Prepare the way for the Lord

Matthew 3:1-12


In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,

‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “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 for 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.

 “I baptize you with water. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Repentance―it’s a key theme of advent and clearly a focus of today’s Gospel reading. “Repent.” That word is the opening word spoken in today’s text. It’s not even softened with a sugar-coated preface. Human ears don’t like that word. It’s a word frowned upon and laughed at by society. It’s an idea that society says oozes with irresponsibility because it gets in the way of personal freedom in deciding and claiming for ourselves what we think is our right to have. Society protests: “How dare anyone else try to snuff out my right to have whatever I want, whenever I want it and tell me what I should and shouldn’t be doing!”

Even in the church it’s a word that grates and cuts against the grain of our human nature. “Outdated!” “Not progressive!” “Unloving!” “An impediment to mission!” we might argue. Or, those of us who call the church to take a stand against immorality might be heartened when we hear the word ‘repent’―until we realise that word is spoken to the unacceptable things we think or say or do ourselves. Then we quickly get to work at building the self-justification fortress: “Repent!?! Me?! We’re not that bad!!” our old self protests. “OK, we’re not perfect, but we’re pretty good.”

John the Baptist didn’t come to tell people everything was ‘OK’. “Repent!” he calls. What an unusual sight he must have been, eating locusts and wearing garments made of camel’s hair, the food and attire of the very poor. As he stood there in the wilderness, the hot, uninhabited gorge through which the Jordan flows―itself symbolic of the spiritual wasteland of the people’s hearts, devoid of any love for God―John drew people into a place where they were without the luxury, comforts, and security of their normal daily routine, to reflect on what they had prioritised in their life and how their priorities were at odds with God’s.

John saves the strictest rebuke for the Pharisees and Sadducees, very different religious sects in Israel, but with a common problem―they are assuming that because they were born into the covenant people Israel, they will be saved from the wrath to come simply because of their ancestry. Yet their hearts are far from God. They had all the external marks of religious respectability―and that is what they are trusting in. They have the false confidence that they have Abraham as their father and so have an automatic right to heaven. But they did not bring forth the fruit of genuine repentance and humility before God. John calls them to repent. He warns them the axe has gone far below the stump of the trees; it is already at the roots. Not so much as a twig will remain―God’s judgment is that they will be completely removed from the privileges he has given them.

Why does John make this call to repentance? Because the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Through the ages there have been so many predictions about how near the Kingdom of Heaven really is―even though Jesus teaches us that no-one knows the day or hour. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near”―those words can be hard for us to hear for other reasons―just how near is God’s Kingdom, given that these words were spoken some 2,000 years ago? How then can we be firm in hope that God’s Kingdom is near? Is it an empty promise?

Although we don’t know when God’s Kingdom will come again, we can know where it comes now. A kingdom is where ever its King rules over his subjects. In his explanation to the petition “Thy Kingdom come”, Luther explains in the Small Catechism: “God’s Kingdom comes indeed without our praying for it, but we ask in this prayer that it may come also to us. God’s Kingdom comes when our Heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy word and live a godly life on earth now, and in heaven forever.”

With this understanding of the kingdom, it might be easier to see what the Baptist means when he says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” The Kingdom is near―close by―in Christ, the King of heaven, who came all the way from heaven down to earth, born in a stable at Bethlehem to be God with us. In him the kingdom has drawn close by to us, and indeed is in us, as Christ rules over our hearts and uses his authority and power to serve sinners and bless them with his grace and bring, love, forgiveness and joy. John was the one that Isaiah had spoken of in Isaiah 40:3-4:

A voice of one calling in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,  the rugged places a plain.

Isaiah says that mountains and hills are to be levelled and valleys raised up. The hills and valleys are symbolic of the sin in the human heart that separates people from God. Just as levelling mountains and raising valleys is a task beyond human ability, so too is making a way through sin to fellowship with God. It is a task that is utterly beyond human power. Only God is able to construct a way through such obstacles. He must prepare a highway to come to his people and deliver them. That is what Jesus does for us. Notice that our reading does not say: “Make a straight path so we can travel to him.” It says “Make a straight path for him to travel”. God has made the roadway and travelled it first in the person of Christ. He has come near to us.

He made the way straight for you in your baptism, where the rough ways and mountains and valleys in your heart were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit at work through God’s word. Christ came to you and washed you clean at the font and joined you to his own death and resurrection. You were born again from above and the Holy Spirit created faith in your heart, calling you to Christ through the Gospel—even if you were asleep and blissfully unaware of what was taking place, and even if you cried and squirmed and protested.

Since the Kingdom is so near in Christ who reaches out with God’s grace, it is only appropriate that all people should long to receive this Kingdom and turn to Christ with their sins for him to free them from them. John the Baptist’s call to repentance is for our ears too. It is not just to escape judgment but to receive grace. For us the call to repentance is because, though Christ will come again, he is also already here. The freeway has been opened! In the person of Christ, the Kingdom of heaven is near, again, today. He has already spoken his absolution to you this morning. He has come with good news for you through the words of Scripture. He serves you this gospel as a holy meal that he hosts―his true body and precious blood. As he hands it to you he says: “This is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is near. It is 2000 years closer than when John first spoke these words in the Judean wilderness. The Kingdom of Heaven is near to you as we, the church, live in the wilderness of this age―the wilderness of western materialism, spiritual supermarkets, and spiritual wasteland of living for the self. The Kingdom of Heaven is near to you as we live in a consumer age that looks to filling the valleys of loneliness and the potholes of anxiety with things that promise hope but can’t give lasting peace. The Kingdom of Heaven is near to you as you live in a society with all its ethical and moral upheaval that has so many different ideas about what walking the straight path looks like, depending on opinion and trends. The Kingdom of Heaven is near to you as the church lives in a world that doesn’t want to hear the call of John the Baptist and in some parts would do anything to drown it out.

