Archive for December, 2017

When the silence begins

Saturday, December 9th, 2017

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

Saturday, December 2nd, 2017

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