September 20: Count the Stars

Welcome to this post with parts of our worship service. More details can be found in the bulletin, here on another page of our website.

Children’s Time ‘Father Abraham, and birthdays!

Sermon “Count the Stars” Scriptures: Genesis 15:1-6; Luke 3:7-9

Some of us, during the past months of crisis and precautions, have had time to ponder our purpose. “Why am I here?” No, I don’t mean when you go upstairs and can’t recall why you went up there. I mean, “Am I living a life that is making a difference to other people, to the world?” Today, you might like the answer. Or, you may be discouraged about yourself. And I dare say there are many people around us who are not happy about where their life is at the moment.

Today, let’s look up, and count the stars, as it were. With Abram and Sarai, of old. Let us try to see what they saw, and have hope. 

This little scene, read for us today by Bev, is but one moment in the saga of Abram and Sarai in these chapters of Genesis. There have already been promises from God, and there will be more. And what actually happens to these old folks is a bit of a soap opera. At this moment, though, Abram gets inspired by the promise that he will have descendants – by the million – and a place for them to call home. Even though he was still an old man with no children.

1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 

‘Do not fear.’ A common Bible phrase, it starts a few special speeches. In other words: it’s good news! Instead of “Hear the word of the LORD,” or “Woe unto you…,” it’s “Do not fear.” So, relax; something good is going to happen!

When we study the Christian ‘Good News,’ in the broadest sense, we see it is ‘good news’ for many individual people. And personal good news is something many people sure could use. 

2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 

Abram and Sarai are gettin up there, so how on earth will they have a family and a huge number of descendants in the future? Read the next chapters and you will find out! 

We can’t read ahead into the next chapters of our lives, or those we care about, can we? So our present, and our past, have a big influence on how we feel today about life. What we are accomplishing. What’s next for us. What’s good. 

What if we don’t see signs of good news? What will my legacy be? What is the purpose of life? Most of us have moments like Abram did, moments of not much hope. Just can’t believe certain good things are ever going to happen. 

I think about my own sense of purpose. You might think I am happy-go-lucky and quite positive about my work here, what I am accomplishing, how I am helping, making a difference. Well, no, not really. For the most part I am ‘ho hum’ about my ministry here now. I do really enjoy life here, with you, and our community. But what difference am I making? 

Some days I feel the things I want to accomplish get no response. The ways I want to teach and guide don’t get a following. I look back at more than six years and see one baptism. One. And that of a young person who was moving away – far away – and did go. I find myself enjoying hiking and doing plant research more than working on prayer, and how we care, and the music we share. 

“O Lord God, what will you give me?” Like Abram, I ask what are the fruits of my labours? Or how to work differently in this corner of the vineyard.

Perhaps you are like me and compare yourself with others. Rev. Dr. George Allen died the other day. 107 ½ years of life, and to the end, an inspiring pastor. He was your interim pastor here once upon a time. I have heard so much about him. How could I compare myself to such a beloved man of God? Oh, to be such a storyteller. Oh, to be such a caring man with an amazing memory. Oh, to be able to speak off the cuff, without a note, so effectively!

Let’s take a break, and pay tribute to this man. Here is a recording of him when he was only 105 years of age, telling a joke… (starting at about 1:00)

You know where Mabou is? Well, in Mabou there was a fellow by the name of Joshua, Joshua MacPherson. And you know that was back in the days when they had stills, and they go in the woods and produce a little whiskey? Well, sir, Joshu had a still out in the woods, back of Mabou. Someone called up one of the Constables, and told him about it. So he went up and he caught them, he caught them right at their work. So he said, “I have to give you a summons, to go into Mabou to Court, on a certain day.” 

So they went to court on a certain day. And the judge looked at old Joshua and thought he’d have some fun. So he said, “I see your name is Joshua.”  

“Yes.” 

“Are you that Joshua, in the Bible, that made the sun stand still?” 

The old fellow says, “No, Judge, I’m not that Joshua that made the sun stand still. I’m the Joshua from Mabou who made the moonshine.”

Last year, I paid George Allen a visit. I had never met him before. We chatted about a few things; he asked about a number of you, here at Digby Baptist. And… I didn’t remember, but he remembered, that we had met. A decade ago, at a funeral at Windsor Baptist Church. His memory, at 106, was better than mine!

When it is all said and done, the great ones among us are here to inspire and lead and encourage us, not to make us feel inferior. That was one of the gifts of George Allen: the positive push to help us along. 

And so, old Abram was encouraged and inspired, in his vision that day. 5 [God] brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 

Friday, you may remember, was a cloudy, windy day, half-filled with blowing drizzle. Saturday morning I got up at ten to six, and looked out the windows at the clear black sky and all the stars. Out one window I think there was a bright planet among them. Out another window was the constellation Orion, and then, for just a half second, a shooting star!

