Archive for the ‘Advent’ Category

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

When the silence begins

Saturday, December 9th, 2017

Isaiah 40:1-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.  Come Lord Jesus.

Left in charge

Saturday, December 2nd, 2017

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

Who’s naughty or nice.

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016
  1. MATTHEW 24:36-44   LENT 1

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

Christmas is coming, this is the first Sunday in advent and I’m sure that in the stores there is an abundance of the Christmas carols and songs being played. Unfortunately a lot of these songs and carols are played to prick our consciences;     so that we will spend more money in good-will toward one another. I have to confess that I haven’t been shopping yet this year, but I live in HOPE.  I’m hoping Yvonne has bought me something.
I have to confess that I don’t get the opportunity to listen to the radio all that much and I’m not aware of the Christmas tunes that are being played, but I remember a few years back there was a song that everyone was talking about, the title was, “GRANDMA GOT RUN OVER BY A REINDEER.”

I have never heard it, have any of you? I am led to believe that it has been around for quite some time.  I dread to think what the words must be.

One of the popular songs that I have heard is “SANTA CLAUSE IS COMING TO TOWN.” The words sound very much like an effort by parents to get children to behave during the next few weeks.
If you think I’m going to sing it your wrong, I will recite the words. “YOU BETTER WATCH OUT, YOU BETTER NOT CRY, YOU BETTER NOT POUT, I’M TELLING YOU WHY: SANTA CLAUSE IS COMING TO TOWN.
And especially the next few lines, “HE’S MAKING A LIST, CHECKING IT TWICE, HE’S GONNA FIND OUT WHO’S NAUGHTY OR NICE.” Some people think of God that way. People tell their children that God is watching them and if they be naughty God will punish them.Please don’t tell your children or grandchildren that, tell them instead that God is a loving God.
Lent is a time of living in expectation, of HOPE, waiting for our Lord. It is a time of preparation, a time to prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus.
It was Christmas many years ago when a soldier named  Rex  was stationed in Korea as a young  lieutenant. His wife and baby daughter, whom he had never seen, were home in Australia. On Christmas morning the thermometer hovered around zero with several inches of snow covering the ground.
Outdoor worship services were planned for that morning. Although no one was required to attend services, Rex went out of respect and “to set a good example for the even younger soldiers.” Nearly two hundred  turned out for the service. They sat on their helmets in the snow. They faced a small portable altar. The chaplain had no microphone, and the portable organ suffered from the extreme cold.Something happened to Rex in that worship service. God broke through into his life. He thought of all that was precious to him: home, his wife, his unseen infant child. In that moment as they tried to sing Christmas carols in the cold air he realized that Christmas does not depend on church architecture or fine clothing, expansive meals or expensive gifts. Instead Rex claimed, “Christmas is best celebrated as a voluntary act in which we replenish our personal faith; in the company of others.” Far from home and loved ones, Rex realized “that Christmas Day, in itself, is not important, but the faith it represents is.”

Let us not forget in the coming weeks that Jesus is the reason why we celebrate Christmas. Advent reminds us that God often breaks into our lives in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. At those times we discover that we must change our ways and realign ourselves with Jesus Christ.

 In Isaiah we read, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

 That name means “God with us.” That would be a sign that God would save his people. Centuries pass by, and finally;          the hope of the world comes through;      the hope of a girl.

 Saint Luke tells us about it. The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a little out-of-the-way town up in the Galilee district. He spoke a simple message to a simple peasant girl. Her name was Mary. She was just a teenage girl, whose future had already been planned for her by her family and the family of a man named Joseph, a carpenter by trade.

 But God had other plans for Mary. He chose her to be the mother of the Messiah.                God chose her because she was only engaged, and there would be no doubt this virgin was having God’s Son and the son of no other. But we know people, don’t we? And we know what they said about her.

