Archive for the ‘Advent’ Category

Third Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 15th, 2019

James 5:8
And you be patient, setting in place your heart, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

            Patience, a wonderful and joyous gift but not many like to learn it. To be patient, to be long tempered, not short, to be content with the wait, means two things: that we don’t worry and we don’t give up. When we are patient waiting for Christmas, we don’t go searching for our hidden presents, we don’t worry about what we’ll do, not getting frustrated trying to get organised, but rather bearing the burden of the wait we get things done. As we wait for Christ, patience is to keep waiting and not give up. But is patience always easy? No, but maybe that’s why some of us get reminded so often. Just as the Holy Spirit is reminding us all today.

            To be patient, to trust that everything will work out, to endure the stress that we experience, to set our hearts, the core of who we are, in Jesus Christ and His sure words. What does this mean for you? James is writing to Christians a few decades after Christ ascended, to Christians under Roman rule, under persecution and all types of suffering, bickering, greed and disease aren’t modern inventions. These people knew Christ’s promise that He would return to set all things right, to renew all creation and destroy all sin. He said to be ready at all times, He might come back at any moment so be ready and look forward to this wonderful fulfilment (Matthew 24:44). But it’s been a while, where is this joy? It’s been 20yrs, for us its 2000 when is He coming back? I’ve had to wait a week for my son and wife to come back, and that was bad enough; don’t we now have a right to loose our patience, be frustrated, To get angry? My dad would beep the car horn after just 10mins surely God doesn’t expect us to wait patiently anymore? Maybe we should just give up and go our own way.

            But then again, thinking about it, maybe not. Yes there is suffering in this life, sickness, grief, gossip, theft and all sorts, and worse for our brethren in various places throughout this world. How much must Christians endure before Christ returns? Wouldn’t it be easier to just give up? To forget about sin and just do what we want in the moment, searing our consciences and living for pleasure? No, that’s no way to live, aside from Jesus where else can we go? He has the truth and we know it. He has the words of eternal life and peace (John 6:68). If we left, we would just follow Judas Iscariot to death (Mark 14:21). You know the way of the Lord, the way of life, peace and joy. Yet you struggle and have reject it sinning, bringing death, turmoil and despair. We are afflicted with sin (Psalm 25:18), we fail God who loves us more than we can comprehend. God tells us through the prophets that His people were an adulterous wife and He her husband (Ezekiel 16, 23). Jesus teaches this is grounds for divorce, the union is already broken (Matthew 19:9). But God, long suffering years of repeated rejection and betrayal the thousand years of Ancient Israel’s existence, the years you have been baptised, patience beyond comprehension. God did not reject His people then, and He does not reject you; He gave us all the way of repentance, to turn back to Him, confess the truth and in Jesus be forgiven (1 John 1:7). And that is who you are, thanks be to God! Praise His wonderful name, for He is full of compassion and merciful!

            In Him we have life today, we have peace, joy, you are loved! To know the depths of sin, of our need for salvation, and to know that God freely provides it, Jesus has done all the work, He lived, died, rose and ascended for you and all His holy Church! New life by water and the Spirit, rejoice in this! Set your heart, your core in this, in Christ. You are free from sin, you no longer need to worry or give in. This is the wonder of the Gospel for us now. While we wait we can be patient, to endure the attacks of the evil one because we know we are saved, our hearts set in Jesus.

But still there is suffering and struggle, the prophets of old spoke of the coming salvation in Jesus, but they were abused by the very people to whom they spoke this wonderful news. James encourages us to imitate these prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord, to suffer evil and be patient. John the Baptist was thrown into prison but still taught God’s way, preaching this same Wonderful Gospel until he was beheaded. Polycarp a disciple of the Apostle John and bishop in the early church said to the Roman persecutors who would kill him, ‘86 years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour?’ Throughout the years Christians have suffered, because of their great faith, because of sickness and natural troubles, the sin of others and even their own sin and doubt, there are countless examples of good faith to imitate and you probably know many yourself. So remember them and try to imitate them. But, just make sure you remember imitate the faithfulness to the Triune God, not things like David’s adultery and murder.

When we get right down to it, we face the same world all God’s people have, a world with humans and sin. We’re in the same situation, waiting for Jesus to return and sort it all out. In His mercy and compassion He sent the Spirit to help us endure this life in His forgiveness and joy. We have His mercy even now while we wait for His return. In Him we are free by His mercy and grace. Free from worry and despair, free now to live and get things done right by the gift and power of the Holy Spirit. To set our hearts in Christ, to build on this solid foundation of mercy rather than any uncertainty, outside of Christ. In Him is gladness spite all our sadness, and outside of His patience and mercy is worry, doubt and danger. So take up the example of the faithful people of God before us and across the globe, be patient and steadfastly set in Christ Jesus that you may receive and share His wonderful compassion and mercy.And the peace of God which passes all understand

Joseph Graham.

Second Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 8th, 2019

John The Baptist  Revd. Martin Dale

Sermon: John the Baptist – Radical and Countercultural par excellence

Story: A young police officer was taking his final exam for the police academy and he was set the following problem to solve.