In days like this many of us might groan and wonder “Lord, how long? How near is your return?”

Rejoice that the Kingdom of Heaven is near to you, because you have the Christ. When we hear John’s words: “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near” we don’t know when that is…but we do know where. Thinking of the Kingdom of Heaven being found close by is actually of far more help to you than speculative dates of Jesus’ return. For when you look for the Kingdom of Heaven close by in worship; in God’s word and sacraments and in devotional time in the word of God each day, there Christ meets you with all the treasures of his grace, forgiveness, life and salvation for you. Looking for him there with repentant hearts and open hands waiting to receive is the best way to prepare for Christmas and your Saviour’s coming again―when he will take you to be with all the other saints of all times and places and serve you in the heavenly banquet that has no end.


Clothed in Christ

Romans 13:11-14  

 ‘Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ…’
(v14a NIV)

A lot of people say that you should never judge a book by its cover. There’s probably a lot of truth in that when we apply it to people; because there is usually a lot more going on in people’s lives than what we can see when we look at them. However, there are times when you can tell a lot about who people are and what they do by the way they dress.

For example, you can probably tell if people are firefighters by the uniform they wear, and that their job it to put out fires. People dressed in surgical scrubs are probably surgeons who operate on patients to help them recover from illnesses or injuries. Someone in a sporting uniform will most probably be an athlete who competes in a particular sport. Depending on the sport, the clothes that athletes wear might even tell us the position they play or what their role is in the team.

In each of these cases, there will be consistency between what a person wears, who they are and what they do. You wouldn’t want a person dressed like a fireman to do surgery in the operating theatre. Cricketers dressed like surgeons won’t be able to compete to their full ability. And there is no way you would want to fight a fire dressed like a netballer or a swimmer. What we wear can say a lot about who we are and what we do.

When the Apostle Paul encourages the Christians in Rome to be dressed in Christ, he wasn’t giving them fashion advice. Paul was encouraging the readers of his letter to find a new sense of who we are and what the purpose of our lives are through faith in Jesus.

Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus covers our sin, shame and guilt and gives us a new identity as children of God. Through faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit washes us clean of everything that makes us unacceptable to God, to others and even to ourselves, and covers us with the goodness, righteousness and purity of Jesus. When God looks at us, he doesn’t see our flaws, mistakes or failures. Instead, because we are clothed in Christ, God sees us as his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased (see Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22).

In the same way that the clothes firefighters, surgeons or sportspeople wear can tell us who they are, so being clothed in Christ tells us that we are God’s children who receive all of Jesus’ goodness as his gift to us through the Holy Spirit.

Just as it makes sense that what a firefighter, surgeon or sportsperson does will also reflect who they are, so the way in which God’s children live their lives needs to be consistent with being dressed with Jesus and who we are in him.

As surely as it is absurd to think of a fireman in an operating theatre, or a surgeon on a netball court, or a footballer fighting a fire, it makes just as little sense for the children of God to live in ways that are different from who we are as people who are clothed in Christ’s goodness. That is why Paul writes,

‘So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.’ (v12b,13 NIV).

Paul is urging us to be clothed in the goodness of Jesus so we live good lives which show the world who we are as God’s children.

When we live faithfully as God’s children, we bring the light of God’s goodness into a world that is often very dark. As we begin the season of Advent, in the coming weeks we will be remembering God’s gifts to us of peace, hope, joy and love.

People who live in our world, who live right next door to us, or maybe even live under our own roof, often need a greater sense of peace, hope, joy and love in their lives.

As we live in ways that are consistent with our new identity as people who are clothed in Christ, we can be the means by which God brings his peace, hope, joy love and light into people’s lives.

Christianity isn’t about following a set of rules to get into heaven, like a lot of people imagine. Instead, the Christian faith is about finding a new sense of who we are as people who are covered by Christ, and then living in ways that reflect our new identity as God’s children so God’s goodness and love can come into the world through us.

We all put our clothes on every day. This week, as you get dressed, remember that God gives you the goodness and love of Jesus to put on each and every day.

Jesus covers each of us and gives us a new identity as children of God whom he loves and with whom he is pleased, even before we do anything. In this garment of faith we are clothed with Jesus; all of his goodness and purity. And so we live each day as God’s children and bring the light of his peace, hope, joy and love into the lives of everyone we meet through all we say and do.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

“Go and tell that fox”

Luke 13:32
Go and tell that fox, “I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.”

            On the Sunday of Transfiguration before Lent began we heard an image of our goal in Christ. The human body completely united with God’s blazing glory. Jesus came down the mountain to defeat sin, death and the devil; casting out the demon from the boy, healing him and restoring him to his father. And last week you heard the Holy Spirit bringing Jesus out into the desert to fast and be attacked by demons. Tempted with those three great temptations of pleasure, possession and pride; and the devil departing for a time. Today we hear a veiled threat and the love of God.