 However, she and Joseph held onto what the angel Gabriel had said about him: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”

 It is here in this event that we see coming together in Bethlehem the hope of a girl and the hope of the world.     Young Mary, approaching marriage, had wonderful hopes about her own little family and the birth of her own little children.

 Her hopes came together with God’s plan about his Son who would be born to become the hope of the world.   The hope of this girl has become the hope of the world — AND HE IS OUR ONLY HOPE  This is what the Advent season says to us. Prepare to receive the hope of the world. The commentary on this passage in Luke says, “The glory of Christmas came about by the willingness of ordinary people to obey God’s claim on their lives.” I wonder if you are willing to do that, to obey God’s claim on your life?

If you are; you will experience the glory of Christmas, and you will find hope in your life, the hope of the world. I want to tell you why this child became the hope of the world.

 He is the hope of the world because he is God coming to us. Gabriel said to Mary, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.” He is God coming to us. He is bringing God into our world and our experience. We have him as a part of our lives today and will forever. That is what this Advent time of preparation is all about. We are getting ready to celebrate the fact that he is God coming to us.

 Years ago in a small European town a visitor noticed that on one of the streets THERE IS A WALL. And when the citizens of the town walked by it they would nod and make the sign of the cross. As he stood there and watched he observed that they all did this. He became curious about the practice and began to ask around.

 But no one could tell him what it meant. Finally, he obtained permission to investigate the wall. He began to chip away at layers of paint and dirt. He discovered underneath a beautiful mural of Mary and her baby.

 People had always made the sign of the cross as they passed by that painting even after it was covered over. They had passed on the tradition, though the reason for it had been lost.

 Remove some of the things in which we dress Christmas and there beneath the surface you come to the central meaning. And you find there this beautiful story about a young girl and her baby – the hope of a little girl and the hope of the world.

 On these Sundays we are thinking together about the theme, “They Came Together In Bethlehem.” And today we turn to this: “The Hope Of A Girl – And The Hope Of The World.”                                             

 Long ago the prophet Isaiah saw a time when God would send a Messiah to set his people free. In a few weeks we will celebrate the birth of our Lord! Jesus was born of a woman, lived on this earth and died for our sins; so that we could be free.

 The Isaiah passage has a beautiful image. At the close of chapter 10, the hopeless fall of Assyria is magnificently pictured as the falling of the cedars of Lebanon by the axe swung by God’s own hand.

 I’m told that a cedar once cut down will not put out any new shoots. So the great Assyrian power has fallen and will fall forever. The metaphor is carried out in surpassing beauty in the 11th chapter

 It, too, is the picture of a shoot growing out of a stump — but not a cedar stump — an oak, which everyone knows will put out new growth from the old. And Isaiah uses that to talk about the coming Messiah: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse.”

Here is the beautiful prophecy of the coming Messiah, the coming of Jesus Christ out of the line of David,          specifically from the shoot of Jesse — a shoot that will grow up out of that stump to flower and bless all humankind.

It was that kind of longing for the coming Messiah that was expressed over and over again in the heart and mind and soul of ancient Israel.

That Messiah came in Jesus Christ — grew, taught, ministered, was crucified, was raised by God from the dead and ascended back to the Father from whom He had come. But now the Gospel writers are telling us that this One will come again. That’s the witness of Scripture. “Look up and raise your heads,” says Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, “because your redemption is drawing nigh.”

So we believe — so we pray “Come, O Come Emmanuel.” That’s the way we sing it; when singing;  it expresses far more than we can simply say. The promise of Advent is that word from the prophet Isaiah,

 “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” And the ringing call of Advent is the word of Jesus from Luke, “Look up and raise your head,  for your redemption is drawing nigh.”

 To-day the WORD is fulfilled in our hearing! To-day all that Jesus accomplished in His perfect life, His innocent death, His glorious resurrection, all that Jesus did is applied to us, fulfilled in our ears full of His word.

