‘Layers of Grace’


John 1:6-9, 15-18

In the midst of the opening to John’s gospel, in which he beautifully describes God becoming human flesh and dwelling among us, the language suddenly changes from poetry to prose and the character of John the Baptist is introduced. This might at first seem out of place. Why interrupt such a beautiful and power piece of writing to tell us about a crazy prophet in the desert? Why mention John the Baptist by name before Jesus is mentioned by name? But there is a purpose in what seems an odd interruption. John the Baptist is a key figure in the early chapters of John’s Gospel.

The introduction of John the Baptist so early in the gospel brings the story of God taking on human flesh and dwelling among us into a concrete human place and time. John is a real flesh and blood person, living in a particular place and at a particular time.  The Gospel writer is no longer talking about the eternally existing Word that is somewhere ‘out there’. God in flesh is now in our history.

But such a great event must be witnessed and the witnesses must testify to what they have seen. Over and over in John’s gospel he will talk about all those who witness or testify to the truth of who Jesus is, including the God the Father, Jesus himself, the disciples, and many others. But John the Baptist is the very first witness introduced in John’s gospel. And this is no accident. The Gospel writer has chosen his lead witness carefully, and for a reason.

There had not been a prophet in Israel for 400 years. And then John the Baptist shows up on the scene. He comes preaching repentance, and also proclaiming that the long-awaited Messiah has come. John makes a point of clarifying that he is not that Messiah. Sometimes we can get so excited by the message that we confuse the message and the messenger. But John makes it very clear that he is pointing to someone else. And the gospel writer opens his case for Jesus as the Messiah, as God in human flesh, with the testimony of John the Baptist.

After the first five verses of the prologue to the fourth Gospel the pace suddenly changes, and the tone shifts, and we read this: ‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light’ (v. 6).

If you have ever sat through a court case, or perhaps followed one in the papers, you will know that a lawyer seeks to set the tone of their argument at the very beginning. Their first witness, or lead witness, is part of setting this tone. Everything else builds on that.  Everyone in the courtroom for a big case waits with expectation as the lawyer says, ‘your honour, I call to the stand’ (then a pause for suspense) and the name is given. This is the first key indication of where the argument in the case is going.

Well, imagine that is what the Gospel-writer, who uses the words witness and testify frequently in the early part of the gospel, is doing. He has just made his opening statement. And it is a big one. Now he calls for his first witness …. Wait for it … the crazy prophet living along the banks of Jordan river and eating grasshoppers and wild honey – John the Baptist. The crowd gasps. It is a bold and unexpected move.

It is a bold move because some were saying that John the Baptist was not as crazy as he appeared. They thought he might be a real prophet, like in times past. Not only that, but he might even be the forerunner of the Messiah? The one who was meant to pave the way for the coming king? So the alert reader can see where the Gospel writer might well be going with this choice of lead witness.

So what is the testimony of John the Baptist?

First, John testifies that Jesus is the light.

Five times in the space of three verses some form of light is mentioned. We are told twice that John comes to testify to the light. That he himself is not that light. We are told that this light will enlighten everyone. And we are told that this light is coming into the world.

One of the great themes of John’s gospel, that Jesus is the light of the world, begins here with the testimony of John the Baptist.

After an interlude in which the Evangelist goes back to the theme of the Word being made flesh in verses 10-14, he returns again to the Baptist in verse 15. He tells us that John the Baptist also  testified to the Word made flesh. So the case is building. The light of the world and Word made flesh are seen to be one and the same person.

John the Baptist goes on to testify that that this Jesus was the one of whom he had said ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ Once again John the Baptist is making sure that his testimony points to Jesus and not to himself.

Perhaps you have followed a court case in the news where there is a celebrity witness in a trial. When they get up to speak everyone forgets that it is not about them. The media show images of them coming into and leaving court. It is reported what they are wearing, and everything they say. And sometimes it can be forgotten that they are a witness only. John the Baptist wants to make sure that he does not become a celebrity witness who distracts people from Jesus, the Word made flesh and the light of the world.

It is here that the Gospel writer begins to reveal the meaning and importance of John’s testimony. This is the part that sets the tone for what will follow. This is the part where we find out why this Word made flesh and this light of the world are important for us. This is where the Gospel writer begins to flesh out for his readers just who Jesus is and what he does.