You are on patrol in the outer city when an explosion occurs in a gas main in a nearby street.

On investigation you find that a large hole has been blown in the footpath and there is an overturned van nearby.

Inside the van there is a strong smell of alcohol. Both occupants—a man and a woman—are injured.

You recognize the woman as the wife of your Chief of Police, who is at present away in the USA.

A passing motorist stops to offer you assistance and you realize that he is a man who is wanted for armed robbery.

Suddenly a man runs out of a nearby house, shouting that his wife is expecting a baby and that the shock of the explosion has made the birth imminent.

Another man is crying for help, having been blown in the adjacent canal by the explosion, and he cannot swim.

Describe in a few words what actions you would take.”

The young man thought for a moment, picked up his pen and wrote,

PAUSE

I would take off my uniform and mingle with the crowd.”

But just as that wouldn’t do for the policeman so we as Christians we can’t duck our responsibilities either

We are often called to swim against the tide of public opinion.

Jesus certainly did – and so did the subject of our Bible reading this morning – John the Baptist.

And interestingly all four of the Gospels tell us things about the life of John the Baptist (Mt3, Mk1 and Mk 6, Lk 3 and Jn1).

John was an important figure for the early Church.

John the Baptist was both radical and countercultural in three ways:

1. In his lifestyle

2. In what he taught and

3. In his fearlessness of men in the face of adversity.

1. The first way that John the Baptist was radical and countercultural was his radical lifestyle

While the religious leaders of his day lived in fine houses – and the High Priest himself even lived in a palace – John the Baptist took to the desert to live a life of seclusion and prayer.

John wasn’t pretentious. He didn’t overrate himself. In fact quite the contrary.

He didn’t claim to be more than he was. There was a humility about John.

When Jesus came to be baptised by John – look at John’s reply:

But John tried to deter him, saying: I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” (Mt 3:14)

There was also a simplicity in his lifestyle

He didn’t wear an Armani suit or Designer jeans. He didn’t have a rolex watch either – and all the other trappings of worldly success. St Matthew records that

John’s clothes were made of camels’ hair and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” (Mt 3:4)

While I am not advocating locusts and honey for our harvest supper – I do think it is important to notice the simplicity of John’s living.

2. The second way in which John the Baptist was radical and countercultural was in his teaching

John the Baptist was very clear in his message. He called a spade a spade

He was hugely popular with the people – not just because he tweeked the nose of the heirarchy – but because the people recognised what he was saying was from God.

There was a mini revival. Even the outcasts of society – the tax collectors and the Roman soldiers are recorded as coming to him (Lk 3).

And I wouldn’t be surprised if the prostitutes came as well.

Yet his message wasn’t a populist message – indeed it should have been extremely unpopular as it was so condemnatory.

We read in Matthew 3 that he preached a Gospel of repentance. And He was quite a tough preacher.

When many of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptised by him he said this:

You brood of vipers Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath. Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves ” We have Abraham as our father. I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children of Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt 3:8-9)

I don’t think John the Baptist had ever read Dale Carnegie’s book “How to make friends and influence people”!!!

The Jews thought that simply by keeping the letter of the Law – as they saw it – would make them fit children for God

But God is interested in the heart – as Jesus often himself taught

What comes out of a man’s heart and not what goes in is that which pollutes him,” (Mt 15:17-18 paraphrased) Jesus once said.

And God speaking through the writer of the book of Proverbs inn the Old Testament said this:

26 My son, give me your heart and let your eyes keep to my ways, (Proverbs 23:26).

John’s message was tough – he didn’t mince his words – and inevitably this brought him into conflict with the authorities – which in this case was the local king Herod Antipas.

For Herod, John overstepped the mark once too often when he condemned Herod for marrying his brother Philip’s wife. And so Herod threw John in prison.

And prison in those days was not at all comfortable. Prisoners had no human rights and generally were dependant on friends and relations for the very food they ate.

3. And the final way in which John the Baptist was radical and countercultural was in his fearlessness of men

He didn’t chicken out when the going got tough.

John, I am sure could have extradited himself from prison if he had simply found a formula to allow Herod to marry Herodias, Herod’s brother Philip’s wife.

And even great men of God bowed to such temporal pressure.

Story: One of the blots on the career of the great German Reformer, Martin Luther – was his acquiescence to the bigamous marriage of Philip of Hess.

In 1530, at the height of the Reformation in Germany – and where the Protestant cause was at its most vulnerable, Philip of Hesse organised the secular Protestant forces of the Reformation into

what was known as the Schmalkaldic League.

This alliance was set up to protect their religious and secular interests against interference from the Roman Catholic Holy Roman Emperor

On 11th December 1523 Philip married Christine of Saxony the daughter of an important ally George Duke of Saxony.

However Christine has been described by contempory sources as sickly and unattractive – and was reputed to have a drinking probem.

So it wasn’t very soon after the marriage that Philip committed adultery with the daugther of one of his sister’s ladies-in-waiting, Margarethe von der Saale.

And he wanted to marry her.

