat, to try and cajole God’s people into trying harder? Certainly this is sometimes how we approach it. We come to God, cap in hand, sorry for what we’ve done, and promising that we will do better, and hoping therefore that this is enough to get God to change his mind about us. But that is taking both our sin, and God’s grace, far too lightly.
Let’s dig deeper into tonight’s parable. “A man had a fig-tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any.” That’s annoying, considering that the job of the tree is to produce fruit. So what’s to be done? So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig-tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?” What do you think of his reaction? What would you do when confronted with the same situation in your garden?
What about in your life and mine? As we look back on 2021, consider how fruitful you and I have been? How’s is the tree of your life bearing the fruits of the Spirit; “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” If we don’t see these fruit, what do you see? Examples of the exact opposite at times, many times.
If this is the verdict, what is the judgement. Are we facing what John the Baptist preached to those who came out into the wilderness: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance…The axe is already laid at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be thrown into the fire.” Is this what we have to look forward to in the new year? It’s certainly what we deserve, but as we hear, in the way that the vinedresser replies to the owner of the fig tree, it’s not what we get.
‘“Sir,” the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”’ Leave it alone. This is the same root word that the Bible uses for forgiveness. Leave it be. Give it another opportunity, a new start. Treat it with grace, not with the judgement of an axe, for one more year. What will the owner of the vineyard do? The answer is seen in the life of the one who speaks these words: Jesus himself.
There is no future for us in the face of God’s judgement against our sin. We all know that there are many times when we have failed to bear good fruit. If we want to take our chances with God on the basis of our performance, in 2021, or 2022, or any year, then we are on a hiding to nothing. But as Jesus explains it today, God’s mercy triumphs over judgement. Through Jesus, the one who intercedes for us, the one who actually becomes sin for us, the one whose life sinks into the soil of the cold earth through his death on the cross. He seeds new life for us through his resurrection. He fertilises us through his life.
This is what the good news looks like. A new start, each day, each time when we worship, where, after a time of repentance, we hear the sweet word of forgiveness through Jesus. This is the beginning, the middle, and the end of our lives. We grow only in and through the grace of God, shared with us through God’s word and his holy meal.
I hope that my lemon tree thrives. Any advice that you keen gardeners have will be gladly received. I feel more confident about the saving work of God in my life, and in the church. To him be the glory because the growth that comes from forgiveness is only from the through him. May this word from Isaiah grow good and gracious fruit in you too. “For as the soil makes the young plant come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign LORD will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.” Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
18 But Samuel was ministering before the Lord – a boy wearing a linen ephod. 19 Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice. 20 Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, saying, ‘May the Lord give you children by this woman to take the place of the one she prayed for and gave to the Lord.’ Then they would go home. 26 And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favour with the Lord and with people. 1 Samuel 2:18-20,26
Children are proof that God hasn’t given up on us yet. These words were written in a card that Jodi and I received when our first child was born, almost 27 years ago. These words are true not just at the point of birth but through the life trajectory of our children, or the children in our lives: nephews and nieces, god-children, neighbours and friends.
When a child is born, none of us can know the course of their life. It is enough at that point to take in the wonder of their birth, the incredible privilege of co-creating a life together with God. More than that would be mind-blowing. But from the point of his birth, a child continues to grow, physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.
Growing up. It’s an incredible journey. Parents, aunties and uncles, friends, all have a front row seat in seeing a life unfold, like a flower bud, tightly held together, and then, through the years, gradually revealing incredible beauty and complexity, until the full bloom of adulthood.
Today’s readings present us with two stories of childhood. One we know exceedingly well: the story of Jesus’ trip to the temple in Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover when he was 12 years old. This is the only glimpse we get into Jesus’ childhood, after his parent’s flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre of all the infants in Bethlehem.
Jesus stays behind in the temple after his parents have begun the journey home from Jerusalem. They think that he’s with the extended family, the village that raises the child, but he’s nowhere to be found in the travelling party. Instead, he has stayed behind in his Father’s house.
Didn’t his mother and father know this? Mum and Dad know this? No, they didn’t, and nor did they understand why. Yet, once they had returned home, Jesus “was obedient to them.” Mary “treasured all these things in her heart,” as does every parent, friend and relative as they observe the journey from infancy to adulthood.
This incident concludes with these profound words: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and people.” These words provide us with a link back to a much less wellknown story of childhood, the tender relationship between a mother and her longed-for son, and his growing up in “stature and in favour with the Lord and with people.” The same hopes and dreams we have for our children too.
This child’s name was Samuel, and his mother Hannah. Hannah was the second wife of Elkanah. His first wife Peninnah had children, but Hannah did not, and Peninnah rubbed it in at every opportunity. “This went on year after year…her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.” Finally, Hannah had had enough, and went into the temple, then in Shiloh, to pray. We read that “Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard.” Coupled with her tears, the priest Eli thought that she was drunk. Hannah soon put him straight, and Eli gives her a blessing, perhaps out of embarrassment as much as anything. But God is listening, and not long after that she falls pregnant and gave birth to a son. “She named him Samuel, saying, ‘Because I asked the Lord for him.’”