            For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son to drive out demons and heal the people, to defeat sin, death and the devil for you. Jesus had been teaching, healing and casting out demons, casting wide the net of the Gospel; yet in doing so he had disturbed and angered the local leaders, the Pharisees and the scribes. Teaching, ‘unless you repent you too will perish.’ (Luke 13:5). Healing a woman, who was crippled by a demon, on the Sabbath, God’s day of rest; teaching the freedom of the Lord’s Day (Luke 13:10-16). And now the Pharisees confront Him, telling Him to leave under threat of death. But Jesus is not in a rush and He knows His work. “I will keep driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.” To show God’s love to the people, even when some of those people stood against Him.

            Jesus standing against death and the devil, yet not fussed by the people who stood against Him. Continuing His way of life, He stood firm. And this is what Paul is writing of to the Philippians (4:1). St Paul and many like him strove to follow in the example of Jesus, to live in His life, to do as He did. Listening to His Word, which stands forever, Paul believed God’s Baptismal Promises, that our citizenship is not here in Australia, but in heaven (Philippians 3:20). In heaven, where God reigns in glory and where sin, death and the devil have no power. And Paul more than believed, he eagerly awaited our Saviour from there, from the right hand of God, the Lord Jesus Christ (3:20). Awaiting our Lord who defeats sin, death and the devil and will destroy your sin, your death and your devils; transforming your bodies to be like His glorious body (3:21). This is God’s goal for all of humanity, the revelation of the mount of Transfiguration, that we become who Jesus is. This is why we encourage each other, why we try to explain the faith to others, to spread the News of His victory. This is why we have the Church Year, Lent; why we might fast, pray and give to those in need.

And this is what being a Christian is. When you are Baptised, you are baptised into Christ’s everlasting life. When you are Justified, God Justifies you, He makes you righteous, with Christ’s Justice, His Righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30). When you receive Holy Communion, Christ incorporates you into Himself, the two become one flesh. As you are united with Christ Jesus, you, together with all Christians, are becoming as He is. Fully reconciled with God Almighty, our Father; Eternally Victorious over sin, death and the devil; and glorified by Him in the New Creation, shining with His Eternal Glory. You have a foretaste of this today, a foretaste of God’s goal for us, of Christ’s goal; yet today, tomorrow, you struggle to follow His example again.

We struggle, especially as we focus, fast, pray, give to the needy, we struggle against sin death and the devil. And others stand against us, people, those we work with, our government, at times even friends and family; they stand against us when they set their minds on earthly things. Paul says not that they fast but that their god is their stomach, not that they pray but that they glory in shame (Philippians 3:19). Yet we have a helper, the Holy Spirit; we have a Saviour, Jesus Christ; and we have an ever-loving Father, God Almighty. He who made a total and unilateral commitment to Abraham, has promised forgiveness, and New Everlasting Holy Life in relationship with Him to you. He loves you.

That is why Jesus, despite those living as enemies of His cross, keeps working. A good example for us. A couple of days then on the Third day He would reach His goal. A few days until Good Friday, then on the Third day He would rise, resurrect, stand forever in victory. And we will receive Him today as we too proclaim, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”

And so the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now unto His coming in all glory. Amen!

Pastor Joseph Graham.

It’s all about Mary

The Text: Luke 1:39-45


Many of you in the coming days will spend time visiting friends and relatives or having friends and relatives visit you for various Christmas celebrations.

Some of you will play the part of host welcoming others into your homes.  And as I talk you’re probably running through the 100 things you still have to do, before your guests arrive. Being a host can be a busy or even a stressful task.

Others of you will be the guests this time around enjoying the hospitality of others, but that has its challenges too, packing travelling, managing time, perhaps attending multiple celebrations in multiple locations on the same day.

This is a special time of year to gather with loved ones and a blessing for those who are able to or have the opportunity to do so.

Today’s text describes another family get together, a visit between relatives. In fact it is usually referred to on the Christian calendar as the visitation—when Mary, having discovered that she is pregnant, travelled to the hill country of Judea to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is pregnant with her son John at the time. What happens then as Mary enters the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth?

There is an outpouring of emotion and joy and blessing, there is blessing for the host, there is blessing for the guest, and there is blessing for the whole home as it welcomes Mary and Jesus into its midst.  Let’s think about the hosts. First of all Zechariah and Elizabeth and little miniature John the Baptist about six months along at this stage.

They weren’t spring chickens these two.  Luke describes them as being well along in years. Elizabeth has finally been able to conceive but now Zechariah is unable to speak because he didn’t believe the angel’s words and that God was capable of giving them a child, so they have a few challenges to overcome. But all of that seems to pale in significance compared to the joy in their home and the good news she brings. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and later she says, “Why am I so favoured that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Elizabeth puts aside her challenges and distractions to simply rejoice and be grateful and express honour that such a special guest has come to her home. Elizabeth is excited, John the Baptist in the womb is excited. We’re not sure what Zechariah is because he can’t talk but we assume he is excited too that Mary, who Elizabeth calls the mother of her Lord, has come to stay.

Elizabeth recognises by the power of the Holy Spirit the miracle of what’s going on here. God hasn’t just entered the world but God has entered the womb. God has become embryonic, the infinite finite, the immortal mortal, the invulnerable vulnerable, the supernatural natural, the creator has entered his creation and the impossible has become possible.

