- STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DECEMBER 13, 2020
Rev. Sabrina Ingram Advent 3
Hymn – Hark the Glad Sound
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
Amazing God, we worship you. In your vast love for us, you traveled through time and space from the mystery of your eternal existence. You traveled from your state of unlimited being, to be born as a human being. You left the glory of holiness in the heavenly realms with all it’s power and honour, and humbly came to live in our mortal, tainted world. We have never been loved so much. We have never been valued as you value us.
We confess Lord, that rather than soldiers with a mission we are more like sheep who wander. Sometimes we are resentful of the people we encounter. It is difficult for us to share your love or to forgive others for injuring us. Often, we are like children in a tantrum, sitting in the middle of the path because we want our own way. At times, we are proud of how far we’ve come only to find ourselves at the beginning again. At other times we are confused and disoriented so we become agitated and angry at you. Mostly, we want to go where we want to go and do not want to walk on the path of righteousness. We need your guidance to keep from getting lost.
Forgive us. Let us reach out to you and take your hand; let us follow wherever you lead.
As we worship today, let us remember the larger community of St. Stephen’s and our brothers and sisters who gather with us in your presence. Let us remember Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Although we cannot sing your praise, let our hearts and minds be filled with love for you. May our adoration be pure and deep and real. May you be lifted up and glorified in all we do, say, feel, think and desire. Glorify your holy name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Assurance of Pardon Isaiah 35: 8 & 9
There will be a highway called the Holy Road.
No one rude or rebellious is permitted on this road.
It’s for God’s people exclusively.
It’s impossible to get lost on this road.
Nothing and no one dangerous or threatening are there.
Only the redeemed will walk on it.
The people God has ransomed
Prayer for Illumination
Lord God, as we travel through this journey of life, speak to us your word, so that we will find the way and not get lost. Amen.
Acts 9: 1 – 6
Luke 2: 1 – 17
Message: Christmas in the time of CoVid: Travel
When I was a kid, a long car ride felt shorter if we could sing. My siblings and I drove our parents to distraction singing, “She loves you, ya, ya, ya”. I know it sacrilege to say it, but it’s not much of a song so I get it now. When my kids came along, the tradition continued. We’d get in the car, pop in a cassette and listen to Raffi or Sharon, Lois and Brahm or Fred Penner. Then things changed. I recall the summer we drove to BC with The Spice Girls playing in a continuing loop. I know it sounds like weak parenting, but suffering through “Tel me what you want, what you really, really want” was better than listening to the grumblings of a restless 8 year-old. I still love to travel. Whether it’s a plane to Italy, a bus around Israel, a train from Glasgow to Edinburgh, a car on the wrong side of the road in Ireland, or a quick drive to London, ON to see the family, traveling is exciting. So, it’s been a real drag this year to be restricted from the adventure of travelling, and unable to visit those I love. While I’m blessed to live on a little piece of paradise, I’m tired of being told to stay there. Stick with your bubble. Don’t go out unless it’s essential. Don’t think of travelling outside Canada. We’re shutting down the border for yet another month. But the worst restriction may be coming. Will the CoVid virus morph into the Grinch, and steal Christmas? Will we be told not to see our friends and family, but to stay within our little household bubble? If so, it’s a bit ironic, because the first Christmas was filled with travel.
Just prior to the birth of Jesus, the Roman government under Caesar Augustus ordered a census. Unlike today, where the government mails the census to your residence, Augustus ordered every person to return to their ancestral home. Joseph and Mary needed to journey about 180 kms from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, the tiny town from which King David hailed. Mary was quite pregnant by this time. In our sentimental way we imagine Mary riding a donkey, yet scripture doesn’t say she rode a donkey. Travelling by donkey would have been tough enough through the rocky, scorching desert, but the poor woman probably walked the whole way! Travelling with a pregnant woman is slow going – think of the washroom breaks! Not to mention having to stop to rest to her swelling feet. The couple must have been relieved and excited when Jerusalem came into view, but Bethlehem is located another 9 long kms SW of the old city (the ancient walled-in part) of Jerusalem. The last leg of the journey must have seemed endless. Arriving at their destination was probably more of a nightmare than a relief. Even today, Bethlehem is a small, financially depressed, shoddy little town. A bit of a let down at best. Then Joseph realized he forgot to make hotel reservations. They’re the last to arrive and they have no where to stay.