But she does more than name Samuel in honour of the God who hears her prayers. She says to her husband, “After the boy is weaned, I will take him and present him before the Lord, and he will live there always.” This is a decision I would have found impossible to make. How could we send away one of our children, at 3 years of age, into the care of another, even the church? Hannah explains her thinking to Eli the priest: “I stood here beside you praying to the Lord. I prayed for this child, and Lord granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life, he will be given over to the Lord.” And so Samuel went to live with Eli. “He was ministering before the Lord- a boy wearing a linen ephod [the priestly garment].” Eli would have welcomed this; his own sons were wayward and treated the things of God with disdain.
There’s a touching scene in our reading: “Every year his mother made Samuel a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice.” He was fitted for the task of serving God, each and every year, as he grew.
But back to the decision Hannah made to dedicate Samuel’s life to God, in a way that I don’t think any of us could conceive. Let’s think about what we, if we are parents, or as a congregation, brothers and sisters together in Christ do when we welcome a child when they are baptised. Are we not offering up the life of this child to God, asking God through his Holy Spirit to enter into the life of this child and bring the new birth of faith and a new identity as a son or daughter of God? And forget about the age. Isn’t the same thing true of teenagers and adults who are baptised at this font? We give these people God. We make promises before God that as a congregation, we will:
We will support this child to grow in their faith by living out our own baptism as a loving community of Jesus’ followers. We will share Jesus’ love with them as we celebrate in worship, grow in faith, care for people and tell others about Jesus.
We are making promises that show we want this child, this adult, to “grow in stature and in favour with the Lord and with people.” Just as Hannah prayed for Samuel, and Mary for her son Jesus. And more specifically, we are praying that all those who are baptised in God’s holy name will grow fully into their new identity as children of God, no matter what age they are when they’re baptised, or what stage they are along their life’s journey.
Samuel lived in the temple, in the place where people prayed to God, just like his mother Hannah had, where sacrifices for sin were offered to bring the healing forgiveness of God. Jesus visited the temple and didn’t want to leave. It was his Father’s house, the place God promised that his presence would dwell, and where his law would be read, learnt and proclaimed. But this temple would only stand for another 40 or so years, torn down by the Romans in 70AD. But there was a new temple, standing right there. Jesus, the fullness of God in human form.
In Jesus, the temple of God has come to us. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Not only have we seen this glory, but Jesus, the holy one of God, has moved into our neighbourhood, into our hearts, into our lives. The temple has come to us. We’ve been dressed, not in a linen ephod like the one Hannah made for Samuel, but in the robe of righteousness, clothed in “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” These are the habits of Christian community.
In words that address our congregation right now, Paul also urges us to “bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” I’d encourage all of us to reflect on these words over the Christmas/New year break.
To live this way is what it looks like to “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
This is what our heavenly Father wants for us, and this is what he resources through the wonderful gifts of his presence with us: his Holy Spirit, his word, the body and blood of Jesus in Holy Communion, the growing, maturing community of other brothers and sisters in Jesus, growing in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and with people. Note how this is how the early church was described in Acts: “praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily all those who were being saved.”
As I look back on this year, I can thank God for this kind of growth: the people that God literally brought the door, most often on a Sunday morning, and who have grown in stature and in favour with the Lord, through baptism, others who have experienced times of either great blessing or great hardship and who have been drawn deeper into the life and love of God. And I trust God that he to keep fulfilling his promise for each one of us as we are “being transformed into Jesus’ image with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Go and grow in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and people. Amen.
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!’ 46 And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me –holy is his name. 50His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants for ever, just as he promised our ancestors.’ Luke 1:39-55
On Monday this week Queensland opened it borders for the first time in many months. People flooded across the state line, just like they did a few weeks ago when South Australia opened up to a number of states. Families that had been separated for months, some for over a year, greeted one another, with smiling faces, and tears. Grandparents, aunties, and uncles were introduced to grandchildren, nephews and nieces they hadn’t met before. Husbands and wives, children and parents were reunited. What beauty, what joy, in the ordinary things of life denied us for such a long time.
At one level, today’s gospel reading is the story of an ordinary family reunion, the catch up of cousins Elizabeth and Mary. Given the difficulty of travelling any distance in the ancient world, we might imagine that they would not have seen each other for quite some time. But at the same time their story is special, not because of the way it tugs at the heartstrings, but because of what God is up to in them, and through them, for all people.
Mary and Elizabeth are closely related, but quite a distance apart in age and life experience. Elizabeth is “well along in years” as her husband Zechariah describes her. Not only that, but she and her husband know the sadness of not being able to have children. But that’s about to change. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah while he is serving as a priest in the temple in Jerusalem. Gabriel announces to him that his prayers for a child have been heard, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.” This news is beyond belief, and Zechariah is struck dumb until the child is born. Elizabeth, discovering that she is pregnant, is simply shocked and remains in seclusion for five months. She says, “The Lord has done this for me…In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
God has shown himself to be the one who listens and the one acts when his people cry out to him. The disgrace to which Elizabeth’s refers is the cruel judgement that others have made that she must be at moral fault because she hasn’t been able to fall pregnant. But now, she quietly celebrates the fact that her life has taken the most unexpected turn, and that God is behind it.