The matter was discussed with the great German Reformers, Luther, Methancthon and Bucer.

It was only when Philip threatened to side with the Holy Roman Emperor against the Protestant Schmalkaldic league if he didn’t get his own way, that the Reformers gave in.

They agreed that – rather than follow Henry VIII and have a divorce – they would sanction a bigamous marriage which took place on 4th December 1540, between Philip and Margarethe.

To the eternal shame of the Reformation

Had John the Baptist been asked his opinion, I am sure he would have condemned it.

Such was the courage and integrity of the man.

And John’s brave outspokenness eventually cost him his head.

Conclusion

John the Baptist’s story reminds us that being a Christian will not always be easy.

There will be tough decisions to make that might lead us to be unpopular.

Yet the story of John is not given to us to show us a way to earn our salvation – because we can’t.

All of us still have to come through the Cross of Jesus.

Even John the Baptist – a Great and Godly man as he was – could only enter the Kingdom through the Cross of Jesus Christ.

For the Kingdom of God is made up – not of those who in their own goodness try to enter it – but ofn those who are clothed in the blood of Jesus.

For in human terms John was special – but this needs to be kept in perspective – as Jesus said:

I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the very least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he (Lk 7:28-29)

However, once we are saved John was a great example for us to follow in Christian living.

But John’s life reminds us that we must have integrity in our lives.

We must be willing to be faithful to God’s calling in our lives – even if it eventually costs us our head. That is quite a challenge.

First Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 1st, 2019

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord and saviour Jesus Christ our righteousness. Amen.

            The light of peace. There’s a room full of boys at bedtime. A bit of noise, a bit of mucking around and suddenly the lights turn on. Peace descends on the room as they all stop and get to bed. This is the truth we have heard today, the Son of Man, Jesus, will come in glorious light to bring peace to the whole world and deal with all evil. The light of God’s temple will be lifted above all things so we can look to it for the truth, like those old clocktowers telling the time. He will bring you peace, all of us, and we will walk in the Light of the Lord, His ways, not ours. (Isaiah 2:1-5)

            It’s not my power or your way that everyone will flock to, as Paul (Romans 13:14) writes, don’t think about how to gratify the desires of your flesh, rather clothe yourself with Jesus Christ. It’s His way that brings peace, and Jesus is a perfect example, saying to the Father, ‘not my will but yours be done.’ (Luke 22:42) These desires, when we feel we just need to have this one thing, wine, chocolate, sex, our own way; when we dwell on these things and how to get them, we live as if Christ is not in us and we are not in Him. As Paul puts it, we are sleep in the faith. This new life you have through baptism into Jesus by the Holy Spirit is a life that is focussed on Him. It’s a focus like the moth to the light, it doesn’t care that it just ran into the wall, it only cares about the light. When you worry about fulfilling your desires, you stress and often sin forgetting Christ is our light, our focus, then feeling your guilt you have no peace. But to be clothed, or in Christ, is to live according to His life, not according to our often plainly selfish desires. It’s not about, ‘what do I want?’ rather it’s ‘What has Jesus done? And what does He want?’. This is what it means to walk in the light of the Lord, to put on Christ, so that when others see you they see Jesus.

            Now we know, when Jesus comes again, everyone will see and He’s gonna sort out everything. Last week we were reminded that those who are in Christ, and you are, He promised you this in Baptism, those who are in Christ are already judged righteous (John 3:18; Romans 8:1). So when the end comes you have nothing to fear, the New, peaceful and holy Creation awaits. Yet now and here while we wait for this final fulfillment of God’s promises, the advent of His Son, right now we can live the new life we have been given, to live in the light and peace we already have by God’s Amazing grace! It’s not the time for rest, we are the saints in warfare. Paul writes the armour of light not the PJs. It’s the time to fight against the devil, against our sinful desires, time to pray and listen to God’s Word, the time to encourage one another in the faith, to talk about Christ’s work in our lives and to point each other to the light of Christ and to receive His peace. Now while we wait, it’s the time for action not for sleep. So keep watch, for we do not know the time when Jesus will come to bring ultimate light, truth and deep lasting peace.

            This peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, as we wait and into eternity. Amen.

Joseph Graham.

2nd Sunday of Lent

Sunday, March 17th, 2019

Philippians 3:20-21

But our citizenship in heaven has already begun. From where we eagerly await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

            ‘Do what I say not what I do’ A phrase that most of us will have heard or maybe said ourselves. Of course, it means that what I say is true even if I fail to do it myself. But Paul writes something different, he says to do what he does and what he says, probably not something that most of us would be confident to say.

            Paul elsewhere writes that he copies the way Jesus showed him and so in imitating Paul we imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). What we do and the way we do it are important, people see it and it affects them, ridicule or honour even imitation, especially with kids. We hear from James, “I will show you my faith by my works” (2:18). The way you live shows people what you care about and what is important to you. Of course speaking is part of that, so don’t be scared to tell others about the help, grace and wonders Our heavenly Father has shown you in your life.