Mary and Joseph aren’t the only travellers out that night. An angel was also on the road. The word “angel” is taken from the Greek “angelos” meaning message. Angels are messengers sent from God. (This is also the root of the word “evangelical” – pertaining to a good message or “good news”). This angel came from an unknown, distant, heavenly realm, to deliver a good message, not only for the shepherds who were listening, and not only for the Jews, but for all people. The angel announced the birth of the Messiah and gave directions where he could be found. Then the sky filled with a huge, angel choir praising God and extending the peace of Christ. Although angels are often depicted surrounding the manger, cooing over the baby or standing sentry to protect him, scripture makes no mention of even one angel in the stable. These angels didn’t head to the stable themselves. They didn’t have the joy of being among the first to see the baby. They did what they came to do and travelled back to their eternal home.
The shepherds also travel. Understandably, they were impressed by this angel choir and excited about this good news. They decided to travel into Bethlehem to verify for themselves what the angels’ had announced. They took off running. If you’re like me, you imagine them heading right into town, where they come rushing into the stable, short of breath and filled with awe. However, angels don’t give detailed directions. They weren’t able to log the location into a GPS. The shepherds headed to Bethlehem to find a stable. In a town of 300 people there must have been at least 50stables. Plus, like the pop-up stores in the malls at Christmas, there were likely pop up stables to accommodate the extra travellers. The shepherds began the arduous task of checking out every stable. Perhaps as they went from cave to cave and shed to shed, they began to have doubts. Maybe they got discouraged. Maybe they were ready to quit. But they had the image of the angels and the sound of their singing fresh was in their memories. They pressed on until they found that for which they were searching. They relayed their story to the amazement of their listeners. For them, seeing was believing. The shepherds didn’t stay in the stable – their sheep were still on a hill and they needed to get back, but they went back filled with worship and excitement. We can only imagine their elation.
All Christians are travellers. We’re pilgrims on a life journey, a spiritual path, a walk of faith. What do all these travellers teach us about our journey of faith? What do we notice about their travels that might strengthen us for ours?
Mary and Joseph had a rough road. It was physically demanding. When they arrived at their destination, it was a lesser place than where they started. Many Christians go through life thinking that if we pay our dues, put up with the hardships, endure life’s demands, God will bless us. When we persist in our trials and end up in a lesser place we’re confused and angry at God. We had anticipated a reward. Something that would make our hardships worthwhile. However, our expectations are unfounded. Sometimes, we do everything God asks of us, only to end up sleeping in a metaphorical stable. Like Mary and Joseph, we need to go back to our roots – the roots of our faith – to remember our calling and make sense of our experiences. We are grounded in Christ. Life’s meaning doesn’t come from rewards, but from being recipients of his grace. Things happen for a reason – God’s reason: Joseph and Mary had to return to Bethlehem because the Messiah had to be born in the city of David. We may not understand what is happening in our lives. I’m sure Augustus didn’t know God was using him to fulfill an ancient prophesy. We may not know the reason our particular path is unfolding in a certain way. We may not even discover it in our lifetime; it took hundreds of years from the time of David’s birth to that of Jesus for God’s purpose to become clear. We stay on the path, trusting in the grace of God, knowing God will use our hardships for his purposes. We also need to see things from a divine perspective. Mary and Joseph may have ended up in a sty, but God blessed them and all humanity with a Saviour. CoVid has turned out to be a testing ground for the world. Things haven’t gone well for millions of people – they’ve endured illness and even death. Our hope at this time is not to be rewarded with health for being faithful to God through a pandemic, but to know that God is present in the midst of this and that baby, born in a manger, will save us.
The angels: what I notice about them is their boundaries. Only one angel has the honour of announcing Jesus birth and the rest are okay with that. They’re happy to do whatever task God has given them to do. They don’t need their egos stroked. They simply do their part. They heighten the event by singing glorious praise. They realize we all have different gifts. So does God and God uses us according to those gifts. All of us like to be special. Sometimes we don’t get the glamourous job, the “sexy ministries” as my friend would say. We may not be front and center. People may not admire us for what we do. We may not even get a thank you. Our reward lies not with people, but in participating in God’s work. The second thing I notice about the angels is that they did not look for the results of their work to measure it’s value. They didn’t hover around following the shepherds to be sure they make the most of the opportunity. They didn’t force or nag the shepherds to get moving. They simply gave directions. All God asks us to do is our part. All we can do for people is point the way to salvation and let go, hoping they’ll seek and find redemption in Christ. But we can do something for God – we can offer our worship and praise grateful that he is at work in our world and in those we love without seeking credit for ourselves.
