Reflection: It's Time
Well, the waiting is now over.
It’s Christmas Day and we’re celebrating the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus.
All that waiting during Advent has paid off, hasn’t it.
I wonder how many times you’ve either read, or heard read, the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel?
It’s a story about simple shepherds, in a field, watching over their flocks, when suddenly, in a starlit sky, there comes a bright light – which turns out to be an angel and all the heavenly host – proclaiming good news to all of humanity. A scary thought for a bunch of uneducated farm workers.
Amazingly, the shepherds leave their flocks (which is something that they wouldn’t normally do) to
follow the directions given to them by the angel and they are led by the star which is hovering over Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.
They find him lying in the straw of a manger, surrounded by the silent, innocent animals in the stable.
No kings, nobles, or well-educated folk – just shepherds.
Jesus was God’s gift to the common people. Have you ever thought how you’d feel if you gave a beautiful present to somebody, maybe a child, only to find that either they haven’t opened it, or they’ve opened it and then ignored it, or they’ve played with it for a short time, but then forgot about it, or, worst still, they’ve broken it. If you can identify with this feeling, you might start to understand how our heavenly father, God, feels.He gave the world the best gift, ever, at Christmas about 2,000 years ago - in the shape of his son, Jesus, but the world wasn’t too appreciative.Some people refused to believe that he was God’s son and the religious leaders even plotted to have him killed. Other people followed him for a while, before going back to their old ways. Luckily, many people HAVE accepted God’s gift – wholeheartedly - and are still following Jesus today.I pray that we may all find ourselves in that last category and that we remember to thank God, every day, for his fantastic present. Christmas is usually a constant celebration - year after year, we tend to follow tradition.
But, in reality, no two years are ever the same and our lives will never the same.
Every year we are, in fact, older and, hopefully, wiser.
And this year has certainly been unlike any year that we can remember, with the deadly Coronavirus spreading throughout the world. At this time of the year, most of us are usually busy, running around, seemingly chasing our tails, buying presents for our loved ones and even people that we don’t really see for the rest of the year.
We’re stocking up on food for parties and meals with family and friends, or visiting others.
But is all this usual “busyness” really helpful?This year we have a bit more time.
This year we buy presents online, instead of visiting stores.This year our options to travel to be with family and friends are limited.
We can’t visit as many people as we would like to, so we need to look in other directions.
Maybe we should be giving more thought to how WE can be a “gift” to other people, sharing the news of God’s gift to us.
This year has really been a challenge in respect to how we interact with those around us.
Maybe we could ring lonely neighbours more often, or invite someone to join us for Christmas lunch, of course keeping within COVIDSafe guidelines, etc.
But, whatever the circumstances, we should be comfortably confronting change and being active in doing work in the Kingdom of God, even if it is different to the ways we’ve done it in the past.
We’re called to partner with God, working for him in the world around us.
The job has been difficult this year, so we can pray that 2021 will be a year in which we can be even more effective in passing on God’s love to the people we come in contact with (however that may occur).
Reflection: “Waiting, waiting, waiting.”
Does it feel like all we’re doing at the moment is waiting?
Waiting for the COVID19 pandemic to be over – or at least be under control.
Waiting for things to get back to being more………normal.
Waiting for the Christmas celebrations, holidays, maybe even overseas holidays!
The modern generation doesn’t seem to be particularly good at waiting.
They’re accustomed to instant gratification and are often able to have what they want when they want it, in a society where credit is so easily obtained.
Did you know that one of the fastest growing stocks on our share market at the moment, is a company called Afterpay Limited.
It was founded in 2014, however it seems to have really skyrocketed in the last year or two.
It provides a “buy now, pay later” service, so that we can get the goods we want NOW and worry about how we’re going to pay for them LATER.
I see this as both a positive service (if used wisely) and a negative risk (as it allows those who maybe can’t really afford the goods, to overspend).
Young children seem to be very impatient when waiting, especially when something good is about to happen. At this time of year, it is interesting to observe them with the presents under the Christmas Tree.
That one, wrapped with their name on it, is too much to leave alone – they poke it, prod it and shake it – what can it be?
Who remembers the trouble we probably all had on Christmas Eve, waiting for the joy (and presents) of Christmas Day to arrive.
Sleep was usually the last thing on our minds.
In this Advent period of the church’s calendar, we actually celebrate the time of waiting.
We know that for a long time, the nation of Israel had been waiting for their Messiah to arrive.
They thought that he’d be the one who would free them from captivity and restore them as the powerful nation they’d once been.
And the strange thing was, that while they were waiting, most of them missed the moment, because they were looking for a warrior king.
