Depart in Peace

Luke 2:22-40

Let’s take a few moments to look at a picture of Simeon taking the baby Jesus into his arms in the temple.

This must have been an amazing event in Simeon’s life, and for Mary and Joseph, who were amazed themselves at what Simeon was saying about their baby.  Such a small child and yet with so much before him.

When we hold a baby in our arms the future is completely unknown, this child could be a future Prime Minister, mother, father, research scientist?  Who would know?  Even when I look at my own children the future is still completely unknown, but Simeon knew the future of the child he held in his arms.

He had seen with his own eyes the salvation that God had sent into the world for all peoples, not just for the children of Israel, but for the Gentiles as well.  He was asking God if it was now time for him to be dismissed, to go, in peace.

Yet there were also words of warning for Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your soul too.”  The life of this baby would not be without its challenges.  Simeon was prophesying a difficult time for both Jesus and Mary, for Jesus it would be his suffering and death at the hands of those people he had been sent to save.  For Mary it would be watching the incredible suffering of her son as he gave his life for you and me.

Perhaps only a parent who has lost a child can even begin to comprehend the feeling that Simeon described, a sword piercing your soul.  No parent ever wants to go through the pain of losing a child; it’s something we all fear I think, from the time of conception.  Not one of us wants to experience that shock, horror, dismay, the sheer emptiness of the death of a loved one, especially one who is our own flesh and blood, given to us by God.

Whether that death is in the first few weeks after conception, at birth, as a child, or in the teenage years or much later, the pain of their loss is earth shattering.  Mary knew that pain, Jesus knows that pain and they share it with you.  They went through it for an important reason that we still find difficult to comprehend.  Because of the suffering and death of Jesus we have hope.

No longer do we need to fear death, because it is in death that we pass to something better.  Simeon was now prepared to depart in peace, according to the Word of God.  He knew that his salvation had come and the salvation of all people with it.  He didn’t fear death, he was now prepared for it.

Early this year I was at the bedside of a dying man, I saw a peace in this man’s eyes that I had never seen before.  As he lay there knowing that his time was very near, he looked me in the eyes and said quite simply and quite calmly, “I’m with Jesus.”  The image I have in my mind is a reversal of the image of Simeon and Jesus, I see that man in Jesus’ arms, being held closely at a difficult time in his life.  That moment for me was peace personified and I think it was for him too. Jesus was there with us, I have no doubt.

Our theme throughout Advent has been “Here with us”.  Christ came to be with us, so that we might be saved.  Today the sub-theme is, “Here with us, to bring us contentment.”  Perhaps it should be “here with us to bring us peace.”  I’m not sure we can ever be content to experience death, we will always mourn, we will always go through the various stages of grief and we will all do it in our own way, but we can experience peace.  Peace in the knowledge and hope of the resurrection.  In knowing that our loved ones are now at peace themselves, in the arms of Jesus, in that place that he went to prepare for them, and knowing that he is still here with us.

He is here with us, present in his sacrament, given to us on the night when he was betrayed, before the sword pierced the soul of his mother, given to us for the forgiveness of sins.  When we come and receive his body and blood in the bread and the wine, we hold him in our hands and in a tangible way receive him bodily for the forgiveness of our sins.

Having done so, we regularly sing the words of Simeon as we are dismissed from the Communion table, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, in the presence of all people, a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.”

He is not just some intangible God off there in Heaven he is here with us, Immanuel.  We hold him bodily just as Simeon did.  He came as a humble child, born in a stable, lived a humble and obedient life before being sacrificed for your sake.

He gave his life so that you could live in the peace and knowledge of your salvation.

As we prepare to begin a New Year, I pray that you too can experience the peace that Simeon so clearly proclaimed as he held the baby Jesus in his arms all those years ago.

As you continue to mourn the death of loved ones, as you care for those who are still alive, as you contemplate your own mortality, do so with rejoicing, because Jesus came to prepare the way for you and provided his sacraments so that he could still be here with us, even after his death and resurrection, so that we might live in peace and hope and love and share his message of salvation with everyone.


Mary did you know?

Text: Luke 1:26-27
God sent the angel Gabriel to a town in Galilee named Nazareth. He had a message for a young woman promised in marriage to a man named Joseph, who was a descendant of King David. Her name was Mary.