Mary has some news too. She has also become pregnant, and it’s also entirely unexpected. She has also received a visit from Gabriel. God has broken into her utterly ordinary life. “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you,” Gabriel announces. Luke tells us that Mary wondered what this greeting might mean, and with good reason, as the angel continues, “Mary, you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” God has acted in grace and mercy. This is not something that Mary expected, and certainly not something that she felt she deserved in any way. Again, God has acted decisively, for the sake not just of Mary, but for all people. This child “will be great and be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Gabriel also lets Mary in on Elizabeth’s still secret pregnancy. But when this was finally made public there would have boundless joy in the wider community, the story was different for Mary. She was young, and unmarried. The news of her pregnancy would bring Mary only shame in the eyes of her community.
Two ordinary families. Two unexpected pregnancies. One God at work, not just for the sake of these two families, but for all people. Elizabeth and Mary are in the family way, and the children that they will bear will bless all the families of the earth.
It’s a seven-day trip from Nazareth, quite a journey for someone who is pregnant. Mary has so much to share, but it is Elizabeth who does the talking, where her husband can’t. God now speaks a word of encouragement to Mary through Elizabeth.
These are words well known to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, as they form part of the Hail Mary. “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear.”
Blessing is such a central biblical concept. God’s blessing is the promise of his presence in the lives his people. The psalms are full of praise for the God who bless his people through his mercy. • Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance. • Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. • Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts! We are filled with the good things of your house, of your holy temple. • Praise the Lord. Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who find great delight in his commands.
Blessing moves down from God to us. It’s no different in Mary’s case. Blessing is God’s decision to choose her to be “the mother of my Lord” as Elizabeth describes here. Mary receives grace not because she deserves it any more than anyone else, and Elizabeth too for that matter, but simply because God chooses her.
Blessing is also connected with God’s word. A blessing is communicated through words. Again we see how God works in ways that we can comprehend. The angel spoke the good news to Mary. Mary responded to the grace that had been spoken over her, the power of God through his Spirit that enabled her to say yes to God’s audacious promise. “May it be to me as you have said.”
And Elizabeth picks up on Mary’s response, no doubt after Mary shared the incredible news. “Blessed is she who has believed what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.” This is as great a blessing as the first two.
All of the blessings that Elizabeth pronounces over Mary are also given to us. Mary is the very first who will believe in God through the blessing of Jesus’ life. Like Mary, we are engraced by God. We are the unworthy recipients of God’s grace as much as she is. Although none of us have been called to play such a foundational role in the history of salvation as she did, we are just as blessed in the ultimate sense through her Son, Jesus, and what Jesus did. Christianity is the religion of what has done to us, and then through us, as we are transformed by his grace.
We see that so very clearly in the life of the baby that Mary is carrying. Jesus was born in the humblest of circumstances, in a stable, and his first resting place was an animal feed box. He grew up in an utterly ordinary home, he worked with his hands, and then he became an itinerant teacher and healing, speaking and enacting God’s love, mercy, and grace. Above all, he demonstrated his Father’s determination to heal the rift separating him and the human race he made in love. Jesus took his love all the way to the cross. There he embraced the entirety of our 4 human condition, our brokenness, sin, hatred, sickness and pain, dying for us. And God raised him from his last resting place in the cold, dark tomb, and flooded the world with the light of his resurrection love.
We see this grace so clearly in Zara’s baptism this morning. Through ordinary water and blessing of God’s promise, “Let the children come to me and do not stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,” Zara was en-graced, Christened, to use another term for baptism, made a child of God, no qualifications asked for, no standards to be met. Now God’s life flows through her, and her parents have the precious privilege of nurturing this new relationship.
That’s what Mary is singing about in her beautiful song. Grace is God’s operating system. The world is configured a different way: pride and power are the key parameters. Mary praises God for the fact that he uses his power, “his arm” to “scatter those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.” God “brings down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the lowly.” God doesn’t abandon those who are in desperate need. He “fills the hungry with good things” but those who are full of themselves think they have no need of God, and so God gives them what they want. God draws near to those who have run out of options and trusted their need to him. “God is mindful of the humble state of his servant,” Mary sings, about herself, first of all, but also about us, who are also the unworthy recipients of God’s grace, pure and simple.
This is the God we can trust with our lives. There is no one else who acts in pure, blazing love, as God does. Coupled with God’s holiness is his mercy. God doesn't give us what we deserve. He is patient, looking for every opportunity to rehabilitate, forgive and restore us. This is way that God loves us, even when we feel powerless, unable to cope, at the unreliable mercy of others.
From these two women, Elizabeth and Mary, their unexpected pregnancies and their precious children, John the Baptist, and Jesus our Lord, God has revealed his gracious love to all people. Blessed are we who have believed what the Lord has said to us through them today. In this last week before Christmas, may God give you the grace to glorify him, and may your Spirit rejoice in God your Saviour. Amen.