They missed the son of God, who came among them as a baby born in a manger, who was to become a king of peace and love.
What a pity.
All that waiting - and they missed it!
But we, with 20-20 hindsight (do you get my pun on the year 2020?) and the stories written in the New Testament section of the Bible, now know the gospel story and we celebrate and learn about the period of waiting in this season of Advent, the 4 Sundays leading up to Christmas Day.
So, I guess waiting can also be rewarding, as we discover when we hear the stories about the birth and life of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus, thousands of years ago.
How must young Mary have felt in her time of waiting, knowing that she was about to give birth to the Messiah, the Son of God?
It would have been a particularly scary and worrying time for her.
First of all, she’s visited by an angel who tells her not to worry.
Oh, and by the way, you’ll become pregnant (even though you haven’t been with a man).
Then she’s informed that the baby she’ll be carrying will be called the Son of the Most High (i.e. God) and that she is to name him Jesus.
That’s certainly a lot for a young woman to wonder about during the nine months that she waits for his birth.
And what about her husband-to-be, Joseph?
He would have been waiting to find out how the news, also brought to him by an angel, would be accepted by his family and friends.
He knew that the baby Mary was about to give birth to, wasn’t his, but was a gift from God, however I’m pretty sure that there would have been some nagging doubts in the back of his mind.
I mean, this sort of thing hadn’t exactly happened before, so he had no point of reference, or person that he could talk it over with.
We read that both Mary and Joseph trusted in the Lord and knew, deep down, that all the waiting would be worthwhile, as their son would be the saviour of the world.
They are certainly good role models for us in these uncertain times.
They make our issues seem a bit trivial, compared to what they were about to go through.
Can we learn a lesson from their trust in God?
Most certainly we can.
Even in our times of waiting, I encourage you not to become impatient, and keep alert to what is happening, or you, too, may miss the moment.
God needs us to be productive, not dormant.
We need to keep our faith that God has everything under control and that he loves his creation – and that includes all of us.
I don’t think I can end this reflection any better than with the words the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome.
Reflection: "Nope, it's not me"
“No. No. No.”
So begins this phase of the ministry of John the Baptiser.
But that's not what we’ve come to expect from him.
Because as we heard last week, John comes across as being a bit loud, disruptive and socially inappropriate.
A wild man in the wilderness - in stark contrast to the more serene images we usually associate with Jesus.
Yet, in this passage from the Gospel according to John (same name, different person), John the Baptist (for clarity, let’s call him JtB from here on in this passage) sounds like anything BUT the hothead preacher.
Upon being asked by the religious leaders of his day to make himself known to them, he starts by telling them who he is NOT.
He’s not the Messiah.
He’s not Elijah.
He’s not the prophet.
Was there any doubt?
Would those sent to inquire of JtB have wondered if they were heading out to meet Elijah?
Or did JtB wonder if his call to proclaim the coming of the Lord was not as a forerunner, but as the main act?
Of course not!
He’s just the one called by God to go before - and point towards – Jesus, the Messiah.
Of course, he’s not a reincarnated Elijah, who, according to scriptures, didn’t actually die.
And of course, he’s not a prophet, whether that’s Moses, or any succeeding prophet.
He’s simply a man called John.
A messenger sent by God to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah.
John the gospel writer, gives us no indication as to whether, or not, the questioners of JtB are trying to trap him.
Rather, like the first people to hear this gospel, they also want to know more about this man.
JtB's responses to their questions actually give us an insight into him.
It’s an insight that could easily be missed if we only emphasize the fact that he’s a high-volume preacher - a locust and honey-eating street evangelist.
In this passage at the beginning of the Gospel according to John, we encounter a thoughtful man, without any over-sized sense of self, or puffed-up ego.
Over the millennia, the Church has spent much of its time reflecting on how Jesus was tempted.
We read accounts of his temptations in all 3 of the synoptic gospels.
However, in John's Gospel, we don’t have a similar story about the tempting of Jesus.
What we do have, though, is the tempting of JtB, a temptation that he resists admirably.
So, if you’re called to be the forerunner, the one who comes before, isn't that awfully close to being an understudy, one who could step in if the moment demands it?
JtB could be forgiven for thinking the people have waited and waited for the Messiah and have a hope that God will finally hear them.
So why not just speed things up a tad and do your best to embody the long-awaited Messiah-ship?
If JtB were to give in to temptation, he might even begin to act out the part, in the hope that he’ll smoke out the real Messiah.
Or maybe, just maybe, JtB has misunderstood his role?
Is it, maybe, all about him?
No, of course he knows that it isn’t.
It’s all about Jesus.