And this is where the Gospel writer explains the significance of John the Baptist’s testimony. This is what the coming of the light, the coming of the Word made flesh, means to us.

‘From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law was given through Moses, but grace came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close the Father heart, who has made him known.’ (vv 16-18).

In Christ we receive grace upon grace. It is simply one layer after another.

Have you ever bought what looked like a great cake at the bakery. You bring it home with great anticipation. They you cut into it and disover that only the top layer had chocolate swirls and strawberries? What was underneath was simply filling.  Imagine the life we have from Jesus, the light of the world, as being like a cake of many layers.  But when we cut into it we are not disappointed. Each layer is as good as the one above it. In Jesus we receive one layer of grace upon another.  There is no hidden law buried underneath. There are no hidden requirements to earn what we have received. The transforming light of the world is one experience of grace after the next. The life of forgiveness in Christ is grace all the way down. That is what is means that from Jesus’ fullness we have all received grace upon grace.’

The Law indeed came through Moses, we are told. And the Law was not a bad thing. In fact, the Law was and still is very useful. But the Law does not reconcile us with the Father. The Law does not bring us forgiveness. The Law is not life-giving. That is why the gift of grace that Jesus brought to us trumps the Law. The grace we have in Jesus transforms us, sets us free, and brings us peace with God.

Not only that, but the grace we have in Jesus brings us to the Father. In the Old Testament no one had seen God face to face. No one could bear to see God in his glory. Not even Moses. But in Jesus we are brought into the very heart of the Father.

That is why we celebrate Jesus as the light of the world. That is why in Jesus, we experience nothing but grace upon grace.


Christmas brings God’s New Creation

The Text: John 1:1-14

For many people, Christmas is about Santa Claus, the jolly, red-suited man who travels the world on his sleigh to leave gifts in Christmas stockings hung up in people’s homes.  Behind Santa is St Nicholas, the fourth century bishop of Myra in what’s now southern Turkey.  He was imprisoned during the persecution of Christians by the emperor Diocletian.  During the reign of the emperor Constantine, he attended the Council of Nicaea.

The most popular story about St Nicholas tells how he used his parents’ inheritance to provide dowries for three sisters on their coming of age, so they could marry rather than being sold into prostitution.  As each girl came of age, Nicholas would ride past at night and throw a bag of gold through the window.  On one occasion, according to the story, the gold fell into a stocking that was drying at the fireplace.  It was on the third occasion that the girls’ father discovered Nicholas’ identity.  Nicholas told him to keep things secret and to thank God for providing the gifts in answer to his prayers for deliverance.

It’s a touching story, but like others about St Nicholas, it originates hundreds of years after his death.  In contrast, the accounts of Jesus’ birth and ministry come from those who were alive at the time.  St John says, “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (v 14).

Now St John doesn’t tell us, as Matthew and Luke do, about the events connected with Jesus’ birth.  We’re told nothing about the annunciations to Joseph and Mary of the conception of Jesus.  John doesn’t tell us how an angel of the Lord revealed to startled shepherds in the fields at night, the birth of the Saviour.  Perhaps you missed, in today’s readings, the familiar story of Jesus’ birth.

Though there are no dramatic stories in John’s Gospel about Christ’s birth, the dramatic meaning of His coming into the world is clearly spelled out here.  We’re left in no doubt about the identity of the one who became flesh.  The Nicene Creed borrows from John 1 when it tells us that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made”, the One “through whom all things were made”.  “The Word was turned toward God, and the Word was God,” verse 1 says.  “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made”.  It’s this One who “became flesh,” that is, a real human being, “and dwelt among us”.  Literally, the text says He ‘tented’ or ‘tabernacled’ among us.  Just as the presence and glory of God filled the Tent of Meeting or tabernacle that the Israelites took ahead of them on their wanderings in the days of Moses, so with the coming of Jesus, God was present among His people in His body.  He continues to tabernacle or dwell in His human flesh that has been raised from the dead and gloriously transformed, for all eternity.  The dramatic stories about Jesus’ birth are missing from this Gospel, but the wonderful reality of what Christmas means is fully here.