            But here in this passage Paul puts up two ways of living, or walking, of going through the motions of life. He first mentions the way he follows and is calling the Philippians, and through the Holy Spirit you too, to imitate, but then goes on the explain the other way. Those who walk as enemies of the crucifixion of Christ. In context he’s probably writing of those who demanded that Christians act according to the old Jewish ways, diminishing the glory and wonder of Jesus’ death on that cross and so may look to themselves rather than God Almighty. Nevertheless, it’s clear from the description and our lives that this way is still followed today. The way that ends in destruction, the people whose god is their belly, who revel in shameful things, whose minds are set on this life, earthly things, and not on Jesus.

            That their end is destruction is easily understood, they reject Jesus as their saviour and so reject salvation and life. But the god of the belly is a bit different, we don’t have buildings dedicated to your gut. But in this season of Lent if you’ve given up eating some type of food like me you’ve probably also struggled with that god in your belly, maybe even caved in to it, but this god of the belly all humans have is more than just relying on bread alone. It’s seeking to gratify all your desires, to chase after, yes food, also drink, healthiness, strength, intelligence, sex, wealth, power all these desires that you and I have and with which we are tempted away from God to ourselves, like Jesus, by Satan. But then to be proud of falling to these temptations, is to glory in shame. These desires are all for this world, not for the one to come; they are all for our earthly benefit and pride, but reject our relationship with the one who created it. To chase these is to store up treasure on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves come and steal, to set our minds on earthly things (Matthew 6:19).

           Now we can think about people who attack the church from outside and look at how they fit this description, but Paul is writing to Christians. Paul weeps because these people, these enemies of the cross, were part of the church, but then began walking away from the Faith. And so, yes be wary and concerned for each other, how we maybe living; but also examine yourself in what your mind focuses on.

            By God’s grace stand firm in the Lord this Lenten season. The grace that forgives all your sins, all your guilt and all your failure. For you, like the Philippians before you, are already citizens of Heaven, your home is not Dubbo, not Gilgandra, not Australia, not truly anywhere in this wide world; you belong with Jesus in the New Creation. And you wait, yes, we wait, it’s been such a long time, still we suffer, but even more still we wait eagerly; eager for the saviour of all to come, The Lord Jesus Christ, who has authority over everything, in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). And with that authority, by His power, He will transform our bodies, weak, mortal and sinful though we be; to be like His glorified body. It does sound a bit like the gospel of glory or the prosperity gospel, but the difference is that throughout scripture we are told that in the end, at the new creation in Jesus, we will be righteous and glorified in Jesus Christ our Lord. This sure hope of salvation, and freedom from sin, death and the devil is the wonderful good news, and by God’s grace He doesn’t hoard it all at the end of time (John 8:36; Romans 6:22; 8:1-4). Rather He gives us little tastes of what is to come, His forgiveness in the absolution; peace in baptism; joy in Holy communion, and transforming our minds and actions now by our hearing and thinking on His Word, these wonderful gifts given by the Holy Spirit. But even compared to the most amazing and deep experience He has given you, there is so much more to come. So stand firm in the Lord.

            In our Christian lives there are just two ways to go, either we look toward Jesus, or we don’t and end up walking away. If you were to imitate my living, it would involve much struggle against the god of my belly, my desires for this world, and many failures, but also feeling shame in my shame and turning back to Jesus who I wait for and who forgives me even a thousand times a day. Even if you and I fall into temptation, our end is not destruction, Jesus does not reject you, He remains faithful to you and forgives you, gives you His peace and joy (2 Timothy 2:13). When we sin, we feel that guilt and shame, our willpower is weak, but this is the lowly body that Jesus will transform to be like Him, your sin does not disqualify you from citizenship in heaven, people can only loose that by rejecting it (Romans 8:38-39; Mark 16:16). So stand firm in the Lord not in this world, don’t forget what He has done and who you are because of Him. We could just concern ourselves with the day-to-day mundane world we live, in danger again and again of falling for that god of the belly; much better rather to remember Jesus, who He is and what He has done for you, what He does for you, who you are in Him and also the end of time when you, me and all our brothers and sisters will live with Him forever.

Pastor Joseph Graham

          

4th Sunday of Advent

Saturday, December 22nd, 2018

Luke 1:42-45

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

So close to the celebration now, we’ve been waiting for 3 weeks. It’s almost here, He’s in Mary’s womb, but still we wait. This waiting for God’s word to be fulfilled is something people have done almost from creation on, they were waiting, we’ve been waiting, and here Mary and Elizabeth are both waiting. Waiting for the coming of their Lord and ours. Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, anointed one; the one who would save the Israelites and bring salvation and joy to all the world, peace to those favoured. But Elizabeth and Mary don’t just feel anticipation for the wonders to come, they’re thankful. Even John in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy with the Holy Spirit. They all wonder and marvel at what God has put into motion, what He has done and will do.

