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.
14 Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. 16On that day they will say to Jerusalem, ‘Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. 17 The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.’ 18 ‘I will remove from you all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals, which is a burden and reproach for you. 19 At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honour in every land where they have suffered shame. 20 At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honour and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,’ says the LORD. Zephaniah 3:14-20
I love to sing. It’s something that gives me great joy. I sing at home or when I’m in the car, especially to seventies and eighties music when it comes up on Spotify. My children think, “There he goes again.” I still remember most of the words from the great songs of that era. They span the years when I was a teenager and enabled me to express emotions that otherwise I might have been able to release, both good and bad.
I love to sing in a choir. That hasn’t happened a whole lot in the last two years, sadly. And we won’t have a choir to help us celebrate Christmas this year either. I love to sing in worship too. As annoying as it is to sing with a mask on, it was worse for the two Sundays last year when we weren’t allowed to have any congregational singing at all. So much was missing. How could we express what we feel about God if we couldn’t sing his praises? I read Psalm 89 the other day in my morning devotion: “I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.” That’s what I love to sing about.
Now you mightn’t like singing or feel that you can’t sing all that well. Or perhaps you may feel, even today, that there’s not much to sing about. There are times and seasons where our song is stilled, where it’s a struggle to find breath to praise God. If Christians are people with so much to sing about, why is it sometimes hard to sing?
I think it’s hard to sing right now. COVID-19 continues its long march across and around the world. A new variant has seeped into Australia, looking to supplant Delta. The jury is still out as to whether this will be better or worse. Climate and weather, politics, international relations, personal stresses and tensions, health issues. “What is there to sing about.” As I used to often sing in my teenage years the words of the Midnight Oil song Only the Strong: “When I'm locked in my room. I just want to scream. And I know what they mean (One more day of eating and sleeping).” What’s there to sing about?
Advent is a season of contrasts, much like the weather of the last weeks. Excitement is building for the arrival of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, and all the faith and family celebrations that accompany it. We know that we are expected to be happy, full of good cheer and overflowing with joy. We’re addicted to the dopamine hit: gourmet food, adventure holidays, hits on our Facebook page, pleasure wherever we can find it. If we’re not feeling it, there’s something wrong with us. We carry the double burden of disappointing ourselves and others. We live in a world that makes us think that we should feel good all the time.
One of my Facebook friends posted these words this week: “If Christmas is about being happy, jolly, and untroubled and therefore able to celebrate, few can participate. But Advent is about broken people in a broken world, yearning for a longpromised redemption.” –Another wrote, “The relentless pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain leads to pain.”
Advent calls us to look both inside ourselves but also into God’s promised future. We look inside and we see the fragility of our existence, and the reality of human brokenness, which we name as sin. We know how the good God intended for us has been ruined by our rebellion against God. Instead of singing, we find ourselves sighing. We appear to be mute, impotent in the face of “sin, death and Satan,” the arch enemies of God. What is there to sing about?
But that’s only half the story. Advent also looks much further forward, to the second coming of Jesus, to the weighty matters of the Last Judgement and the hope that comes from God’s promise to make all things new. But in the middle of what can seem to us like the long, dark night of the present, the dawn still seems such a long way away. What is there to sing about?
We could ask the same question of the people to whom Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. The country was under attack from raiders who swept down from the Black Sea and caused indiscriminate violence, and also from within, because of religion gone wrong, the worship of God that was mixed up with worship of the sun, moon and the stars. What resulted is what always happens when faith is fractured- life becomes a value free zone, with the poor and destitute suffering, and the rich creaming off the super profits of greed.
The first word we hear from Zephaniah, whose name ominously means “God is hiding,” is one of judgment: “The great day of the Lord is near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there.” Things have been totally messed up by human greed and stupidity, and God won’t stand for this. It damages his purpose for creation, and for his chosen people. So what kind of bleak future lies ahead? Is there anything to sing about?
This word of judgement is not here, and never is, God’s last word. After judgement comes renewal, just as after repentance comes forgiveness. This is always the way with God, who wants to create a future for those who trust in him.
“On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me…The Lord has taken away the judgements against you, he has turned away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.”