St John not only emphasises who it is who became flesh, but he also tells us why He did it.  Fathers who are present at the birth of their children, especially the first one, invariably say it’s a tremendous experience.  Over the months of pregnancy they’ve probably closely followed developments, felt foetal movements, perhaps watched an ultrasound of their little one.  At last, at birth, the baby they have been waiting for appears.  Though covered in blood and perhaps a little blue, it has an amazingly small yet perfectly formed body.  Mothers don’t usually say that giving birth is a tremendous experience, for obvious reasons, but they enjoy the most intimate bond with their new-born.  All of creation is amazing, from the tiniest flower to the highest mountain peak.  Yet there’s also something terribly wrong with a creation that is characterised by death and destruction, in which one animal pounces on another for food and in which rational people hate and deceive and kill each other.

Did you notice the references to creation as this text was read?  The opening words are “In the beginning,” the same words that begin the account of creation in the book of Genesis.  Genesis tells us that God created everything by saying “Let there be”.  John tells us that God created everything through the Word who was with Him as God in the beginning.  The Word Himself was not created.  Rather, through the Word all things were made.  Genesis tells us that “darkness was over the face of the deep” and that the first thing God created was light.  John tells us that the created world is in darkness, but that light shines to all people from the Word.  The first creation has been spoiled by sin, as Genesis tells us.  The worst thing about the world’s darkness, John tells us, is that it doesn’t recognise the Light that is shining on it from the Word.  Even Jesus’ own people, the Jews, didn’t receive Him.  Yet miraculously, God is re-creating a people for Himself.  The first creation, before it was spoiled by the devil and sin, was entirely God’s doing.  Those who are part of God’s new creation have also been made so, solely by God.  Verses 12, 13 say, “But to all who did receive him [i.e. the Word-become-flesh] who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God”.

Birth into God’s new creation has been made possible by the Word become flesh.  This is no legend.  Stories about St Nicholas rescuing young women from a life of misery, rescuing sailors from destruction on the high seas and even raising young men from the dead, might or might not be true.  Who is to say?  Yet there is a kernel of truth behind them, in what the Lord Jesus did.  He did rescue His disciples from storm on the Sea of Galilee and even raised to life some who had died.  All who believe in Him are rescued by Him from an eternity of misery through the riches of His grace.

The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory,” John says.  He’s referring to Jesus’ miracles, ‘signs’ as they are called in John’s Gospel, like the changing of water into wine (2:11) or the healing of an official’s son (4:54).  These things were seen by people like John son of Zebedee.  John wrote about them in his own lifetime, in the first century.  Even Jesus’ opponents had to admit that He had done some wonderful things, though they said He had done them through the devil (Mt 12:24//).

The Word, however, came into the world to destroy the devil’s works.  He came “full of grace and truth”.  He showed it by His willingness to bear the sins of all people and walk the difficult way of suffering and the cross.  His glory has been shown above all by His cross.  “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus said as His arrest and trial drew near (12:23).  After He gave His life in payment for the world’s sins, He was also raised from the dead and taken again into the glory of His Father.  He has received back the glory He had with the Father before the world began (17:5).  By His death He has prepared a place for us, so that we might be with Him in glory.  Then God’s new creation will be fully revealed, and the story of Christmas will be complete.

For now, we continue to live in the glow of the first Christmas.  Sunday after Sunday we confess as John does that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light”, the One “through whom all things were made”.  As well, He who became flesh comes to us to give us His flesh and blood to eat and drink, so that we might receive His eternal, resurrection life (6:57).

When He was born, the Word came into His old creation so that He might make of us a new creation.  The humble way in which He came—not in Jerusalem, but Bethlehem; not in a palace, but in a shelter for animals—all this amazes us.  It is fantastic.  It is not fantasy.  God coming as a little child, the baby Jesus; God making us His children through faith in Jesus: This is the life-giving and life-sustaining message of Christmas.


God’s Christmas Gift

The Text: Luke 2:11 (ESV)

Christmas is a time to give gifts. There’s a story about unexpected gifts at Christmas which were regarded as heaven-sent. The story comes from about 100 years ago in Germany. It was after World War I. In those days in Germany there wasn’t much work or much money to go around.