It was the end of the day, relaxing, letting my mind wander as I listened to some Christmas music – veg’ing out you might say. Familiar carols were playing in the background but I wasn’t paying all that much attention to them until I heard the words, “Mary did you know?”  I don’t recall ever hearing this Christmas song before and if I had I certainly hadn’t paid any attention to it.  What made it particularly meaningful was that I had been reflecting on the reading from Luke’s Gospel for today and thinking about Mary’s role in the birth of Jesus. As I listened to the song it seemed that the songwriter was talking to Mary and asking her,

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.

Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.

For some reason after listening to this song I wanted to find out more about the writer and the story behind it.  And I found that people talked about this song as “God’s gift to the world” * that came from a most unlikely source.

The writer is Mark Lowry. He is described like this.  “Mark never stops moving. He seems to have the energy of three fifth graders and the curiosity of a dozen four-year-old-children.  Probably because the Lord knows the world couldn’t handle more than one Mark Lowry at a time, there is no one like him. … He was often a problem in the classroom and had absolutely no athletic ability.  To many adults and kids, Mark appeared to be little more than an energetic klutz – an out of control mini-tornado.”*  Lowry talks about his childhood with a good deal of humour and says this about himself, “When I was a kid, my hyperactivity was always getting me into trouble. Most people figured I would grow up to be a criminal.  A little voice inside me convinced me I was a failure, that I would never amount to anything.  I had what’s known today as A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder). Back then, they called it B.R.A.T.  And I wasn’t your normal brat. I was the type of kid that when people met me, they knew why some animals eat their young”.**

Mark’s parents must have despaired at times when their dreams for their little boy weren’t being realised but instead of focussing on the negatives they emphasized the gift that Mark had – he could sing.

In 1984 (when Mark was 26 years old) his pastor asked him to write a Christmas program for his church and so Mark wrote a series of questions that he would ask Jesus’ mother Mary.  This became the poem, Mary did you know? This poem became a song – a song that has been described as one of “God’s gifts to the world” and Mark continues to this day giving testimony to God’s love through his humour and music and has won numerous Gospel music awards.

It’s strange how God can use a young person like Mark Lowry, described by an observer of his hyperactivity as “a racoon in human form” or who others thought would end up as a criminal in jail. Mark even thought of himself as a failure and would never mount to anything and yet look how God chose the least significant and has done mighty things through him.

This reminds me so much of Mary in today’s Gospel reading.  She wasn’t a “raccoon in human form”, hyperactive, an energetic klutz, a poet or songwriter.  No I’m wrong.  In fact, I can’t say she wasn’t any of these because we don’t know very much about her.  Look at the introduction to Mary we get in Luke’s Gospel.  “God sent the angel Gabriel to a town in Galilee named Nazareth. He had a message for a young woman … her name was Mary”. ‘Her name was Mary’ – is that all Luke can tell us about her.  Here is the woman who was about to take centre stage in the Christmas story and all we are told, “Her name is Mary”. 

Matthew introduces her saying, “His (Jesus’) mother Mary was engaged to Joseph”. We could have been given just a bit more information. What was she like?  How old was she?  Did she have brothers and sisters?  Did she have morning sickness and cravings?  And I wouldn’t mind asking questions like Mark Lowry does, “When you kissed your little baby, did you realise you were kissing the face of God”? 
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation? 

Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?

But I guess that’s the point of knowing so little about Mary.  We know so little about her and even less about Joseph and yet they are given the most important job in all of history – to care and protect the Son of God when he is a vulnerable and helpless baby.  This insignificant couple who barely rate a mention outside of the Christmas story are chosen not because of their brilliance or their wealth or their importance but because God had a plan and he could see into the hearts of these two people and knew that they were the perfect people to carry out the human side of his plan – the raising and nurturing of a child from a baby to boyhood to become a man who was honourable, wise and godly.

Mary and Joseph may have been humble folk from the outer edges of Israel but they shared a secret about their son that later the whole world would know.  Mary was told at the time of his conception by the angel Gabriel, “You will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God. The Lord God will make him a king, as his ancestor David was” (Luke 1:31-32). Later in the temple Simeon told her that sorrow like a sharp sword will break her heart when she watches her son die a terrible death.

