- STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH NOVEMBER 29, 2020
Rev. Sabrina Ingram Advent 1
“Christmas in the time of CoVid”
Advent Liturgy & Lighting of the First Candle – the Candle of Hope.
Hymn – On Jordan’s Bank
Prayer of Adoration and Confession:
Powerful God, Creator of all things seen and unseen,
You exist beyond all time and space,
Your eternal kingdom is visible only by faith.
Your love envelopes us
You receive us by grace
You give us the gifts of hope, peace, joy and love.
In this advent season we remember your great gift to us – your Son, Jesus.
We praise you. We worship you.
Lord, only you can see into our hearts and know there is a deep longing to make this Advent one that welcomes you more deeply into our own lives.
You also see our weakness. We are easily distracted by the cares of this world.
Without the busy-ness of life, we grow bored.
We claim to be hopeful, but quickly fall into despair.
We speak of peace but cannot get along with those closest to us, or with strangers.
We appeal to you for mercy but cannot forgive those who have hurt us.
We declare our love for you, yet we forget you and fail in our commitment to you.
God of forgiveness, we turn to you in humility and beg for your help.
Free our hearts from the prison of our anger and hurt.
Give us the strength and courage to forgive as we have been forgiven.
As we worship today remind us of the message of the prophets. Let us praise you with joy-filled hearts as we again anticipate the coming of the Messiah who will bring new life and new ways of living.
Help our spirits to grow and bloom as we make room for the One who will change the world.
All glory and praise to you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon John 3: 5 – 6
Jesus said, “Unless a person submits to this original creation
—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation,
the invisible moving the visible,
a baptism into a new life
it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.
the person who takes shape within
is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit
—and becomes a living spirit”.
Prayer for Illumination God beyond our senses, as we hear your word, give us ears to hear and hearts to receive so we may have the faith to believe in what we cannot see. Amen.
God Speaks to Us
Daniel 6: 6 – 23
Colossians 1: 15 – 20
Luke 1: 26 – 38
Message: Christmas in the time of CoVid: Unseen Things
This is the first Sunday of Advent. It’s hard to believe that Christmas is already upon us. Where has the year gone? Didn’t we just celebrate Christmas before CoVid broke out and threw the world off balance? There is a famous novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez entitled Love in the time of Cholera. It is a story of enduring love set in South America during the Cholera pandemic in 1870. It’s from that book title that I borrowed the title for my Advent sermon series, “Christmas in the time of CoVid”. Christmas is also a story of enduring love and this year it will unfold in the middle of a pandemic. What does Christmas have to say about CoVid? This week we’re starting with the theme “Unseen Things”. So I have a joke about unseen things:
Donald Trump walks into a bar. He is invisible and he’s talking loudly. The bartender says, “Why are you invisible?” Trump says “Many years ago, I found a bottle on the beach at Mar-a-lago. I rubbed it and a genie came out. He said I could have 3 wishes.” I’m already enormously rich so for my first wish, I said, “’Okay, believe me, this is tremendously important. I want Melania to marry me. America will love her’. I got that wish”. For my second wish, I said, “‘Like all true Americans, I’m tremendously patriotic. I’m incredibly popular as well. If I were a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! and I want to be President of the United States.’ So here I am”. And then, for my third wish, I started by saying, “This is essential, so let me be clear…”
As we know, not politicians disappear.
Unseen things can be powerful. We’ve discovered this in the last 12 months. We sit here today, 6 feet apart, wearing masks and not singing because of something we can’t see. Others are worshipping from home due to a viral germ that’s smaller than a single cell. An invisible germ is controlling the world. It’s remarkable that people are responding to something they can’t see. We’ve been told there’s a virus, so we believe there’s a virus. Of course, even though we can’t see the actual germ, we can see it’s impact. 51 million people have gotten ill from it and of those,1.26 million have died and the numbers increase every day. What’s interesting is that of the billions of people who are self-isolating and washing their hands, a goodly number mock those who believe in God. The reason for this is that God is not visible. Regardless of the fact that we can see the impact of a “higher power” in the structure and beauty of creation, and regardless of personal Spirit filled encounters some have experienced, many people claim they cannot believe in something they can’t see. Now we could argue that small as it is, if one has a powerful microscope, one can see a viral germ. Therefore, unlike God, CoVid is scientifically provable. I’d have to concede that viruses, though miniscule, are detectable. Yet there are many things people agree are real that we cannot see or measure. No one would deny the reality of anger, love, disappointment, stress, grief, jealousy, disgust, loneliness. It’s universally accepted that feelings exist. Your feelings may be inappropriate or misguided but they are real. Similarly, we know the difference between inner freedom and emotional imprisonment, between blessings and curses, between integrity and duplicity. When someone speaks to us about personality, character or potential we all know what they mean. Likewise, with dreams, intentions and purpose. Nobody says, “Purpose isn’t visible, you can’t prove purpose is real, therefore it doesn’t exist”. Spiritual things are also real. There is goodness and evil. People experience new life and transformation. Call it sin or human nature, we all know when someone has wronged us. Invisible realities intersect with our lives every moment and none of us deny them; we may try to dismiss them, overcome them or control them but even in doing so, we acknowledge their truth and power. But somehow, we cannot affirm the existence and power of God.