This is the last Sunday of Advent, the first season of our church year. And if you’ve kept track at home, you’ll notice that the church year is a very helpful tool for teaching the faith. We start the Christian year with Advent, then Christmas, Epiphany, Transfiguration, focussing on who Jesus is; God, man, and Saviour of both Jews and gentiles. That is why, while we wait, we can still celebrate, together with the blessed virgin Mary, Elizabeth and her unborn child. We know who Jesus is, even though He hadn’t really done much at this point, not even born yet.

But why celebrate before anything has happened? We don’t have a house warming party before we’ve moved, or celebrate someone’s retirement before they’ve finished school. That’s ridiculous. You have to wait until after the thing has happened before you party. However, if I promise you you’re favourite food, if I promise my wife an overseas trip, if we are promised something from someone we trust we thank them for it and our thanks reflects our trust and the magnitude of the gracious promise.

Now God Almighty promised His suffering, crushed and dispersed people salvation from all those evils. Time and again The Lord promised that He would come, to save and heal them, to be their holy, just and righteous king, to restore their relationship to Him, to bring them complete peace, joy, comfort, even everlasting life (Ezekiel 34:11-16; Isaiah 57:14-19; Daniel 12:2). And just before today’s text Mary heard God’s word, that she would be the one to bear the Messiah, the one to come, God Himself (Luke 1:31-33). Highly favoured, greatly graced, Mary surely is, the mother of God her saviour! I can not imagine how amazing and wonderful it would be to be told by God that I would be the one to bear my saviour. For a few reasons, one of which I am not a woman. But even to be told that you would raise Him who would bring blessing and peace to you and the whole wide world, like Joseph all those years ago, how would you react? If God just sent an angel to me would be wonderful enough, but Mary would be to one to bear her own Lord. Elizabeth by the Holy Spirit says, Blessed are you among women, and calls Mary the ‘mother of my Lord’! Thanks be to God!

Mary trusted God, believed His wonderful promise, but still asked how this could be. And God in His marvellous grace shows her that none of His words will fail, pointing her to something she could grasp, much like Baptism or Holy Communion for us; that her barren relative now was pregnant (Luke 1:36-37). And so we come to our text, Mary rejoices in her waiting, she knows that God will fulfil His words, His wonderful promises; Elizabeth, filled by the Holy Spirit in her humility wonders at God’s grace; Even the unborn John, later ‘the baptist’, leaps for joy in the womb. Waiting yes, but also wonder joy and praising God, Lord of all. And in the same way we can praise God for His mighty power to save all people from our own selfishness and evil and even from death, and we can thank Him, Father Son and Spirit, for who they are and what they will do for you at the end of time.

Blest, happy and joyous are you who have believed that the Lord fulfils all His promises to you.Amen.

Rev. Joseph Graham

3rd Sunday in Advent

Saturday, December 15th, 2018

Philippians 4:4
16/12/2018

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice!

Rejoice! This building was built 40yrs ago for God’s people and dedicated to the glory of Jesus Christ, not only that, but also His people have been here all those 40yrs. And Thank God for that! We are celebrating 40yrs of God’s grace to His people from this building by His marvellous Words and His mysterious Sacraments. That is a wonderful thing, but what about know? What is God doing here, will this building be here in another 40yrs? What has happened to all those people who grew up here, were baptised here in this building? Where is the future of this building and what is the future of our congregation?

This congregation, St Mark’s, this parish is not growing. It’s seen times when there were many more people here than there are now, some have died in Christ and now know that hope which we all have as followers of Christ, some have moved for work or family to other congregations in our LCA, some have given up on the faith and others have left for other reasons. This congregation is struggling, and some might say it is even dying.

Maybe you too are feeling that struggle in your own life and are looking for answers. Where can we look to for help? To Jesus Christ and God our Heavenly Father through the strength of the Holy Spirit. Here in His Word we hear from Paul in his letter to the Philippians. Another person just like anyone of us, saved by Christ, but also struggling with sin and the evil of this world. Now he wants to see the Philippians, but as this letter is written, he can’t; Paul is in prison in Rome where he would eventually be killed (Philippians 1:7-14). He struggled much in his life after seeing Jesus, rejected by the Jews, his people, beaten, imprisoned, stoned even. He was struggling, coming closer and closer to death. But he does not despair.

He knows something. He knows what Jesus has done for him and for you. That He has come down to our level to take care of everything that ultimately threatens us, to take your sin away, to give you life vastly stronger than death, to free you from Satan his lies and accusations, and to restore your relationship with God Almighty your heavenly Father in Christ. Paul also knew that all the things he could do, all the good, are as nothing compared to the brilliant, wonderful and utterly amazing knowledge of Jesus Christ the Lord (Philippians 3:7-8). Compared to all those things that God has given us through Jesus and for the sake of His ministry, His suffering, death and resurrection. That we are now righteous and holy, not of ourselves but of God, that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul knew the power of the resurrection, life eternal, forgiveness and freedom in Christ, and also he shared Jesus Christ’s suffering in this world. Paul knew that God Almighty was by his side and throughout everything that happened to him, he let his requests be made known to God by prayer with thanksgiving. He held fast to the joy we all have in Christ Jesus.