Joseph is also told that Mary’s child has come from God, conceived by the Holy Spirit.  He is the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophesy about a virgin who will have a child.  His name will be ‘Immanuel’ which means, “God is with us”.  Joseph knew his Scriptures and would have linked the prophecies about the Messiah to what he had been told about the boy who was to be named ‘Jesus’.  Joseph doesn’t rate a mention in the Bible after Jesus visit to the temple when he was 12 and Mary only a few times more but let’s not underestimate the very important role they had in obediently, willingly, and faithfully doing their part to watch over and guide their first born son in those early years.  They might have been nobodies in the eyes of King Herod and his court and even the people of Nazareth but to use Mark Lowry’s words, “This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am” – Yahweh himself.

Why does God choose people like Mary and Joseph and a bloke like Mark Lowry who it seemed was destined to be a failure to do amazing things for him?  In fact, if you think about so many of the Bible characters you see that God does this again and again.  He chooses the most unlikely people to do important things for him.  A shepherd boy saves the army of Israel by slaying a giant and then becomes the most famous king Israel has even seen.

Who were the people Jesus calls to be disciples?  Fishermen, tax collectors, a zealot (today we would call him a terrorist), a thief – no one but the ordinary.

Who were the first people to hear about the good news that will bring joy to everyone – that today in David’s town your Saviour has been born, he is Christ the Lord?  They were the least important people of all – shepherds.  People at the bottom of the social ladder – nobodies – if you like.  God’s angels came to these nobodies and they were the first to kneel before God in the flesh and became the first evangelists and missionaries as they told everyone they met what they had seen and heard.

Is it possible that God would do that sort of thing today – call on an ordinary person like you or me to carry out some kind of extraordinary task or even a task that is not so extraordinary but still requires us to get out of our comfort zone and step out and do something?  The willingness and obedience of Mary and Joseph in what they were asked to do was really remarkable.  Is it possible that God could do that today and challenge us to that same kind of obedience and faithfulness?

Throughout history God hasn’t change his ways of calling people to carry out his will and given them special tasks that bring the light of God’s love into the lives of the people around us.  Be ready to be surprised just as Mary and Joseph were when God called them to step up to an important challenge.  Pray that your response might be like that of Mary’s, “I’m ready to serve God in whatever way he thinks I’m able to”.

When everyone else only saw Mark Lowry as a brat, God saw a boy and then a young man with a beautiful voice, a unique sense of humour and the gift of poetry.  Sure, he was born different but his energy and his curiosity gave him a different perspective on things and out of that God-given uniqueness came a song written about a very special mother and her son.

God has gifted us all differently.  Each person is a unique and special creation of God, loved by him and redeemed by him.  I wonder how God will surprise each of us with the challenges he will place before us.  I wonder how well we will respond to that challenge.  It will be easy to say “Why me?”  God has heard it all before.  Great men like Moses, Jonah, and Jeremiah were reluctant doers of God’s will but when they got passed their hesitancy God did great things through them.  God promised to be with them and they trusted that promise.  That’s all they needed.

We have a Saviour whose name is Immanuel, God with us.  May he be with us, in us, above us, beside us and before as we say with Mary, “Wherever you lead me, Lord, that’s what I want to do and that’s where I want to go”.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

Returning home

Text: Isaiah 61:1a,2,3
The Sovereign Lord has filled me with his Spirit. He has sent me to proclaim
That the time has come when the Lord will save his people and defeat their enemies. He has sent me to comfort all who mourn, to give to those who mourn in Zion joy and gladness instead of grief, a song of praise instead of sorrow.

A newspaper ran an article headed A Mother’s Search for Russell Love.  A mother had not seen her son, Russell Love, for four years and not heard from him in two years.  She knew that he was homeless somewhere and longed to get in touch with him.  She talked to the police but they couldn’t help.  So she decided to run an ad in the paper.  It read, RUSSELL LOVE – Anyone knowing where he lives please call his mother (and she gave the number).  Russell, your mother will never forget you.  She loves you!  Maybe someone who knows her son will see the ad and get in touch with her.  Someone did.

Ralph Campbell who had spent 25 years living on the streets had given some extra sandwiches to a friend.  The friend had turned to another friend and said, “Russ, do you want a sandwich?”  Campbell phoned the newspaper.  He led a reporter to the place where he thought Russell Love might be living.  They came across a young, blond-headed man rolled up in a bright yellow blanket.  He said he was Russell Love.

