31 December 2017

A Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
December 31, 2017

First Lesson:  Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3

The history of the ancient people of Israel seems to follow a cycle of disaster and heartbreak, followed by redemption by God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.  There was a famine in their land and people were starving; but Joseph had reached a position of power under the Pharaoh and he was able to bring his family to Egypt where there was food to eat.  The people ended up in slavery in Egypt; but then God acted through Moses to bring the people out of slavery in to freedom.  The people wandered in the desert for 40 years; but God was always present with them, guiding them, and eventually they arrived in the land that had been promised to them and to their ancestors.  Many generations later, this land was taken over by the Babylonian empire, the temple which was the home of God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy was destroyed, and the people were taken into exile in Babylon; but then the Babylonian empire fell, and the people were allowed to return to the Promised Land.

Throughout all generations, their hope was sustained by remembering that God had always been faithful to them in the past, and could therefore be depended on to be faithful to them in the future.  Even when they lamented what had happened to them, and even when they were angry at God for allowing terrible things to happen to them – and believe me, you just have to read the Psalms to get a sense of the depth of their pain and grief and anger – even through all of that, they knew that God was with them and could still hear them when they were crying out.

The last part of the book of Isaiah was written just after the people had returned from exile in Babylon.  Isaiah uses the language of shoots coming up in the garden in the springtime.  Even when the ground looks bare and desolate, new life always appears; and even when our lives look bare and desolate, new life is coming.  God has been faithful in the past, and will be faithful until time has ended.  Thanks be to God!

Hymn:  Joy to the World!

Second Lesson:  Luke 2:1-7

If we were to just read this passage and not know any of the history of what came before and what comes after, it is a very ordinary story.  A young couple are compelled by circumstances beyond their control to travel far from their home – they had to travel approximately 80 miles, or 130 kilometers.  The young woman is pregnant, and while they are there in that strange city, her first child is born.  She wraps him in bands of cloth – a receiving blanket – and lies him in a warm and quiet place.

If we just read this, it could be a story that happens every day.  It makes me think of some of the pictures that came out this fall of the Rohingya refugees who were forced to leave their homes in Myanmar and travel on foot to Bangladesh.  Some of the women were pregnant when they were forced to flee, and their babies were born on the side of the road and in refugee camps.  Forced migration seems to be part of our human story.

If we want to see what is special about this particular baby who was born far from home more than 2000 years ago, we have to look in the scriptures to what came before in the story, and what was to come after.

Nine months previously, an angel had appeared to his mother telling her that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and that the child she would bear would be holy, the Son of God.  And when this baby grew up, he would become a teacher and a healer; he would preach against the empire and about the coming kingdom of God, he would eventually be executed on a cross, but on the third day he would rise again.

But for now, he is a newborn baby, wrapped in a blanket, lying in a manger far from home.

Hymn:  What Child is This?

Third Lesson:  Luke 2:8-20

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

Popular culture has co-opted the idea of angels, so that today, when you see pictures of angels, they are usually chubby child-like things with feathery white wings and halos.  We have cherubs for Valentine’s Day, and guardian angels that watch over us when we sleep.  My mother collected angels – she had stained glass angels, straw angels, porcelain angels, fabric angels, all on the shelves in the kitchen.

But this is not the biblical image of angels.  Angels in the bible are God’s messengers.  Some of them are named, like Gabriel and Michael, but most are unnamed.  There is no description of what they look like, or even if they have bodies; but when they appear, the first thing that they usually say is “Do not be afraid.”  Maybe this is the first part of God’s message to all of us; or maybe angels are just plain terrifying.

They shepherds in the field were terrified, but the Angel of the Lord says to them, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Whenever God is doing something new in the world or in our lives, it is our normal reaction to be afraid.  But instead of listening to our fears and being led by our fears, I encourage you to listen to the message from God, sent to us through God’s messengers, God’s angels.  Do not be afraid.