 Advent is a time of HOPE! Hope that our Saviour will come! Hope that we will be ready for HIM. Our hope is not in vain, as Jesus has promised us, HE WILL RETURN; He  is preparing that place for us.                                 His great love for us is real, HIS GRACE for us is real.   There is no need for us to fear, for Jesus loves us.So we believe — so we pray: “Come, O come Emmanuel.”

Amen.

Pastor Ian Kotzur

 

 

How deep the Father’s love for us

Saturday, March 12th, 2016

John 12:1-8

StMarksIt’s the time of the Passover and Jesus knowing he is a marked man by the Jewish authorities, shows courage beyond belief and has walked into the lion’s den and gone to Jerusalem knowing the fate that awaits him. But this night he is sharing a meal in the home of Martha and Mary.

Martha as usual is busy working and serving others with the meal preparations. Lazarus, who has only been recently raised from the dead, is present and then there’s Mary and Judas whose actions are poles apart.

Mary in her love for Jesus has thrown human convention of thought or society standards out the window. Firstly the ointment she applies to Jesus feet was worth in today’s standards a full year’s wages. Was this a family heirloom that she has saved for her “retirement” but know sees a more worthwhile purpose. It seems a strange thing to have ”lying around the house” but makes me think of those post-apocalyptic movies where they end up using cash notes to keep the fire going. However this “pot of gold come to be”, Mary continues in her disregard for society logic and ways by wiping Jesus feet with her hair. An act is not just showing her humility and love, but has also smashed through the glass ceiling as no respectable women would ever appear publically with their hair unbound as it was considered immoral.

Then at the other end of the spectrum is Judas who having been given the job of “treasurer” by Jesus says what would seem logical, to sell the precious ointment and use the proceeds to feed the poor and if we were there and unaware of the truth that he actually wanted to take some of the proceeds for himself, this would seem a reasonable and sensible suggestion. While this is going on Martha and Lazarus are in the back ground and as the family fortune one way or another is about to leave the building, seem quite content. It is an amazing scene.

While for us to hear of the love and generosity of Mary, Martha and Lazarus is humbling, it’s also if we are honest unfathomable, because if we could truly put ourselves in that household, I’m not sure we could guarantee to be a Martha, Mary or Lazarus any more than we could guarantee not to be calculating and self-considering like Judas.

Yet right amongst this. Amongst Mary’s almost unparalleled throwing of “caution to the wind” in her love for Jesus, Martha’s dedicated work and support for all those present, Lazarus chatting with and entertaining his guest and saviour at the table and Judas, the one given the trust of and being in charge of the money yet who is pilfering of the proceeds and who will soon go one step further and give up Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. There in the centre of this condensed overview of society sits Jesus who will shortly throw himself to his accusers in the sure knowledge that their response to him will be unjust, spiteful, cruel and terminal.

He walks towards them, and towards his cruel death in his love for Mary, Martha and Lazarus. And he walks towards them and towards his cruel death in his love for the Judas’ and his love for those plotting against him. A man who after having experienced the love of Mary and the hatred of the authorities will ask his Father, ask the one with limitless power “To forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

Yes, in times we may not know what we do, and in others we are blatantly aware. It is what it is ab whether we chose to be where we are in our lives at this moment or just seem to have fallen here is not the point. The point is that because Jesus has chosen you, you can choose to live a life irrespective of where that may be. Whether with the open love of Mary or the hidden sin of Judas, when life is seen through the grace bestowed by God the Father to us through faith in Christ alone you are free “to shoot for the stars” or free not to, because in Christ you are following your dreams no matter what shape they take.

You are not Mary, Martha, Lazarus or Judas. You are who you are and that is who Christ loves. Thinking of you as you are today Christ went to the cross, not for what you should or will be-but who you are today. So live life, walk in the rain in your shorts or use an umbrella it doesn’t matter as either way you do not walk alone. That the outward love of Mary we may not have, but the love of Christ to Mary we do have, and that’s what matters, and knowing that is living a life.