Our present sufferings are nothing compared to the joy of Jesus that will be revealed in us in the end (Romans 8:18-24). That joy and peace that we celebrate with the first coming of Jesus as a baby, that wonder that Mary knew when the shepherds came praising God in her child, then the wise men with their gifts, that experience that many of you have had perhaps through answered prayer or studying and thinking on the scriptures, even receiving forgiveness at the absolution or through Christ’s body and blood. Thank God that we can experience His love and mercy today. But even those wonderful and comforting times are just a foretaste of the things to come. And thank God that He has given us such a marvellous hope.

Your heavenly Father, God Almighty, has promised you that He can and will raise you from death into new eternal life in Jesus. Thank the Lord. He has given and sustained this congregation through the years with this building. Again thank the Lord of Heaven. When you are struggling He hears your cries for help, He will not abandon you but He will get you through. Thanks be to God. For all that He has done for you, give Him thanks. But not only that, continue to give thanks to Him and to rely on Him in the good times and the bad, because He loves you and will continue to walk alongside you. And don’t just thank Him for the good things that happen to you, thank Him and rejoice in everything just like Paul, be content (Philippians 4:11-13). Thank Him for the suffering you experience in this life, in it you are following Jesus; and thank Him for all the challenges and difficulties, they are more opportunities to rely on God’s strength and shine Christ’s light into this weary world. You have all that you need in Christ already, you are forgiven, you have eternal life, you are free from the power of sin and death. Thank God.

This isn’t a command, as if you must say ‘thank God’ 10 times a day and then you will get blessings and salvation. But rather I’m encouraging you and reminding you with Jesus’s words through Paul, that there is nothing to worry about, you don’t need to be pulled in all sorts of directions, to be anxious (Philippians 4:6). Paul is giving you some great wisdom here, to recognise that you have all you need, that God Almighty, your Heavenly Father, has given it to you; just like Christ giving you His body and blood through the pastor and the bread and wine. And this doesn’t mean that we just give up on life because we have all we need, rather in our thanksgiving we can respond to God’s love, and do what is pure, honourable, just, lovely, commendable and excellent (Philippians 4:8-10). Rejoice in the Lord always, as Paul writes earlier, to say the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you (Philippians 3:1). Rejoice that you have your congregation, Rejoice that you live where you do, Rejoice that you have family, Rejoice that you know the people you do, yes even that person, Rejoice that you are in pain, Rejoice that this world is against you, even sometimes your own body, Rejoice that you have all these opportunities to practise what you believe, to rely on God’s strength and not your own. And Rejoice that Jesus saves and sustains you, that in the end in Christ we will be free from all the evil and sin and corruption, and with thanksgiving continually ask Him for help. I know I need it, and I know He will give it. Amen

Rev. Joseph Graham

2nd Sunday of Advent

Saturday, December 8th, 2018

Malachi 3:3

He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold or silver so they may approach The LORD and offer in righteousness.

            Here we are in Advent, lighting candles and in part remembering that Jesus is the light of the world and we don’t light candles to keep them hidden. The candle gives light and a little warmth especially when it is dark and cold at night, candles are good things to have in blackouts. But, as many of you may have found out, perhaps from showing others how tough you were and holding your hand in the flame gathering soot, candles burn. That hurts, and we don’t like it.

Fire, the flame of the candle, the stove or the bushfire. These can be good and life sustaining, or they can burn and destroy anything that is flammable. A dangerous but beneficial thing that God has created. And here we hear that His messenger is like the fire that melts and purifies gold and silver, removing the dross and rubbish from the precious metal. Though instead of purifying precious metals, this messenger is prophesied to purify and refine the sons of Levi, the priestly tribe in Israel, to make them righteous and to restore the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the place they were called to be, by God’s side.

But who is Malachi speaking of? Who is this messenger? Well, is a bit of a funny question because in this short section we have two messengers, the first who would prepare the way and the second messenger of the covenant. The first messenger we can read about in the first chapter of Mark and we also hear this prophecy quoted in Matthew 11 and Luke chapter 7 (Mark 1:2; Matthew 11:10; Luke 7:27). That messenger is John the Baptist, who preached that all needed to turn from evil and turn back to the one true Lord God. The second messenger, the one of the covenant, would then be Jesus Christ Himself. It is He who brings us the New Covenant in His blood through Holy Communion and tells us of the complete promises of God, eternal life and forgiveness for those who trust Him (Luke 22:20; John 3: 16-21). And then, it is Jesus who is like a refiner’s fire and a cleaner’s bleach.

Jesus came, the light of the world, the resurrection and the life, the Word of God. He came and building on John’s preparation, proclaimed ‘repent and believe the good news!’ Turn away from your dark way of living and turn to the light of Christ.