One Christmas, a factory owner asked a young man to be St Nicholas for his family. He gave him a bag filled with apples, nuts, chocolates and toys, to bring to his house. On Christmas Eve the young man dressed in his costume and set out for the factory owner’s home. There was a thick fog that afternoon. As Santa made his way, people suddenly appeared out of the fog, startled to see him. Soon there was happy laughter, as they realised it was the night for Santa to be doing his rounds.

At last he arrived and came up to the home ringing a bell and stamping his feet.  He knocked at the door and immediately went in, because that’s what he was expected to do. But he was very surprised by what he saw. There was no Christmas tree and decorations.  There was only one light on. A woman was lying on a bed next to a stove and near her was a girl of 5 or 6, sobbing bitterly. 

The young Santa didn’t know what he should do or say. It wasn’t the factory owner’s home after all.  In his confusion he heard the child say, half-crying, half-laughing, “Santa is here, Mummy! And you said he wouldn’t visit us!” “Mummy’s sick, you know,” the little girl said to Santa. “And she said that because she’s sick, you wouldn’t come to us.”  Then, turning to her mother, she said, “But he’s come after all!”

The young man realised he’d become lost in the fog and had come to the wrong house. He couldn’t say, “I’m sorry. I got lost. I have to be going to a different house.” He did the only thing he could do.  He took the bag off his shoulder, reached in and took out the gifts.  Then he patted the girl on the head and shook hands with the amazed mother.  He heard the woman say, “Whoever you are, I don’t know. But you are a gift from Heaven”.

On arriving at the home of his boss, he explained what had happened. “I couldn’t help it, Herr Schroeder,” he said.  “I gave your gifts to someone else’s child without authority.” “It’s alright, my boy,” Schroeder said. You did the right thing. It wasn’t you who did it. It was Someone else. He led you to that place.  That’s what can happen at Christmas.  As for the bag, we’ll fill it again, right away.” 

And so the young Santa went to the children’s party to give out his gifts, as he’d originally set out to do. He soon found out who it was he’d stumbled on by mistake. But the mother and her daughter never discovered who the young Santa was, whom, as the woman said, “Heaven had sent”.

Presents bring joy at Christmas, especially to children. But the greatest gift of all, which is the real reason for Christmas, isn’t merely something from this Earth that’s Heaven-sent. 

The greatest gift is that ‘someone else’ in the story. He came from Heaven and was sent by God the Father. He was God’s Son from all eternity who came into our time as a little baby, the son of Mary. The message of the angel of the Lord to the shepherds of Bethlehem is also God’s good news for us: “For unto you is born … in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord”.

By nature, all humanity is a captive of sin and the devil, without peace and hope. By nature, all people are in a worse position than the sick mother and her distraught daughter. Because we live under the verdict of death and eternal punishment because of our sins, the birth of the Saviour, the Rescuer, is more than good news. It’s the best news.   

Jesus, God’s Son, is the best of gifts.  He’s the gift of God’s Love to us. He is Christ, that is, He’s the Anointed One. He was anointed by His Father with the Holy Spirit at His baptism, to be the one who would take into Himself the sins of all people and who would pay for those sins by His death on a cross. He could do it because He’s also the Lord, just as the Father and the Holy Spirit are the Lord. As we say in the Nicene Creed, He’s “God from God”.

Christ, the Lord, was conceived by the creative power of the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary.  He came bound up in the wrappings of human flesh and blood. Gift wrapping you can throw out.  God’s Son didn’t throw away the wrappings of His flesh and blood. He came to rescue us from our sins by giving His body into death and shedding His blood on a cross for the forgiveness of our sins. His saving work done, He triumphantly rose from the dead in His body, to show that He’s the victor over sin, death and the devil. Now He shares His victory with us.

He came from Heaven to Earth to unite Heaven and Earth. He came to bring about peace between God and sinners. He came to send us the Holy Spirit who brings about repentance in us and faith in God’s good news for us. All who believe in Him are rescued from sin and shame.  We have great joy and peace and hope. Like the angels at Bethlehem, we also give glory to God who has brought about peace between Himself and us.