We too must listen for the inspiring promises, the visions of hope and purpose, the long-view of things. This is what broke through to Abram that day. It was one of a succession of special moments for him and Sarai, over the course of many years. Yes, their legacy would be great. 

To be blessed and be the people of blessing was what they had been promised a few years before. Yet – think about it – the great blessing of their lives would be mostly after, and long after, they were dead.

The good things for us and from us may be here beyond our lifetimes! Our legacy, the good we have done in the world, just may happen to make a bigger difference in people’s lives after we too are dead. Sometimes this is the plan. But that is no reason to despair or be disappointed. It may be our calling to be a good ancestor. Ever get joy from the thoughts of being a good ancestor? Leaving this world better than it was before your life?

Notice what ole Abram did. 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Believing the impossible. More than once, Abram dreamed the impossible dream. Today, there are millions of ‘children of Father Abraham’ and mother Sarah. So, John the Baptizer was right when he said that God could make a child of Abraham out of a rock. Most of us are not of Jewish ancestry, or out of the Hebrew Faith. Yet, from Sarai and Abram came a Faith, and then a Messiah who is for us also. We all get grafted in, adopted, healed deeply into the family of God.

Now, I must make one more point. Just because Abram and Sarai got this promise does not mean you and I, and tons of people today, get the same message. “Look up and count the stars: YOUR legacy will be INCREDIBLE!’ No, not necessarily. Yet we can all be stars that were counted; stars that count for something. ‘Look up and count the stars…” We are each one of those stars that count for something.

I end by switching from stars to starfish and this well-known tale. https://www.thestarfishchange.org/starfish-tale

IT ALL STARTED WHEN… A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied,

“Well, I made a difference for that one!”

You do not need to leave a huge legacy, or accomplish an impossible mission to make a difference. You do not need to be a Sara or an Abraham. You do need to listen to the call of God upon your life. Do you hear the call to make a difference – in your own way – and be one of those shining stars Abram saw? It is the call of Christ, saying, “Come, follow me. Take up your cross. I will give you rest. Make disciples.”

Go, make a difference to someone!

PRAYERS Let us pray with these themes.

D – Disease & Disasters: help!

I – Intervention: do something!

G – Guidance: help people find the way.

B – Born Again: we need new beginnings.

Y – You: let us simply rest in You.

Amen.

Christmas Family Tree

(Hebrews 4:12-16; Luke 3:23-38 ) – J G White
11 am, 3rd Sun of Advent, Dec 15, 2019 – UBC Digby

What does genealogy tell us? What is a family tree for? 

We read Jesus’ lineage from Luke 3. Recognize a few familiar names? Hear a few that you’d rather not be asked to pronounce out loud? Do you suppose these 16 verses of the Bible are just incidental, and not particularly edifying? Move along; not much to see here. ?

Your own family tree might be of interest to you. Mine is to me. A few times a year I look at my research, and the work of others, and try digging up a few more relatives in the far flung branches.

I could tell you that I am 
Jeff White, born in Halifax, 
son of George White, born in Berwick,  
son of George White, born in Yarmouth, 
son of Albert White, born in Springhaven, 
son of Waitstill White, born in Quinan, 
son of William White, born in Springhaven, 
son of David White, born in, Albany, NY
son of David White born in… the 1700s.

Or, I could just as easily claim I am
Jeff White, born in Halifax, NS
son of Joan Suppelsa, born in Oshawa, ON
daughter of Dorothy Roberts, born in Whitby, ON
daughter of Emma Wray, born in Whitby, ON
daughter of Mary Plowman, born in Reach Township, ON, daughter of Margaret…

Why do some of us like this personal history? It gives a sense of personal identity, a sense of belonging and connection with others, a sense of history, a sense of home and a sense of place. 

Christmastime, in our culture, often brings out memories of past Christmas times with family, and memories of family long gone.  Maybe we have family traditions: they go back decades, or generations. And we remember who it was who started those traditions – a grandparent, a mother, a cousin. Like the time we three children, with our parents, visited Aunt Jeannie and Uncle Byron one December 24th. And for the first time, we each opened one gift on Christmas Eve. Steve and Michelle and I each got from Jeannie and Byron a big plastic mug that you could put in the freezer, then put your pop or kool aid in it for a refreshing drink!

In our Christian Faith, we discover how we become part of Jesus’ family. We receive gifts from Him, and we celebrate! We tell stories and keep traditions going. Life is better. 

The lineage of Jesus, such as the one in Luke 3, is symbolic of such things. Such as how great a variety of people belong to the family of Christ. 