This is the visit of our Lord into his world. We get so distracted by externals at Christmas time, by presents, by preparations, by food and drink and being a good host or a good guest. Elizabeth draws our attention to what is internal to her inner joy at Mary’s inner child. Being a good host isn’t easy. Do you know how long Mary stayed with Zechariah and Elizabeth? Three months. Do you know how long your relatives are planning to stay with you after Christmas? You better find out!

Mary was there three months, probably right up to the birth of John, but no doubt this time spent together involved great joy and blessing for them all.  So what about Mary?

As she travelled from Nazareth to Judea some 130 km away, there may have been the questions: what if they didn’t accept her? Believe her? Want her there? What if they didn’t make her feel at home? Often the anticipation of visiting, the uncertainty of visiting, can be one of the hardest parts, but once in the presence of her kinsfolk, once Mary arrives at her destination, all of that subsides. Elizabeth’s first words are words of welcome and words of blessing.  “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear!”. And later Mary also sings “From now on all generations will call me blessed”.

To be blessed is to be a recipient of God’s goodness and grace. The word blessing literally means a good word. So when Elizabeth blesses Mary and describes her as being blessed, what she is saying is that God has spoken a good word to her, and begun a good work in her that he has entrusted something good to her. 

From the angel’s message, to Joseph’s faithfulness, to Mary’s willingness, to Jesus’ presence, it all sounds to Elizabeth like good words, blessings, words of joy, words that speak of God’s goodness, and Elizabeth recognises then the source of blessing not simply above her or beyond her, but right in front of her. “Blessed is the child you will bear!”

God’s good word has entered our world, God’s good word, to overcome the many bad words of this world. God’s good word of forgiveness and healing and hope.  To overcome the bad words, of conflict and gossip and anger, that all too often cross our lips.

There is blessing for the host, there is blessing for the guest and finally there is blessing for every home that welcomes him.  Elizabeth says 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 fulfil his promises to her!”

John the Baptist leaped in the womb, he can’t contain his joy in the presence of his cousin Jesus. John the Baptist is bouncing for joy in his mother’s womb at the presence of his cousin but also his Lord—he would later say: “The one who comes after me ranks ahead of me.”

And Elizabeth announces once final blessing on Mary for her faith that God would do exactly what he said he would do, and send his Saviour for her and within her. This is the best blessing, not material wealth, not worldly success, not even physical safety and security and prosperity.  Beautiful Mary and-Elizabeth-like faith at the coming of Jesus into their homes, a good word and work from God.

So what will fill your home this Christmas? People perhaps? Maybe even for longer than you expected! Presents maybe?  Good food, good drink, the smell of ham and honey biscuits.  That’s all good stuff but it’s not the only stuff.

We have a responsibility and a privilege and a joy to keep before our hosts and before our guests and within our homes.  But the most important word and work of all is from the one who is our guest, our host, and our Lord…and the presence for every home this Christmas. Amen.

‘Joyful Salvation’.

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

Isaiah 12:2
“Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”

            Promise, love, now joy! The promises God fulfills, the love He shows through them, and the joy that is ours because of them. Like how a child, promised their favourite food on their birthday, rejoices as they enjoy that loving fulfilment. Or like a COVID contact, promised freedom and health after 14 days, rejoices as they leave their lockdown. We who are baptised and believe have been promised New Life Everlasting! All Our Heavenly Father’s adopted children are freed from the burdens of guilt, and the power of death! Rejoice! And again I say rejoice! (Philippians 4:4). You who are united with Christ, rejoice that your enemies, sin, death and the devil, have been defeated! You are free! Free to hope, to love, to rejoice, and to be at peace! What wonderful Good News, proclaimed today! God is our salvation!

            The Lord God is our strength and our song, He has become your salvation! All God’s Work through the Old Testemant points toward this singular joyful truth, just as we of the New Testament reflect it back. As Zephaniah proclaims, ‘Sing, shout aloud with the New Jerusalem, that beautiful and beloved bride of Christ, daughter of Zion (Zephaniah 3:14)! The Lord has turned back your enemy, and at that time He will rescue the lame, gather the scattered exiles and deal with all who oppress you; at that time He will gather us and all Christians, those who have died, those still suffering, all of His people; He will gather us rejoicing together, He will gather us home (Zephaniah 3:15-20). He will make straight paths, level hill and valley, and send that prophet out of the wilderness, proclaiming, “prepare the way of the Lord!” (Isaiah 40:3-5). John the Baptist, the prophet of prophets, the new Elijah, proclaiming on the wild banks of the Jordan a baptism of repentance; of turning to a new joyful way of life, the way of Christ’s life.

            John the Baptist, as we heard today, exhorting the people and proclaiming the Gospel on those banks, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Luke 3:18; 7). You snakes, who told you to turn to the One who loves you? Of course, we know just as they did, it was God’s own prophets who told the ancient Jews, the Holy Spirit Himself who drew them to the banks of the Jordan, just as He draws you here today. Now maybe like me, you don’t want to be the brood, the offspring, of a snake, maybe like me you want to be a child of God! And the crowd thought the same, “what should we do?” they cry. And John just repeats God’s Word to all people, from the beginning of time to now, ‘Trust in the Lord God and fear not’.

