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This Week's Sermon !

December 9, 2018 -- Advent 2

Malachi 3: 1-4
Luke 1: 68-79
Luke 3: 1-6

From the Wilderness

In the 67th year of the reign of Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom, Canada and Her other Realms & Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith , and when the Rt. Hon Justin Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada, the Hon. Stephen McNeil was Premier of Nova Scotia, Abraham Zebian was Warden of the Municipality of the District of West Hants, he Rt. Rev Richard Bott was Moderator of the United Church of Canada, the Rev Catherine MacDonald President of the Maritime Conference, the Rev Tom Woods the Chairperson of the Valley Presbytery (sorry, I could not find his real picture) and the Rev Beth Johnston, minister of the Hantsport Pastoral Charge, the Congregation of Avon United Church gathered for worship and heard a story from a long ago time.

As shorter way of nailing down this moment as precisely as possible, I could also have substituted what I said with “on December 9, 2018 the Congregation of Avon United Church gathered for worship and heard a story from a long ago time”. Having a calendar that does not depend upon particular political situations and is followed by almost everyone on the planet, makes things much simpler especially if you are a person who likes to remember dates.

Of course, it’s not the dates themselves that are important, but the events to which they become attached. September 10, 1939 was like any other day - the sun rose and set - but it was also the day the Governor General of Canada signed into law a declaration of War.

December 6, 1989 , was like any other day except that 14 women died because they dared to study engineering.

A friend told me recently of his experience of travelling by air on September 11, 2001. Who can forget that date? He obviously had quite a different trip than if he had been flying the day before. Air travel has not been the same since!

Biblical scholars tell us that the names in the beginning of the passage from Luke’s gospel were of people who were so “famous” that everyone expected that they would be famous forever. Now, all that most of us know about them is because of the one John was speaking of: Jesus of Nazareth. Their fame has been overshadowed by Jesus, a boy born to a poor family in a remote corner of the mighty Roman Empire. So ironic, isn’t it. Jesus importance has far surpassed that of these powerful people.

In high school I learned a poem called “Ozymandias” (by Percy B Shelley) and was quite taken by it.

 I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

In just a few years we have seen statues topple - literally, as regimes and sensibilities change. Things which we once thought permanent have disappeared. Of course, this has been going on for as long as human civilization as the sands of time drift and hide things (as in the case of the Great Sphinx of Giza, which was once all but forgotten and buried in sand,) and changing politics (with the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein 2003 to the fall of Berlin wall in 1989).

We sometimes look at the “Bible times” as “long ago and much simpler,” but they were far from it. Living under Roam occupation was no walk in the park! Poverty and oppression was taken for granted unless you were a member of the privileged elites who had managed to work out a cosy deal with the Romans - but in exchange for part of their souls.

Into this context comes the good news of Jesus of Nazareth. I realize that the way we tell the story at this time of year can be a little confusing as we start with John’s proclamation (when his cousin Jesus was about 30), and THEN we go on to tell the story of Jesus’ birth.

The words of the prophet that John uses compare his ministry with the work of building or improving a road to make it easier for an important dignitary to go somewhere in style, and more easily.

We all know about road building and road improvement. When I was in elementary school they paved the road that went by my house. First, I think. they surveyed and then they tore down a few buildings which were in the way (Mrs Duck’s barn and a building my father owned which had once been a black smith’s shop were both bulldozed), then they levelled the road which involved taking dirt from a hill and a field which was above the road and carrying all that dirt to the road to make it higher. Meanwhile they had to deal with the nearby Winter River (we called it “The Creek”. They put a long culvert to serve as a bridge just underneath the one that was there (and dynamited the old one off the top when they were finished). (((By the way, setting off dynamite is fun when you are in grade 6. I think the work crew would get in real trouble today if they let a bunch of kids help them blow up a bridge!)))

With the twinning of the 101 near Windsor in the next few years, we will be seeing lots of examples of earth moving and highway straightening.

Building roads is work, and it requires both “know-how” and effort. You have to pay attention to both minute details and the “big picture”. I saw a picture on the internet one day of a bridge somewhere where something had gone wrong during construction. They started from each side but the spans were offset and could not be easily joined. I remember that when the Confederation Bridge was “connected” in November of 1996, there was no such problem!

Of course, ferries are still part of travelling from place to place in the Maritimes . I seem to recall that when the MV Confederation arrived in service on the PEI to Nova Scotia run it was discovered that one of the docks , build specially for that particular ferry, was the wrong size and had to be modified before it could be used! I guess the boat engineer and the dock engineer had a different measuring tape.