In our story, the identity of the young Santa remained concealed. When Christ was born to bring us God’s gifts, His identity was proclaimed by angels, so that all might believe in Him.  His identity and location were proclaimed firstly to shepherds. They immediately went to find Christ, the King. When they found Him, they told everyone what the angels had told them about Him. They went back to their work, giving glory and praise God. The song of the angels was now their song.

We too give praise to God.  We thank Him for the best of gifts: Christ the Lord, born to rescue us from our distress. God also tells us where we can find the Christ for our salvation. We find Him in the Bible, because there we’re given His words, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We find Him in His Baptism, where He places His name on us and makes us part of His family. 

We find Him in His Supper, because there He feeds us with His own body and blood.  Where He gives Himself to us, He brings us His forgiveness and love, and fills us with peace, joy and hope. Jesus wasn’t only Heaven-sent. He came from heaven so that we also might have a place in Heaven. He’s God’s Christmas gift to us.


Reflecting the true light

The Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28

A few years ago, China landed a rocket on the moon and obtained some samples from the moon’s surface. We humans are fascinated by moon travel and expeditions to other planets.

Sometimes, when we see a full moon rising in the early evening, it appears so big and bright that we can see so much detail on it.

In some ways, John the Baptist is like the moon. He came rising onto the scene out of nowhere – from the wilderness – and told the people that he is not the light but was pointing the people to the light: He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. And that’s what the moon does. The moon does not produce its own light but it merely reflects the light of the sun. And what’s interesting is that the sun is nowhere to be seen – it’s at the opposite end of the world, and yet it shines bright enough to bring light to the deepest darkness.

In the same way, we Christians have been called to reflect the light of Christ. Jesus says – “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” So just as John was a witness to the light, we are to be a witness to the light. The light of Christ. And we do that by reflecting the light of Christ in all that we do. Because people look at us and they don’t just judge us by the things we do or say but they judge God as well.

As we look to see how we are reflecting the light of God it is often helpful to look in the mirror to see what others are seeing. Quite often we don’t realise what we are reflecting. We might think we are looking okay – until we look in the mirror and see our shirt button isn’t done up or we have some breakfast remains on our face. We might think we are leading great examples of Christian living; but it’s not important what we think, but what others see in us.

Luther’s explanation to the 10 commandments in his Small Catechism, helps us reflect on how we break each of the commandments in 2 ways – known as acts of commission and acts of omission. We break the commandments not just by what we do – acts of commission – but by what we don’t do – acts of omission.

Usually we’re pretty good at refraining from doing the wrong thing – acts of commission, such as in the 5th Commandment: “You shall not kill. What does this mean? We are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbour in any way.”  Yep, I can check that one off.

But Luther continues – “BUT, I am to help him in all his physical needs.” That’s the part I’m not always so good at. “Look, I’m a little busy at the moment – can’t somebody else help you?” Or the seventh commandment: “You shall not steal – we are to fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbour’s money or property.” Check. No worries with that one.

“BUT – we are to help him improve and protect his property and means of making a living.”

“Sorry but I’ve got my own business to worry about – I have to make enough to pay my mortgage – my credit card – and save up for my retirement. Can’t my neighbour get his act into gear? I’ve worked hard to get where I am – why can’t he do the same?”

 Sometimes it’s not the light of what we are doing that is reflecting on people around us – but what we are NOT doing that people are taking notice of. As the old saying goes – “all it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing.” Sometimes it’s the acts of omission that do the most harm. And so it can be a real struggle reflecting the light of Christ because of the things that we don’t do to help our neighbour.  

And there are also times when we can fall into the danger of not reflecting the light of Christ because we are trying too hard to reflect our own light. A sort of, “Look at me – look at all the good things I’m doing.” And that’s where John had to try hard to keep reminding people that he is NOT the light. He said – I’m not even Elijah or one of the prophets. I’m just one who is pointing you to the true light of Christ.

St Paul shares with us how we CAN reflect God’s light not by doing good works in order for the world to be impressed with our service. No, Paul says – Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. What a freeing thing that is when we forget about trying to impress others by our good works and just rejoice, pray and give thanks for all the good things God has done for us..