God is not just speaking to a chosen few, nor to just the respected of society, it is to the hated tax collector and the shunned soldier as well; His salvation is for all. So don’t rely on those other things for salvation. Don’t rely on the things of this life, rather give of your possessions, your food and clothes, to those who are in need; don’t abuse the power given to you, collecting more than required, or extorting or falsely accusing, rather be content with what you receive (Luke 3:11-14). For possessions and power will not save you from death; it is only God Almighty who can defeat all our enemies. For as the prophet proclaims, ‘behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation.      

            My strength is not in food, in health, in house or home. My song is not in money, in respect, in family or friends. These wonderful gifts of God are not my salvation; if I trust in them, I will be afraid of loosing them. The pregnant woman has been given a wonderful gift, yet if we trust in that child, we fear losing them. Yet the Child of the Virgin Mary, the Son of God, the lover of mankind, He has defeated death for us, and on the last Day He will gather us all to our everlasting home together. He is with you according to His promise, He loves you and He does not lie. With Jesus there is nothing to fear for He more terrifying than all that terrifies us, your own sin, death and demonic attack; He is stronger than all that oppresses us, and He has won the victory, in Him we are free. Yes, still you suffer sin, guilt, death and attack in this life; yet you are joined to Christ; in Him you are already dead and live by His life, His Resurrection is already yours, His Ascension is already yours and His coming in All Glory is the final revelation of your salvation. We commend ourselves to Him. As Isaiah sang and prayed this passage, The Lord God has become our salvation, with joy we draw living water from the deep wells of His salvation; never ending refreshment in Christ even in evil times; for we know what He has done, what He is doing and what He will do for us. He has promised us everlasting love for all creation, and in this certainty, we can rejoice!

            And as we await, the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, from now until He brings us all home. Amen.

A lovely Prayer

Philippians 1:9-11
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

            Last week was Promise, this week is Love. The love expressed by God in His promises to His people. A love given to all His people, and inspired by the Holy Spirit St Paul expresses that love here in prayer. He doesn’t just say, ‘Hello, I love you’ he tells us not just that he prays for us, yet also what his prayer is for you. Not just a love in words, but also in action. And this love of God, expressed in prayer changes both Paul and those he prays for. Yes, teaching us something of God’s love, yet also transforming those who pray this prayer; for where the written word is there the Holy Spirit is at work. So let’s have a bit of a look at this prayer.

This prayer of St Paul, for you. And inspired by the Holy Spirit; this is The Spirit’s prayer for you too. Over and above the groanings that words cannot express (Romans 8:26), here is a clear expression of God’s love for you. God’s love for you and all His people. To pray this prayer together with Him, indeed to pray any of His prayers; it’s an action that God willing is of blessing to those we pray for, yet also an action that transforms you. Because where the written word is, there the Holy Spirit has promised to be at work (1 Timothy 3:16-17; John 16:13). And in our praying to God, especially God’s own inspired written words, the temptation of pride is defeated. That arrogant desire to make life all about me, to make me boss and all to submit to me. Instead, in praying to God Almighty we act out our trust in Him that He is above us and not our slave; and when using His own words, those words inspired by the Holy Spirit, we submit to what He Himself desires for us, we learn His love for us, and our own words, our own ways of speaking will be transformed by His words of love. So try praying this prayer for those in your life, and as I pray this for you, and we pray for each other, let’s see if God’s love abounds more and more.

After all God loves you (John 3:16; 1 John 3:1; Ephesians 2:4). He wants the best for you, and so in His Word He reveals what is best for you and for all people. Here today He tells you that Saint Paul, and God Himself, the Holy Spirit, prays that your love may abound more and more. That your affection and service grow and overflow to all those around you; your family, friends, all the people that you meet, whom God has put into your eyes. To love in word and deed, yet not a love without focus. Not a love that is a doormat, not a love guided by others desires or deceptions; rather the love of God which abounds eternally.

He prays that your love grow with knowledge and all discernment. Love coupled with truth, or we can say, the only True Love which is of God. We know there is love that is destructive, there’s love that is entirely self-centred, we call that Narcissism; there is love that just enables one’s bad habits, even affirming them down dangerous paths, giving the bottle to the alcoholic; then there is love which lives for the benefit of the other. Christ lived, died, rose and ascended for those who hated Him, He loved us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). And now God prays that you continue to listen to and live alongside Christ who is God’s Righteous Wisdom and the discerning Judge of all (1 Corinthians 1:30).

And He prays that your love grow with right knowledge, so that you approve what is excellent; that you approve God’s Love, His Word and Work, His Law and Gospel. That your love, guided toward the true, good and beautiful, recognises Christ, God Almighty, as the source and pinnacle of truth, goodness and beauty. For He is excellent, the greatness and love of His Word excels all others; the wonder and love of His Work excels any other saviour. Jesus has defeated death, bound the devil, and dealt with the sin that separates us from Him (2 Timothy 1:10; Revelation 20:1-3/Mark 3:27; 1 John 2:2; John 19:30). That the Father excels all other builders, gardeners, creators; the Holy Spirit excels all other advocates, guides and gift givers. The Triune God excels all else, He is excellent, Glory to God in the Highest! and I pray we all approve and receive Him.