The Christmas story – the coming of Christ – challenges our denial. It begins with an angel, a messenger from God, appearing to a young woman named Mary. In many Biblical stories angels, seen and unseen, are present. We have romantic images of winged beings shining with celestial light. We have spiritual images of beings that are ghostlike – visible but not solid. Perhaps angels are spirits that possess a human being for a short time, so God can use that person. We don’t know what the angel Gabriel was like or how Mary saw or experienced “him”. The scripture indicates it was visible, so we’ll go with that. Whatever came into Mary’s presence, she knew it was unique. She believed it was from God. We’re told she was unnerved by the angel’s presence and greeting. In his most comforting manner, Gabriel told Mary she was going to have a baby who would be the Messiah – the long-awaited Saviour and King. Mary was stuck on the news of her impending pregnancy. She explained to Gabriel that it was physically, scientifically impossible for her to have a baby. She had not done the one thing required to reproduce. Gabriel told her a remarkable thing. The Holy Spirit, this invisible force of God, would impregnate her. How can something invisible and therefore non-existent and therefore unbelievable pull off the creation of a physical, authentic, undeniable human being? How can any sane person believe that could actually happen? Well, Mary did. She accepted the angel’s news, even though it was (a) preposterous, (b) inconvenient, and (c) potentially destructive. But Mary trusted God, and submitted to the Holy Spirit.
Mary wasn’t the only one to trust that God could do the impossible. The Bible is full of stories of faithful people who believed that what is unseen is more powerful than what is seen. One example is Daniel, who was told that prayer to God was punishable by a violent death: being torn apart by lions. Daniel trusted his invisible God and took his chances. He continued to pray 3 times a day. His enemies got wind of this and snitched on him, so the King kept his word. Daniel was tossed into the lions’ den. Imagine the situation. Physical, hungry lions with real claws and actual teeth vs. a God you can’t see and who didn’t protect you from punishment even though you prayed. Which would you believe in? Which would you be focused on? I’d have kept a close eye on those lions Daniel kept his eyes on his invisible God. He continued to trust in spite of his dire circumstances. No one intervened. No fence appeared. No sword wielding samurai angel came to slay the lions. God remained invisible. Yet in the morning Daniel emerged from the pit unscathed.
What do we glean from these stories? First, we’re called to faith in the invisible God with whom all things are possible. God is powerful. God is trustable. There’s nothing God can’t do. I recall when I was 16, the principal at our school that no outside religious groups would be allowed in the school. Friends of mine were in a Christian band and they had been praying about doing a concert at my school. I told they I was sorry to bear unhappy news, but there was no way that would happen. Mr. Emery had already banned it. One of the women responded, “Oh Sabrina, God is so much greater than Mr. Emery.” They approached the school, did the concert, and ended with an alter call to which 52 kids responded. Do we believe God is so much greater than Mr. Emery or the limitations of science or lions? Do we believe God is more powerful than the hurdles in our way? Can God make a baby with a virgin? Can God overcome the problems at home or work? Can God defeat a virus? Can God breathe new life into our Church? Can God fulfill our dream of having housing on our land? Can God lead our children back to faith? Do we have faith that God “can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20)? God is at work in our lives, even though we can’t see him, and we may not see what he’s doing.
When God calls us, do we respond like Mary? Mary was completely receptive to God’s plan for her life, even though it did not fit into the plan laid out before her. Bearing a baby Messiah was inconvenient for Mary. It disrupted her family and her wedding plans. It created trust issues for Joseph. It was embarrassing and shameful and way too hard to explain to the neighbours. It could have led to her being stoned to death for her adultery. Many things God asks of us are difficult, unpleasant, inconvenient, and disruptive to our lives. In fact, God is continuously calling us to something that will stretch us. If God only asked of us what we’re already doing, God will only get from us what he’s already got. Trials and tribulations grow our faith and expand God’s kingdom. God calls us to pray when it will get us thrown into the jaws of death. God calls us (you, as well as your minister) to witness when it could expose you to hostility or persecution. God calls us to study his word, even when we could spend the afternoon reading. God calls us to work, when its 20 C in November and we’re missing the last good day before winter. God calls us to love, even when our neighbour makes it very difficult. Are we ready to submit to God’s call and to face whatever it entails? As Paul states, “Every detail works to your advantage and to God’s glory… Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace” (2 Corinthians 4: 15 & 16).
Finally, are we able to look beyond ourselves to see what God is really doing? Often, we won’t know what that is until we’ve taken the first steps of faith and are walking in God’s way. Mary was pregnant when she finally clued into the significance of what was happening. It’s not until she visited Elizabeth that she sees, the unseen purpose of God “He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts. He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud. The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold. He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high” (Luke 1: 50 – 54). I’m sure when Daniel went into the lion’s den, he was preparing to die. He didn’t know that God would show his power to the Persians and preserve Daniel’s life. If we could see what God was doing, faith wouldn’t be faith and it wouldn’t be needed. Can we trust that no matter what happens, somehow in God’s larger scheme it will be used for a higher purpose?
God is unseen and God is powerful. God is working out a plan. At the centre of that plan is the incarnation of Jesus – God in the flesh. The unseen God made visible and tangible, real and undeniable. “He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1: 15f). Unseen things are the essence of Christmas in the time of CoVid.
Living God, you have blessed us with many physical things – homes, clothes, food; you have also blessed us with many intangible things – faith, grace, eternal life. So, we offer to you today our gifts, seen and unseen. We offer a portion of our wealth and we offer you our time, our abilities, our love, and our obedience. Use all we give you so that others may see what is unseen and eternal. Amen.
Hymn – The Thrill of Hope
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
God of us all,
We thank you that you saw the state of the world, with a broken and sinful humanity, and you were moved by love and not by wrath.
We give you thanks for your Holy Spirit. With you nothing is impossible.
We thank you for Christ who came to offer us your grace.
We thank you that even now, you are unfolding your eternal plan.
We thank you for the example of Mary, who was so human and yet so willing to give herself completely to you.
Help us to learn the grace of humility.
Give us the courage to say “yes” to you without always knowing where it will lead.
Release us from our fears and from the pride and stubbornness that keep us from you and others.
Our hearts desire the warmth of your love and our minds search for your Light in the midst of the darkness.
Lord, today we pray for your Church.
We remember faithful Christians everywhere who seek to discern and follow your will.
We remember those who experience persecution for their faith.
We pray for those who have turned your gospel into something weak and empty.
We pray for congregations who would rather die than change.
Give them newness of life.
We pray for congregations who are struggling and divided and ask for healing and peace.
Today we pray for our world.
We pray for people everywhere who are so affected by this corona virus. We hold up to you hose who are ill, those who are dying, those who grieve. We pray for people in our world who live in circumstances beyond their control. The poor, those who live in over-populated countries, those who live far from medical centres, those who do not have the opportunity for good sanitation, those who are illiterate, those who will not have access to vaccinations and those who are to busy surviving to “self-isolate”. Help us to find ways to support them and lift them up. We pray for those who are working hard to find a safe and effective vaccination, for those who work to increase our safety and for those who work with the sick. Help those who are naïve or selfish to consider the needs of others.
Today we pray for countries that are experiencing terror attacks. We thank you for police agencies that keep watch to prevent radical people from killing and maiming innocent civilians. We pray for those who are so filled with rage that they feel the need to lash out. We pray for those who are fearful. Help us to learn to live in peace.
Today we pray for loved ones.
For those who suffer from mental illness.
For those who reject you.
For those who seek to heal their families.
And for those who are ill.
We remember particularly……
And those we name before you now.
Lord Jesus hear our prayers and fill us with hope are we pray together saying…
The Lord’s Prayer
Invitation to Mission
We go from here
To worship One whom we cannot see
To be united with you by Christ’s Spirit
To speak your word of grace and share your love.