Hymn:  Angels We Have Heard On High

Fourth Lesson:  Luke 2:21-40

Jesus was born to a Jewish family, and he lived and died as a Jewish man in first century Palestine.  We read about how he and his family followed the traditions and customs of their religion.  When he was 8 days old, Jesus was circumcised and named, as were all 8-day-old boys; a custom that continues in Jewish communities right through to today.  And then when he was 40 days old, they went to the temple so that Mary could be purified, as were all women after giving birth; and so that her firstborn son could be redeemed.  This is a tradition that goes right back to the Passover story before the Exodus from Egypt.  God “passed over” the houses of the Israelite people, sparing their firstborn sons while the firstborn sons of the Egyptian people all died.  Because of this, all firstborn sons belonged to God, and had to be redeemed, or purchased back.  And so Jesus’ parents made the appropriate sacrifice to God – a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.

And there in the temple, our young family encounters the next two witnesses to Jesus Christ.  The first witnesses were the shepherds – when they had received their angelic visitors and had visited the newborn lying in a manger, they made known what they had heard and what they had seen.  And here at the temple, the family meets Simeon and Anna – an elderly man and an 84-year-old widow.  And these two faithful people praise God and prophesy and witness, telling people about this child that they have seen.

In a culture that worships youth and strength and beauty; we would do well to remember that there is an important place for everyone, no matter your age or ability, in God’s mission in the world.

Hymn:  Go, Tell it on the Mountains

Fifth Lesson:  Matthew 2:1-12

I am fascinated by the magi.  We aren’t told where they come from; we aren’t told how many of them there are; we aren’t told how they traveled from “the East” to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem.  The word “magi” is related to our English words mage and magician.  They might have been magicians, they might have been astronomers or astrologers, they might have been learned or wise scholars.

But wherever their profession, or wherever they came from, they traveled a long distance because they had seen a star.

Christmas cards tend to depict this star as hundreds of times bigger and brighter than a regular star.  But if this was the case, then surely someone other than this group of magi would have noticed it.  If there was a huge and bright star in the sky, why wasn’t the whole world flocking to Bethlehem?  Current-day astronomers have looked for some celestial event 2000 years ago that might explain the star that the magi were following, but they haven’t found any record of a comet or supernova appearing in that period of time.

So the only thing that I can think is that this group of magi was particularly observant.  They studied the stars so carefully that when something new appeared, they noticed it, even when the rest of the world didn’t.

I see the magi as offering a challenge to all of us.  How can we look for God working in our every-day lives?  If we are looking for exploding stars and supernovas and extraordinary miracles, then we will need to wait a long time; but if we are observant, if we pay attention, we will see God working in every minute of every day.

Hymn:  Angels from the Realms of Glory

Sixth Lesson:  Matthew 2:13-23

This is a part of the story that we don’t often hear read in churches.  We like to celebrate the newborn baby and angels and shepherds and magi.  We don’t like to think about Mary and Joseph and Jesus as refugees.

In Luke’s version of the nativity story, Mary and Joseph travel 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem where the baby is born.  In Matthew’s version of the story, they are forced to flee more than 400 miles after the baby is born, for fear for his life.

Our modern day world is filled with stories of refugees – people who are forced to leave their homes and flee, out of fear for their lives.  I mentioned earlier, the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, there are refugees from Syria settling in every part of the world, and we see pictures of people fleeing various conflicts in Africa, traveling by boat across the dangerous Mediterranean Sea.

This scripture tells us that God has experienced what it is like to be a refugee.  God has experienced what it is like to be so afraid of staying, that leaving home for the unknown becomes the only option.  God-in-Jesus has been a refugee, and is with all refugees and with all who are forced to flee or who have lost their homes.

Hymn:  Away in a Manger

Seventh Lesson:  John 1:1-14

And here is the core of the Christmas message – that God thought that we humans were worth coming to earth for; that we were worth becoming one of.  God’s Word became flesh and lived among us; lived as one of us; and in the person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, our humanity – our flesh and our experiences – can never more be separated from God.

A literal translation of that phrase that is translated here as, “lived among us,” would be “tented among us” or “made his dwelling with us.”  I read a translation this week, that the Word became flesh and blood and moved in to the ’hood.

Emmanuel.  God-With-Us.  Jesus is born, and God is human.  God is here, God is now, and we will never more be alone.  The light shines in the darkness of the world, and the darkness of the world can never extinguish the light of Christ.  Thanks be to God!

Hymn:  Silent Night, Holy Night

Waiting for the sunrise before worship started.
We can trust that the light of Christ has come in to the world -
even when it is -36 degrees outside!

