Scripture Readings: Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 12:12–31 | Luke 4:14–21
“Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:21).
When God’s word is spoken, get ready for New Creation.
That’s what happens in both our Old Testament reading today from the book of Nehemiah, and our reading from the Gospel of Luke: the people are gathered together to listen to the Holy Scriptures, and what they hear challenges and shakes up the whole story of their lives.
In our reading from Nehemiah, we’re witnesses of the rebirth of a nation. Many years after the kingdom of Judah had fallen to the Babylonians, and its people were carried away into Exile, some of them had returned, and had been trying to put back the shattered pieces that had once been their homeland. Nehemiah was a Jewish Exile in the service of the King of Persia (which had by that time taken over Babylon). Nehemiah had heard a report from his homeland that all was not well: “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.” (Nehemiah 1:3).
Wrecked by this news, Nehemiah prays to the LORD and seeks forgiveness for the failures of his people… pleading with the Living God to show them His mercy and holy love. Eventually, and surprisingly, Nehemiah ends up returning to Jerusalem with a commission from the King of Persia to rebuild the city, and much of the book of Nehemiah tells of this ongoing drama.
But what happens after the walls are rebuilt is where we pick up the story today: now it is the people of God’s turn to be rebuilt. After decades of living far from home, surrounded by strangers and foreign ways of life, they were gathered to hear again the sacred story of their people: the Torah, the Law of Moses was read aloud, and the people wept… broken down by the realization that they and their ancestors had failed. They had not stayed true to the Covenant that the LORD God had made with them, and so they had lost their Temple, their country, their world, and had gone off into Exile.
The scholar Timothy Saleska puts it like this: “The story of the life and death of Israel is not just a history lesson to these people. It is their story —their life and their death. The story of God’s infinite love and their own pitiful rebellion brings them to their knees.” But now, it was time for a new beginning.
Nehemiah, and Ezra the priest, and the Levites urge all the people: ‘do not weep, rejoice!’ This day was a holy day to the LORD, a day for celebration and song. Yes, the Law had exposed the people’s collective darkness, but not to condemn them… it was so that they may now start to walk in the light! God had given His people a new beginning, brought about by His mercy and faithful love bringing them through the pain of Exile and back into the Promised Land.
We follow this pattern ourselves each week in our services, when we confess together, acknowledging our failures to follow in God’s holy ways… and together in Christ we are invited to return to the LORD with all our hearts, and rejoice in His forgiveness and grace… not so we can keep on walking in darkness, but so that we can walk with Him in the light… so that we can grow in His grace, and respond to His faithful love by making real changes.
Rededicated… rebuilt as God’s people once again.
What followed after the public gathering to hear their sacred story in Nehemiah was a renewed sense of their purpose, and identity… pursuing a new way forward as God’s forgiven, and now faithful people. It wasn’t easy, and it was far from perfect, but they were beginning again. Their sorrow had been transformed by the hope of finding their place in God’s story.
Turning now to the New Testament, St. Luke offers us a different picture of a new beginning. Today we heard how Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, begins His mission: He reads from the Holy Scriptures in His hometown synagogue. This is His moment to reveal to us all what He is all about… and what His Heavenly Father has sent Him to accomplish.
He reads from the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed, -
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19).
Words of hope for the hopeless… a new beginning for all.
This message was more than welcome that day among those gathered in Nazareth… among those eager to be set free from the oppression of Rome, from the rule of foreign nations they had been living under for centuries, eagerly awaiting the arrival of God’s Kingdom. And this message still hits home with many of us today as well: especially those of us who are struggling to find healing and help and hope. We too are longing to be set free… to find freedom and peace. We too are hungry for new beginnings… for Good News to come to us too.
And reading aloud the promises the Living God made to His people long ago, Jesus points to Himself as their embodiment: “Then he began to say to them,” (and to us, I would add) “‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:21).
If we end the story here, as our lectionary would have us do, it all sounds wonderful. But unlike the story of Nehemiah, where God’s people are told to rejoice instead of weep at the word of the LORD, Jesus words continue, and turn the excitement and welcome of His hometown synagogue, into outcries of rage. Luke 4:22-30.
“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
After His opening claim to be the bringer of God’s Good News, Jesus highlights the people’s lack of faith in Him… turning the focus now from the message, to how they receive the Messenger. Just like God’s people in Isaiah’s day had rejected and turned their back on their God, leading them into Exile, Jesus was predicting that His own people would also reject Him as well.
But as off-putting as this accusation was (however accurate it would turn out to be), this was not what really set the people of Nazareth off that day. Jesus goes on to completely challenge their understanding, not just of who He is and what He’s about, but who the Living God is, and what God is up to. Luke 4:24-30,
And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
Sidon and Syria were two of Israel’s neighbours, and in days gone by, were often their enemies… warring against God’s people. They represented “those other people” that Israel thought God wanted nothing to do with… those who worshipped idols, oppressed God’s people, and had no future in God’s Kingdom.
But Jesus points back to key moments in the story of Israel where the LORD was at work offering mercy to “those other people” too…. rescuing them, and drawing them into the story of His holy love… while at the same time, God’s own people kept on rejecting His ways and turning their backs, again and again, on their covenant promises.
N. T. Wright helpfully highlights why the tension and anger was building: “Jesus points out what happened in the days of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, and in doing so identifies himself with the prophets. Elijah was sent to help a widow —but not a Jewish one. Elisha healed one solitary leper —and the leper was the commander of the enemy army. That’s what did it. That’s what drove them to fury. Israel’s God was rescuing the wrong people.”
That day in the synagogue, Jesus makes clear that God’s own people had missed the point of their own story: that God was not only concerned with rescuing the children of Israel… He was calling them to be faithful to Him with all of their heart, and walk with Him in the light… so that God’s mercy, forgiveness, and holy love would extend to every nation… to all the world.
“The servant-Messiah” Wright goes on to say, “has not come to inflict punishment on the nations, but to bring God’s love and mercy to them. And that will be the fulfilment of a central theme in Israel’s own scriptures.
This message was, and remains, shocking. Jesus’ claim to be reaching out with healing to all people, though itself a vital Jewish idea, was not what most first-century Jews wanted or expected.” 