We feels shamed by a world that places unrealistic burdens on us to be happy, to be in charge of our lives, to always adopt a positive attitude all the time. But we feel overwhelmed by the constant bad news about our common future, that we’ve peaked as a human race, and that the next decades will revert to the usual conflictual norm. And then, when we have a quiet moment, we acknowledge our guilt before God, for the way we have let him down, again and again.
But hear God’s hope-filled promise: “The Lord has taken away the judgements against you, he has turned away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” Now this is something to sing about. Fear of the future of our lives, our planet, fear of God and his justice, reduces us to silence. But the God who is in our midst takes our fear away. The God who is Jesus, Immanuel, whose birth we celebrate this and every Christmas, and whose coming we long for, has brought an end to the suffering and injustice of this world. In his own flesh and blood, God has indeed taken away the judgements against us, for all that we have done and continue to do that offends God’s justice. It is God himself who allows his Son, Jesus, to bear the burden of our sin, and his wrath. He is the mighty warrior who wars against his Son, that we might know his forgiveness.
Is there something to sing about? Absolutely. And there’s more. “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love, he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” What an amazing picture of the richness of divine love. The one who has fought for us, even at the cost of his Son, is the one who serenades us. He sings a song of joyful over us, the joy that is found in heaven over one sinner who repents, a theme we will hear repeated in Luke’s gospel this year. God delights in us, he rejoices with gladness, he exults. The words of joy tumble over one another in an attempt to portray the depth of God’s feeling for us.
This fills us with something way beyond happiness, joy, one of God’s most beautiful gifts. Happiness is dependent on circumstances in our lives and world, the way we feel about what we are experiencing. Joy comes from outside, from God. Joy is otherworldly, recalibrating our world with the full measure of God’s grace. Joy comes from knowing the truth of God’s love through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus.
This gives us so much to sing about, whether we feel happy or not. And there will be times when we are singing in a minor key, as we struggle with life. But even then, our lament is still a song of praise to God, and confidence that his love has conquered all evil, in the detail of our lives, and in the big picture.
Zephaniah encourages us today: “Sing, O Daughter of Zion.” To which we can add: “Sing, sons and daughters of God through Jesus. “Shout aloud...be glad and rejoice with all your heart.” There is so much to sing about in the promises of God, fulfilled in Christ. So much to sing about not just here in worship, but a tune we can take with us into this next week, into the lead up to Christmas, a song that we can sing to those we meet, a song of joy through Christ that we can share, and that others, we pray, can’t get out of their heads. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” Amen.
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all people will see God’s salvation.”’ Luke 3:1-6
It was Sunday 20th March, but not a normal Sunday in Lent. For one, St Paul’s Glenelg had changed its service time just for that Sunday, and for good reason. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were visiting Adelaide that day, as part of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee tour of Australia. The route they were taking from the royal yacht Britannia into the city of Adelaide the passed within 500 metres of our church. And so, with an earlier finish to church, we would have the opportunity of greeting the royal procession.
After church we found a suitable spot along Anzac Highway, together with many other onlookers. Over the previous months, the road had received some much-needed maintenance. Bumpy sections about which motorists had long complained were resurfaced. The grass on the median strip was watered regularly, so that her majesty wouldn’t see the typical parched vista of an early Adelaide autumn. Shrubs were planted and young trees were staked. Local residents were asked to get their gardens into tip-top shape, and more than a few union Jacks were flying to indicate support for our Queen.
After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, the police motorcycle escort came into view, and then the regal, jet-black Bentley Cabriolet, travelling at the stately pace of perhaps 40km/h. The Queen and Prince Philip were sitting in the back, with the royal wave much in evidence. I was excited. One of the most famous people in the world was passing by, only metres away. And then she was gone, and we went home.
After the visit, life along Anzac Highway returned to normal. The grass on the median strip soon died. The bitumen cracked again. Potholes were just left to grow bigger. Gardens became overgrown. Why was it that we were preparing for?
We may want to ask ourselves the very same question as another Advent comes around. What is it that we are preparing for? How does the arrival of Jesus on the scene, in the form of our Christmas preparations and celebrations, speak into our everyday lives? Are our lives any different because of this reality, not to mention Jesus’ many promises to return in glory? What does it look like to welcome Jesus wholeheartedly this Advent?