It’s so easy to rejoice, pray and give thanks when we realise how much God has done for us in Christ. But it’s just as easy to reflect the opposite, to grumble about everything instead of rejoicing. Like the Israelites who grumbled about their conditions rather than rejoicing that God had freed them from slavery in Egypt, many of us complained about the restrictions that were imposed upon us during the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of rejoicing that God had saved many lives through the actions of the medical profession, and some of the restrictions put in place by the government of the time, we grumbled that we had to wear masks in church and use individual cups for holy communion. It’s so easy to forget to rejoice and give thanks and pray for our government and our medical profession, even though they’re not perfect, like all of us.  That’s when we need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “What image are we reflecting to the world? What light are we shining? Are we shining our own light or Christ’s?”

 So often we believe it is up to us to take the ‘fight’ to the world. We think that it is up to us to defend the rights of God and the church. And often what happens is that we replace God’s light with our own. And that’s what John was avoiding when he said: “I’m not the Christ, I’m not Elijah – I’m not one of the prophets. In fact I’m not even worthy enough to untie the sandals of the one I’m pointing you to.”

Yes, we all want to defend God – we all want to defend the church – we want to defend the name of Christ in an increasingly Godless world. But the best way we can do that is by rejoicing in the midst of it all – giving thanks in the midst of it all – and praying for all. And Paul says – pray without ceasing – because the challenges on the church and on God’s name are without ceasing. And in doing that we will be reflecting the light of Christ even if sometimes we don’t always live perfect lives. And even when that happens, we are assured by the Word of God, that, “the God of peace himself will sanctify you entirely; and your spirit and soul and body will be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The one who calls us is faithful, and he will do this. Amen.

Same story – different challenges

Text Mark 1:1-8

Same story – different challenges

One of the challenges during Advent and Christmas is hearing the familiar story we all know so well.  Not that there’s anything wrong with the story, but sometimes we sort of switch off – we’ve heard it all before – we want to hear something new. We all know the story. We’ve all seen the Christmas pageants and know the script.  We’ve seen the Nativity scenes with Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus in a manger, the cow, donkey, the sheep and shepherds. It’s become almost too familiar.  And what is the old saying: ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’”?

The season of Advent prepares the way to Christmas through the wilderness. Advent makes a straight path for Jesus – the path which is usually hindered by the busyness of shopping and food preparation and the organising of holidays. Every year has different challenges hindering our preparations for Christmas.  During this Advent season let this be a time of reflection and contemplation as we hear the good news of Jesus coming to us in the flesh. Let the gospel sink more deeply into our lives, let the story of Jesus’ birth speak to us differently this year. The story of Jesus may be familiar – it may be the same – but our lives are not the same so let us hear the story with eager ears.

But before we do, let us remember haw very different it was during COVID. For many, it was not the usual joyous march toward Christmas.  Everything might have been planned – parents were thinking about roles for their children – the play was organised and being rehearsed, the carols and readings were all worked out. But how to fit the usual crowds into one per 4 square metres and 1.5 metres apart? And how to account for any visitors that may turn up? It was anything but the straight path to Christmas that John the Baptist proclaimed-  for us there were many road blocks and potholes to be faced along the way.

During COVID all people were anxious and waiting in the wilderness of lockdowns. For many, Advent was a wilderness experience in lockdown. For many there was no clear path forward. It was a time of uncertainty, fear and grief. Christmas may have been the same familiar story but our lives were not. But while the harshness of wilderness may have confronted us during those times of church closure, the ageless truth remained the same and it is what got us through. When the angel announced to Mary and Joseph that Mary would give birth he said that this child would be called Immanuel – which means God is with us. And that kept us going, knowing that in the wilderness we were not alone.

The season of Advent reminds us that no matter where we are or what experiences we are going through that God is with us in Jesus. The wilderness is an uncomfortable place if we are alone. Peter was writing to a Christian community who were in the wilderness. They too needed reminding that the Christmas story was a story of hope in times of wilderness. The wilderness can seem like an eternity when you are alone but Peter reminds us that with God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day.

Peter was writing to a Christian community experiencing persecution at the hands of the ruling empire. They were looking for Jesus’ return and immediate relief from their suffering.  But God does not always act in our timeline.  A thousand years is like a day, and a day is like a thousand years to God.  And when we are suffering, the lonely nights can seem like an eternity in the wilderness but, as the Psalmist writes: ‘Weeping may last for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.’