John the Baptizer styled himself as one of those who was doing the work to prepare the way for Jesus to begin his ministry among them.

The message for me is that this preparing for Jesus is not something that John did at a time in history and was then complete, but it is something we have to do in the here and now. When we style our spiritual lives after the “church year” we participate in a yearly cycle or preparing for the coming of Christ, over and over again.

We all know what often happens to “New Year’s Resolutions”; they don’t last long! Maybe we should have shorter years?

We all know about getting ready for Christmas. I talk to a lot of people about “getting ready for Christmas” and the conversation is often about what they are planning (or not) to give their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren this year. Having 5 children isn’t so bad, but then you add 25 grandchildren, and 50 great grandchildren can become pricey when it comes to gift giving! Then there are all those plans for hosting the family meal. More than one family borrows church tables - how else can you feed 15, 20, or more people. Some feel pressured to host because they are the only one with a house big enough. Someone tries to organize just who is bringing what to the meal? When will it be? For couples who are from different places, when will each set of grandparents be visited? Will they visit us?

By the way, in case you forgot, Christmas comes at the darkest time of year when we are just as likely to get dumped with freezing rain, or 30 cms of snow, or temperatures of -30 or ALL OF THE ABOVE within 24 hours! Staff parties, church functions, gatherings of other groups, and the requisite gift exchange. all crowd in there and we end up exhausted, cranky and not feeling a lot like Christmas long before it’s “over.”

The United Church has responded to the question. “What do I buy for someone who has everything they both want and need, at least of the things that I can afford to buy them?” with: you could consider NOT buying them anything!

We have a “Gifts with Vision” catalogue by which you can give a gift to honour your friends but give it to someone who can probably make better use of the effort. Many charities have such catalogues. A number of years ago one of my church families gave me a donation for our benevolent fund - the adults pooled the money they would use for the adult gift exchange and gave me for gifts for a family with children.

I remember when I was ordained the Maritime Conference UCW presented each of us with a card. Before I opened the card I thought, “wonderful, I can buy more books”, and I had some in mind. What I received instead was a card telling me they had given a gift to the Mission and Service Fund in all of our names. They did this every year as a way of expressing appreciation for our future leadership and supporting the work of the wider church. It reminded me of the important ministry to the wider church carried out by the UCW and how much I owed the church for their part in my education and training. Today is white gift Sunday and our white gifts will go to the Hantsport Food Bank.

But what about the rest of the year. Maybe its time to step back from what I saw referred to recently as, “the tinselld nostalgia” of Christmas and focus more on what it was Jesus came to do, and have us do, the other 11 ½ months of the year. Surely Jesus did not want us to go to the lengths we do to celebrate his birthday, even if it is a huge gift to a reputable charity, but then happily ignore his teachings the rest of the year.

Jesus did not come to support the status quo; few, if any, prophets did. Jesus came to call the people back to the vision of Creation that prophets had been speaking of for generations. The prophets did not call the people to work harder, to become wealthier and to drive the competition out of business with deeper pockets, but envisioned a world where the poor and vulnerable were cared for and people were valued not for what they could produce but for who they were: “a child of God”.

A lot of people who become suddenly unemployed or who retire have a hard time dealing with their self image - they are accustomed to seeing their own value in what they do, make or produce.

Yet, we value children for who they are, not just their potential - why not help create a society which values everyone. In the early church it was the widows and orphans who were the focus of the church’s outreach. Their society had shut them out and the church sought to close that gap.

We don’t live in the wilderness, nor in the past or future. We live in the here and now in Nova Scotia, Canada (or most of us do). We live in an era of heated debates over what to do, if anything, about climate change, poverty, previously ignored parts of our history, and the list goes on.

Advent is a time to connect our faith and our actions with the hope of the Gospel - NOT just the birth of baby Jesus but with the proclamation that Jesus came in order that all people would have life, and have it in abundance.

May we make this our new year’s resolution this Advent and for the next 51 weeks.

Amen!

1995- 2019 The Rev. Beth W. Johnston.





For some good stuff go to:
journeywithjesus.net-a weekly webzine for the global church
journeywithjesus.net

The United Church has a great online bookstore and here is the link. If you live in Canada they will even send you a book display for your event and people who dont get to see that many books at once can have a ball!


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