27 December 2017

"The Extraordinary in the Midst of the Ordinary" (Christmas Eve Sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
December 24, 2017
Scripture:  Luke 2:1-20 and John 1:1-5, 10-14

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.”

A baby is born.  An ordinary, every-day occurrence.  Earlier this week, my sister gave birth to her second child, a healthy baby boy.  He was one of many babies born that day.  On average, every day in Canada, 1068 babies are born.  If you expand that to a global scale, an estimated 360,000 babies are born every single day.  That’s more than 4 babies being born every single second.

And yet if you’ve ever held a newborn baby, you know that each and every single one of those babies is a miracle.  There is a new life where there wasn’t before.  This infant is a 3lb or 5lb or 9lb bundle of potential.  All of the things that this baby is going to do and be are yet to be discovered.  The extraordinary miracle of life is found in the middle of the ordinary every-day.

Every Christmas, we read the same story about how Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and when they are there, Mary delivers a child.  “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  The story doesn’t change from year-to-year.  After we’ve heard it a couple of times, the story can become so familiar to us that we don’t give it a second thought.

This is a birth like any other birth, filled with pain and messiness, followed by joy and relief.  But even though all births share some things in common, each and every birth is unique.  We tell birth-stories after babies are born.  When my sister tells her birth story from last week, she will probably tell of how she went to the hospital and was told that there was no room at the inn – in other words, the nursery was full – and how she was sent home and told to come back later.  I wonder what Jesus’ birth story looked like.  Imagine all of the details that are left out of the story that we read – all of the details that the narrator isn’t telling us.

I wonder if Mary was attended by a midwife; and if she was, what was the midwife’s experience of the birth?  The baby is placed in a manger – a feeding trough for animals – so I assume that there were some animals nearby.  I wonder what animals witnessed the birth of this baby?  I wonder if they were surrounded by Joseph’s extended family, or was the young couple alone in a strange city?  Even though the songs we sing at this time of year tell us, “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” I’ve never met a baby who didn’t cry.  I wonder if he was a fussy baby or if he was easy to settle.

A baby is born.  An every-day experience.  But like all births, there would have been a unique birth story – after all, this was the only time that this baby was born.

And not only would there be a unique birth story, but in the middle of an ordinary, messy, and painful birth, was born a special child.  Nine months previously, Mary had been visited by the Angel Gabriel who told her that she would be giving birth to a holy child, the Son of God.  God’s Word had become flesh and had come to the world to dwell among us, to be one of us.  God had become human and the world would never be the same again.

In the middle of the every-day miracle of birth, God is born in human form.  In the middle of the ordinary, the extraordinary breaks through.  “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.”

The first people in the story to hear about the birth of this baby, other than his parents, were some shepherds living in the fields.  Now shepherds weren’t people who held positions of power, or people who were respected.  Shepherds were people who lived on the margins of society; people who were not trusted; people who lived transient lifestyles.  Shepherds worked hard, were often cut off from society living in the fields, and their hard work was not well rewarded.

But that night, to a group of shepherds in the field, at first one angel and then a multitude of angels appeared to them.  In the middle of an ordinary night, the extraordinary breaks through.

Can you imagine what those shepherds must have been thinking or feeling?  The first thing that the angel says to them is “Do not be afraid” so their first reaction was probably one of fear or terror.  An army of angels is not what you normally expect when you are working on the side of the hill at night.  But after the angels leave them, the shepherds leave the hillside, visit the baby lying in the manger, and when they return to the hills outside of town, they are praising God for everything that they heard and saw that night.

And here we are, more than 2000 years later, gathered once again around the manger.  The story is the same one that we read last year and the year before.  The baby is the same, the manger is the same.

The manger, another ordinary, every-day object.  A trough, maybe made of wood, but more likely carved out of stone, filled with animal feed.  Yet did you notice that this is one detail that the narrator does include in the story?  We aren’t told about the midwife, we aren’t told about the animals, we aren’t told about relatives, but three times the narrator tells us that the baby was lying in a manger.

In an everyday, ordinary animal feed trough lies a baby who will grow up to say, “I am the bread of life.”  The one who lies where animals are fed will grow up to feed the world with the bread of life.  The extraordinary is breaking in again, and is lying in the ordinary.