But this isn’t an easy thing to do, to reject those desires that come from within ourselves, to reject the independence, selfishness and pride in yourself glorified by our culture, instead relying on God and doing all things for His glory not our own. Being a Christian, it seems in this day and age, means that society sees us as fools, weak, stupid and even hateful. We who want the absolute best for all the people God created are almost routinely called bigots for trying to spread that ‘wicked’ truth of God’s forgiveness, peace, hope and love for all. And though this is not easy, these people can only destroy our bodies, not our souls. And as Jesus tells us we should rather fear the one who destroys both body and soul, God Almighty. This is the truly difficult challenge, God’s truthful Word tells all people that everyone of us rejects God’s authority, His love and His help. It might be as simple as eating that chocolate you promised to your child so that you can pleasure yourself, as obvious as insisting that the church carpet remains the same to honour yourself, or as grievous as wishing death on someone who you’ve grown to hate. Many of the ways we reject God, we don’t even notice we’re doing it and if all the things you’ve done were tallied up, Godly on one side and questionable on the other, and not just what you’ve done, but also what you’ve said, what you’ve thought and even what you’ve had a passing desire to do; if all this was tallied up and God, who knows the truth, is to judge your life, how sure are you that you’ve been perfect? That is why Jesus is like a dangerous and harmful fire and why Malachi says, ‘who can endure the day He comes?’

However, the fire of Jesus only destroys evil and lies. He will purify the priesthood so that they will approach God Almighty’s throne without terror. Zechariah says, He will refine them by fire and they will be His people and they will call Him the Lord our God (Zechariah 13:9). And Peter writes that you are the royal priesthood, the holy nation; once you were not but now you are God’s people and receive His great mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10). Jesus came to bring you relief, not terror, forgiveness not condemnation and eternal life not death. And it is in Jesus by the Holy Spirit that we are being purified and made holy. It is not a painless thing as we live with God Himself and also alongside sin, we feel that guilt, harm even disgust or hatred at our own sinful and selfish actions and desires. That is God’s holy light burning away our sin and evil. But also we know that when we die and see Jesus as He truly is, or when Jesus finally reveals Himself to all, the light of Christ will destroy all our sinfulness and we will be free to live in peace with God for all eternity.

And that peace which passes all our understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham

First Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 2nd, 2018

Text: Luke 21:27,28,36

Then the Son of Man will appear, coming in a cloud with great power and glory.  When these things begin to happen, stand up and raise your heads, because your salvation is near.

Jesus is coming

Being prepared is really important. Whether talking about preparing for an exam, a trip overseas or a dinner party. The 19th-century explorer, Sir John Franklin, led an expedition that tried to reach the North Pole. Consider how prepared he was for that journey:

“Each sailing vessel carried an auxiliary steam engine and a 12-day supply of coal for the entire projected 2 or 3 year voyage. Instead of additional coal…each ship made room for a 1,200-volume library, a hand-organ playing 50 tunes, china place settings for officers and men, cut-glass wine goblets, and sterling silver cutlery. The expedition carried no special clothing for the Arctic, only the uniforms of Her Majesty’s Navy.” (1)

Imagine heading into the frigid wastelands of the North Pole with supplies like that! These explorers were totally unprepared for what they were about to face.

Today is the beginning of the Advent season, a time of anticipation, a time of getting ready for the arrival of someone important. Jesus will come back again, as out text reminds us – “the Son of Man will appear, coming in a cloud with great power and glory”.

The Advent season reminds us through the words of Jesus and people like John the Baptist, Paul and the Old Testament prophets that we should always be prepared for Jesus’ return because we don’t know exactly when this will take place. His reappearance will catch many people unprepared just as a thief comes during the night when the owners of the house are sleeping and unprepared for his unexpected arrival.

There was once a spider who lived in a cornfield. He was a big spider and he had spun a beautiful web between the corn stalks. He got fat eating all the bugs that would get caught in his web. He liked his home and planned to stay there for the rest of his life.

One day the spider caught a little bug in his web, and just as the spider was about to eat him, the bug said,
“If you let me go I will tell you something important that will save your life.”

The spider paused for a moment and listened because he was amused.
“You better get out of this cornfield,” the little bug said, “The harvest is coming!”

The spider smiled and said, “What is this harvest you are talking about? I think you are just telling me a story.”

But the little bug said, “Oh no, it is true. The owner of this field is coming to harvest it soon. All the stalks will be knocked down and the corn will be gathered up. You will be killed by the giant machines if you stay here.”

The spider said, “I don’t believe in harvests and giant machines that knock down corn stalks. How can you prove this?”

The little bug continued, “Just look at the corn. See how it is planted in rows? It proves this field was created by an intelligent designer.”

The spider laughed and mockingly said, “This field has evolved and has nothing to do with a creator. Corn always grows that way.”

The bug went on to explain, “Oh no. This field belongs to the owner who planted it, and the harvest is coming soon.”

The spider grinned and said to the little bug, “I don’t believe you,” and then the spider ate the little bug for lunch.

A few days later, the spider was laughing about the story the little bug had told him. He thought to himself, “A harvest! What a silly idea. I have lived here all of my life and nothing has ever disturbed me. I have been here since these stalks were just a foot off the ground, and I’ll be here for the rest of my life, because nothing is ever going to change in this field. Life is good, and I have it made.”

The next day was a beautiful sunny day in the cornfield. The sky above was clear and there was no wind at all. That afternoon as the spider was about to take a nap, he noticed some thick dusty clouds moving toward him. He could hear the roar of a great engine and he said to himself, “I wonder what that could be?”