“Your mother wants you to call her,” the reporter said. He gave Russell the ad.  Russell rolled up his blanket and walked off down the street with the paper tucked under his arm.  Russell called home.  His mother told him how much she had missed him.  They talked on the phone three more times over the next five days.  She sent him a cheque to buy train tickets to get home for Christmas. Russell had to call home for some identification to cash the cheque. His mother said, “I’m going to see that he gets all the ID he needs to get home.  I’m going to try to make it possible for him to rethink his decision and come back into the world he came from and to make a better decision.”

That’s what Advent is all about, isn’t it?  It’s about being contacted from home and given a chance to make some better decisions about our lives.  God has come and reached out to us and said, “I love you, and I’m looking forward to your coming home”.

Russell Love did go home.  A follow-up article showed a picture of him and his mother together.  It told about the way they “grabbed each other and hugged and hugged and hugged” when he showed up.  “It feels great to be home”, the article quoted Russell as saying.  “It’s nice to be a family again after being on the streets.”

In Old Testament times the people of God had turned away from him and in spite of warnings from the prophets, they decided to go their own way.  They decided to leave the loving presence of God and go out in the streets and do their own thing in their own way.  And consequently their city and their temple were destroyed, and the people taken away to a foreign land.  They were really “street kids” now – nowhere to call home, at odds with their heavenly Father, feeling unloved, confused about what will be their future, feeling helpless to do anything about their situation.

Into this forlorn, sorrowful, gloom, the preacher speaks, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. . . Prepare in the wilderness a road for the Lord! Clear the way in the desert for our God!  Fill every valley; level every mountain. The hills will become a plain, and the rough country will be made smooth.” Isaiah 40:1,3-4). 

It’s the announcement of a divine highway construction program through the wilderness, the desert, from the Babylonian exile back home. Note that it’s a straight road. Ordinarily, the way back from Babylon to Israel followed the rivers and the fertile land around the river system where food was plentiful.  This was the long way to Israel but the safest way.  No-one in their right mind would take the short cut and go through the desert.

But the Lord is making a straight road right through the middle of the wilderness.  There is no skirting around the dangers.  The Lord will be travelling that road, leading Israel homeward through all the dangers and threats that the wilderness represents.

Remember that when the people of Israel heard the word wilderness they thought of an unfriendly place – place of hunger, thirst, wild animals, temptation, sin, being lost like their forefathers on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land.

It was in the wilderness that John the Baptist appeared, quoting Isaiah, Get the road ready for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel!” (Mk 1:1-3). The wilderness is not only a geographical description of very desolate countryside, but it also a description of the desolation, the lostness, the sin in people’s hearts.  John makes full use of the wilderness picture and calls people to turn away from their sin and lostness and come home.

In today’s Gospel reading we hear John telling the confused crowd that he is not the Messiah but that he has been called to give testimony to the light that God had sent into the world.  This light is proof of God’s love for his people.  This light will lead God’s people back home.

The good news that John wants everyone to grasp is that God is bringing his homeless people back home. God has not given up on his people.  His love was still as strong as ever and so John is announcing, as Isaiah did to those in exile in the Old Testament, that their time of deliverance is at hand.  God wants his people to come home.  And nothing will stand in his way.  And so John uses the imagery of earthworks on a gigantic scale that will make sure that his people arrive home safe and sound.  “Every valley must be filled up, every hill and mountain levelled off. The winding roads must be made straight, and the rough paths made smooth. The whole human race will see God’s salvation!” (Luke 3:5,6).

And so we have this message from the prophet today and it these words that Jesus preaches in the synagogue at Nazareth saying that he is the fulfilment of these words.
“The Sovereign Lord has filled me with his Spirit.
He has chosen me and sent me
to bring good news to the poor,
to heal the broken-hearted,
to announce release to captives
and freedom to those in prison.
To give to those who mourn in Zion
joy and gladness instead of grief,
a song of praise instead of sorrow” (Isaiah 60:1-3).