Him who prays that your love grow with right knowledge, to approve the excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the Day of Christ, filled with the fruit of His righteousness, to the glory and praise of God! It’s not just that you love, not just that you’re guided by the truth, not just that you receive Christ Himself; yet also that you would be ready for the Day of Christ, prepared for Christ’s birthday yes, but more so for the Final Judgement, the Day of the Lord. That you be filled with the fruit, the produce, of His righteousness; that you serve others by His strength in His love. This is the place of ‘good works’ in our lives, flowing from the love, truth and excellence you receive from God, not damming and storing within yourself, rather abounding and overflowing that others may glorify and praise God because of you. This is the prayer of Saint Paul, and it can be our prayer too.

Heavenly Father, fill us with your love that our loving abounds and overflows, with knowledge of You and all discernment; so that we approve what is excellent, what excels; and so be pure and blameless for Christmas and the Final Day of Christ, filled with the fruit that flows from His righteousness to your glory that all in our lives might praise you. We pray this with Paul, by the strength of the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now unto the Day of Christ. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

“The days of the sun are coming, they are here”

Jeremiah 33:14
“Behold, the days are coming”, declares the Lord, “when I will raise the good word I have spoken to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”

            One day it’ll happen, as they say, “Christmas is coming”, just you wait. And that is what this season of Advent is, awaiting the promised coming, in latin, the ‘advent’ of the Lord. Here in Australia, looking toward the heat again, the sun and fire of Summer, we remember again the promised purifying fire of the Day of the Lord. Now we do see the sun now and feel it’s heat, like a small fulfillment of a 40° Summer heat; but a time is coming when the sun full with all its glory will shine down on the earth. But Summer comes every year, Christmas too, what is it we are looking to? Are God’s promises fulfilled?

The days are coming, when God will fulfil the good promise He has made. When He will raise the good word He has spoken. And the word of the Lord will stand forever (1 Peter 1:25). In Scripture, God’s Word, often we see prophecy fulfilled multiple times, in greater and greater ways. Like the sun seen through Spring coming again hotter and hotter with the final promise of Summer. Take God’s promise to Abraham, ‘you will be the father of many nations’. Abraham received the son of this promise, Isaac meaning ‘he laughs’, yet also had other children who became nations in their own rites; the Midianites, Ishmaelites, Edomites, Amalekites, and of course the Israelites, down to the Jews, Palestinians and Arabs of today. Many nations. Yet Abraham is also the father of all who have faith in God Almighty (Galatians 3:7), as Christianity has spread this includes not just the Jews and Arabs, but all the Germanic nations, the Eastern Europeans, the Tigray and Amhara of Ethiopia, Koreans and many other nations. This promise, this Word of God stands forever, given all those years ago, it just keeps on giving!

And when we hear this prophecy from Jeremiah, the days are coming, know that it is the same. The days are coming says the Lord, Jeremiah writes this 15 times throughout his book, the days are coming. And the rest of the prophets promise those days and also the Day of the Lord; when He will come and save His people, when He will come and save the world (John 3:16). We hear God’s Word raised today, “I will fulfil the good promise I made”. Now this is translating the meaning of the Hebrew for us to understand. Yet the word for word translation is: “I will raise the good word”. Both translations mean the same thing, and yet ‘I will raise the good word’ hopefully reminds us of so much more. God’s good Word is raised every time we hear it read, raised into the air, our ears, our thinking. It was raised again after the exile in Jerusalem. After Greeks sacked the temple Judas Maccabees overthrew foreign rule and God’s good Word was raised again over and against idolatry, this is Hanukkah. Yet most specially God raised His good Word, raised Him up in Bethlehem, Egypt and Nazareth alongside the Virgin Mary and Joseph; the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us (John 1:14). After that first Christmas, is the prophecy of this promise now finished? Does God’s good Word now, lie down and rest? No! The Word of the Lord stands forever! Jesus, the Good Word, was raised up on the cross by His own choice and according to His own will, He is the one who lays down His life and He is the one who takes it up again (John 10:18). Raised on the third day, the Good Word speaks to His people. 40 days later, The Word made flesh is raised up with clouds to The Father Almighty, and He promised to reveal Himself in all His fiery glory on the Last Day.

This is the promise of God, His rising over all things in Glory and revealing Himself to all. And yes, the days are coming. And yet God’s Good Word is still not sleeping, He is still active today. Raised again in our speech, God’s Word proclaimed from the Scriptures; and our confession of what He has done, is doing and will do, in the Creed, we proclaim up into all creation. His Word raised in promise at Baptism, at the Absolution, and the Word Incarnate Himself raised in Holy Communion, with the bread and wine. Today we participate in those days, today we see this wonderful promise fulfilled again, today and now we are with Him in Paradise. And yet there is still more. When you die, the faithful go to be with Christ; yet still awaiting the Resurrection. And the whole of Creation awaits that time too. Perhaps there is a reprieve from war, or from disease, or famine, even a reprieve from corruption in the church from antichrists; yet the reprieve is nothing compared to the final fulfillment of God’s Promise. When the Word of God Stands forever in Glory. Yes, He is here with us now, according to His Promise, yet then we will see Him face to face, to reign with Him not hidden in humility as we do now, yet in Glory the Wonderful Glory that He Himself has promised us all.

So raise God’s Good Word, the Promise of the Gospel, today in your lives, in your homes. Hear and receive the blessings of His promise to you today as you await the final fulfilment. Encourage each other in meeting and prayer all the more as you see The Day approaching. And live where Christ has called you, with one foot in Paradise.

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now unto His Glorious Advent. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

‘Hail, Christian, full of grace!’