Today we meet John the Baptist. God gave him the commission to prepare people for welcoming Jesus’ ministry. At his birth, John’s father Zechariah sang of his son’s life mission: “You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way 2 for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins…” That’s a summary of both John’s work and Jesus’ mission rolled up into one.
John’s mission is set against the backdrop of a world not expecting too much action from God. Roman rule was the political reality. Luke names the key figures: Tiberius the Emperor, Pontius Pilate, from whom we will hear later, Herod, who will abuse his power by executing John, and a few others. And then there were two High Priests, who we witness throwing their weight around after Jesus was arrested. But there appeared to be precious little attention paid to listening to God, only playing power games.
However, this is the time that God chooses to speak, through a man who lives on the fringes of society, far from the movers and shakers he is called to preach to. Mark tells us that John was a wild man, living in the wilderness. This is a place of listening to God, a place where God tests the obedience of his people. Just like the Exodus of God’s people toward the promised land. John is listening to God. What does God say through him?
“John went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” God is doing something amazingly, astoundingly new. He’s getting ready to unleash his righteousness on an unsuspecting world. Get yourselves ready to hear. Get rid of everything in your lives that closes your mind of God. Be baptised as a sign of this change, of the washing away of all the things that have claim on your lives and wait for God to act. In previous times, only converts to Judaism were required to be baptised. But now God called all his people to get ready for the promised Messiah by being baptised.
Repentance is the heart of John’s message. Repentance can be literally translated as “to turn one’s mind around.” It means thinking through the way we put our lives together, the things that we consider foundational, the motivations which cause us to act in a certain way. Religious people in John’s day were caught up in the performance trap. God’s law was broken down into 613 separate commandments. You needed an incredible focus on the self to ensure that you kept each and every one of them. Sadly, this blinded people to the needs and concerns of others. The life of faith was overly complex and terribly draining. It didn’t give life and hope, only despair or smugness, depending on your level of obedience or self-awareness.
The point of repentance is not self-analysis, or indeed self-criticism, but the forgiveness of sins. Repentance is connected to God’s freeing gift. This is the gift that Jesus came to give, the proclamation of freedom for the prisoners of sin. Perhaps the best way to think of this is to imagine that the Queen herself would have cleaned up Anzac Highway in preparation for her grand arrival. Repentance is taking the opportunity to place our sin, paradoxically, on the shoulders of Jesus. It sounds counter-intuitive, but this is the logic of God’s grace. God does what we cannot do, to make us fit for him.
Luke gives a commentary of what repentance means by using Isaiah’s words from chapter 40. “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every ravine shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.”
Think of Jesus who invites you to lay your sins and burdens before him. What do Isaiah words say to you? Are there rough edges in your life? Can you see mountains of pride, which block you from seeing the ways that you have served yourself, and not your neighbour, and certainly not God? Is your view of God and blinded by the sun of your selfishness, which shines off these glass towers you’ve constructed around your achievements or your reputation?
What are the valleys, the ravines in your life right now? The difficult, tense, painful places where despair and regret envelop you as realise how much you have failed other people, and God too; the hurt of relationships you we have played our part in harming, the way you have taken for granted God’s forgiving love, over and over again.
What are the crooked things in your life and mine? A crook is a word we use to describe a person who breaks the law. Going straight means walking away from a life of crime. What is crook, or crooked in you? What doesn’t feel right? What does your conscience convict you of? What are the behaviours that are sharp, jagged, self-destructive? Perhaps they are things known only to you alone. What’s rough, ugly, getting in the way of God working in and through you? What do you need God to smooth out?
We can ask these same questions of our church community right now. We have some tension points. The re-emergence of COVID-19 in South Australis has raised general community anxiety, and when we place other issues on top of this, we don’t always respond graciously, whatever our perspective. What burden do we need to lay down in this space? How can receive the peace that God gives through his Son, Jesus?