Traditionally this Sunday of Advent has been named ‘Joy’ and our readings today reflect that joy – the joy that comes from knowing that our God doesn’t give up on us even though we get lost in the wilderness of sin, the joy that comes from knowing that we have a God who loves, gives freedom, releases, heals, comforts, and saves to use some of the words from Isaiah 61. The prophet says,“The Sovereign Lord saves his people and all the nations will praise him” (Isaiah 61:11).

With joy John the Baptist announces that God is faithful to his Word and that the one whose sandals he is not worthy to untie will bring God’s love to those lost in the dark streets of sin.

Nothing gave Russell Love’s mother more joy than to hug her runaway son.  Likewise our heavenly Father wants to hug his runaway and sinful people and nothing brings him greater delight than to say, “Welcome home. All is forgiven!”

The love of Russell’s mother would not stop at anything.  She was determined to find and rescue her son, and no matter what condition he was in, she was determined to bring him back home. Because she loved him she was ready to forgive him, comfort him and give him a fresh start, she was bringing him back home.  That’s the kind of love that God has for each of us.

One day a teenage boy walked into a little cafe and sat down.  It was a small place with only a few stools at the counter.  The boy said, “I’m hungry, but I don’t have any money. If you would give me some food, I will be glad to wash dishes”.

While the owner was getting the meal, he asked, “Why don’t you tell me about it son?” and the boy told him that he had argued with his father and left home.

Then the owner said, “You know, your story is similar to my son’s”.  He continued, “We got mad at each other a few months ago, and I said a lot of angry things I would give anything to take back.  He left home and I have no idea where he is.  I own this cafe.  It’s not much of a place, but I would give it up in a second to have my son back home”.

Then he added, “You have a father back home, and I imagine he feels like I do. You are away, he doesn’t know where you are; he doesn’t know whether you are safe.  If he feels like me he would do anything to get a phone call from you asking him to take you back home”.

Doesn’t that sound much like our heavenly Father?  He would give anything to have us back home.  In fact, he gave up more than a cafe; he did give up his own Son to die in our place on the cross.  He sent Jesus to leads us home out of lostness, sin, temptation, and exile from the Father’s presence.  He wants us to be home, to be a close part of his family.
He doesn’t mean some kind of loose connection with home.
He doesn’t mean the kind of drop in-every-now-and-then kind of connection with home.
He doesn’t mean you can drop out any time you have a disagreement or don’t like others living at home.
He doesn’t mean ignoring everyone else in the home.
He means Home, home in the truest and best sense – a close, personal relationship with him and with others in the home.

This text and the story of Russell Love’s mother and that of the run-away remind me of the well-known story of Charlotte Elliott.  She was the grand-daughter of an outstanding preacher but in her early life took religion in a light hearted fashion and not too seriously.  After she had rudely told a visiting pastor to mind his own business, she later apologised, adding, “I should like to be a better person but I don’t know how.”

“Come just as you are”, the pastor gently advised her.  Years later, Charlotte Elliott recalled the experience by writing that “Come as you are” theme into a hymn:

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come!        

That’s right, welcomed, pardoned, cleansed, relieved.  He did all this on the cross so that we can come home and be his chosen people.  We belong to God.

There will always be times during this life when we will find ourselves in exile, run-aways from the Father’s presence.  Like the runaway in the cafe, we forget that our Father does truly love us but the invitation always stands to come home.

Advent is a time to humbly celebrate the extent God has gone to flatten any obstacles to our returning home.  He has flattened sin and death; he has raised his Son from the dead.  He offers us the warm hug of forgiveness. We are his people at home now and we wait for the time when we will arrive at our eternal home.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

When the silence begins

Isaiah 40:1-5

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Isaiah spoke to the Israelites held captive in Babylon.  The Babylonians had taunted the Israelite captives, exiles…  
     “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.  There on the
poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors
demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”  How can we sing
the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”  (Psalm 137)
And so there was silence; seventy years of silence; a whole lifetime of silence.