Luke 1:35
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

            Christmas is coming we say, but now it’s 4 sleeps away. Are you ready? In this season of Advent we have been hearing God tell us of His coming, of the reconciliation between God and humanity. The first Sunday we heard that He is the potter and we the clay, He is the only one who can fix us, heal and recreate us. The second Sunday we heard that Jesus is fire and life, to purify us and provide everlasting life with Him. Last Sunday we heard that the Holy Spirit is the one who makes us holy, I mean it’s all in the name, and what a joy that is, thank God for His mercy.

Now today, what has our Lord said to you? What have you heard? Who is God? One thing is that He is triune, The Holy spirit will come on you, … the power of the Most High will overshadow you, … the Holy one being born will be called the Son of God. Holy Spirit, Most High Heavenly Father, and God the Son. And in the three Sundays of Advent, the Father is the potter, the Son brings fire and life, the Holy Spirit makes us Holy. Though our God is a mystery, still this is our God, Father, Son and Spirit, and He is at work for you.

God Most High, over all power and authority, all corporations, governments, laws of physics, ghosts, movements, spiritual beings; anything you might hear. This God, God of gods, is the one who sent His messenger to show and give His grace to a young lowly girl in Palestine 2000yrs ago. Gabriel said, Grace/Rejoice! You who’ve received grace, the Lord is with you! Do not fear Mary, for you have found grace alongside God! The Most High has shown His mercy, filled Mary with grace, free gifts of God, she is truly blessed over and above all women who have ever lived and ever will live. The Most High chose Mary to be the mother of our Lord Jesus, the mother of God.

It truly is a mystery, yet our Lord, God the Son, came down from high above all things. He came down for you. He came down to take on our humanity, from the embryo, the zygote, the gamete, again I don’t really understand, it is a mystery; yet still He took on our humanity from the smallest beginning through birth, childhood, adolescence, maturity and death. He did this to sanctify the fallen human life, that all who are joined with Him, who trust Him, who find their identity in Him might live a holy life and become fully reconciled with God Almighty (Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:20). This is the wonder of Christmas, the mystery of the incarnation, god became man so that we might be united with Jesus. That when you hear Jesus’ life from Christmas to the ascension, you might know that this is your life; as Paul says we are being conformed to Jesus, to live is Christ, it’s no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me (Romans 8:29; Philippians 1:21; Galatians 2:20). And even here, at the very beginning of His human life, you are there.

Mary is the first Christian, even before Elizabeth’s child leaps in her womb, Mary hears and believes. And as the first Christian we can find ourselves in her. How did your Christian life begin? How did you first come to trust in Jesus, to receive your new life in Christ? It was in the same way Mary did, you heard the Word of God (Romans 10:17). As the ancient Christians put it, Jesus was conceived by the ear. Through hearing comes life. You heard the Word God brought to you, perhaps by the mouth of a pastor as the Holy Spirit baptised with water and the Word, or the mouth of a friend speaking the Word given by the Holy Spirit in love, or even maybe a televangelist yelling God’s Word through the speakers and the Holy Spirit opening your ears to hear. You need help, need healing, need a saviour. A strong and compassionate King to protect you and show how to live. A prophet to tell you the truth, even the hard ones; that you cannot fix yourself. A priest to intercede between you and the one who is able to do anything, God Almighty. You need Jesus.

And the wonderful Good News is that, He has come down to bring you joy, peace and life in Him. The question in this season of preparation is, are you ready to receive it? Mary responded, by God’s grace, “I am the Lord’s servant, May your word to me be fulfilled.” These are the words of the Christian. God in His great mercy has freely given you the Word to respond.

Now as you hear God’s Word; the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now to the grace filled everlasting life. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

The joy of Christmas

1 Thessalonians 5:23
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you completely and in every part. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

            Rejoice always! And again I say Rejoice! (Philippians 4:4). This is the Sunday of joy, the 3rd Sunday of Advent. And last week, on the 2nd, I asked, ‘how are you preparing for the coming of Jesus the Christ, God incarnate’. And here we have our description of the Christian’s life awaiting the Lord. Joy, prayer, and gratitude, this is God’s will for you in Jesus Christ. Don’t stifle the Spirit, or reject prophecy; but test them all. Hold tight to the good, reject all evil and keep away from it. This is the life of the Christian as we prepare for God and His coming.

            But why should we be joyful? How can we be when life is so stressful and tough? When we are hurt or injured, when we struggle with financials or ourselves, when our families are so far from us; there is so much to worry us and to trap us in despair. We all know people who have been broken, we all hear others’ complaints and whining, and we have all felt at times that we’re just trudging through life; up an eternal hill, dragged through gravel, or simply putting one foot in front of the other. You know what it is to have no joy. And yet, Paul tells the Thessalonians, now at the end of the letter, to rejoice!

            Paul had told them of who God was, of what He had done, and what He had promised. And you! You have heard from the Psalms, Isaiah, Paul and John, God telling you the same, and we have confessed together with Christ’s whole church a summary of this in the words of the Apostles Creed. Why should we be joyful? In prayerful communion with God? Giving thanks in all circumstances? For the same reason the ancient Hebrews could rejoice after God brought them out of slavery into the desert; relief and gratitude that God provided for them still, not even their sandals wore out in all those 40 long hard years (Deuteronomy 29:5). The same reason the lame man was jumping and leaping and praising God after Peter freed his legs (Acts 3:8). The same reason that Jairus’ family could rejoice when Jesus healed his broken daughter, “talitha koum” and she rose from the dead (Mark 5:41). Freeing the oppressed, releasing those trapped/imprisoned, and restoring the broken (Isaiah 61:1). And God the Father, through Jesus, by the Holy Spirit has brought you too from death to everlasting life.