One of my favourite Christmas Hymns, “See Amid the Winter’s Snow,” captures this perfectly, when the second verse begins:
            “Lo, within a manger lies,
            He who built the starry skies…”

And so here we are, gathered this night around the manger.  We are reminded once more that God is with us – that God has become human so that we, in our humanity, can no longer be separated from God.  The extraordinary has once more broken into the ordinariness of a birth; the extraordinary has once more broken into the ordinariness of marginalized workers just doing their job on the fringes of society; the extraordinary has once more broken into the world and lies in a manger from whence he will feed the world.

How are we going to respond to the extraordinary this year?  How are we going to be changed by the birth of this baby?  How are we going to live as though we can never more be separated from God?  How are we going to let the Christmas story change us?

Will we be like the shepherds, rejoicing and singing praises to God?  Will we be like Joseph, trusting that God has a plan for us and for the world?  Will we be like those who heard what the shepherds told them, amazed at what we are hearing?  Will we be like Mary, and treasure the message we have been given and ponder it in our hearts?

My prayer is that each one of us might be changed by this Christmas story.  That we might know not only that God is always with us, but that we might know that the extraordinary is always breaking into the ordinariness of this world.

Let us pray:
Holy God,
            we give you thanks for this holiest of nights.
We thank you that you are always present with us –
            always breaking in to our ordinary lives.
Fill us with the awe, the wonder, the joy
            that comes with the birth of a baby –
                        with the birth of your Word-Made-Flesh;
And let this awe transform us,
            and keep us close to you.
We pray this in the name of the Christ-Child.

(Preparing the worship service)

24 December 2017

"Mary's 'Yes'" (Sermon for Advent 4)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
December 24, 2017
Scripture Readings:  Luke 1:26-38 and  Luke 1:46-55

I want to invite you to take a couple of minutes and imagine yourself into Mary’s situation.  She is engaged to Joseph but they aren’t married yet.  In a place and a time when the patriarchy was even stronger than it is today, and when women were married at a younger age than in our time and place, Mary was probably a teenager.  And marriage didn’t happen because two people fell in love with each other – marriage was all about a contract between families.  Two families would come together to arrange the marriage, and marriage was to continue the family line – in other words, the important thing about marriage is that you have children.

So here you are, a young girl who is going to be married into Joseph’s family in order that Joseph’s family would survive for another generation.  Your family isn’t a wealthy or powerful family.  You live in Nazareth, a small village in the rural part of the backwater that is called Galilee.  Everybody knows everybody in your village – after all, there aren’t that many people to know.  And you are a girl – you are the property of your father, until you become the property of your husband.

And here arrives an angel, a messenger from God, telling you that you are going to have a baby.  How do you feel?  Afraid of what your family and Joseph’s family are going to say?  Afraid of what your village is going to say about you?  Afraid of this new experience of pregnancy and birth?  Are you feeling ashamed of what is going to happen to your body?  Are you puzzled about how all of this is going to happen?  Are you curious about why God has chosen you; why you have found favour with God?

One of the first things that the angel Gabriel says to you is “Do not be afraid.”  I wonder if he says this because he knows that you are afraid of what is happening.  But then again, whenever angels appear to humans, the first thing that they say is “Do not be afraid.”  Maybe angels are inherently terrifying, or maybe this is the first part of God’s message to all of us.

But even if Mary is scared, she doesn’t let fear drive her actions.  Instead she says “yes” to the angel, “yes” to God.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

There is a popular Christmas song that asks, “Mary, did you know?”  Mary, did you know that the child that you’ve delivered will soon deliver you?  Mary, did you know that when you kiss your little baby, you’ve kissed the face of God?  Mary, did you know that your baby boy is the Lord of all creation?  Mary, did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb; this sleeping child you’re holding is the great I AM?  Our reading today answers these questions.  Mary knew.  Not only did Mary know, but she agreed for it all to happen.

This year, there has been a lot of discussion about this story and how it relates to the current revelations of sexual abuse by so many people in power, and the #metoo stories that are being shared.  People are asking if this story should be treated as Mary’s #metoo moment.  There is something to consider in this perspective.  After all, in the encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel, Gabriel has the power and Mary is in the much more vulnerable position – not only is she a female living on the margins of society, but she is a human compared to her angelic visitor.  Could Mary have given full and informed consent to what was about to happen to her body?