Until God speaks!  “Comfort, comfort my people!”  Enough is enough!  What they had borne, what they had suffered—because, as a nation, as a people, they had been proud and stupid and hadn’t listened and hadn’t obeyed—‘actions have consequences’ and all that stuff…—enough is enough.  “Comfort, comfort my people!” says God.  And once his “comfort” has been spoken, it must happen—his Word cannot return empty—it achieves what he sends it out to do—in the beginning ‘light’ and there was light—here ‘comfort’—God’s comfort.  The Hebrew sense of the word ‘comfort’ is the ‘turning away of suffering’—it is not a “there, there”…it is an active involvement in, engaging in the process of taking away what brings suffering.  For Israel, on this occasion, it meant God’s act of deliverance; it meant forgiveness; it meant a return home; it meant restoration.
God’s action here begins with a call for preparation.  The Israelites in exile knew well the long, lavish, imposing, purposely laid-out processional highways of the Babylonian city for the ceremonial welcoming of the king or of the gods.  These highways had been symbols in Israel’s history of its defeat and humiliation, of the might and power of those who had conquered them.  But now a new highway was to be prepared—a highway which left the towering temples of Babylon behind—a highway across the emptiness of the wilderness (an emptiness that figured prominently in Israel’s history—a place of learning to wait humbly for God’s provision)—across the wilderness and into God’s promised land—a highway for “the Lord”, for our God, to reveal his glory, to demonstrate his faithfulness to his promises.  “The Sovereign Lord is coming to rule with power,” Isaiah shouts, “bringing with him the people he has rescued.”

When God’s prophet John (the Baptist) arrives centuries later his voice again breaks the silence.  Another long silence.  Israel had again, as so often before, stopped listening to God’s voice and filled their heads with their own babble.  And when their proud plans and proclamations of self-importance were again tramped into the dust by the boots of an invading army (or two, or three…)…God waited…and eventually they heard and knew the silence.

You may have noticed, over the years, how hard we find it, generally, to sit and wait…and listen in silence.  Many self-nominated “good listeners” are actually people who simply have an awful lot of good advice to dispense!

A couple of weeks ago a person talked to me about a particular situation; started crying and cried the whole way through; told me of the things that were hurting; told me of a sense of loss—didn’t ask me what to do!—just told me of a deep sadness…and cried some more.  “You feel really sad,” I said eventually.  “Yes,” was the reply.  And silence.  And more crying.  And “thank you”.  [I must say, I was very impressed by the person’s own handling of the actual situation—a deep love and loyalty and commitment, an amazing spirit of sensitivity and great courage; had managed the situation beautifully!; but it was one of those situations that we all know about in this world, where hurt and pain and sadness are profoundly real.]

There were no appropriate platitudes.  No little “gems”, “pearls of wisdom”, cute clichés that would fill the silence.  Better to be silent.  And listen.  Wait…be ready to listen….

Quite a few years ago, deep in the season of Advent, I lost my voice.  It was no cough or cold, but a tumour on my thyroid gland.  I didn’t know it was there until it started bleeding internally and swelled up alarmingly.  Ten doctors in the emergency ward that night each said they wanted to check with another until finally a specialist figured out what was going on.  I lay a couple of days in hospital under observation, until they were convinced the tumour would not obstruct my breathing, and then was sent home a day or two before Christmas.  I still had to wait a couple of weeks for surgery, and the final verdict.  The tumour prevented me from speaking normally.  The surgery might possibly cause permanent damage to my vocal chords.  And the question about the—you know—‘nature’ of the tumour had to be finalized.

So I was a Christian, a pastor(!), at Christmas, with no voice.  Silent.  Couldn’t speak.  Couldn’t sing.  I spent a whole Christmas…just…listening.

Advent begins, in a sense, when the silence begins.  When you and I have nothing more to say, and so we are ready to listen.  Then, into our silence, God speaks, “Comfort, comfort! I am coming!”  Then we are able to hear one proclaiming repentance for the forgiveness of sins—clearing out the cause of our troubles and worries and making a highway for our God alone—allowing God to speak, and God to act, according to God’s plan—allowing God to be God!—“God with us”.

In a bush, in the emptiness of the wilderness, burning but somehow not destroyed, God said to Moses, “I am.”  To the prophet Elijah, wishing to die because no one would listen to him, God speaks his presence and promise not in a storm but in a whisper.  And when the “mountains fall into the heart of the sea”, the “waters roar and foam”, “the nations rage, the kingdoms totter”, God says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Like Lent, Advent is a season of repentance.  The purple reminds us of that.  Sometimes we think that repentance is about telling God all about our sins!  (As if he doesn’t already know!)  Maybe true repentance is best considered as a time of silence—“Enough talking about me…what do you have to say, God?”

