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The following picture was taken from outside my backdoor. The beautiful winter snow and frost remind me of the psalmist’s words: “He (God) gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes.” And concluding with, “Hallelujah!-Praise the LORD!” (Ps 147:16 & 20)

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Nativity Scene

Nativity Scene

This nativity scene was created many years ago. It is an attempt to depict the humble birth of Jesus as described in Luke’s Gospel.

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Sermon Christmas Eve/Day Yr B

Christmas Eve/Day Yr B, 24-25/12/2008

Isa 52:7-10

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Your God reigns”

 

If Queen Elizabeth II (or some other royal personage) were coming to visit us soon what would we do? What if our queen was coming to visit our city? What if she were coming to visit our congregation/facility? Well, likely the first thing on our “to do list” would be to make sure that the word got out. We would likely send out all kinds of media news releases. We would designate certain messengers, spokespeople to spread the word. We would advertise it to everyone on T.V. We would announce it on the radio. We would publicize it in the newspapers. These days, we would likely even build a special web site or blog with the message for the whole world to see on the internet. We would talk about it in our conversations at home, with our friends, at the workplace or in school. We would be messengers with a joyful, good news message—”our queen, Queen Elizabeth is coming!”

This is the mood of the messenger with beautiful feet in our first lesson today. The original audience who first heard these wonderful words of the messenger were living in Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C. They were feeling somewhat abandoned and forgotten by God. Now the prophet encourages them with this wonderful oracle of joy and hope. God says the prophet is a God who acts to save and deliver his people. The prophet’s oracle pictures the messenger coming on the mountains announcing peace, good news, and salvation. Contrary to those exiled people of Judah and Jerusalem who had lost their joy and hope; the messenger tells them “Your God reigns.” The messenger prepared his people for the coming Messiah-King, just as people today would prepare for the coming of Queen Elizabeth. The air was full of excitement, expectation, joy and hope.

The messenger tells the people, “Your God reigns.” This reminds me of the language of sports fans today. When sports fans speak of the victory of their favourite team; when their team wins the Stanley Cup or Grey Cup, the fans often say things like: “The Stampeders reign!” or “The Oilers rule!” In saying this, the fans are expressing their excitement and joy over the victory of their winning team. So it is with the people of God. In this prophetic oracle, the messenger, full of excitement, has to tell everyone: “Your God reigns! He delivers! He wins the ultimate victory!”

As Christians, we interpret this passage as a Messianic oracle, referring to Jesus. God reigns in the Person of Jesus for he is the Prince of peace. Peace in the Hebrew is Shalom; it is way more than the absence of war. Shalom means health and wholeness which encompasses all of creation. Perfect shalom brings with it a harmony and unity of all peoples and all of creation. Shalom is living in a right relationship with God, with one another and with God’s creation. That is why in this wonderful Book of Isaiah we are given that beautiful vision of shalom where all natural enemies shall live in harmony with each other; all suffering, sorrow and tears shall come to an end. That is our future hope and joy in Jesus our Messiah.

No wonder then that this is GOOD NEWS, this is Gospel. This message is worth sharing with everyone. We as followers of Jesus are called to be messengers too. We are good news bearers; we are Gospel proclaimers as the apostle Paul said in Romans ten, quoting this Messianic oracle, and emphasising the need to get the Gospel-Good News message out, because, says Paul: “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”

This GOOD NEWS, this Gospel, is our very salvation. That word salvation here is chock full of meaning. First of all it refers to Jesus himself, for that is the meaning of his name—Jeshua, Joshua, Jesus means he shall save. His very name is a reminder then to all that he is our Saviour, The One who brings salvation. The word translated in our text as salvation also means victory in Hebrew. In the original situation, the messenger was announcing to the exiled people of Judah and Jerusalem that God would win the victory for them over the Babylonians; God would act to deliver them from exile. Their deliverance did come through the sending of Cyrus the Persian and his army to defeat the Babylonians and allow the people of Judah and Jerusalem to return home to the Promised Land. As Christians, we believe our final victory comes through Jesus. Jesus wins the victory over the powers of sin, death and evil. They shall no longer keep us in exile. One day God in Christ shall act to deliver us and win the final victory for us over sin, death and evil. That is our joy and our hope. That’s why we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

So, along with the sentinels and the ruins of Jerusalem, we too can join that choir to sing of God’s reign, God’s victory, God’s salvation. We can join that heavenly choir on that first Christmas to sing of the Messiah’s birth. To hear and see the salvation of our God extending to the ends of the earth is truly worth celebrating. It is this message of hope and joy that makes Christmas a time of music and singing. The music and singing of Christmas is contagious and it can change hearts and lives, as we learn from the movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