As long as there have been Christians gathering in community, practicing their faith through worship, study and gestures of reconciliation to each other, there have been leaders who have, sadly, disappointed their followers.
I’d like to suggest that we consider the possibility that many of the moral failings of these leaders have some root beginning in their failure to pay attention to the message of JtB. “I am not the Messiah.”
If we yield to temptation, it all too easily turns into “Well, I guess I might be the Messiah” and before we know it, we are becoming a Messiah.
From there, it’s easy to cross the ethical boundaries - believing that we’re more than we really are.
Because JtB begins with a tri-fold renouncing, no to being the Messiah, no to being Elijah and no to being the Prophet, he’s then able to say something just as bold: “I know who I am.”
For several years now, churches have rightly encouraged individuals to say “No” to the hyper-materialism that comes with the consumer rush to Christmas.
We live in an age which tempts us with marketing pitches, intended to make us believe that EVERYTHING is possible for us, that we can do ANYTHING we set our minds to.
With that approach, there’s not enough time in the day for all the things to which we could say “YES.”
I know that for me, I don't simply want to follow the Australian cricket team - I want to be their opening batsman, or the spin bowler who takes 12 wickets in a test and wins that match for the team.
But that’s not likely to happen.
It’s not that I’m setting my sights too low.
It’s just that I’m living in reality, recognizing that daydreaming can keep me from saying YES to my true call, my true vocation that I’m being called by God to do.
What John the gospeller gives us, in this story, is the most remarkable downgrading that any messenger from God has ever received!
What he effectively has JtB say is, “For goodness sake! What’s wrong with you people?
Stop getting hung up on the warm-up act and get ready for the Real Performance!”
JtB renounces the calls that aren’t his, in order then to tell the religious leaders what his call really is.
He’s called to be a voice,
to baptise with water,
to recognise his own unworthiness before the One who is to come.
Did the religious leaders expect to hear JtB admit that he was the Messiah?
Were they expecting to find a wild man doing his best Elijah impersonation?
Were they hoping to see the Prophet?
If so, they would have been disappointed.
In this exchange, JtB is already stepping back, so that the One to come (Jesus), could step forward.
He’s already moving the spotlight from himself to the Word that he proclaimed.
Regarding JtB’s baptism by water:
Yes, it’s important.
Yes, it’s of God.
It’s all preparation for the one who will baptise - not with water - but with the Holy Spirit!
And that’s how we’ll know him – it will be the one on whom the Spirit descends and remains.
That’s how we’ll know he’s more than a mere prophet - the Spirit will remain on him because it is the Spirit of God and he is the Son of God!
This story we read today is where the more contemplative side of JtB is helpful to us now.
Remember, he wasn’t always out there shouting “PREPARE!” and “REPENT!”
He wasn’t always making a scene.
In this part of the Advent story, he’s saying “No” to all the calls that aren’t his.
He’s praying over and over, in order to perform his true work on behalf of Jesus, God's coming new thing.
So, this is something like the opposite of a modern-day altar call that we sometimes see at evangelical rallies, or in certain churches.
In this case, it’s what we’re NOT called to be or do this year, that’s important for us to recognise.
We need to say “NO” in order to find with confidence the true “YES” that’s been placed in front of us by God.
I encourage you, in this time of Advent, to search yourselves and pray to God that you can be worthy of the calling that he’s prepared for you.
He’ll equip us for the tasks he calls us to perform, but it’s up to us to be ready to receive these gifts of grace and put them into action.
“May God’s loving providence reside in our hearts and Christ’s living word be upon our lips
as we rejoice in the song of the Spirit, this day and forever more.
Reflection: "Prepare the Way of the Lord"
I was just wondering……..
Have you ever seen John the Baptist in any Christmas nativity scenes?
He would be the hairy, unkempt, wild-looking guy wearing a camel-hair coat.
There would be a piece of locust caught in his teeth and dried honey in his beard.
Louder than any Santa’s “Ho, ho, ho,” you’d hear his voice screaming, “Repent - the kingdom of heaven is near.”
Has anyone noticed a figure like that in any of the nativity scenes that are traditional to our celebration of Christmas?
It’s probably not surprising.
John the Baptist is totally inappropriate for the way we celebrate Christmas these days.
Christmas today is all about the birth of Jesus, as Matthew and Luke report on that holy night many years ago.
Mary, Joseph, angels, manger, shepherds, wise men and a child born unto us.
Glory to God in the highest!
That’s what Christmas is all about now for Christians.
So then we wonder, what does John the Baptist have do with Christmas?
For Mark he has everything to do with it.
Instead of Bethlehem and choirs of angels, Mark begins the story of the coming of the Messiah with a prophet calling out his message of repentance and baptising in the wilderness of Judea.