If I were a shepherd, I might have had enough amazement for one night. I would have likely basked in the wonder of the angels music and savour that experience. For many people today, angels have become more important than the God they serve. People who have no time for Christ, like to talk about guardian angels and avenging angels and healing angels and a myriad of other angels. The messengers have become more important than the message. Who needs a Messiah to save them from their sins? We don’t want to “repent” – that’s an ugly business of self-reflection and making amends. What we want is an angel or two to make our lives safes and more pleasant. We seek salvation from the messengers of God, rather than seeking the one who is the message – the living, incarnate Word. The shepherds, though, weren’t content with angels, they were inspired by the angels’ message. Their vision compelled them to see for themselves. They didn’t hesitate – they took off running. How eager are you to find Christ? How long are you willing to search for him? What do we expect when we do find him? Are we looking for huge “aha” moments with great theological insights or ideas? Or maybe personal transformation? Or spiritual greatness? The trouble with those desires is: it’s not all about us. What the shepherds did was bear witness to what God was doing. They told their story and they worshipped. During CoVid and at every time, we too need a vision that motivates us to seek Christ, tell our story and praise God.
Christmas is about people like us doing their best to please God, it’s about angels with a message and a vision which will once again make us right with God, and it’s about ordinary shepherds who seek until they find. While these travellers in the Christmas story are companions with much to teach us, the Christmas story is really about another traveller. It is about the God who leaves the splendour of heaven, the safety of immortality, the praises of angels, and the full privileges of Divine royalty to travel through time and space in order to end up in a lesser human body, in a dirty animal shed to fulfill the mission of dying on a cross. I said at the beginning of this sermon series that the birth of Jesus is a story of an everlasting love that endures through every obstacle, whether pandemics, sin or death. It triumphs over everything and anything that has the potential to destroy it. The essence Christmas in the time of CoVid and at every time, is the incarnation of the God who loves us to death and beyond.
Silent Prayer and Reflection
Hymn – Angels We Have Heard on High
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
Lord Jesus, you have travelled from the arms of your Father and the grandeur of heaven to live as one of us. You are the pilgrim who is with us on our journey and the guide that leads us to our spiritual home.
We are grateful that we are not alone on our path. We are thankful that you carry us over the rough spots of life, reach out to us to pull us up when we fall, go before us to show us the way.
We thank you for the hopeful vision you give us of a future when we will be welcomed into your heavenly realm.
Show us the way to your presence where we may worship and adore you.
Fill us with the excitement of salvation for all and peace among people.
Give us wisdom so that our expectations of life will not fill us with despair but work to strengthen us. Remind us of our roots, we come from you and we belong to you. We are your children.
Give us humility so that we do not try to elevate ourselves but live to serve you. Help us to let go of consequences knowing all things are in your hands and that you will use every situation for your purpose.
Give us a vision of your glory, not only for eternity but for our world today. Fill us with the faith that with you all things are possible. Help us to spread your message.
We are thankful for the kindness of strangers in these strange days.
We are blessed by the warmth and love of our families, friends and neighbours.
Christmas reminds us that your light shines in the darkest of times. Though we fear the darkness and worry about the future, you are our light.
Encourage us to reach out to those who need your embrace and the joy and freedom you were born to offer.
Jesus touch us, those we love and our world with your healing and grace.
We remember before you all those we know and those known to you alone
who are living with loss or illness this season,
those who face depression or discouragement,
and all who will find it hard to be merry this year.
We think specifically of ….
Shine the light of your comfort into their lives and make them whole.
Lord Jesus you are our king. Come and claim your rightful place in our hearts.
Our world is struggling for the justice and mercy you bring.
Draw near to our leaders so they may work not to fulfill their agenda but yours. Give them hearts not to exploit but to serve.
Be with citizens of every country who often feel powerless to affect change. Take away our apathy and give us courage to speak. Help us to live in ways that are pleasing to you so we may create your kingdom on Earth.
We pray for those striving to contain and heal the effects of the pandemic and for those who risk their lives to care for others.
Give hope to people under oppression and to those who live with fear or hunger day by day.
We pray for the people of Ethiopia who are living with war. We pray for those who have left only to find themselves in refugee camps. Bring peace so they may return to their homes.
We pray for the farmers of India and the government as they negotiate new laws on marketing.
We pray for peace in the middle east.
Hasten the day when the world’s peoples will live as neighbours
reconciled in your truth and freedom.
For the coming of this day, we pray in the words Jesus taught us:
The Lord’s Prayer
Hymn – Waiting for Christmas
Invitation to Mission
We go from here to travel life’s road, knowing God is with us
We are pilgrims going to see a newborn King
We walk on the Way, which is Christ himself.
We journey with others sharing the good news as we go.