Jesus knew that when the he came a second time there would be many people who would say, “I wonder what that could be?” and so he went to a lot of effort to tell us that he will return and that we need to always be ready.

He tells the story about a man who goes on a trip and leaves one of his workers in charge of his property and house. Before he goes, he gives the worker a list of jobs he expected to be completed while he is away. After the owner leaves the worker doesn’t worry too much about the jobs he had to do. The owner won’t be back for ages; there will have plenty of time to do those jobs just before the owner returns so he had a good time partying and having a great time. The owner came back suddenly and caught the man he had left in charge unfaithful and unprepared (Matt 24:45-51). Jesus concludes,
“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. What I say to you, then, I say to all: Watch!”

When Jesus ascended to heaven, he has left us in charge and gave us instructions what we are to do while he is away.
Go, make disciples… baptise…
love one another…
pray for one another…
do this often as you drink in remembrance of me….
trust and believe in me…
worship, pray, teach, listen to my Word,
live as God’s people.
He will come again and he wants us to be always ready for his return. There is no room for bludging and leaving things to the last minute. He will come back and he wants to find us carrying out his instructions and be prepared for the day when he “will appear, coming in a cloud with great power and glory”.

Jesus leaves us in no doubt whatsoever that the day will come when the history of this world as we know it, will be drawn to a close. The last page of the world’s history will contain a description of what took place when Jesus returned. “There will be the shout of command, the archangel’s voice, the sound of God’s trumpet, and the Lord himself will come down from heaven” (1 Thess 4:16).
When this happens people will cower in fear.
Everyone will run this way and that to escape.
Everyone will faint from terror,
everyone except people of faith.
According to Jesus, people of faith need not panic when they see this happening. Jesus says, “When these things begin to happen, stand up and raise your heads, because your salvation is near.”

How can I say that we do not need to panic and be terrified like the rest of the world when Jesus comes as judge? After all, aren’t we sinners, people who have disobeyed God? Haven’t we been loveless? Haven’t we been too eager to offer excuses rather than live as one of God’s people? On what basis can it be said that we have nothing to fear on the day Jesus returns?

There are two ways to view Christ’s return. Firstly, people can ignore their sin and the fact that Jesus will come again. When the end looms near, they will have every reason to panic. They will realise that they will soon face an audit of their lives and how they have regarded God. They will panic because they know they will fail the test.

On the other hand, people who face judgement acknowledging their sinfulness, receiving God’s forgiveness, don’t have to panic when they face the end. If all your wrongs have been removed, wiped out, eliminated, by the forgiveness that Jesus won for you by dying on the cross, then there won’t be anything left to judge on judgement day. Paul puts it like this, “You will be free from all impurity and blame on the Day of Christ” (Phil 1:10). For Christians the return of Jesus is not something to fear. In fact, when everyone else around you is overcome by panic, you can stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Our baptism assures us that we have nothing to fear when Christ returns. Not many of us can remember the day we were baptised but that doesn’t reduce its significance or power one bit. In baptism, we are united with Jesus Christ in such a way that the power of sin to condemn is destroyed. We receive Christ’s forgiveness, and are given the promise that we shall live with God forever in heaven. From the day of our baptism on and throughout our lives, we acknowledge our sins against God, family members, friends and even total strangers and we claim the promise of forgiveness which God gives us in baptism.

Daily our sins are judged;
daily we are forgiven;
daily we are made new and clean.
Therefore, we need not fear the end of the world, because our sin has been dealt with at the baptismal font. While the rest of the world is cowering in fear, Christians stand erect with uplifted heads because they have been made pure and blameless by the blood of Jesus.

When you get right down to it, baptism is not a very spectacular thing,. It involves standing at the font while some ordinary water is applied to your head and some ancient words are spoken. There is no dove hovering overhead. No booming voice of God declaring that you a holy son or daughter. There is nothing to cause the congregation to ooh and ah. There is no angelic choir singing the “Hallelujah Chorus”. There is only the Word of God in and with the water – very ordinary water from the tap and a few simple words.

Jesus Christ was born in a dark, lonely stable amid lowly animals, not in the crowd-filled streets near a shopping mall amid fireworks and thundering music. Those who came and looked into the manger saw just another tiny Jewish baby, born to very poor parents, in a small county town, in very turbulent times. This first advent of Jesus into our world was indeed very ordinary and humble, but we know what great blessings the tiny baby in the manger brought to our world.

When we were born again in baptism at a quiet font with ordinary water and simple words, look what power that humble ceremony has brought to us. And when Christ comes again, we will stand up and raise our heads in great hope and expectation, because we do not have to be afraid of Jesus’ return, our life to come is secure.

As we progress through the Advent season, let’s join with the church of all ages and say, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Come into hearts as the Christ-child. Come on the Last Day. Come with your grace into our lives. “Come, Lord Jesus! Come!”

(1) Quoted from Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

Mary did you know?

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017
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

Saturday, December 16th, 2017
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