Two thousand years ago Jesus in his love for those who knew him and loved him he walked to the cross. Two thousand years ago Jesus in love for those who neither loved him nor knew him he walked to the cross and asked the Father to forgive them “for they know not what they do”.

Two thousand years ago Jesus walked to the cross knowing that a group of sinners will be here today needing to be forgiven. And as he sees us groping in the dark with our sins. Sees us make mistake after mistake and sees us in our “Judas” moments as we selfishly turn away from the need of others. Yet in hearing our cries for help and forgiveness and knowing that he is our only chance, he sees our faith like that of the precious ointment that Mary placed at his feet. That he sees us trust in nothing other than faith in him alone and risk being ridiculed by those around us, he turns to the Father and says “you know what they do, but forgive them-for you know what I have done for them”.

And so it is here for you today, washed clean, No need of regret. But refreshed in spirit for you know the truth, and that truth is Jesus Christ. And in faith in Jesus Christ-you have the most remarkable and greatest gift that truly does make a mockery of our other value systems, because in the cold light of day, when the Lord says “my grace is sufficient for thee”, we see not a man giving away his retirement fund, but see God the Father do the unfathomable as said so well in the song we are about to sing:

“How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure.”

The love of the Father so great that we cannot comprehend it this side of heaven. But the love of the Father that heard His Son’s Word’s on the cross and said yes my Son, yes-it is finished-because their trust in my grace is enough.

Amen.

It was like an act of treachery.

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

StMarksI’ve seen several times, particularly in farming where a son asks for his share of his inheritance so that he can be independent.But this young man, the prodigal son (noting that the word prodigal means to “live extravagant and wastefully” )This prodigal son gave his father the greatest insult and hurt you could imagine.His leaving home was one thing,but back in those times in him asking his father for his share of the inheritance, he was effectively wishing that he-the father was dead. Itwas like an act of treachery.

Yet, his loving and generous father,much I would imagine to the disgust his local community family agrees to his requestand once received,the son promptly sets off on a long journey to a distant land and begins to waste his fortune on wild living.
When the money runs out, a severe famine hits the country and the son finds himself in dire circumstances.

He takes a job feeding pigs, and as pigs were considered unclean in Jewish society, and that he is working for gentiles, he has fallen to the lowest of the low, never mind that he is so destitute that he even longs to eat the food assigned to the pigs.

The young man is destitute and without friend, favor or future and if he still has any pride left,he would have surely felt those eyes looking,yet not looking as experienced by those in our society seen picking up cigarette butts or asking for a few dollars.
And to add insult to injury, we know as does he, that this prodigal son he has no one to blame but himself.

The shame and guilt carried that can consume a person and alluringly, almost teasingly entice further self-destruction.

This man is on the knife edge but in his desperation he remembers what once was and by the grace of God sees a ray of hope in life, that of returning home-only not as a son to the man he hurt and insulted, but to beg to be his servant.

The father who had been watching and waiting, seeing his bedraggled looking son walking towards him rushes out, stops his son in his tracks and before his son can get out his planned speech, receives him back with open arms of compassion.

He is overjoyed by the return of his lost son! Andvirtually  immediately the father turns to his servants and asks them to prepare a giant feast in celebration.

Meanwhile, the older son is not one bit happy when he comes in from working the fields and discovers a party going on to celebrate his younger brother’s return.

And dare I say could we not understand this after seeing his brother having sought his share of the inheritance, blowing it, returning with nothing only to be smothered in love by his father.

Maybe thoughts of now he will get another slice of the inheritance pie came to mind.But the father tries to dissuade the older brother from his jealous rage explaining,“You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

We are left at the end of the parable to wonder the outcome of the older brother.But it would seem, one son has returned, one is still on his journey.In our busy lives we walk past people.Stressed we have arguments and disagreements.Wronged we seek justice and when unloved we become unloving until that moment when it’s too late.