In so doing, he adds a new figure to the good news about the incarnation and coming of the Christ.
And that figure is John the Baptist.
Two thousand years ago, in a place called Bethlehem, lying in a manger, God came to us in all the weakness of a baby boy.
God entered our world, put on our shoes (or sandals) and lived, breathed, and walked among us.
He taught the people, loved them, died on a cross, and then rose again – for them (and also us).
But God didn’t come in a “once upon a time” manner, with the story ending “happily ever after.”
It’s not something the Lord did once - and will then only do again at the end of time.Instead,
God continually comes to us and it’s our job to look out for him in our world.Every moment of every day, whether we realise it or not, God comes to us.
The presence of God bombards our lives, sweeping over us like waves in the ocean.
The Scriptures give us image upon image of the Lord as the One who comes.“
Coming to humanity” is a reflection of the very nature of God.
His nature is love, and love comes.
Love can’t do anything else.
God is constantly coming to us.
John the Baptist is all about one coming, too.
He’s the forerunner, the one who comes before another to prepare the way.
So, when we celebrate - not just a birth long ago, with all the nice, beautiful things we associate with Christmas - but celebrating the coming of the Christ to be with us, then John becomes an appropriate figure for that time.
Mark asks us, “Do you want to understand the good news?
Do you want to know what God’s doing?
Well, it starts right here with John the Baptist.”
Mark introduces John the Baptist and the coming of Jesus Christ with a statement about beginnings.
He tells us that this is “the beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
God is creating salvation, a restoration of everything that sin has stolen from us and broken in us, a re-making of who we are.
He’s creating an opportunity for healing, forgiveness and freedom.
The Lord’s making a road for those far away to come to him.
He’s unleashing grace that can redeem everything sin destroyed, making all things new.
This new creation is all wrapped up in the person of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the promised one.
Christ is the one about whom the prophets foretold and about whom they kept saying, “God’s up to something.”
This is the one through whom God changes everything.
It even changes how we think about God.
This is God’s chosen one!
This is the very expression of God bringing his salvation to humanity.
Jesus is God’s mighty right hand stretched out to make all things new.
John was the one designated to prepare the way for the coming of the Christ.
Not that he had to make a way for God, for God can take every mountain and make it low, seize every valley and raise it up. Wherever the road is rough - like many Sydney roads with all their potholes - God makes level ground, smooth and plain.
John the Baptist is a part of that way.
He’s a prophesied, designed-by-God, means of getting the way ready.
So here stands John the Baptist, a voice calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”
John is calling out to all who will hear, “The Lord’s coming. Let’s get ready.
The Lord’s on his way.
He’s coming in the fullness of his salvation.
He’s coming in the form of the promised Christ, the Son of God in whom all the promises of God are ‘Yes!’
Everything that would be life for us, healing for us, restoration for us, redemption and forgiveness for us, he’s creating.
The Holy Spirit - that can literally change us from the inside out – is what he’s bringing.
He’s coming, so let’s get ready to receive the gift of his coming.”
In order to receive the coming of Christ, John invites us to get ready by coming out to the wilderness.
That’s the locale where John is baptising people.
That’s the arena in which he carries out his prophetic ministry.
So, he invites us to get ready by journeying into the wilderness.
If there’s ever been a generation that needs to hear and respond to John the Baptist’s call in the wilderness, it’s ours.
We scurry here and there, conforming to pressures, lacking the purpose to rise above the rat race.
Media moguls have convinced us that abundant living can be measured by how many presents are under the tree, or how big the festive light display is, outside in our yard.
We compromise with culture and chase after every voice that offers us the promise of a better tomorrow.
If we have any doubts about the diagnosis, all we have to do is observe the way we celebrate Christmas these days, with so many distractions, misplaced priorities, meaningless pursuits - and very little Christ.
So, if we’re going to receive Christ, we must be made ready by stepping away from distractions and stepping out of the pace of Christmas, as it’s celebrated by our culture - going out into the stripped-down simplicity of the desert, where we learn again that we live not on bread, but on the word of the Lord;
not on stuff, but on his presence.
John enters the Christmas story to get us ready for the coming Christ.
But are we ready?
Or do we need to answer the call of John the Baptist and join him in the wilderness to get ready?
Jesus is coming - of that there’s no doubt.
But are you prepared?
I pray that you are.
Let us go to make straight the paths of justice, righteousness and joy.
Let us go as prophets in our day.
Let us speak with courage and act with kindness.
May the love of God be in all we say and do,
the way of Christ direct our path,
and the power of the Spirit make us strong. Amen.