Our time of confession earlier in the service was a wilderness time, even for a brief moment. A time to shut out the white noise of a pre-Christmas world, and speak the honest truth to God: “Gracious God, we acknowledge that we are sinners, and we confess our sins--those known to us that burden our hearts, and those unknown to us but seen by you. We know that before you nothing remains hidden, and in you everything is revealed.”
We asked God for help. We can’t fix, nor free ourselves. Only the one John points too, Jesus, born in Bethlehem, ministering in Judea and Galilee, handed over in the Mount of Olives, crucified on Calvary Hill, raised from the dead in the silence of that first day of the week, he is the one who makes us fit to be in God’s presence by taking our sin on himself. That’s why I said to you this morning: “Christ, the dawn from on high, shines upon us, and by the light of the Holy Spirit guides our feet into the way of peace. So, in Jesus’ authority and in his word, I forgive the sins of all of you who repent and believe, in the name of the Father and of the Son †and of the Holy Spirit.”
Repentance is the road less travelled. We have so little time for spiritual introspection and telling the truth to ourselves in a world of constant rush and hurry. But by confronting our sinfulness, centring ourselves in Christ, and receiving his word of forgiveness, we are set free on a remarkable journey, one in which our individual, single life makes a world of difference in our world, where our repentant, reflective, replenished lives bring life to others. Luke records God’s promise attached to John’s proclamation, “And all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.”
Where can you find this wilderness space this Advent? Where can you hear clearly the call to repentance and renewed living? Right here in worship is a good place to start. What about when you go for walk, in the early morning, or in the evening? Or sitting at a park bench, or in your garden, ruminating on God’s word, listening for the word he has for you. And then think of how you can bring life to those who feel that they live in a spiritual wasteland, because you are full of God’s life. This is the way to go in Advent. Amen.
25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’ 29He told them this parable: ‘Look at the fig-tree and all the trees. 30When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. 34 ‘Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.’ Luke 21:25-36
A good friend of mine, Pastor Reid Matthias is a published author. Last Sunday he launched the third book in his trilogy: the Amicable Circle, Candlemaker. You might be able to guess what the first two books are called. Reid grew up in a small town in rural Iowa, in the Midwest of the United States. He is a keen observer of human nature, and as a pastor, he gets to see it on display in all its wonderful and sometimes challenging variety.
The main character is a man called Butcher, and that’s his occupation. He has a gift for reading people and has remarkable insight into their joys and struggles. The town of Amicable contains people who are trying to get on with each other, bringing up their children, seeking to be good neighbours, faithful spouses, wise parents. But they mess up, cause conflict, and have to live with the consequences.
I’ve just started reading book two, Baker. The town’s grain elevator has exploded, killing a number of townsfolk, and shaking the town to the core, and not just physically. How will the good people of Amicable respond to this disaster. Will it bring the best or the worst out in them? I’m frustrated that I’ve been so busy in the last and that the book has remained unread on my bedside cupboard.
I want to know what’s coming next. And I want to get to the third book, because the author has forewarned me that I might find the plot development personally challenging. I won’t let you in on the secret in case you want to read the trilogy yourself.
No one likes an unfinished story. We’ve invested so much in getting to know the characters, riding the story with them, wanting to know how it will play out. Being stuck in the middle is frustrating. Is that where we find ourselves today, Sunday 28th November? Living in an uncomfortable time, between the first coming of Jesus, which are building toward celebrating again at Christmas, and the promised return of Jesus, where our focus has been over the last weeks of the church year, and into this new church year that we are celebrating today.
Living in the middle, we have a history that we can draw upon, looking back to see how God has been at work in our lives, through good times and bad. We can reflect on the painful times and how we got through them, even the times where it felt that God was absent. Our story up to this point shapes the way that we respond to the next chapter of our lives. But our past doesn’t control the future. And that’s the scary thing.
The same is true of the larger story, of our planet, our nation: our long indigenous history, the disruption and worse but also the development that took place upon British settlement, successive waves of migration, the story of the land itself with droughts and floods, our Christian and democratic foundation, two world wars and other conflicts that shook us. We can trace significant social changes in recent decades, the sexual revolution, the rise of individualism, a multi-faith and increasingly no faith community. And in the last two years, the upheaval caused by COVID-19, the fear and polarisation around vaccines. Who amongst us thought that the story of the future would take this turn?