During Advent we are given a word of hope for the future while our present seems like wilderness. The prophet John the Baptist proclaimed in the wilderness a familiar message to a people who were in the wilderness themselves. Israel has been invaded by the Roman Empire and they had no king.  John pointed away from himself and toward someone greater to come. John pointed to a hopeful future by promising one who would come baptizing, not with mere water but with the eternal Holy Spirit. And we are to live out our hope by looking away from ourselves and our wilderness to one more powerful than us.

Our Advent message is that we are called to be a people that await the coming of the Lord in all circumstances.  We are always in waiting—through victory and defeat, triumph and loss. And as the church, we are to proclaim peace on earth, goodwill towards all, and joy to the world – all the messages of Christmas.

And that’s what Peter said also: “While you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation”. And it’s the patience of the Lord that creates the seeming slowness in times of wilderness – his patience of not wanting anyone to be lost forever.

So just as we are pointed by John to Christ, we point the world to the Christ, the one who is more powerful, more patient, and more loving. We point to the Christ, the one who is to come.

This Advent, many of us feel like we are still in the wilderness. But let us remember that all things here on earth are temporary. Let our lives be shaped by our hope in the truth that God is coming – that God has come in Jesus who is with us always. Amen.

Christmas is coming.

The Text: Mark 13:24-37

Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so that we may keep watch for the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Have you noticed what’s coming? For example, have you noticed that Christmas is coming, and how can you tell?

You can tell because the shops and streets are full of Christmas decorations, wrappings, lights, gift ideas, etc. You can tell because Christmas music is playing. You can tell because the TV advertisements let you know what you need to buy to make yourself or your loved ones happy.

Or, have you noticed a number of new films coming soon? Boxing Day is traditionally when many blockbuster films open in cinemas around the country.

Or, have you noticed that the days are getting longer and warmer, and the agapanthus and jacarandas are flowering?

Or, have you noticed the Lord is coming, and how can you tell?

Well, you can tell by the signs.

Just like a television advertisement or movie trailer which changes scenes rapidly, today’s gospel reading, or rather Jesus through St Mark, is using a montage of pictures which advertise the Lord’s coming in a very contemporary way.

Try to imagine what he’s saying, picturing the signs:

The opening scene: Cosmic chaos! You watch the sun go dark; the moon goes black without the sun, the stars fall from their positions, and the heavenly authorities and powers are shaken from their foundations.

Change of scene: You see the Son of man coming on the clouds surrounded by the light of his glory. The angels whizz backwards and forwards to the ends of the earth, gathering all the chosen ones.

Change of scene: You see a fig tree at spring time, sprouting a new, green, tender shoot, advertising the coming summer; then you see a picture of the universe, and you’re disturbed to see everything, including the heavens and the earth disappear over time, yet you also notice the words spoken by God strangely remain unaffected by the ravages of time and don’t fade at all.

Change of scene: You see an alarm clock about to go off, but because it hasn’t got any hands to tell what time it will happen, no-one can figure out what time it will go off. You even see the Son of God go up and inspect it, but he too doesn’t know what time it’ll go off.

Change of scene: You watch a man going away on a journey, leaving his servants in charge of all his belongings. You see the doorkeeper of his property stand at watch. Time goes by and you notice the same doorkeeper at different times of the night and day still standing, still watching, still waiting.

Change of scene: everything is going dark, but as you see this, you notice more and more people falling asleep, and fewer staying awake. The scene ends with a word, strong and clear: Watch!

Like a richly colourful and startling advertisement, this montage of pictures creates a sense of anticipation.

In the church we anticipate and eagerly look forward to the coming of the Day of the Lord. This is what the Advent season is all about. Advent isn’t designed just to make us ready for Christmas, but to remind us and make us ready for Christ coming in his glory. And while we may not see the sun going black or see any stars fall, we know the moment of his return is getting nearer all the time.

But, we are not very good at keeping watch!