To when if only we could have that one more moment where we could take that loved one in our hand and hold them once more.Not to forgive them because that’s not even a thought,but just to have them home again and be with them is enough.Even though we are sinners, we know that love.

That love though which is miniscule and judgmental in comparison to God the Fathers who gave his own Son for you, so that you like the son returned home-so it is too you.

When the boy came home, he had everything he threw away restored by the good grace of the Father.

  1. The Robe – His Purity – Here stands the son in the rags of his sins. He doesn’t look like a child of this father. But, the father orders the best of his robes to be brought and to be put on the son. This robe would cover all the stains and dirt of the pig pen. This robe would make him look like the father. Imagine a servant walking up, who had net been there when the son returned home and seeing this boy from behind in the father’s robe. He would naturally mistake him for the father! This robe served to erase all the visible signs of this boy’s sinful past. When a sinner comes home, they also receive a robe from the heavenly Father. This righteousness is not the righteousness of good works or of human goodness. No, this is the very righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to those who receive Him by faith. When we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ, all the pain and the stain of our past is forever washed away! All the dirt and the filth of a life of sin is forever washed away from us!
  2. The Ring – His Privileges – After the robe came the ring. The ring was a symbol of son ship and authority. The one with the ring could speak for the Father! The one with the ring had access to all that belonged to the father! The one with the father’s ring was in a position of great privilege! When old, lost sinners repent of their sins and come home to the Father, they are given the great privilege of being recognized as His sons, 1 John 3:1-2. They are given the privilege of speaking for the Father, Act 1:8. They are allowed access to all that belongs to the Father as well, Rom. 8:17, Psa. 24:1; Psa. 50:10. When we come to the Father, He opens the storehouses of His grace and gives us everything He has!
  3. The Shoes – His Position – The father calls for shoes to be brought for the feet of his son. Only the slaves went barefoot, sons wore shoes! This boy returned home desiring to be just a mere hired servant, but the father is determined to recognize his position as a son! In the boy’s eyes, he didn’t even deserve to be a slave, but even lower, even a hired servant. The father, however, looked at him and said, “This is my son!” The father alone determines the position and worth of his children! Saved by grace, you became a child of God! He no longer sees you as a slave or as a sinner, but he sees you as His darling child, whom He loves like He loves His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ! We are right to humble ourselves in His presence, but let’s never forget that if we are saved by grace, that it is the Father Who determines our standing in the family and not we ourselves! What I am saying is this: Don’t let the devil or the flesh keep you down by telling you that you are not worthy to be a child of God. In Christ you are truly saved, you have been accepted by the Father in Heaven and He has called you His child!
  4. V. 23-24 He Found Rejoicing – Ill. The fatted calf was kept for special occasions. The fatted calf was the Father’s way of sharing His joy with all around. Instead of a wasted life, the father was celebrating a life redeemed and restored! So it is when a sinner returns home to God tb he Father! There is rejoicing in Heaven. There is rejoicing in the House of God. And, there is rejoicing in the heart of the redeemed sinner!

All that have walked this earth apart from Jesus have sinned. Yet all those that once walked this earth in faith in Jesus now truly know his love in its fullness. For us that still remain, who still sin and make mistakes Jesus says come to me for I will give you rest and bring you my father’s love, for as I spread my arms on the cross in bearing your sins, my father’s arms are still spread in love waiting for those still wandering.

I have sinned and no doubt will sin again as will we all. Yet Christ walks with us that we know of God the Fathers love. His love that has no boundaries. His love that asks us not to be saints but makes us saints. His love today that comes to us in Christ Jesus who looks at us with loving and understanding eyes and says “I know how tough it is-so come to me and rest. I gave my life for you-that you may live in peace. I love you now, as you are-know that peace because I have restored you for in me you are that younger son, and what I did for him I do to you.

Brother and sisters in Christ, you are sons and daughters of God. You have been restored. Let it fill your hearts with peace and pray for those still on their lonely way home. Amen