Who do we remember in the list? Joseph, the supposed father, of course, who was engaged to Mary. These folks trace their family right back to King David. Verse 31. It was his wife Bathsheba who bore him Nathan, among others sons, who was a descendant of Joseph.

David’s father was Jesse, whom we remember some years with a Jesse Tree, with all our stained glass symbols of Bible people in Jesus’ family tree. And we sing O Come, thou Rod of Jesse, free  thine own from Satan’s tyranny.

Look further in Luke’s list. Verse 32. There is Boaz. Remember Boaz? Ever read the book of Ruth? Ruth was not quite a Hebrew, but she joined the tribe when she married Boaz. She became a great grandmother of the Messiah. And Boaz, his mother was Rahab, well known as a prostitute in our Old and New Testaments.

Verses 33 & 34: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Judah. Jesus Messiah came from the tribe of Judah. Judah’s parents were Jacob and Leah. Remember Leah? Jacob got tricked into marrying Leah before her younger sister, Rachel, whom he truly had the hots for. Jacob gets named Israel, and the whole nation takes his name for good.

By verse 36 we are all the way back to Mr. & Mrs. Noah. Two of the eight upon the Ark. Mrs. Noah’s name? We are not told. Perhaps she was Naamah (Genesis 4:22) – that’s a bit of a guess. 

And Luke takes us right back to Adam and Eve. Verse 38). ‘Son of Adam, son of God,’ it says here. How interesting. How inspiring! At some level, every single one of us is a child of God. 

We belong with Jesus; we belong with God. That’s the other side of our story of Jesus coming to us, belonging in human history. 

Those few verses we read today, from the NT book of Hebrews, have two well-known bits. First, the bit about the word of God being alive and active and sharper than a sword. Second, the phrases about Jesus, who can sympathize with our weaknesses, and who has faced every test or temptation that we face. 

Jesus comes for everyone on the human family tree. Every sort of person. Every circumstance. Every era. So this includes us, and everyone we know of. We know of a lot of people on this planet!

And, you could claim to be related to every single one of them. 

Most of us have at least a few cousins – first cousins. Maybe, like me, you have met up with other people, you dig into your family trees, and discover you are related. 

I have met a few distant cousins. A team of youth came to us at Windsor Baptist some years ago – from Woods Harbour and Shag Harbour, Shelburne county. One of the teenagers, Shelby, was there with her mother, Sherry. Sherry’s family name was Devine – which was the name of one of my great- grandmothers.  So, I did a little genealogical digging, and found out we are distant cousins. Shelby is my sixth cousin, Sherry my fifth cousin once removed. So, we felt a bit of kinship, suddenly. 

Have you ever felt kinship with Jesus? Somehow seen that the great Saviour, Teacher, Lord and Friend is also Jesus your Brother, kind and good? And the brotherhood of Jesus is a better way to put it than just seeing Christ as our distant cousin. I am more likely to keep in touch with my brother than my sixth cousin. Though any relationship can develop and deepen. 

Just yesterday evening I sat at a banquet table with ten people, most of whom I’d never before met. All students at Acadia Divinity College, or, like me, related to a student. Yet it was quite an international table. My wife, born in Australia, sat beside me. On the other side, a pastor from central Africa who is a theology student. A student from India, was there, a couple others from Africa, and some white Nova Scotians. 

I had an interesting conversation at one point with the African Pastor sitting to my right. He spoke of being in Wolfville now for about five months. For all this time he was attending the local Baptist Church, naturally. Putting his little tithe in the offering plate each month. Meeting with people, socializing – even with the Pastor – and being part of the congregation. But he had not be welcomed as a church member yet. So he told me he was going to find another Church. A different Baptist Church. A congregation that would welcome him as a church member without a long delay. So that he would be officially included. So that he would be accountable to the body of believers. He said he is going to find a Baptist Church like that.

I basically said to him, “Good luck with that!” And yet he is right to value that official belonging to a fellowship of believers. For a couple hundred years, Baptists have been week on keeping church membership local. Far too many people stay as members after they move away.

That sense of belonging to God in the place where we live and work and travel can be so amazing. We are to bloom where we are planted. And we are able to bloom where we are planted because of Christ, present everywhere by the Holy Spirit. Born in time and space here, once, He now belongs to every age and every time and every corner of the world. You and I get to be a close disciple of the Master exactly where we happen to be.

Advent and Christmas can be a time for our relationship with God to deepen and develop. We sometimes sing, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.”  

Jesus is, in a cosmic sense, the first born in the huge human family, and we rejoice when we know we belong.

In that amazing chapter, Romans 8, we can read: 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 

Pray that you, and others, will know how much you belong in the family tree of Jesus, the family of God. May we strongly grafted in, to grow & flourish.