The Grinch is transformed by singing and music of the townspeople. Even without presents or possessions the townspeople of Whoville are happy and singing. Amazed at this contagious joy and singing, the Grinch has this to say about Christmas: “It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, or bags! Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

His eyes grow warm and soft and as big as saucers. Suddenly he throws himself to the ground, convulsing as his heart grows three times the size it was before. He laughs. He cries. He claims to feel all toasty inside. Unfamiliar with tears, he thinks he is leaking, while a brilliant shaft of sunlight bathes his green face and reveals a sincere smile. The conversion of the Grinch is matched by a brilliant sunrise.1 This joy and music of the Whoville townspeople was contagious enough to spread into the heart and life of the Grinch so that he too joined in celebrating Christmas.

So, we too on this Christmas Eve/Day are moved by the messenger and message of God to us; God with us-our Immanuel; Jesus-he shall save. The hope and joy of Christmas invites us to join choirs of heaven and earth; the choirs of every time and place; every tribe and nation in singing: “God reigns! The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” Now that’s worth celebrating. Spread this Good News, this Gospel—go and tell everyone that Jesus Christ our Saviour, the Messiah is born! Alleluia! Amen.

1 Craig Brian Larson & Lori Quicke, Editors, More Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching: 101 Clips to Show or Tell (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), pp. 22-23.

Nativity scenes by William Kurelek

Nativity scenes by William Kurelek

One of my favourite artists is Ukrainian-Canadian painter, William Kurelek. Many years ago now, he did a series of nativity scenes. They were published in a lovely book, which I purchased, but alas, borrowed to someone whom I cannot even remember and they never did return it. The book is still available, you can google “William Kurelek nativity scenes” to learn where you can purchase a copy. I find the nativities very inspirational, and during this period of national divisions and nasty partisan politics, these paintings are a gentle reminder of the beauty and blessings we are privileged to enjoy here in Canada. Obviously those who produced our ELCIC Sunday bulletin series did too, as I recall back in the 1980’s there was at least one Kurelek nativity—if my memory serves me well, I believe the backdrop was the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. What I like in particular about these nativities is the way Kurelek depicts the sheer, simple beauty of the Incarnate Christ dwelling among ordinary Canadians all across our land. You can view them on this You Tube video here.

Sermon III Advent Yr B

III Advent Yr B, 14/12/2008

Jn 1:6-8, 19-28

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“John the second fiddle”

 

In Vienna, Austria, you will find a church in which the Hapsburgs, the former ruling family of Austria, are buried. It is said that when royal funerals finally arrive at the church for the burial rites, the mourners leading the funeral procession knock at the door to gain entrance.

“Who is it that desires admission here?” a priest asks through the locked door.

“His apostolic majesty, the emperor!” calls the guard.

“I don’t know him,” answers the priest.

A second knock follows and a similar question is asked. This time, the funeral guard announces the deceased as “the highest emperor.”

Again, “I don’t know him,” echoes throughout the vaulted burial chamber.

Finally, a third knock is heard. “Who is it?”

“A poor sinner, your brother,” comes the final answer. Then the door is opened and the royal burial completed.1

Humility. A virtue often made fun of and belittled, sometimes even despised. Yet, a quintessential virtue among God’s faithful servants. In today’s gospel, John epitomizes humility. Rather than call him John the Baptizer, I’d be more inclined to call him John the Second Fiddle. As you likely know, the second fiddle in an orchestra is not in the limelight. Yet, the role of the second fiddle is equally as important as the first fiddle. Where would an orchestra be without second fiddles? It would be a lot poorer, that’s where. The second fiddle adds beauty and texture to the sound of a composition—giving the listener a sense of the larger picture of the whole piece, highlighting the organic unity of the entire composition. So, the role of second fiddle is essential for an orchestra, even though second fiddlers are not in the limelight.

John the second fiddle epitomizes humility in that our gospel tells us: “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” Then, when the Jerusalem delegation of religious leaders question John about his role and identity he tells them: “I am not the Messiah.” When asked whether he was Elijah, he states, “I am not,” even though in another gospel Jesus describes John as a second Elijah. And when asked whether he is “the prophet,”—that is, like Elijah, the prophet was considered a forerunner of the Messiah—John again answers in the negative.