Mark begins his Gospel rather powerfully:  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  It’s not really about me—it’s for me!—but it’s about Jesus.  Jesus is the good news!  Be still…and know Jesus.

The evangelist John announces God’s coming into the world, the Christmas event, in this way:  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  God speaks.  God’s Word enters our humanity, our lives, our world.  How do we prepare for the “Word”?

In silence.  Ready to listen.  A highway into our hearts and minds by silence…for listening.

Here!  Listen to this!  Don’t sing; don’t hum along; just listen:

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

Amen.  Come Lord Jesus.

Left in charge

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Text: Mark 13:33-36
Be on watch, be alert, for you do not know when the time will come.  It will be like a man who goes away from home on a trip and leaves his servants in charge, after giving to each one his own work to do and after telling the doorkeeper to keep watch.  Watch, then, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming—it might be in the evening or at midnight or before dawn or at sunrise.  If he comes suddenly, he must not find you asleep.

It is some time in the future.  World War 3 had begun with a nuclear attack by Albania on Italy, and then escalated with Egypt bombing the United States and the United Kingdom.  Russia and China become involved.  The war ended with both sides being wiped out but now there was a huge nuclear cloud that was slowly moving southwards and would eventually engulf the whole world.

Nevil Shute wrote a novel called On the beach* where he describes what happened in Melbourne as people waited for the end.  They knew that everyone in the north had been wiped out by the nuclear cloud.  They knew that this radioactive cloud was slowly travelling toward them.  The end wasn’t far away and they would all perish.  There wasn’t anything they could do to stop it.  It was just a matter of time.

What would they do as the end approached?  Would they panic?  Would they greet the end with a big party?
Would they simply give up, take their own lives, because there was no future?  What is more, death by radioactive poisoning was horrible and tortuous.
What would you do in such a circumstance?

In the story, some denied there was anything wrong.
Most people carried on as if everything was normal.
Babies were conceived – some never to be born and others would not see their first birthday;
vegetable gardens were planted though they would never be harvested;
children went to school even though they would never graduate;
and a grand prix race was held even though fuel supplies were low.
But in the end there was no escaping the cloud of death.
And that’s how Nevil Shute’s novel finishes.

How shall we wait for the time when “the sun will grow dark, the moon will no longer shine, the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in space will be driven from their courses” (Mark 13:24,25)? These words describe some kind of terrible things that will happen when the world will end – but we need to read on.  These catastrophes are the beginning of something truly wonderful – Jesus will return.  We read, “Then the Son of Man will appear, coming in the clouds with great power and glory.  He will send the angels out to the four corners of the earth to gather God’s chosen people from one end of the world to the other” (Mark 13:26-27).

But until that happens and we don’t know when that will happen, we need to wait.  Like the people in Shute’s novel we are faced with the question,
‘How shall we wait?
What are we to do while we are waiting?
Do we act as if nothing is going to happen and that Jesus’ return isn’t real?
Do we ignore the idea of the end of world even though we know that everything in this world does have an end eventually and so we continue to ‘eat, drink and be merry’?
Do we give up?
Do we see any purpose in our lives?’

In today’s gospel reading Jesus tells a parable about a man who leaves his property in charge of his servants.  He gives them specific responsibilities and orders them not to go to sleep on the job because he will return and when he does, he expects them to have been faithful in their duties and everything ship shape.

What should the servants do?
Should they carry out their duties diligently as the boss had requested?
Do they believe that he will ever really check up on them?
Should they wait until the boss was about to return, slackening off while he is away and then quickly get things in order before he arrives?  Of course, there is a bit of a risk with this last idea because they could get caught out unprepared.

This parable has something to say about faithfulness and commitment to the tasks Jesus has given each of us.  This parable invites us to examine how we are using what God has given us in the time between the two Advents. Let’s look at it this way.

Can you recall one of your teachers at school ever saying something like this?  “Class, I’m going to step out of the room for a few minutes.  Now I hope that I can trust each of you to continue doing your work while I’m away.” (This scenario may not happen today but I can certainly recall it in my school days when teacher aides were unknown).

What happened on those occasions?  One or two kids would stand on watch near the door, listening for the teacher’s return.  Some kids worked diligently – or tried to – while other kids made spit-balls, paper air-planes, and other missiles; others wandered around between the desks – talking to one, poking another, having a good time.