I choose to answer this question by looking for what isn’t in the story – for the details that we aren’t told.  We aren’t told whether Mary was the first young woman approached by the angel Gabriel.  Maybe she was just the first young woman who said “yes” – who gave consent for her body to be the home of God’s Word Made Flesh.  I can’t imagine that the God-Who-Is-Love would allow any woman’s body to be used without her consent.

And this then leads me to wonder more about Mary.  She said “yes” when God asked her, and she became the human parent of Jesus.  I wonder how Jesus would have been different if a different woman had said yes, if his human DNA had come from a different woman, if he had been raised in a different family.

But it was Mary who said “yes” when God asked.  It was Mary who said, “Let it be with me according to your word.”  Mary allowed her body, her very self, to be transformed by the workings of the Holy Spirit.

And shortly after that, we see what God is working in Mary when she visits her relative Elizabeth.  The Holy Spirit has not only created a foetus within Mary’s body where there should, by all logical reasoning, be no foetus, but the Holy Spirit has also given Mary the voice of a prophet.  She visits her relative Elizabeth, and when she is there, she sings the words of her Magnificat that we read responsively this morning – Mary’s words of praise to God, and her vision of what God’s world will be.  Mary sings out:

            “My soul magnifies the Lord
                        and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
            for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
            Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
            for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
                        and holy is his name.

            His mercy is for those who fear him
                        from generation to generation.
            He has shown strength with his arm;
                        he has scattered the proud in the
thoughts of their hearts.
            He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
                        and lifted up the lowly;
            he has filled the hungry with good things,
                        and sent the rich away empty.
            He has helped his servant Israel,
                        in remembrance of his mercy,
            according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
                        to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Mary’s question, “how can this be?” has been transformed into “My soul magnifies the Lord!”

This is a very revolutionary song that Mary sings.  When you look at pictures of Mary on Christmas cards, or when she appears in the Christmas carols that we sing, she is often pictured as “meek and mild”; but not only did she have the courage to say “yes” to God, she also sings this song that is anything but meek and mild.  Mary sings about the powerful being brought down from their thrones, the marginalized being lifted up, the hungry being fed, and the rich being sent away hungry.

Does this sound like the teaching of anyone else in the bible?  Mary here sounds an awful lot like what Jesus is going to sound like 30-some-odd years later.  Jesus who taught that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.  Jesus who taught that the way we behave towards those on the margins of society is the way we treat Jesus himself.  Jesus who gave food to all who were hungry, healing to all who were ill, peace to all who were troubled.  I wonder how much of his message Jesus learned from his mother’s teaching?

How might Mary’s song be heard in the world of 2017?  We are living in a world today where a small group of people and corporations are becoming more powerful, and more and more people are getting pushed to the margins.  Imagine for a minute, what the world might look like if the powerful were brought down from their thrones and the marginalized were lifted up; if food was distributed so that everyone had enough and no one was hungry and no one wasted the excess.  Who might be brought down from their thrones, and who might be lifted up?  Now imagine the same thing happening here in our town of Chetwynd.  Who is having their power taken away, and who is being lifted up?  Who are the hungry who are now being fed?

Did you notice the verb tense that Mary uses in her song?  She sings her song as if these things have already happened.  God has brought down the powerful.  God has lifted up the lowly.  God has filled the hungry with good things.  God has sent the rich away empty.

But if you look at the world that Mary was living in, it would be obvious that these things haven’t happened yet.  The emperor in Rome was still in charge, still governing through fear and oppression.  There were still a small number of elite and a large number of people living in poverty.  This vision of God’s kingdom hadn’t happened yet.  And if we look around our world today, it is obvious that the things that Mary sings about haven’t yet come to be.  We still have people in our world who want to claim the throne of the empire and govern the world through fear and oppression.  We still have a small number of elite and a growing number of people living in poverty, both here in Canada and on a global scale.

You can remember things that have happened in the past; but is it possible to remember things that will happen in the future?  Are any of you fans of science fiction or time travel books and movies?  I think that there might be a loose comparison there for Mary’s verb tense issues.  Picture a character in a book or a movie who travels back in time by two hundred years.  This character can remember things that happened to her in her childhood, even though they aren’t going to happen for almost 200 years.  She is remembering things in the future.