We aren’t very good at waiting because we want things NOW. We’re not even patient at watching sport. Many people prefer the quick action games like one-day cricket or 20-20 cricket to the slower battle of the tests. We also want our meals NOW, that’s why we have microwaves and fast food. We want to sing Christmas carols now and then by the time Christmas is here we are tired of them. We want to see the films now. We want the new products now so we can be first in our social circle to have the latest thing. We want to get better now rather than letting nature take its course. We want the highly paid positions now rather than working our way up the ladder. We want to get paid for our crops now. We want to receive the blessings of retirement now. We want to be wise now. Even emails and mobile phones demand our immediate attention.

Why are we all so busy and feeling stressed out? Because everything has to be done…NOW! But who said everything has to be that way?

Have you noticed how we’ve become so impatient? Is this healthy for us? We have forgotten how to be patient, to watch and wait. We need to re-learn the art of silence. We need to re-learn the teaching of rest and relaxation instead of our constant work and busy-ness.

But that’s not all! We’ve also become passive watchers. What once used to make our blood boil or cause us to cry, no longer affects us or moves us to action. Many of us were deeply affected when we first saw the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre buildings or the Bali bombings on our television screens. But what about now? Terrible atrocities seem to be reported on every night in our news bulletins. What is our reaction? Not another terrorist attack that we are tired of hearing about. It also seems as the amount of violence increases on our TV screens, the less we notice it; we become conditioned to it. Violence and terror don’t move us to action the way it used to. The most we do is shake our heads and change the television channel to find something else more appealing.

In other words, we’re becoming people that hide or ignore our emotions. What once used to shock us, we now turn a blind eye to. What once used to terrify us, we now only shrug our shoulders.

Unfortunately this same attitude affects the church. For example, when the Word of God strikes deeply at our hearts, we might just consider it an “itch” and ignore it. When God urges repentance, we self-justify our actions and excuse ourselves from self-examination. When God announces peace, forgiveness, comfort and love, we simply shrug our shoulders as if nothing has happened.

Yet we are called to watch – actively and patiently. The Spirit calls us to action like a concierge standing watch. He calls us to have patience as we wait in constant anticipation.

But just like a scary movie, we might be afraid to watch. Some of us are afraid to look for the signs of the Lord’s coming, because it reminds us of our fragility, our feebleness, our weakness, or our sinfulness. Yet for those in Christ, watching for Jesus isn’t something to fear.

Even though some of the signs Jesus talks about may be scary to some, to Christians they’re something to look forward to. We look forward to them because we’re among the chosen ones!

Since we’re God’s chosen ones, even if the sun were to lose its light and energy, we’ve nothing to fear. Even if the stars were to fall from the sky, we can instead celebrate the coming of the Lord. Even when Jesus comes in glory and many shake with fear, we can clap our hands and cheer our victorious King.

We can do this because we’re among those he’ll gather up into his eternal kingdom. He’s already placed his name on us in baptism, claiming us to be his own. Therefore, confident of his love and faithfulness, we can constantly watch and look forward to his promised return.

This is the story of Advent. When Advent comes, we’re called to watch. We’re to watch ourselves and admit our impatience, our inaction and our laziness. We’re to repent of our busyness that has squeezed Jesus and his word out of our lives. We’re to repent of our sinfulness, but in such a manner that we don’t fear his anger, but instead we are confident of his mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

When Advent comes, we’re called to watch for Jesus. We’re to watch for the signs of his coming and listen to his Words of promise. We’re to look to Jesus who truly comes to us already, hidden in a child born in Bethlehem, hidden in the words of a sermon, hidden in water mixed with his holy name, and hidden with bread and wine that truly becomes his body and blood.

Just like an advertisement announcing the arrival of a film, product or celebration, Advent creates sense of anticipation. We anticipate that Jesus will return, for that’s what he said. Jesus doesn’t lie. His word remains true and valid today as the day he first promised.

Therefore stay awake and watch, actively and patiently! Watch, knowing that salvation is ours and we’re the chosen ones who’ll be gathered up to enter his kingdom. Rejoice that we’ve been selected to enter his kingdom without fear.

As we stand and watch, clinging to God’s word, we’re assured that he’s not far off, but here with us, standing beside us patiently. In this way as we listen attentively, eat and drink eagerly, we’re assured that salvation is ours even now. So the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard our hearts and minds as we wait and watch for our coming Lord Christ Jesus. Amen.