            We know what it is to be broken, and we know everyone suffers sin. All humanity has been separated from God who is the source of life, when we reject His Word and listening to other things going after them we cut ourselves off from Jesus, from holiness and life, joining ourselves to sin and death (Romans 6:16-18). But you have been forgiven! The Holy Spirit has brought you back to repentance, turning toward Jesus! He has even given you the words and the strength to confess your sins, your failures, your separation from Jesus. And He has promised you, ‘I forgive all your sins’.

Now forgiveness isn’t just, oh it’s all okay now, it is so much more. You are divorced from your sin and betrothed to Christ in righteousness (Ephesians 5:25-27; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Revelation 19:1-7). You are united to Jesus who is the resurrection, life over death (John 11:25). Why can we be joyful, prayerful and thankful in this life? Because of Jesus, God and humanity reconciled in Himself. But do not hear this as a command, a job you must do to reach Jesus, as if He only speaks to the happy and content.

How can we be joyful? God Himself comes down to you, the Son came down and became human, the God-man Jesus Christ, the Incarnation. You cannot force yourself into heaven by good works, virtue or anything else, nor can you force God down. But He comes to us in love, and sanctifies us completely and in every part. He is the one who makes holy, who unites us broken people to Himself in Jesus, restoring us, recreating us together, healing us to everlasting life with Him the source of all life. This is not just a future reality, something that will happen one day perhaps long after I am dead and my bones are dust (Genesis 3:19), this happened 2000yrs ago, He is restoring you now, a foretaste of what is to come, and certainly, as Paul prays, ‘may you wholly be kept blameless at Christ’s coming’ when the heavens and the earth will be destroyed, the new creation and the final and eternal reconciliation (2 Peter 3:12-13). And so in advent we await the coming incarnation, the reconciliation of God and man, Jesus’ birth and the final revelation. Yet today He comes to you, through His Word and Sacrament. Comes to separate you from your sin and failures, to set you anew on His path that is peace, joy and love; The Holy Spirit comes to make you Holy. This is who God is, the one who makes us Holy, so speak to Him with joy!

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now to life everlasting. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

‘The fire and life of Christmas’

Mark 1:3
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

            I was reflecting this week, with all the white cotton snow appearing, the thick coat of Santa Claus, the reindeer and all that. It’s interesting how, so much of our Christmas traditions began in the cold winters of the far north, and yet here we are in the stinking hot Australian Summer. In the north they watch the nights get longer and colder, and strain toward that shift when the light increases and they know that the new life of Spring is coming. Where this time last year, we were looking into the face of a furnace. Burning smoke, charcoaled scrub, death and destruction. In this season of Advent, it’s as if our northern brothers and sisters look toward the new life we have in Christ, where we down here see the fire coming on the Day of the Lord.

            And it’s just as God says, Mark quoting prophets, both Isaiah and Malachi the last before John the Baptist. From Malachi (3:1), ‘Behold I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me,’ then follows the Day of the Lord. When God Himself comes like a refiner’s fire, and purifier’s soap, to refine and purify His people and to judge the wicked. Like our fiery summer and soapy cold showers. The second quote we heard today from Isaiah, comfort comfort all my people, the Lord comes to tend His flock and recreate the whole world (Isaiah 40-41). As our siblings wait for the new life of Spring. So John the Baptist proclaims the Day of the Lord, the fire and the life.

            Now I asked last week, who is God? This week, what is the Day of the Lord? And I can ask it another way, who is Jesus? This one for whom John prepares the way. As Malachi prophesied the messenger prepares the way for God Himself, then as Isaiah proclaimed the one to bring comfort and the new creation. This one who brings the fire of God’s glory and New everlasting life from dead. This baby kept in hay.
When the people heard John, they knew God was soon to fulfill His promise. The Day of the Lord was near! John’s proclamation! The kingdom of God has come! The Good News of Jesus. And truly He has come into this world bringing fire and life. However, the Day of the Lord didn’t look the way they wanted it, Jesus came humble in the flesh, lived, died, His glory hidden. Yet still, 2000yrs ago the sky did grow dark, the earth shook, and sin was killed with Jesus, God’s people purified in His death. Then in the dark of night, like at His birth, the Son of Man rose from the dead, life to all us united in Him. Just as John proclaimed in the desert, Jesus is the refiner’s fire, He is the New Creation without sin or death. And you who are baptised in Jesus’ name, by the Holy Spirit, are together with Jesus, fire and life.

            What does this mean for you? John said prepare the way of the Lord, and people came, heard, and were baptised. They repented, turned away from their sin, toward God’s promise, toward God’s Word. They repented in preparation for Christ, the forgiveness, the removal of our sin. They were waiting, we’ve been waiting. John told them to prepare, now the Holy Spirit brings you that same command, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths. So I’ll leave you with this question. As we look together toward the fire and life; how do we make ready for the coming of Jesus, for the Day of the Lord? How do you prepare for Christmas?

            The Holy Spirit guide you as we long for that Day, and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now unto that Day. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.