From the beginning, St. Luke tells us that Jesus proclaimed the Good News that God wants all peoples to come and share in God’s good Kingdom.
And from the beginning, He knew that His own people would reject Him and this message, just as God’s people had all too often rejected their LORD. But even so, that would not change the Good News He was sent to bring: God’s new beginning, not just for the children of Israel… but for all.
As we gather to hear God’s word, do we expect to find new creation at work? To have our foundations rocked in order to be rebuilt again? To find our darkness exposed, and then to be called into the light?
Do we listen with joy only when the message lines up with our own expectations, and stop our ears and close our hearts when we find ourselves and our views challenged?
Through the Holy Scriptures, God’s Spirit is still at work re-creating His people, preparing us to take part in the work of Christ’s Kingdom here and now. To share in the new beginning of God’s rescuing love in Jesus, for all.
May the Lord open our hearts to hear and receive His word to us today. And may the Holy Spirit continue to re-create us in Christ always. Amen.
 Timothy E. Saleska, “Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 255.
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 47–48.
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 48–49.
Our service today highlights the spiritual practice of reading the Holy Scriptures aloud together.
Here is a great video from the Bible Project that explores this practice as well:
Our Service of Morning Prayer, Bulletin, and Sermon can be found here:
And our Songs can be found here:
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 62:1–5 | Psalm 36:5–10 | 1 Corinthians 12:1–11 | John 2:1–11
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11).
In this season after Epiphany, our readings regularly invite us to reflect on some of the key moments where Christ’s mission is revealed: reminding us of who He is and what He has come to do. In today’s reading we heard tell of the now famous miracle at the wedding in Cana, where Jesus creates wonderful wine out of water… saving the nuptial party from turning into a social disaster.
Of all the wonderful miracles that Jesus performed, why is this one singled out as being so significant? What does it tell us about the bigger story Christ is playing out? Is it just a gracious wedding gift to a desperate couple in need? A unique opportunity to perform a random act of kindness? A display of miraculous power to wow the crowd and help build up a following?
The Gospel of John tells us this event was much more than a kind gesture… John calls it “the first of his signs”… and signs point to something… they have a message that is meant to be understood.
But who is this sign meant for? Far from a dramatic display of power, this miracle is done in secret. Sure, the benefits are shared by all the guests, but only a few know who is behind it all. This sign is first of all meant to say something to His disciples… including you and I, about what Jesus has come to do. And what He is calling us to take part in… revealing a glimpse of His glory as the One who has come to make all things new.
Of course, the image of a wedding runs all through the story of Scripture… especially when it comes to God’s relationship with Israel: a community set apart to be God’s own covenant people… committed to sharing their life with the LORD in joyful celebration. As we’ve looked at before, the covenant ceremony at Mt. Sinai, where God gives the Law to the newly rescued Israelites through Moses, was almost to be like a ‘marriage’ celebration, a new beginning. But disastrously, the people went back on their vows almost immediately… building an idol to worship, and throwing a raucous party for themselves. What was meant to be a wonderful, holy event became a shameful tragedy… one which was replayed, throughout their history again and again.
This faithless path leads, first the Northern Tribes of Israel, and then the Southern Kingdom of Judah, into destruction and exile… cast out from the Promised Land that God had prepared for them. But as tragic as their future seemed, and as hopeless as they may have felt, through the prophets the LORD God reminds His people that He will be true to His word. That His judgment on their sin isn’t meant for their destruction, but to cleanse them… to restore them to His side… to rescue them, even from themselves… so that they can actually, finally share in His New Life.
In our reading from Isaiah this morning we hear this hopeful message:
“You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed “Forsaken”,
and your land shall no more be termed “Desolate”;
but you shall be called “My Delight Is in Her”,
and your land “Married”;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.” (Isaiah 62:3-5)
The LORD Himself promised to turn His tragic ‘marriage’ to His people into joy… renewing their life together to share completely in His holy love.
Again, we hear this hope of joy-filled life with God expressed in our Psalm this morning:
“How priceless is your love, O God!
your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.
They feast upon the abundance of your house;
you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the well of life,
and in your light we see light. (Psalm 35:7-9).
No matter how hopeless or tragic the story of God’s people turned out to be, the truth is the LORD their God would be faithful to them and rescue them. The desolate would be embraced. The forsaken would share God’s delight. Israel was told to trust in the steadfast love of the LORD, who would cleanse His people, and be reconciled again with them forever.
Let’s turn back now to John’s Gospel, and the wedding incident in Cana. Here also we find what was to be a joyful celebration turn sour: Not because of any infidelity between the couple, but because of the heartbreaking consequence of not having enough… of not being able to provide enough wine to match the special celebration, which would have been experienced as a great source of shame by those hosting the party. Not just public embarrassment, but outright humiliation… lowering the family’s status in the eyes of the wider community.
How often do we find ourselves feeling the same way? Running on empty, while others are depending on us? Feeling like we have let our loved ones down instead of offering joy?
The truth is, there are many ways we can find ourselves feeling desolate. Sometimes it’s because of our own choices. Sometimes it’s because of the failures of others that we depended on. Sometimes life just play out in ways we did not expect, or could not have controlled… and still we find ourselves experiencing shame, emptiness, desolate… without hope.
For times like these, God gives us a sign: we’re offered a glimpse of the glory of Jesus Christ today… not a random generous act, or a magical remedy to take away all our troubles, but a sign to point us to the One who has come to make all things new… to transform even the worst tragedies through His life-giving, saving love.
Jesus tells the servants to take the water set aside to be used for purification, water used to make people clean, and turns it into the most splendid wine… bringing delight beyond all expectations. Purity, holiness surprisingly leading into joy. Shame turned into honour. Desperate emptiness turned into abundant celebration.
From the very beginning, Jesus was bringing about God’s promised restoration… not simply of wedding celebrations, but of God’s relationship with His people… and beyond. This sign reminds us that the LORD longs to delight with humanity… to share His everlasting life and all it’s joys with us. And though on our own, we’ve fallen short… God’s re-creating love is never limited by what we can, or cannot, bring to the table. From first to last, Christ has come to bring… to give to us God’s New Life.