Now I’m not saying that Mary has been time traveling, but she does seem to be remembering forward.  She is seeing the world from God’s perspective – from a perspective outside of time where all times are seen simultaneously.  She, with her prophetic voice, notices what is wrong in the world that she is living in, and compares them with God’s vision for the world.  She sees clearly what God wants for the world, she trusts that this vision is going to be realized, and she speaks as though it has already happened.

And our time travel, verb-tense-shifting becomes even more fun when you consider that God’s vision for the world had already begun at that point in time.  As Mary proclaims these words, she is already carrying within her a foetus that would be Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human.

One of the titles sometimes given to Mary is the Greek word, “Theotokos,” meaning “God-bearer” or “She-who-gives-birth-to-God.”  Mary is carrying God within her body, and in a few short months, she is going to give birth to God in the messiness of hay and amniotic fluid.  She is going to raise God-in-human-form in her family in a remote village in a remote province.

I believe that this is the start of the overthrowing of the power structures of the world that Mary sings about.  God has chosen someone from the very margins of society, someone with no power, to be the temple, the home of God – the body of a woman, from a poor family, in a geographically remote location.  For 9 months, the same God who created the heavens and the earth is going to rest within the body of a marginalized woman, and then throughout his childhood this same God is going to be nurtured by this same woman.

God has started to lift up the lowly.

God’s work is not done yet.  Mary sings as though she is remembering forward.  There will come a time when God’s work is done and we will be able to remember its completion in the past.  But we’re not there yet.  We are still waiting.

Mary’s “yes” to God transformed her body and gave her the voice of a prophet.  Mary sang a song about God’s topsy-turvy kingdom where the power structures are not only reversed but are completely destroyed – Mary sang as though this topsy-turvy kingdom was already here.  And indeed, that upside-down kingdom where the powerless and marginalized are raised up began when Mary said “yes” to God.

And so I ask you to consider – just as God called Mary to a specific task in God’s overall kingdom, God calls each of us to a specific task or vocation.  How can you say “yes” to what God is calling you to?  How will our “yes” fit into God’s vision for the world, where the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the marginalized and powerless are raised up?  How can we individually, and we as a group say “yes” to God?

Just as Mary’s body was home to God for nine months, our bodies are the home of the Holy Spirit.  God dwells within us too.  How are we allowing ourselves to be transformed, as Mary was transformed?

Let us pray:
Holy God,
            send your Holy Spirit to us.
Give us the courage to say “yes”
            when you call to us,
                        so that we might be transformed
                                    into who and what you call us to be.
Help us to sustain our trust and our confidence
            that the world that Mary sang about is coming,
                        and that some day,
                                    your kingdom will come
                                                and we will be fully and forever
                                                            in your presence.
All of this we ask in the name of the one
            who was carried in Mary’s body.

17 December 2017

"The Light Shines in the Darkness" (Longest Night sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
December 17, 2017
"Longest Night" Service
Scripture:  Isaiah 9:2, 6-7

In northern parts of the world, the month of December is a very dark time.  One morning earlier this week, I watched the sun rise behind the hills out that window there at 10:10 in the morning, and just over 5 ½ hours later, I watched it set behind the hills at 3:50 in the afternoon.  With so few hours of daylight each day and so many hours of darkness each night, it is very easy to start feeling down.

And then on top of it all, we are in the middle of the season of Christmas.  Every time we go into a store or turn on the radio, we hear songs telling us to have a holly, jolly Christmas, or songs about a reindeer named Rudolph, or songs telling us that the world is full of Joy.  Turn on your TV and you’re likely to come across Christmas movies with their predictable happily-ever-after ending.  For anyone who is having a difficult time in life, this forced jolly-ness can feel like a slap in the face; a constant reminder that we don’t or can’t feel jolly.

Chetwynd isn’t the only place in the world that sits in darkness at this time of year.  There is a town in northern Norway named Rjukan; and like Chetwynd, Rjukan sits in a valley surrounded by mountains.  But because this town is further north and the mountains are higher, and up until 4 years ago, Rjukan used to not see the sun for almost 6 months of every year – from late September until mid-March.

But the town now has sunlight in the winter.  They have built and installed giant mirrors on top of the mountains around town, and these mirrors track the sun and reflect light down into the town.  The people in town describe it as warming – not physically warming but mentally warming.

The interesting thing is that there was a lot of resistance to building these mirrors.  An artist who lives in Rjukan, Martin Andersen, was the one who initiated the project, and when he was asked about the resistance to the project, he had a very profound response.  He said, “What it was, I think, is that living in the shade must make you afraid to dream of the sun.”[1]

Living in the shade or the shadows makes us afraid to dream of being in the sunlight again.

I learned this week from a friend in Nova Scotia that tonight, December 17 2017, is the Celtic Christmas celebration.  Tonight is the new moon – there will be no moonlight tonight, even if the sky is clear, making tonight the darkest night in the darkest month.  And so tonight is the night when we can remember and celebrate God’s light, the light that is Christ, coming into a darkened world.

We heard words read this evening from the prophet Isaiah, words that are often read at Christmas – “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”

This idea is echoed in the opening of the gospel of John which we didn’t read this evening.  John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

That is a powerful thought – that the light of Christ shines into a darkened place, and the darkness can never overcome the light.  Think of a darkened room, or a dark cave.  If you light just one candle, or even a match, or these days the screen of a cell phone, you break the darkness.  As long as the match or the screen stays lit, you can never be in darkness.

At Christmas, we remember the birth of the infant Christ.  We remember the time when the God who created the heavens and the earth was born as a vulnerable human baby.  But if we look forward to the other great Christian festival, Easter, we can see a time when the world tried to put out the light of Christ.  On Good Friday, we remember the trial and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ;  and if we were to stop at Good Friday, it might seem as though the world had won.  It might seem as through the darkness had managed to extinguish the light of Christ.

But the good news is that the story doesn’t end on Friday.  The good news is that on the third day, on Easter Sunday, the tomb is empty and Christ is risen.  The darkness hasn’t had the final word; the light of Christ can never be extinguished.

And this is the hope that we can cling to, even when the darkness in our lives threatens to overwhelm us.  This is the hope that we can cling to in the midst of pain or grief or suffering or loss.

When we are living through these shadow times, it is often easy to feel like the people in that town of Rjukan, Norway.  It is often easy to feel afraid of the light because we have become so used to living in the darkness.

But as we approach Christmas, I invite you to let go of this fear, even for a short time.  I invite you to allow the light of Christ to enter into your darkness.  Remember that even when we are living through the Good Friday times of our lives, that Good Friday doesn’t last forever.  Easter is coming.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it.  Thanks be to God.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/06/rjukan-sun-norway-town-mirrors

(Our tealights shining in the darkness after the service)

"Waiting for the Light" (A first-person storytelling sermon for Advent 3)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
December 17, 2017
Scripture:  John 1:6-8, 19-28

(Note:  I presented this sermon away from the pulpit and my script so what I said probably doesn't match exactly what is written here; but this is the essence of the story that I told.)

My name is Miriam bat Ya’akov.  Don’t go looking for me in that book that you read from every week – you’re not going to find me in its pages.  But I was there.  I was there by the River Jordan.  I met this man, this John that you read about.  I listened to what he had to say, and I was baptized by him, right there in the river.

My family lived in Jerusalem, the biggest city that I have ever seen.  But even there in the city, we had heard about John.  We heard that crowds of people were going out to listen to him.  We heard that he was saying amazing things.  It has been so many years since God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy has sent a prophet to our people, we thought that maybe John might finally be the one.

And so we decided that we too would make the journey from Jerusalem to hear him for ourselves.  My parents and my two younger brothers and I prepared for the journey and we set out.  From Jerusalem we headed north and east to Jericho, and then from Jericho we continued east until we reached the river where John was preaching.

Now that was a dangerous journey.  Everyone knows that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is somewhere that you don’t want to linger.  It’s downhill all the way, but with tight corners and big boulders beside the road, it is a perfect place for thieves and bandits to hide.  But we made the trip safely – it probably helped us that so many people were travelling together – it seems like half of the city of Jerusalem was heading to the river to hear John speak!  All along the way, we kept meeting families we know.

It took us a couple of days to reach the river – with my younger brothers, we couldn’t travel too quickly.  But when we got to the river, it wasn’t hard to find John, because there were crowds of people around him.  I don’t think that I have ever seen so many people gathered in one place, not even in the temple at Passover when our people travel from all over the world to celebrate.

But whenever John started to speak, it was easy to hear him because people quieted right down.  My first thought when I saw him was that he was Elijah, one of our prophets from hundreds of years ago.  The scroll of Kings that is read in the synagogues and in the temple tells us that Elijah wore clothes made of hair and had a leather belt around his waist; and here was John wearing clothes made of camel hair with a leather belt around his waist.

I started to wonder if this John person was really Elijah, returned to earth.  After all, Elijah never died, but was carried off in a whirlwind to be with God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.  And the prophet Malachi wrote on his scroll, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”  So if this John was really Elijah come back to earth, that would mean that God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy is going to be coming to earth soon too!

For longer than I’ve been alive, for almost 100 years, our land has been governed by the emperor in Rome rather than by our own people.  And yes, people talk about the “pax romana,” the Roman Peace, but it isn’t really peace.  There isn’t any war these days, but that doesn’t mean much since everyone is living in fear.  If you dare to disagree with the rulers, you will be put into prison or worse.  And there are always rumblings of revolt underneath the so-called peace.

But people are talking that maybe God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy is going to send a Messiah to us – an anointed one – anointed like a king – anointed to free us from Rome and free us from the fear that we are living with every day.  If John is really Elijah come back to earth, then this Messiah might be coming next, and then maybe God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy will come to earth!

My family and I, we listened to John.  He kept saying that he wasn’t the Messiah; that he wasn’t the one we were waiting for.  But he did tell us that we were to get ready.  He read the words from the scroll of Isaiah – “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the ways of the Lord.’”  He told us that we had to change our ways; that we had to turn back to God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.

Even now, telling you about it, I can feel the fire of his speaking running through me.  I so long for God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy to come to earth, I was willing to change anything, to do anything.  And so I made my way to the front of the crowd, and John asked me if I was ready to repent, to change my ways, to turn back to God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.  I said “yes!”  I wanted to shout it from the mountaintops!  Yes!  And so I went with the people who were being baptized, and John pushed me under the water, and it was like I was re-born to this new way of living and being.

A few days after we arrived there at the river, there was a commotion.  A group of officials had arrived from the temple back in Jerusalem, and boy-o-boy did they make a show out of their arrival.  The priests back in the temple had heard about John, and this group was sent to test out what John was saying.

They kept quizzing him.  Who are you?  What are you doing?  Who gave you the authority to teach and to preach and to baptize?

They asked him – are you the Messiah?
He answered them – I am not.

They asked him – are you Elijah?  I guess they were thinking the same thing that I was!
But he answered them – I am not.

They asked him – are you the prophet?
He answered them – I am not.

He was really good at telling them who he wasn’t!  When they pushed him even more, he answered using the words from the scroll of Isaiah that he had been reading from – “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the ways of the Lord.’”  He still didn’t answer their question directly!

But then they started quizzing him about who gave him the authority to be teaching and baptizing.  The authorization certainly didn’t come from their group at the temple!

That’s when John started to talk about one who is going to come after him.  He said that he was even lower than a servant or slave in comparison to this one coming after him.  He wasn’t even worthy to untie the strap of the sandal of this one coming after him.

I’m really starting to get curious about who this one coming after John is.  If the Messiah is going to be a king, anointed with oil like our kings in the past, coming to defeat the Romans, then why wouldn’t John be able to be the Messiah’s servant?

I wonder what God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy has planned for us?  John didn’t tell us how long we were going to have to wait.  He just said that this mighty and glorious one is coming after him.

Ever since that day when the officials from the temple came to question him, John has started talking more about this one coming after him.  He calls this one “the light.”  I don’t know what he means by that.  He says that he himself is not “the light” but he has come to tell us about “the light.”

I wonder if this light is God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy?  After all, in the beginning, God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy said, “let there be light” and there was light.

For now, I’ve told my family that I am going to stay with John and this group of people who are with him.  I want to wait and see who this one to come after him is going to be.  And while I’m waiting, I’ve started telling people around me about this one who is coming; this one whom John is calling “the light.”  I’m so excited about this that I can’t keep it to myself – I have to share it too!

Won’t you wait with me?  Won’t you join our group of people who are waiting for the light to come into the world?  Won’t you help me to spread the good news about the light?  John says that the light is coming – let’s wait together!

(The Christmas Tree in the front of the church, lit in anticipation of the coming of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.)