The immediate future is muddy, and deeply concerning. Since SA opened its borders on Tuesday, there has been an increased sense of tension. What’s around the corner? What will the next page reveal?
Two weeks ago we heard Jesus speak about the more immediate future, and one which appears to be constantly with us: wars and rumours of wars, earthquakes, and famines. Such it was, and such it will always be in a far from perfect world. We’re not surprised to hear this. But even so, these things drain us, and our capacity to face each day with hope slowly diminishes. Not to mention a pandemic thrown in. But what happens further down the track? Will the story have a happy ending, or not?
That’s where Jesus takes us today. At first glance, it doesn’t appear to be comforting in the slightest. “‘There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” This won’t be a local event, but a global phenomenon. Just as Jesus’ birth was preceded by a star shining in the east, and his dying was accompanied by the sun refusing to shine, his longed for coming, his reappearing, will be accompanied by cosmic signs and deep distress. People will have the breath sucked out of them. The whole created order will disintegrate. Frightening? Yes? Hopeful. Well yes, for those who have waiting in expectation for the end of the story, which isn’t endless destruction, but the recreation and renewal of all things, and the rule of Jesus, the Crucified King and Lord of all, at his Father’s right hand.
Was this the ending you were expecting? Is this the ending you want? It depends on where you stand. Jesus’ return is not good news for those for whom this planet, this life, is all there is, and there is no sense of a future beyond death. And while the thought of oblivion might bring a kind of comfort, it also means there is no end to evil, no resolution of conflict, no hope that the future can be any better than the past. Just Groundhog Day, for almost perpetuity.
The promised return of Jesus is good news for everyone who wants to live each day in hope. It’s good news because it brings to conclusion the healing work that Jesus accomplished on the cross. There he put his life on the line so that those who trusted in him would share in the promise of a new order, a recreated universe, a realm where there will no longer be any mourning, crying, tears or pain, or any kind is sinful and destructive interruption to what is right and good.
The story does end well. That’s the hope promised by Jesus’ cross and resurrection, and in his words today. That’s why he urges us: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’ That’s the way Luke begins his good news, with a wonderful promise of the future where God’s mercy extends to those who fear him, where the proud and powerful become victims of their own publicity and are thrown down from their self-appointed thrones. This is bad news for those who are advantaged by the system, the dictators, the power merchants, those who use others, its good news for those who have been hurt and victimised. The future will not be an endless loop of the past.
Jesus equates this to the way we feel about the approaching summer. I believe it is still coming despite weather to the contrary in recent weeks. “Look at the fig-tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Summer means harvest, recreation, rest, the end of one cycle of life and the waiting for another.
We need to hear Jesus’ promise that the kingdom of God is not far away. Sometimes, God knows, it feels such a long way away. Jesus diagnoses the condition with which we often present spiritually. I use the words of the Message translation: “But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.” How apt these words are for the season of pre-Christmas madness that we are just about to enter. We lose focus, our gaze drops, the world shrinks to the chaos enveloping us.
What does Jesus say to Martha, distracted by everything she has going on, “‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one.’’’ That one thing is “the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” as Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount. Seek this and all these other things in our lives are put into the right perspective, as beautiful gifts from God, signs of his grace, but not the ultimate gift, nor things which can protect our future.
Jesus goes on, “So, whatever you do, don’t fall asleep at the wheel. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.” Note that Jesus singles out prayer, maintaining an intimate connection with our Father in heaven, spilling our secrets and our heartache to him, our thanks too, knowing that he listens, he cares, he acts to save, and he will bring us the fullness of life in his kingdom.
I’m looking forward to finishing Baker and then Candlestickmaker. How will it end? But I already know how the cosmic story ends. While I may wonder about the twists and turns in the story of my life, and those I love, I can have confidence that the divine Writer knows what he is doing, and where he is heading with us, until the glorious and expected ending. His words will not pass away. As the Apostle Paul encourages us today, he will make our love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else. He will strengthen our hearts so that we will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. That’s the happy, indeed blessed ending. Amen