And this sign points us ahead to the cross: to the ultimate act of Christ’s mission of rescuing mercy… enduring the most shame-filled, and tragic death to cleanse His people and all nations of the earth from all our sins… to bring full reconciliation between us and the LORD through offering up His own blood; dying to set us free. Yet on the third day, God turned all that tragedy and shame into unending joy by raising Christ again from the grave; God’s New Creation bursting into being in the Risen Lord, who will come again in full glory to reunite Heaven and Earth… setting all things right again, and making all things new.
As we are facing our own tragedies… our own moments of desolation, whatever they may be… let us look to Jesus our Risen Lord, and seek a glimpse of His re-creative glory. Let us “do what He says”, as Mary told the servants at the wedding, and find that we too are somehow taking part in His gracious, rescuing work. And let us “believe in Him”, as the first disciples did, responding even to the hidden work of His holy love with the faith to follow Him each day, and the certain, joyful hope that God has saved the best for last. Amen.
Our Service of Morning Prayer, Bulletin, and Sermon can be found here:
And our Songs can be found here:
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 43:1–7 | Psalm 29 | Acts 8:14–17 | Luke 3:15–22
"Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3:21-22).
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, a moment that marks not only the beginning of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry, but one that also invites us to share in His ministry too. Baptism is one of the central sacraments, the sacred mysteries of the Church, passed down to us through long generations back to Jesus Christ Himself, who called His disciples to go to every nation on earth and make more disciples, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that He had commanded them… the way of life He had revealed to them to share with the world.
Many of us have been baptized longer than we can remember, but as I have shared with many of you before, I can remember my baptism well. I grew up in the Church, and have believed in God as long as I can remember. The Church I attended as a young person did not practice infant baptism, and I was 15 years old when I was baptized: standing in front of the congregation, many of them my relatives, and publicly owning my faith before being submerged in a tank full of water.
Although most of us think of baptisms as occasions for celebration, to my 15 year old self I saw my baptism as a big problem. As I’ve shared before, the feeling that stands out the most to me about that day is fear… fear of failure, fear of angering God… fear of not being good enough. In my mind, I thought if I sinned before being baptized, I still had a chance to find forgiveness… but if I sinned after being baptised… if I kept messing up after dedicating my life to God, then I would be blowing my last chance with Him. And this thought had me terrified. I had my share of struggles, sins and temptations, and though I tried my best to fight them, or at very least to hide them, and doubted that I could ever measure up in the eyes of the LORD.
That day over 20 years ago, I felt like I was facing the end. And in some ways, this was true: Baptism is a kind of end. A death to an old life bound to brokenness, sin, and despair. But more importantly baptism is about what happens after this end! It’s about New Creation, the New Life of the Living God.
The Holy Scriptures open in Genesis Chapter 1 with a powerful image of God’s creative impulse at work:
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The NRSV translation uses the phrase “wind from God” here, but the word wind is the same word for breath, and also spirit. In ancient Hebrew, these meanings are not easily separated, and are best held closely together if we want to actually get the message. In the beginning we’re told God’s Spirit is moving above the dark, chaotic waters… the abyss of nothingness… the void of un-creation.
Then God speaks, and brings creation into being… a proper place for new life to flourish… filling the earth and all the cosmos with His beauty, glory, and goodness. It is an act of grace; existence itself is conceived of as a gift, springing from the powerful, creative love of God.
Hold onto this image as we now turn to our Gospel passage this morning, to St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ Baptism, and the New Beginning it brings.
Luke tells us that crowds of people from around the region of the Jordan River were coming to John to be baptized, seeking God’s forgiveness. In response to John’s teachings, they knew there was something off in their connection to the LORD their God, and so they took on this tangible way to start again and find their own new beginnings. A personal and public way to have the rest of one’s life dedicated to the LORD… seeking to start again with a fresh start as God’s faithful people.
Then Jesus comes to be baptized along with them… which in the wider story seems strange for all sorts of reasons. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, even John himself is confused by this and actually tries to stop Jesus from being baptised by him. “I need to be baptized by you,” John says, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). Why would the Christ, the Messiah, the Chosen Saviour sent from God need to be baptized? Why would He need to start again?
Again in the baptism of Jesus we are witnessing a gracious gift being given. Unlike the crowds who came to John, Jesus had not come to restart His own story, but to restart the story of all His people… and indeed the world. Jesus humbly allowed Himself to be baptized by human hands in a way which the Living God worked through to reveal Himself and His mission… to make known His rescuing love… and to bring God’s New Creation to life in the lives of His un-faithful people.
Echoing the imagery from Genesis Chapter 1, St. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit again moves over the waters in the form of a dove, and rests upon Jesus. Then a voice from Heaven, the same which spoke the universe into existence, proclaiming: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).
According to the prophets of old, Israel was called to be God’s beloved son, a community graciously created and rescued by the LORD to share in His holy ways. Our reading today from Isaiah 43 reminds us of how the Living God reached out to Israel in love even as they struggled to stay true to Him: Isaiah 43:1-3…
“But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
In line with His holy love, and promises to redeem and restore His chosen people, Jesus, God’s Son was sent to
restart the story of Israel… to relive it faithfully on their behalf with His own sinless life. In Jesus, God had come to be with them as their Saviour.
And His baptism was only the beginning of this mission: everything Christ does in Luke’s Gospel carries this work of God forward… bringing the LORD’s healing, hope, correction, forgiveness, and holy love to Israel just as the prophets had long ago foretold. Of course, the cross is where His story comes to a head… where Jesus, God’s beloved Son humbly allows Himself to be brutally betrayed, tortured, and killed in the most public and shameful way possible… dying the death of a rebel… to rescue rebels like us. To put an end to the enmity between us and the Living God.
They put His broken, bloodied body in the ground, buried in the abyss of death. But then God’s greatest gift: through death and out the other side, Jesus rose up from the grave, and lives now forever as the first resurrected, re-created human, completely alive in the power of the Holy Spirit… the same Spirit He sent to us believers first at Pentecost, and which we pray to receive as the gift of God’s New Life in baptism.
This gift of New Life in the Spirit Christ shares with us has implications… it promises not only God’s presence with us, but also His re-creative power at work within us as we trust in Him and seek His ways… changing the shape of our lives, not just privately, but publicly too.
Our reading from Acts is a great example, revealing that this gift is not just meant for a few insiders, but for all. In the early days of the Church, there were already ancient divisions between the people of Judea and Samaritans, who both traced their ancestry back to the people of Israel, but who looked at each other as heretical outsiders and enemies. At first the Apostles and all of the disciples of Jesus, the Church, had been Jewish, but through the ministry of people like St. Peter and St. John among others, God poured out His Spirit on Samaritans who had believed as well, reconciling two estranged peoples in the new community of Jesus. This would only be the beginning, for Christ’s disciples were tasked to share the Good News of Jesus with all the world… an ongoing calling for every generation, including ours today, drawing us into the mission of Jesus, which Isaiah 43 echoes:
“Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’
and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.’” (Isaiah 43:5-7)
“Do not fear, for I am with you…”
That’s what my 15 year old self was missing: being baptized into Jesus… receiving the gifts of His rescuing death, and resurrection life through the Holy Spirit are not about re-creating myself, saving myself… but about trusting God my Saviour… about His New Creation work in me, and even more shocking, through me. Trusting that as we share in Christ’s life, offered to us as a gift, the Living God our Saviour is with us, at work making all things new.
More than 20 years later, I am still far from perfect. I’m aware of many of my flaws and failings, as your priest, a spouse, a parent… as a disciple of Jesus Christ. And there’s plenty more that I’m not yet aware of as well.
But as unworthy, or frightened as we may feel, our hope is found in the One who laid down His life to raise us up with Him into God’s New Creation… to rescue us in holy love, even while we were rebels… and to share in the new beginning of Christ’s good Kingdom which will have no end. Amen.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our Service of Morning Prayer, Bulletin, and Sermon can be found here:
And our Songs can be found here:
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 60:1–6 | Psalm 72 | Ephesians 3:1–12 | Matthew 2:1–12
“In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:5-6).
I had the gift of growing up in the country in Northern Ontario, where most nights we could look up and see a sky filled with stars. No city lights to drown them out, we could soak the scene in with a sense of great beauty and wonder… along with the sense of our own smallness, and how vast the cosmos really is.
Years later, I can remember that one of the many things that made me excited to move to New Brunswick from downtown Toronto was the anticipation of seeing the stars more often again… and sharing this joyful gift with my own daughter… to share in some way that sense of beauty and wonder… as we set out to find our new place in the world. As we all know, in many ways, looking up can help us find our way.
Where do we find ourselves looking these days when so many of us are feeling lost, without our bearings… unsure of where to turn?
As we try to navigate this ongoing COVID-19 crisis with all the twist and turns, uncertainty, fear, and loss it has brought to our lives? Or as we try to make sense of and work our way through all the conflicts and divisions pulling apart our common life; our country, our communities, our families… even ourselves? Or as we consider the Church: with so many giving up on the Christian faith, or at least giving up on what they know of it, what might the future of Churches like St. Luke’s look like down the road?
The author Madeleine L’Engle points out that our word disaster carries the meaning of “a separation from the stars, a fragmenting of creation, the shattering of what God formed as an interconnected whole.” And this seems to illuminate how many of us are feeling these days: longing for that sense of clear direction, that sense of confident purpose that comes from knowing our right place in the universe… where exactly we fit within the grand scheme of the cosmic plan.
For dark days like these, Epiphany comes to us as the bearer of Good News… sharing with us a message of hope and joy we easily overlook… or maybe under-look?
Our reading today from Matthew’s Gospel tells of the visit of the Magi: the wise men led by a star to worship the newborn king of the Jews. This part of the story fits well with pageants in our imaginations, like the manger scene at Christmas (though the two acts were likely years apart). And as an isolated episode, it’s easy to set it on the shelf of our minds and forget about it, like a favourite holiday movie we only pull out and watch once a year.
But in this story, St. Matthew is introducing an important theme of his Gospel account, one which will take time to fully unveil, but always remains central to his understanding of who Jesus is, and what He is up to… and what this all means for those of us who follow Him today.
Put simply: the Good News of God’s Messiah is really for everyone… for children of Abraham, yes, but also for all the nations of the earth. These wise men from the East foreshadow all of us outsiders to Israel’s story… those who didn’t know their place yet in the cosmic plan of the Living God. What starts with an unexpected visit from star-led strangers from afar will lead to Christ Jesus offering up His life upon the cross to draw all people to Himself… to reconcile and reunite in Himself all of humanity to each other, and to the Living God once and for all.
The beautiful, wonderful mystery at work in Jesus is, as St. Paul puts it, that: “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:6). The Good News isn’t just for a chosen few; Christ is the King of all creation. This is the message that Epiphany reveals to us: that God has come in Jesus Christ to rescue and reclaim His entire world. The same world we see around us even now is the world Christ came to save.
Looking up to see stars filling the sky is a beautiful, wonderful sight… but it is also distant. Remote. Removed from our everyday existence. We can catch a glimpse of them and be lost in wonder for a moment, only to look down again and forget our connection to the vast cosmos around us.
The same danger exists with the story of Epiphany; with the Good News that in Jesus Christ God has come to save our world. We can admire the beauty of this message. Feel moved for a moment or two… and simply look away again, and get on with living our lives. Forgetting that this is not just a beautiful, wonderful story… it’s our story! Our reality! God’s gift to us to help us find our proper place, and guide us foreword.
Though most of us here in Gondola Point are Gentiles, of non-Jewish ancestry, we’re culturally used to seeing ourselves as insiders in God’s story… as those who play host to strangers from afar, not those who have to strike out on uncertain journeys.
But we have all been invited… welcomed… graciously led into Israel’s story: the story of God’s promise to bless one family, and through them, rescue the world. And each of us have in some ways already responded to this invitation: believing in the Good News of Jesus… entering into a Church community created and shaped by Christ’s self-giving love. We may be questioning, curious, struggling, searching… but in Christ God guides us forward to find Him in surprising places… and share His love with surprising people… which is the role of all of us in the Epiphany story.
The bishop and scholar N.T. Wright helps to bring this point to light: “The arrival of the ‘Magi’ (that’s the word Matthew uses for them; it can refer to ‘magicians’, or ‘astrologers’, or experts in interpreting dreams, portents and other strange happenings) introduces us to something which Matthew wants us to be clear about from the start. If Jesus is in some sense king of the Jews, that doesn’t mean that his rule is limited to the Jewish people. At the heart of many prophecies about the coming king, the Messiah, there were predictions that his rule would bring God’s justice and peace to the whole world... Matthew will end his gospel with Jesus commissioning his followers to go out and make disciples from every nation; this, it seems, is the way that the prophecies of the Messiah’s worldwide rule are going to come true.”
Go out and make disciples.
Not wait for them to come to us, where we are comfortable, safe, and in control. Go into our world, where we live side by side with our neighbours… and share the Good News that God has not given up on our world… but sent His Son Jesus for everyone. He did not remain at a safe distance, remote from our sufferings and struggles… God came and comes to where we are in Christ, and is with His people forever.
Let this beautiful, wonderful truth guide how we respond, and the choices we make each day… how we treat those around us… how we spend our energy, our resources, and our time. Search out and explore the depths of our story, His story, the Good News of Jesus, and all it entails, so that when we feel lost and uncertain, we’ll know where to look to find our way again: to the light of our loving Saviour.
This is the journey of faith that Epiphany opens up for us. The journey that, even though we don’t know exactly where our next footsteps will fall, we can trust that in seeking Jesus… seeking to know and follow Him, the Living God is guiding us… and inviting us to share in the story of His rescuing love. Not just for us, but for the whole cosmos and all who dwell in it.
I’ll end now with a Sonnet by the priest and poet Malcolm Guite written for Epiphany, entitled: the magi.
It might have been just someone else’s story
Some chosen people get a special king
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In palaces, found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.
 Quoted in C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014), 100.
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 11.
 Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2012), 19.
Happy New Year, and Blessed Epiphany!
Today we celebrate the revelation of Jesus Christ as God's light to the nations and Saviour of the world.
Our Service of Morning Prayer, Bulletin, and Sermon can be found here:
And our Songs for this week can be found here:
Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 2:18–20, 26 | Psalm 148 | Colossians 3:12–17 | Luke 2:41–52
“He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” (Luke 2:49).
That’s one of the things that I love about churches like ours that follow the Christian calendar: Christmas is not just one day, it’s a season of 12 days!
And on this first Sunday of the Christmas season we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family: giving thanks for the common life that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph shared together… as God raises up a humble human household to participate in His plan to redeem the world, and draw all peoples into His heavenly family.
We don’t have that many stories of the family life of Jesus, and our Gospel reading this morning gives us the only one we have from when our Lord was a child… and it’s kind of a strange episode: the holy family makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. When Mary and Joseph leave with the rest of the pilgrims, Jesus stays behind in the Temple. His parents eventually notice He’s missing, and desperately search for Him for three days. But when they find Him, Jesus does not respond as we might expect. He’s not worried, even though He had been left alone for all that time. And He’s not contrite either, seemingly unconcerned by His parent’s feelings, or their expectations of Him as their son. Instead, He seems confused that they didn’t know where to look for Him. That they didn’t know that He would be caught up in what was happening in His Father’s house.
It’s an odd part of His story, but Luke shares it with us because he wants us to understand something about this boy and what He’s all about. And interestingly enough, it might help us if we reflect on the story of another young boy from Israel’s early days: the story of Samuel, which we heard briefly in our Old Testament reading this morning.
Samuel was born before Israel had any kings. When they were supposed to be guided by Israel’s priesthood, but time and again we’re told that the people kept turning away from God’s ways, and would “do what was right in their own eyes”, which kept leading them to disaster.
In our reading we catch a glimpse of the boy Samuel, being raised by Eli, the priest, who served with His sons in the Tabernacle: the sacred Tent where sacrifices to the LORD God were made, and where, before the Temple was built, God’s presence dwelt with His people.
Samuel had been dedicated by his mother to the LORD because the LORD had answered her prayer and had given her a son. Samuel served God faithfully even as a child. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Eli’s own sons, who blatantly disgraced the priesthood, and took advantage of those who came to worship God. Our lectionary skips this part of the story, but we are supposed to see this huge contrast between the boy Samuel and Israel’s unfaithful leaders: 1 Samuel 2:22-25.
“Now Eli was very old. He heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad. If one person sins against another, someone can intercede for the sinner with the Lord; but if someone sins against the Lord, who can make intercession?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father; for it was the will of the Lord to kill them.”
The early chapters of Samuel’s story play out this turn of events: the downfall of the corrupt leaders of God’s people, alongside the rise of a faithful miracle-child who serves by helping God’s people to turn back to their LORD. Through this boy Samuel, who from birth had been caught up in the work of the LORD, the Living God was drawing His scattered people back to Himself, so that they all might walk in the ways of His holy love.
Returning now to Luke’s Gospel with the story of Samuel in mind, this strange story of Jesus as a boy in the Temple starts to take on a whole other dimension.
The picture we’re given is that this young boy is completely caught up in the things of God… completely at home in the House of the LORD, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47).
Unlike Samuel, Jesus, had grown up far from Jerusalem, and the Temple, but as we know Jesus Himself was the ultimate miracle child… conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary… and more than that, as John’s Gospel tells us, this child is God incarnate… God in human flesh… this boy is Himself the meeting place of Heaven and Earth, God’s dwelling among us… the reality that the Temple and Tabernacle pointed to.
And like Samuel, Jesus was growing up at a time when Israel’s leaders, and in particular it’s priesthood had become corrupt, failing to serve the LORD or His people faithfully. The rise of Jesus, for Luke, will coincide with the failure and fall of the faithless guides of God’s people, who constantly clash with our Lord in later days, and who will lead the conspiracy that brings Christ to the cross.
But again, we know that there’s more going on at the cross than meets the eye. It was the way that Jesus broke the power of death, and freed us from the grip of sin… opening up the way of God’s New Life when after being lost to us for three days, Jesus rose again from the grave.
And again, like Samuel, Luke wants us to see that Jesus, even as a young boy, is the one through whom the Living God Himself is at work rescuing His people, returning their hearts to Him, so that we might walk in His holy ways. In Jesus, the Living God has come and dwells among us to draw us to Himself… to reconcile us, and restore us as His faithful people… to make us, to make you and I, a kingdom of priests, and holy nation, a faithful family, together with our sisters and brothers from every nation, walking together in the holy love of the Lord forever.
We live in a time when we’re all encouraged to just “do what’s right in our own eyes”, but Christ has come to open up for us the way to God’s New Life: so that we too might be caught up in what God is up to… living today as God’s faithful family, sharing in His holy love.
In our New Testament reading today, St. Paul tells us what this looks like in practice. Let’s listen again, and let the message really sink in:
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
It can be easy to think of Christmas as a story of the promised child, and the holy family gathered serenely around the manger. But our Scriptures today remind us that this promised child has a clear purpose: to bring about the restoration of Israel, and all nations… to draw all peoples everywhere into the family of God… to offer His life on the cross as the sacrifice to deal with all our sins, and set us free to truly be God’s faithful children forever.
As Christians, we have been adopted into the family of God, sharing in the New Life of Jesus Christ through His Spirit at work in us. So, this Christmas season, may we remember that Christ was born into our human family, so that in Him, all of us might live even today as God’s faithful children. Amen.
Jesus Christ is born, let all the world rejoice!
Merry Christmas! Today, the first Sunday of the Christmas season, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family: giving thanks for the shared life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and that God has given us His Son so we might become His children.
It is a beautiful message of the Church that God has chosen to work through human families, as broken and messed up as they can be at times, to bring about His rescue mission for the entire world.
Here is a surprisingly beautiful song based on the family tree of Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew by the band Poor Bishop Hooper entitled Christ.
Our service of Morning Prayer, Bulletin, and Sermon can be found here:
And our Songs can be found here:
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 62:6–12 | Psalm 97 | Titus 3:4–7 | Luke 2:1–20
“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11).
Merry Christmas. Today’s the day.
All throughout the season of Advent, and for some of us, even longer, we have been looking forward to today with building anticipation. The day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ our Lord, and all that His birth means for our lives and for our world.
But I know if we’re being honest, this Christmas has also been really challenging. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic, with cases in our region rising rapidly… making it almost impossible to celebrate in the ways we long to. All of us are facing a great deal of uncertainty as we try to do our part to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and neighbours… having to make major changes to our everyday lives, not to mention our treasured traditions. Though we still have lots to celebrate today, far more than we likely imagine, it’s safe to say this isn’t the kind of Christmas season that we would have planned.
But honestly, Christmas has been that way since the very beginning: a surprising celebration that none of us would have planned.
Take Joseph and Mary: First came the life-changing visits from the Angel Gabriel, telling them that Mary was going to give birth to God’s Messiah, the Christ. But then, just as the baby was about to be born, the Emperor, off in faraway Rome, decides to call for a census and suddenly they have to make the journey to Bethlehem.
I’m sure they would rather have stayed at home in Nazareth surrounded by family and friends. And they would never have planned to stay in a stable on the night that Mary was to give birth to her firstborn child.
And what about the shepherds?
They had no clue about the promised child… they had their hands full enough with the business of daily life… with simply making a modest living, which was getting harder and harder to do.
The shepherds were completely caught off guard by the angels and heavenly choir… but were compelled to drop everything and run to Bethlehem to see this ‘Good News for all people’ the angels spoke of with their own eyes.
But even though Mary and Joseph and the shepherds would never have planned it that way… even though it all seemed like chaos, inconvenience, and surprise, that first Christmas was the work of the wonderful plans of the Living God.
God planned for the promised child to be born in Bethlehem, in King David’s city, to bring hope to His oppressed people, fulfilling His promises and telling them that their Saviour King had come at last.
And God planned for His Son to be born among those who have no place… among those who are refused welcome… among the outsiders, and all those in need. The Prince of Peace was born as one who is poor, who would Himself know rejection and need, that He might lift up the lowly, and redeem all who place their hope in Him.
God planned for the Good News of the birth of the Messiah to be shared first with those whose lives had lost almost all sense of joy. To those ground down by the weight of the world, the LORD gave a glimpse of heavenly beauty, music, and light… lifting their hearts to share in a vision of life beyond anything they could imagine.
And God planned for these humble shepherds to be drawn near to Mary and Joseph. To come together with those who had once been strangers and share in this gift of God’s love for our world… that they might then go and share this Good News with everyone else as well.
Today we can celebrate even in the midst of our struggles, our disappointments, and our fears, because we remember that the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ came about through the wonderful plans of the Living God, who shares His love with our lonely world… who shines His healing light in the midst of the deepest darkness… and announces Good News of great joy especially when we need it most.
Jesus Christ is born! The Living God is with us! May we rejoice and celebrate this wonderful truth today. Amen.
In this sacred moment we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ,
who is Emmanuel, God-With-Us, wherever we may be.
May this service of Lessons & Carols
stir up within us the
Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love
that God offers us through Jesus His Son.
Here are some links to the Carols listed in our service, found on Youtube:
Merry Christmas! Here is our Bulletin & Sermon for Christmas Day
Scripture Readings: Micah 5:2–5a | Psalm 80:1–7 | Hebrews 10:5–10 | Luke 1:39–55
“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:48-49).
What do you want for Christmas?
If we ask some of our younger members of St. Luke’s this familiar question, we might expect to hear, with some excitement, about their gift wish list… the presents that they’re hoping to receive from those who love them.
If we ask this question to some of our less-young Christian brothers and sisters, the answers might get a bit harder to gift wrap, but not at all less longed for… like spending time with family and friends, and other festive traditions.
This year, no matter our age, I think we’re all longing for some normality this Christmas… for being able to celebrate this special time of year with freedom and ease. Not anxious about each other’s health… or the stability of our whole community. I think it’s safe to say we’re all longing for those seemingly simpler days we all took for granted.
Even so… even now as we head into our second COVID Christmas, we have much to be grateful for, and much to look forward to… especially as we consider the Good News that Advent and Christmas have to share.
Today we mark the fourth Sunday of Advent, the last before we celebrate our Saviour’s birth, and today we are asked to contemplate the theme of love… a word that we often associate with giving, and which stands at the centre of the sacred story we Christians believe. In our reading today from the first Chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we hear of God’s gift of love… to Mary, to Israel, and to us all.
In today’s passage we heard how Mary travels to see her cousin, Elizabeth, right after a visit from the Angel Gabriel, who tells her that she will give birth to God’s Messiah, the Christ. Elizabeth herself was expecting her own miracle child, a gift to her and her husband Zechariah in their old age… a baby destined to take part in preparing his people to get ready for God’s salvation, and the coming Saviour.
We heard how as soon as Mary spoke, the baby inside of Elizabeth jumped for joy… and how Elizabeth confirmed the Angel’s message to Mary, calling her blessed. And in response, we heard Mary bursts out in praise of God: “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she says “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46-49).
Why would she respond in this way to the words of her cousin Elizabeth? The bishop and scholar N.T. Wright offers us this helpful insight:
“Mary and Elisabeth shared a dream. It was the ancient dream of Israel: the dream that one day all that the prophets had said would come true. One day Israel’s God would do what he had said to Israel’s earliest ancestors: all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s family. But for that to happen, the powers that kept the world in slavery had to be toppled… God would have to win a victory over the bullies, the power-brokers, the forces of evil which people like Mary and Elisabeth knew all too well, living as they did in the dark days of Herod the Great, whose casual brutality was backed up with the threat of Rome. Mary and Elisabeth, like so many Jews of their time, searched the scriptures, soaked themselves in the psalms and prophetic writings which spoke of mercy, hope, fulfilment, reversal, revolution, victory over evil, and of God coming to the rescue at last.”
She was still wrapping her head around the story that she was being drawn into, but the beautiful truth had begun to sink in: the Living God was giving to her and her people the gift they had all been longing for… God’s rescuing love was on its way through the child growing in her womb. Though insignificant in the eyes of the world, she now knows she is deeply blessed, “for the Mighty One has done great things” for her, and through her.
She didn’t have to see things this way, or to respond with words of praise. In fact, from the outside it might seem like the Mighty One had actually ruined her future. How would she explain her pregnancy to her fiancé, her family, and neighbours? What about all of her own plans for a simple, normal life?
Even so, even with all the complications and upheaval, Mary believed… she trusted the LORD’s word and had faith in His rescuing love, even if it would change everything. And as Elizabeth had said: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
None of us will bear and give birth to the Messiah like Mary, but we may all have our lives turned upside down by His rescuing love… raising us up beyond expectation… humbling us as well… experiencing the goodness of God at work within us, and through us in ways we never would have asked for or imagined.
That’s because love goes way beyond giving us what we want. Love gives us what we need… even, and maybe especially, when we have no clue what that is.
Everything that Mary said in our reading today was true of course, but she had no clue at this point how God’s rescue would actually be accomplished. She knew that her baby would bring about the salvation she and her people longed for, but not that it would completely consume the life of her child.
Like her people, Mary had expected God’s Messiah to come and bring victory, to rescue Israel right away from all its enemies. But as the Gospel story goes on, we find that Jesus, God’s true Messiah, actually gives up His life to rescue His enemies… dying not only for His own people, who had rejected and abandoned Him, but also to reach out and rescue all the peoples of the earth… including oppressive and ungodly nations, like the Roman Empire… and places as far away in distance and time as Gondola Point. Jesus, God’s Messiah, gave His own body to be broken, and His blood to be shed to draw us all together in His rescuing love… even when it was the furthest thing from our hearts and minds.
In his letter to the Christians in Rome, St. Paul the Apostle wrote these life-changing words:
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11). God proves His love for us in that Jesus His Son gave His life to save us while we were sinners… while we still wanted nothing to do with Him, God wanted us to be with Him.
This passage from Romans has played a huge role in my own story of receiving God’s rescuing love… which He first made known to me at the moment I felt the least lovely. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God really loves the real you… the real me… our real family members, and friends, our loved ones, and strangers… the people who hate us, or drive us to distraction… God loves them all too. There’s plenty we all do that He doesn’t love… and He longs to set us free from all that stuff… but none of it keeps Him from loving us all, and offering us New Life.
This may not be what we had expected or asked for, but this is what the Living God has given to us in Jesus… what He knows you and I and everyone around us needs, not just for Christmas, but always.
And what does it look like to receive the gift of the rescuing love of God? That’s actually what the whole Christian life is all about: Again and again encountering and believing in the love of God given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord… and empowered by His Holy Spirit, sharing His love with our world.
So whatever this Christmas looks like for us… and whatever else happens after it, may we believe and be transformed by the love of God in Jesus Christ. May we be convinced that in Jesus, God has given us everything we truly need. And may we start to see everybody around us as beloved by the Lord, who gave up His life on the cross, and rose again from the dead so that they too can be reconciled to God, and receive the blessed New Life in Him. Amen.
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 15.
Today we celebrate the fourth week of Advent: a season of anticipation and preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ, both in His birth at Christmas, and in His future return to reign forever over a renewed creation.
Many artists and musicians have been inspired by this season, exploring its themes and message of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, leading us to Jesus. I hope you enjoy this link to a song based on the story of Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25), entitled Love by the band Poor Bishop Hooper.
Our service of Morning Prayer, Bulletin, and Sermon can be found here:
Our Advent Hymn can be found here:
And our other Songs can be found here:
Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 3:14–20 | Isaiah 12:2–6 | Philippians 4:4–7 | Luke 3:7–18
“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:7-8a).
Today we mark the third Sunday of the season of Advent, and we also reflect on the theme of Joy: which along with Hope and Peace is so essential… but often misunderstood.
And what a great passage from our Gospel reading to help us contemplate joy, am I right? I mean, what brings ‘joy’ to mind quicker than calling people a “brood of vipers!” But as strange as it may seem, John’s passionate words of warning do have quite a lot to tell us about joy… about the particular understanding of joy that Christians have, and where we can find it.
I think it might be helpful to remember right off the bat that we can all to easily confuse joy with happiness. Both words can be used to describe a positive state or experience… a ‘good feeling’, that most of us want more of in our lives. But many people today think about and pursue happiness in ways that have little to do with what the Christian family would recognize as joy.
This time of year, there can be all sorts of pressure to create a ‘happy holiday’… to pour ourselves into pursuing the things that are supposed to make us feel great: special meals, gifts and gatherings, practicing treasured traditions… all the things that pull at our heartstrings, and that bring a smile to our faces.
At least for a while. At least until the food runs out, and the dishes start pilling up… ‘til the gifts are all given, and the guests are starting to get on our nerves a bit. Now I’m no grinch. I really love Christmas, and I’m looking forward to sharing in all these good things. But we all know the good feelings they bring don’t last forever. They’re lovely… but temporary. And so happiness has often become connected with feeling good in the moment. With experiencing or holding onto an enjoyable state ‘hear and now’. Which means we have to keep looking for more ways to be happy, or maintain the good times as long as we can. To make our ‘now’ the best it can be, again and again.
This pattern goes way beyond the hype around the holidays. We can see something similar in the way people talk about ‘seizing the day’: striving to ‘make the most of each moment’, and to just pursue whatever makes them happy. Again, there’s nothing wrong with looking for fulfillment, or living each day intentionally. It’s probably better than wasting the time and energy we’ve been given. But I think there is often the problem of becoming too focussed on the ‘here and now’… of losing sight of what’s come before, and of where we are headed. When we’re caught up in trying to find happiness over and over again, we can forget or ignore the bigger story, and our own place within it.
But what I want to call Christian Joy is not based on our feelings or experiences ‘here and now’… this joy a gift that comes to us from the Holy Spirit, and that is deeply connected to our faith: to trusting in what the Living God is up to, not just ‘hear and now’, but for all of time.
This joy can be seen in our first reading today from the Prophet Zephaniah, who calls God’s people to rejoice for:
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival” (Zephaniah 3:17-18a).
The Living God Himself will rejoice over them with gladness. The prophet proclaims this good news to God’s people, telling of how Yahweh has promised to show mercy, to rescue them, and set everything right. But our reading today is not the whole story: it follows strong words of warning that the Lord would first deal firmly with the sins of His people… that it is being made right with the Living God that will be their path to joy. His good news of rescue, and redemption would also involve His people being remade. No longer pursuing whatever ‘makes them happy’, but finding joy in what is right… in being made right.
In this light, John’s words of warning don’t seem so out of place anymore: he stands in the line of Israel’s prophets, calling for God’s people to repent… to turn around and reject the lies that they had come to believe, and turn instead to the Lord who longs to share His joy with them.
One of those lies that John brings to light is still a big problem for us today: the lie that human happiness comes from what we can acquire. Whether we’re talking about possessions, relationships, experiences, insights, or whatever… time and again, we’re told to believe: “if I just have…” fill in the blank… “then I’ll be happy”. What ways have we believed this lie? What do we assume will bring us lasting happiness?
Right now, I could answer: “if only we stay in Level 1 of our Province’s COVID-19 Winter Plan for Christmas… THEN I’d be happy.” But again, for how long? Until the next challenge? Until the next unmet desire? Until the next heartache? Until the next distraction? How much of our lives do we spend chasing after the things we think should make us happy, only to get them, and find ourselves still longing to be satisfied?
John calls us to turn away from this lie… and instead to turn to the Lord: to have our hearts, our desires, our lives realigned with the Living God which opens us up to take part in the joy we were created for… and created to share.
When asked what it looks like to “bear fruit worthy of repentance”, John told the crowd to not seek their own comfort and happiness, but to care for those in need: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors, who made their livings at their neighbour’s expense, and the Roman soldiers who used their position and power to simply seize what they wanted, John told them to not take more than their due… to be satisfied with their wages. This was all a huge part of what John believed it meant to live one’s life in line with the Lord. For John, living God’s way was inseparable from living well with those around us… with actually loving our neighbours, not just doing what makes us happy.
But John does not settle for telling his listeners to take better care of one another. He points them to God, and to the one God will send to ultimately set things right. Looking back to the prophets, John reminds those who had gathered (and us as well) of God’s promise to come and rescue His people… to reclaim their hearts, and restore their fortunes. John looks beyond the ‘hear and now’ to the coming of God’s Messiah, His anointed one, who will bring the Holy Spirit and purifying fire to remake His people once and for all.
Jesus is the one John was waiting for… the one he points us to who has come near to save us and our world. To set things right at last between us and God by dying on the cross, and rising again from the grave. In Him, death has been defeated. In Him, we find God’s forgiveness. In Him, we are offered New Life… enduring peace and hope… forever! In Jesus, God has drawn near to us to draw us all close to Himself, and also to draw us into His work of reaching out with His love to those around us.
We have been told again and again that if we just had ‘this or that’, then we would be happy. But in Jesus, God has already given us absolutely everything! Not just for ‘here and now’, but for all eternity.
When this reality… when this beautiful truth is remembered… when we begin to grasp the scope of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the joy of the Lord can begin to break through to us… no matter what else we’re going through ‘here and now’.
When we know and trust in Jesus Christ, and all He has done for us… even as we face moments of grief, of sadness, and pain, we can rejoice. Not because these things don’t matter, but because we know our place in the story. Looking to Jesus, the Risen Lord, we know how our story is going to end. And we know the One who is with us ‘here and now’, and will be with us forever.
We can and should be thankful for the things that bring us happiness: for everything that we enjoy, and helps to brighten up our daily lives, and for the special moments and seasons that we eagerly anticipate. But let us remember that in Jesus, we have been given a source of joy beyond compare… one that has the power to sustain us when our ‘here and now’ is hard to bear: the joy of sharing the New Life of God, both ‘now’ and for all time.
With this in bigger picture in mind, I’ll close with these words from the Apostle Paul:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Amen.
 Read Zephaniah 3 in it’s entirety.