Holy Spirit Baptism

(Luke 3:15-22) – J G White
11 am, Sun, Jan 13, 2019 – UBC Digby

These colder, snowy days are great days for feeding the birds in your backyard… and when we used to, we enjoyed it.  But here in Digby we have had one nuisance species of bird: the pigeon. Silly pigeons would flap around and get into our birdfeeders.  We did not really want them.

Another name for pigeon is rock dove, by the way.  A bird we have never seen in our yard here is the smaller dove, the mourning dove.  They seem so nice and gentle. Folks don’t usually find mourning doves a nuisance.

Today’s Gospel story is of the Baptism of Jesus.  In the scene, the Holy Spirit appears, like a dove.  And God the Father speaks approval of Jesus.

The Holy Spirit is, for us, the close presence of God.  Why a dove? When you see a dove in a stained glass window, it represents the Spirit.
For Noah the dove signified new life and a new beginning. (Genesis 8)
For King David a dove signified freedom and peace. (Psalm 55:6)
For Mary and Joseph two doves signified the sacrifice they could afford and the cleansing that comes with new life. (Luke 2:24)

We sing songs like ‘Spirit, Spirit of gentleness, blow through the wilderness, calling and free…”  But notice what John had been preaching, to prepare the way. He sounds a like a real hellfire-and-brimstone prophet. John tells that the Messiah will come with a baptism of fire and of the Holy Spirit.  He will separate the wheat and the chaff. The chaff will be burned!

Five verses later, Jesus is on the scene, being baptized by John, and the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in the form of a dove.

So is the Holy Spirit coming into our life more like a furious fire, or like a gentle dove?  More like a calm, petite, mourning dove, or like an obnoxious pigeon?

One old gospel hymn tells us that, when we look for the full blessing of the Lord:   
He will fill your heart today to overflowing
With the Holy Ghost and pow’r.    
(Bring Your Vessels, Not a Few, Leila N Morris, 1912)

The evangelical revival movement of recent centuries might lead us to expect that the Spirit always comes with burning zeal and unbridled enthusiasm in people.  But there is also a ‘Spirit of Gentleness’ in our experience.

The Holy Spirit of God does what the Holy Spirit of God wants to do.  What is needed in the moment, in the people. Sometimes fire, sometimes gentle confirmation.  A classic prayer says this:
God, Holy Spirit, Come to us, come among us;
Come as the wind, and cleanse us;
Come as the fire, and burn;
Come as the dew, and refresh;
Convict, convert, & consecrate many hearts & lives
to our great good and to Your greater glory. Amen.  
(Eric Milner-White, Voices United 197)

But, even unknowingly, we want to control and direct our Master.  Push the Spirit into what we want done.  Claim God is on our side. Baptize our great plan with the Bible and our religious sensibilities.  

As a preacher friend of mine says, “don’t shove the Dove.” (J. H. Hosick)  

As my Church history professor would say, “the Church tries to institutionalize the way the Spirit moved last.”  Something wonderful came from God? We want to keep it that way. Keep God doing that same wonderful thing. What impressed us when we were saved.  What was done when we were young.

A dozen years ago Sharon sat down one Sunday in a pew in the large church building where she usually worshipped.  A friendly acquaintance from out of town came down the aisle, Sherry, and sat in a different, empty pew. “Come over and sit with me,” Sharon invited. “No, no,” was the answer of the visitor.  Why? Because that was the very pew Sherry had always sat in with her grandmother, three decades before. And she was in that very pew, in service, one day, when Sherry responded to the Good News and became a Christian.

We have wonderful reasons for some habits we keep. But the Spirit will, regularly, do something new.

What was going on in those days just before thirty-year-old Jesus went public?  Cousin John was preaching in the wilderness by the river: the people gathered and listened to his teaching.
They were in great expectation.
They were questioning things.
Some did make a turnaround, repent, metanoia.  

There is no talk yet of guidance, the Spirit guiding individual people in certain pathways.  In our day, this is much of what we seek. Or, as a group, we seek to be guided directly by God the Spirit.

When a congregation has a special meeting, or a regularly-scheduled annual meeting, we sure don’t do much praying, do we?  So we must remember to take all the needed preparatory prayer before we gather.  I know if I focused more on prayer beforehand (and less on how to convince people of my opinions) I’d pay more attention to the Spirit during the meeting.

God is all-powerful.  God is completely free, free to do what God wants.  This Holy Spirit who comes upon us, within us, among us – is powerful and free.  Sometimes burning hot and fierce. Sometimes a gentle messenger bird.

Spirit is greater than religion: the Jewish religion of John & Jesus, or the Christian religion we’ve built.  

This Holy One is our baptism.  
Be ready. Be willing. Be together. Be prayerful.  
Be humble. Be hopeful. Be honest.
Believe. Begin again. Amen.