Right now, the teacher is away – we are living between times, in the times between Christ’s first coming – as a babe in the manger and his second coming – as Lord and Judge.
Right now, our master is away but he has given us a job and he will come back.
Right now, like the people in the novel, we are waiting for the end.

When the classroom teacher returns she will be either disappointed or pleased with what the class did while she was away.
When Jesus returns he will reward those who have been faithful while he has been away and condemn those who have ignored his instructions and been unfaithful in carrying out their duties.

Will we faithfully do the work we have been left to do or will we play up hoping that we won’t get caught out if he comes back unexpectedly.

A large portion of the New Testament is concerned about what we ought to do while Christ is absent (in a physical sense) from this world.  We heard last Sunday that in this time before Jesus comes again we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison (Matt 25:31-46).  We are challenged to continue the ministry of Jesus among those who need help.
Jesus tells a story about bridesmaids who were ready and those who were not ready for the groom’s arrival.  He talks about signs to watch out for that will indicate that the time is near for his return.

The New Testament also tells us what kind of lives we are to live as we wait.  Peter’s second letter says, “What kind of people should you be?  Your lives should be holy and dedicated to God.  … As you wait for that Day do your best to be pure and faultless in God’s sight and to be at peace with him” (3:11,12). 

Paul goes to great lengths to remind his readers that Christ is coming soon and they are to walk as children of the light, alert, self-controlled, “wearing faith and love as a breastplate, and our hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Thess 5:8).

You and I are living between the two advents of Jesus.  We have been put in charge “each one with his/her own work to do” to use the words of Jesus in the parable.  The work of the kingdom of God, the work of the master has been entrusted to you and me, his servants.  And he expects us to be faithful servants.

There is little point in worrying and fretting over when the master will return.  Like parents who trust their teenagers to look after the house while they are away, like the teacher who leaves the classroom giving the students plenty of work to do, Jesus trusts us to carry out his work until he returns.

There is the work of fulfilling our vocation and position in life as parent, grandparent, teacher, engineer, student, tradesmen or in whatever way God has given you abilities.
There is the work of witnessing to God in our daily lives where we work, in the neighbourhood we live.
There is work of caring, nurturing, encouraging and building up to be done in our families, or at school, in the church or in the community we live.
There is work to do supporting those who are hurting and have needs as well as those who are the helpers and carers.
There is work to do guiding and leading others, pointing people to the comforting message of the Gospel in the various circumstances of people’s lives.
There is the work of living “lives holy and dedicated to God, doing our best to be pure and faultless in God’s sight and to be at peace with him”.

Having said all this I am beginning to feel like those kids in school who have been caught out by the teacher.  I know what I should be doing but during the teacher’s absence I decided to join the rest of the class and forget about the work assigned to me, have a bludge and join the riot.  I know what Jesus has told me to do and I know all about discipleship, but I know how hard it is to stick to the job the master has given.  It’s easy to slacken off and present some very convincing reasons why it’s better to take the easier road.

This is the struggle of every Christian.  In Jesus’ absence we have been easily side-tracked, put aside the important work that the master wants us to do.
We admit this as the church and as individual members of God’s family.
We have been given the responsibility of seeing to it that the gospel reaches the ears of people everywhere, but we have to admit this has not been one of our most cherished tasks.
The master has charged us with caring for the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the poor, and yet we have seen so many other things as more important.  This is also our personal confession.  We have let the master down again and again.

Advent is a season of repentance.  It’s a time of turning away from the cosy discipleship we have created and turn to Jesus for forgiveness and re-creation and renewal as his disciples.
Jesus came at his first advent for sinners like us.  He was born, died and rose for us.  He has pardoned our unfaithfulness in this time between his two advents.  He now challenges us again to be his faithful servants.

In my opening story, I told you about people who had no hope and were waiting to be destroyed by a nuclear cloud.  Whatever happens at the end of time, we know that when the end does come it will bring with it Jesus.  Jesus is an old friend.  We became best friends at our baptism and he has rescued us from our sin and its consequences.  He has claimed us as his own and promised us his eternal love.  When Jesus comes in glory, many will shake with fear, but we will clap our hands and cheer our victorious King.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy