The House of God

(Hebrews 3:1-6; Luke 1:57-80; ) – J G White
11 am, 2nd Sun of Advent, Dec 8, 2019 – UBC Digby

Our children decorated the scene with all our familiar, beloved, Christmas and winter paraphernalia. From many nations and countries these things come, don’t they? And if we travelled the world, we would discover plenty of other Christmas traditions that are not like ours. 

Years ago I heard about a Baptist Church in Sydney, NS, that had an annual musical festival – each year the theme was Christmas in a different country. One year might be Ukranian traditions, the next,  Christmas music from Czechia, the next year, France. 

Our candle lighting this December brings us elements of Indigenous Christianity. 

All the cultural traditions are about the same event: Jesus’ birth into this world. They remind us of the variety and scope of our glorious salvation. Our focus on Jesus’ activity can be refreshed by how others across the world follow Him.

Hebrews 3 proclaims: every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. (3:5) We are also told, we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope. (3:6)

We build our Christmas decorations one way, people elsewhere build something different. May the builder of all our traditions be the Spirit of God!

And may the meaning of our great salvation be built by the Source, the Saviour. Listening to saints in other places will instruct us.

For instance, what might believers in the Arab world teach us? Here’s Robert Hamd, ABTS Blog: 

From Beirut to Santiago, from Baghdad to Hong Kong, people are taking to the streets to protest. What all these countries have in common is that more people are poorer today than ever. 

In Beirut, the protesters are chanting in unison. People are crying out; the system is not working. As I walked through the streets of downtown Beirut, at the heart of the protests, I heard the same chorus from young and old alike: economic injustices, extreme indebtedness, rising medical costs, and a profound distaste for the political elites who gamed the system to profit off the backs of the poor. 

Hamd points out that Jesus’ first sermon references Isaiah 61 – proclaiming good news to the poor and the year of the Lord’s favour, which is the Year of Jubilee, from Leviticus 25. This instructs the forgiveness of debts – of money – and the return of land – real estate – to the peasant families. It does not just mean pray for these things; it means do them.

Hamd says: We are perfectly comfortable limiting Jesus to the role of forgiving us of our sins, but we debate the merits of debt jubilee. We believe economic questions are outside the scope of the mission of the church. Calling for economic reform seems too radical. Too uncomfortable. In contrast, we miss Jesus’ wholistic gospel that bids people come, find forgiveness of sins in Him alone, and to work out what “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” means in practice. Following Jesus is taking on a whole different trajectory, in light of the recent protests.

A crisis across the world can show us that the One born in Bethlehem comes to do all that His mother said. All that Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer, said too:
Now we will be saved from our enemies.
…find salvation through forgiveness of…sins…
…light to those who sit in darkness
…guide us into the path of peace.

Let us pray for peace – for shalom – in our world.

Pay Greater Attention

(Hebrews 1:13-2:4; Luke 1:1-25) – J G White
11 am, 1st Sun of Advent, Dec 1, 2019 – UBC Digby

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? It is pointless to spend time and energy on this cliche question. The first chapter of the book of Hebrews is worth our time and energy – and tells us a bit about angels. Verse fourteen says, “Are not all of them spirits in the divine service, sent for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” 

A good reminder, on the first day of December, when figures and pictures of supposed angels are everywhere: and usually female in appearance. Meanwhile, those in the Bible have names like Gabriel, Michael, Satan. The opening chapter of Hebrews tells us that even good angels, divine communicators, are far surpassed by Jesus, the Messiah. He is far superior. 

“Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard,” Hebrews chapter two begins: “so that we do not drift away from it.” Tis the season to pay careful attention to the story of Christ coming into the world. So many of us in this room know the story quite well, and it means much to us. The impact upon you may be great. But we still need this time each year, to refresh our memory, and even learn some new things about Jesus and us. Apparently, it is possible to drift away from what we’ve heard.

Not today, but later this month, our Choir will ask these questions, in song: (Pamela Stewart, 2011)
If angels filled the skies tonight,
would I hear them sing?
Would tomorrow find me saying 
it was all a dream?

Would I leave my bed and go 
outside to hear their song?
Would I go on sleeping
until the morning dawned?

Would I miss the miracle?
Would I see the King?
Or would my life be so consumed
with ordinary things? 

Beyond the miracle of angelic visions in front of us, there are many divine messengers to meet us. Some unexplainable and powerful things happen to us that turn life around. Other messages from God are quite ordinary, but point us in a good direction. 

A few things are pointed out right here in Hebrews 2:3&4. Our great salvation was declared at first through the Lord, it says. Direct from God, in Jesus. He brought a message, but He also is the message, the content, the thing He declares. He is the way, the truth, and the life

Our primary source in history and literature is, of course, the Gospels in the Bible. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Might be about 160 paper pages in your Bible. And the whole of the New Testament is our source for the next way the news of God comes to us: the men and women who walked with Jesus. Hebrews 2 calls them those who heard Him.  

So, we keep reading the stories. The histories. The poetries. The prophecies. Maggie read for us today the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. He sets out an ‘orderly account’ of things, for posterity. Well, Dr. Luke says he put this book together for dear Theophilus – a name that means ‘lover of God.’ Many lovers of God have read Luke, over and over. Just as we do in December. You’ve seen the post on social media, with the suggestion to read one chapter of Luke each day of December. Luke has 24 chapters – you will end on December 24th with one version of the story of Jesus – the Gospel – just in time for Christmas.  

So we have already read some of the Jesus story we don’t often read in December, that is not about Jesus so much as it is about his cousin to be born just before him – John. We’ve known the Christmas Bible stories since we were children? Read them again as adults, and read the whole story, see a bigger picture.

Even noticing how children take in the Christmas story can be instructive to us, the parents and elders. 

In his humorous novel, Good News for North Haven, Michal Lindvall tells of life in a little church in a little, fictional town in the midwest. When it is time for the children’s Christmas pageant, the old, traditional drama gets a few changes when some ‘young mothers’ take over the production.  

Mary and Joseph were to walk on as the narrator read, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem… to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.” At least this is what the Narrator was supposed to read. It was what the Narrator had read at the rehearsal. But a few hours before the performance, one of the young mothers had observed that none of the children could much understand King James English, so they voted, in their ongoing mood of revolutionary fervor, to switch to the Good News translation… “What kid knows what ‘great with child’ means?” they asked. 

So, as Mary and Joseph entered, the Narrator read, “Joseph went to register with Mary who was promised in marriage to him. She was pregnant.”

As that last word echoed from the Narrator through the PA system in to the full church, our little Joseph, hearing it, froze in his tracks, gave Mary an incredulous look, peered out at the congregation, and said, “Pregnant? What do you mean, pregnant?”

Amid the laughter of the congregation, the pastor’s wife said to her husband, “You know, that may well be just what Joseph actually said.” (pp. 27-27)

Read the stories again, for the first time. 

A third thing that declares what salvation is to us – a list of things really – comes out in Hebrews 2:4. God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by various gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to His will. 

Would I miss the miracle? Would I miss the opportunity? Would I not be touched by some gracious action by someone near me?

If a stranger knocked upon my door
tonight in deepest need,
in my life would there be room 
for anyone but me?

Would I hear the voice of God 
within a Baby’s cry?
Would I open up my heart
and welcome Him inside?

Welcome to December. Welcome to Advent. Pay greater attention, with me, to Jesus. The whole story of Jesus. Pay careful attention to the Spirit of Jesus among us this year.

Telling the Good News

(Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:46-55) – J G White
11 am, Advent 4, Sun, Dec 23, 2018 – UBC Digby

Welcome to Christian worship of God, and at Christmastime, even.  We have a magnificent Gospel to proclaim! What kind of Good News do we tell now?  How do we put the Good Tidings into words? Into our own words?  For our people? Today?

Sure, we like to quote Francis of Assisi, who is credited with saying: ‘Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary.”  In our lives words will be necessary.  There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak.

This month I have been talking with you about The Good News of Jesus.  It’s my own project I’m sharing, really: how to understand salvation better, and how to say it better.  Every age in Christian history has to do this.  Every Church and every individual believer must work it out.  Not only do we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), we work out how to express it, how to share it, afresh.  

To tell the News, the Good News of God, is to tell a story.  Tell God’s story – the Bible story. And tell our story. We often wander from one to the other, and back again.  We use Bible words in personal ways.

Together here, we recited Mary’s whole song of praise.  The Magnificat, it gets called, from it’s old title in Latin.  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. (Luke 1:46-48)  And so on. She was expecting a special child, and at this point she was visiting her old relative, Elizabeth, who was expecting a special baby of her own.  Together they rejoice.

When Mary sings out these words, she is echoing Bible words, reworking an old lyric.  In particular, the words of the song of Hannah, from one thousand years earlier, when Hannah was happily expecting a baby, who would be named Samuel.  

Mary, in her praises, is telling what she expected about God’s salvation.  She does it by celebrating the kinds of things her Lord does.

So Mary says: God takes people’s souls to heaven, after they die.  God brings people together to build church buildings with steeples and pulpits and pews.  God reunites loved ones in heaven if they do not end up in hell. Ah… No, she doesn’t!

Mary says things like: God scatters proud people.  God wrecks powerful people and lifts up weak people.  God fills up hungry people, and gives nothing to the rich ones.

It is very practical stuff Mary and Elizabeth celebrate about the Saviour who is about to be born.  It seems to be very earthly minded, not so heavenly.

I have one of those magnetic images of a nativity to stick on my car that reads: KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS.  I read this posting on social media:
Want to keep “Christ” in Christmas?  
Feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, love the outcast,
forgive the wrongdoer, inspire the hopeless.

There are plenty of options when it comes to putting the Gospel of Jesus into words. Some proclaiming of it has been what gets called ‘the social gospel,’ a movement that was at its peak about a hundred years ago.

In our lives, South African Bishop, Desmond Tutu, said, “I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person.  When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you.’ Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.” (Claiborne, Shane, et al, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, c 2010, p. 71)

Other ways of explaining the Gospel are focused upon individuals and their souls, which could end up in eternal bliss or eternal torment, after death here.  

Church planter and author, Brian McLaren, tells of a multi-faith gathering outside of Washington, DC, just a few months after the attacks of September 11, 2001.  It was awful, McLaren says. Held at a local mosque, the first speaker, a Sikh from India, insulted the host imam with his first sentence. Next, a Catholic priest was dull, long-winded & academically complicated.  A protestant minister was just as monotone, but said that Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw Christ even in Hitler! McLaren wanted to crawl down into a crack in the floor.

Then a Pentecostal pastor spoke, who was very emotional and energetic.  He ended up saying: “I love you! I love you all! And because I love you, it is my duty to you, my neighbours, be you Muslims, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, or Buddhist, to tell you that you are all going straight to hell unless you repent and receive Jesus Christ as your personal Lord, Saviour, Healer, and Deliverer!”

The pastor went on for about thirty minutes like this.  Then, to Brian McLaren’s shock, he got tremendous applause from when he finished.  

McLaren concluded: for him to be himself, to pour out his heart, to unleash his emotion… and to do so in the presence of others of different faiths… that was just the gift people needed in the aftermath of Sept. 11.  People needed to cry and shout and vent… And in that very human connection, he communicated real love for the people in the room. (Why Did Jesus, Moses, Mohammed and the Buddha Cross the Road?, 2012, p. )

The communication of real love for others is what Christmas is all about. What the Cross is all about.  What Resurrection is all about. You and I find our ways to love others when we tell our stories of God.  Our Good Tidings of great joy must be authentic.  Real. Genuine. Personal. I don’t recommend ‘fire and brimstone’ unless that is your only way to speak love.  

So, I tell people that this Jesus being born is the story of how loved and valuable we are. It is about what’s wrong with me and how God comes to me.  It is about what’s wrong in the whole world, and how God loves the whole world. It is also about the fears I have, and can get through with God. It is about pain and suffering, for it is the story of a God who comes deep into pain and suffering. It is a story about making things right, and setting things at peace here. It is about finding my path to take in this life, with a Guide who walks right beside me, not far ahead.  It is about belonging in this world, being in community, with a God who is on my side, who is for us, all the way.

How do you tell about the Christ of Christmas?

GO, tell it on the mountain!

Mystery Revealed!

(Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38) J G White
4th Sunday of Advent, Dec 24, 2017, UBC Digby

Here we are on the cusp of Christmas.  The excited anticipation is at its peak.  Even adults have been counting how many ‘sleeps’ until Christmas morning; I think this is about get-togethers, gifts and food; don’t you?  We are waiting for the mysteries to be revealed.  What’s in that big parcel, that long narrow gift, that decorated envelope.  

That first Christmas was quite different, but it was definitely about mysteries being revealed.  Good News!  Young Mary is to have a baby.  This is a big favour from God.  But it takes some time for Mary and her family to come to terms with this.  Well, they have nine months, we could say.  We retell this story because of its power.  

Christmas eve is just hours away for us, but this morning, we take up the story nine months before.  When the news is brand new to Mary.  Good News sometimes begins with just one person.  But then, you know of someone you can go to.  Someone who also will understand God is involved.

Sharon and I were at lunch on Friday at St. Pat’s Soup Kitchen.  And I thought about the weekly free meal on Thursdays at Windsor Baptist Church.  It has been going on for years, since Y2K, perhaps.  Each Thursday, a team of folks brings in food and prepares it for 20 or 30 or 40 people to share.  They all eat in the BIG kitchen together.  It’s called the House of Hospitality.  

It began in a small way, years ago.  A retired nurse named Betty and the associate Pastor named Marlene got talking.  They had a vision, just the two of them, a vision for this beautiful weekly luncheon.  It took time to get others on board to work with them.  It took time for people in the community to start coming to the lunch – years.  Now, the House of Hospitality has been a wonderful thing, for more than fifteen years.  

It takes time to come to terms with Big News.  Mary, at first, was perplexed.  Yes, she surely had many different feelings and thoughts as her pregnancy went along.

In the events as Luke tells them, the next part has Mary travel to visit her older relative, Elizabeth, who is also – unexpectedly – expecting!  Christy Thomas, who blogs as The Thoughtful Pastor, explored the many feelings of these women as she retells the story…

Mary, mother of Jesus, hears the words of the angel. She will bear a special child. Almost immediately she sets out to see her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, at least a five day and often dangerous, walk. Why? Because the angel also told her that Elizabeth was six months into a pregnancy.

One can only guess at Mary’s state of mind. Terror, certainly. A strange vision, an awareness that something was happening to her body, the horror of possibly being pregnant in a world where a non-married pregnant woman would likely be stoned to death . . . let us not turn our eyes away from her predicament.

Picture her arrival at Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home. She would come unannounced, of course. No email or text zaps to prepare her hosts. She’d show up and seek entrance, only to hear that Elizabeth was in total seclusion, refusing all visitors.

Elizabeth, seriously past child-bearing age, carried the stigma of barrenness. Barrenness: the sign of God’s displeasure. When the land . . . or a woman . . . did not produce or reproduce, everyone suffered.

Now this elderly woman must cope with an unexpected pregnancy. She will take no chances. Will see no one. Her sole companions: her silenced husband and her private, quietly silenced fears that her pregnancy was not going well.

Mary insists that she be permitted to see Elizabeth. She quietly enters the dark room, only one tiny window offering light.

After her eyes adjust, she observes Elizabeth, sitting in utter stillness, her hands resting on her swollen belly. Signs of worry, perhaps even tears, emphasize her aged-lined features. The life inside her womb has stilled. She feels no movement. She fears an imminent stillbirth.

Mary softly greets her cousin. Suddenly, Elizabeth opens her eyes, her face alight with hope again. For upon hearing Mary’s voice, the child inside Elizabeth’s body begins to move with energetic vigor.

The old woman, face now awash in tears of joy, embraces her young, terrified cousin. Then, looking at her straight in the eyes, Elizabeth confirms Mary’s pregnancy and the hope that her baby will bring to the world.

Finally, Mary, fear temporarily set aside, rejoices in her own pregnancy.

‘Nothing will be impossible with God,’ said Gabriel to Mary.  And that is what we seek from God too, hoping against hope for the impossible, from time to time.  The physical or mental healing we want to see in someone dear.  That reconciliation with someone in the family.  A step in the right direction for the person we know who has been taking all the wrong steps.  We wait for a miracle, sometimes with great hope, sometimes with great fear that it just ain’t going to happen.  Jesus will come into the world, and what will he do?  We take time to be hopeful, doubtful, positive, confused, enthusiastic, depressed, and anything else.  The journey of faith takes time.  

Mary also decided to let it be.  Let herself be.  Be pregnant.  Be the mother of this chosen Child.  Be of service to God, whatever that would mean.  And when she has that visit with Elizabeth, Mary sings, her soul sings out!  She rejoices in God her Saviour.  The impossible does happen, at last.  Not just a young girl having a holy Child, not just an old woman expecting her first child, but for the whole people the long-awaited Messiah is finally arriving.  There will be a Saviour.

Sharon and I happened to go to a cinema this past week to see the newest Star Wars film.  Spectacular science fiction, and like so many action adventure stories, it is, what I call, “How many times can you escape certain death?”  You know, the heroes – and some of the villains – have not hope of survival… and they do survive, yet again.

Our Bible adventures are filled with suspense too.  Over and over, people get to the end of the rope.  But then there is a new hope.  And we see this in our living today.  We dream the impossible dream, fight the unbeatable foe, bear with unbearable sorrow, and go where the brave dare not go.  

A mystery is revealed.  There is more good at work in the world than we see.  The journey can be hard.  The Mystery is how God comes in and rescues, how God reunites with us.  How life wins over death, and good wins over evil.  This all gets revealed in a birth in Bethlehem, and a cross near Jerusalem.