There is irony here, John is a witness to Jesus the light, not the light, and he even quotes Isaiah 40:3 to describe his role and identity: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” That quotation from Isaiah sounds to me a lot like the role of an Elijah or another prophet preparing for the Messiah’s coming. Perhaps John’s humility was so deeply entrenched that at this point in his life he did not realise that he was the second Elijah preparing for the Messiah’s coming. This too seems to fit with his words in verses 26 and 27, where he answers the question as to why he is baptizing. John replies: “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” Now that’s humility! Considering the fact that it was the role of a servant or slave to untie their Master’s sandals, John here is telling the Jerusalem delegation of religious leaders that he’s even less than a servant or slave of “the one who is coming after me.” Again there is irony here. John the most humble of God’s servants publicly declares his humility in contrast to the Messiah, yet he is the one who heralds the coming of the Messiah—NOT the Jerusalem religious elite!

I wonder, is it precisely because John is a very humble servant of God that he is able to herald the Messiah’s coming? If he were not so humble, would he have listened to God’s call to be the Messiah’s forerunner? Who listens the best, the proud religious elite or the most humble folk on society’s margins? Is the voice of the Lord today to be listened to and heeded among the most humble of God’s servants? The humble of heart do seem to be God’s voice in the world. Think of the gospel of Matthew twenty-five a couple of weeks ago. Do you recall that Jesus, in separating the righteous from the unrighteous said that those who had provided food and drink, and clothing; those who had cared for the sick; those who had visited the prisoners were the blessed ones. Why? Because, Jesus said, in doing these things to the least of his brothers and sisters we do it to him. In other words, Jesus speaks to us, makes himself known to us through the most humble of human beings. If the humblest, most numerous folk in the world are the voice and presence of Christ—then how can we help but not hear Christ’s voice and welcome him in our midst?!

Coming back to John again, it requires a great deal of humility to be a preparer, a sign, a pointer to the Messiah. John’s second fiddle role is not always easy; there may have been times when he struggled with his ego; struggled not to become number one celebrity in the limelight. Yet, in humility he is clear that he is only a witness to the light, only a forerunner of Jesus, that’s all. What about us? How do we witness to Christ our light? The following story is rather instructive:

The day of graduation had finally come. Not only for the University college coeds but for the graduate school and the divinity school. All three graduations blended into one glorious processional of young and old who had worked hard to celebrate this day. Also longed for was to hear the graduation speaker of well-known propriety, Rev. Jesse Jackson. He was to speak on “The Unseen Guest At Graduation.”

Not only were the graduates anticipating, but the parents, faculty, administration and the media this well-known preacher turned political prophet. It was just before the processional of the graduates that the rumor was heard that Rev. Jesse Jackson would not be the speaker. There was a hush upon the crowd following the graduates’ procession as to just exactly who would be the speaker. There was much concern for all had anticipated and looked forward to this dynamic speaker. Who could fill his shoes?

Suddenly, the replacement appeared. People rose to their feet as Alan Aida appeared with his smile through the doorway of the gymnasium. People began to applaud and wave.

He took the podium and was introduced as not Rev. Jesse Jackson who could not be the speaker due to illness. He addressed the packed audience with the message that he was not Jesse Jackson, nor could he fill his shoes, nor did he intend to. Yet, he had come with a message. A powerful message erupted from his heart. His words penetrated the hearts of all gathered that day for graduation. He pointed to the “Unseen Guest at Graduation.”

Alan Aida was a voice that spoke that day as one who spoke to prepare for the coming of the Lord. He was not the light, he came to bear witness to the light.2

So it was with John, and so it is with us, John was not the light, we are not the light, John came to bear witness to Jesus the light, we too have come to bear witness to the light. Therefore remember the words spoken, the calling that you were given, that we were all given when we were baptized, when the baptismal candle was lit, we were given the following call and commission: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

We are not Christ the Light, we are however, like John, only Jesus the Messiah’s humble forerunners, signs, pointers, preparers. Our baptismal covenant, call and commission is to reflect Jesus the True Light of the world to others. So it is that in the darkness of our times; over against all indicators that would have us believe there is no Light; we as an Advent people bear witness to Jesus our True Light as we watch and wait with hope, peacefully and joyfully expecting our Saviour’s appearing, as we sing, pray, and live those familiar words: “Amen! Come Lord Jesus! Come and live in and through our hearts, minds and lives; today, tomorrow, always and forever! Amen! Come Lord Jesus! Come and save your people from the darkness of sin, death and evil. Amen.

 

1 Wm. J. Bausch, A World Of Stories for Preachers and Teachers (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, Eighth Printing, 2007), pp. 326-327.

2 Emphasis, Vol. 23, No. 4, November-December 1993 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 47.

 

 

Bonhoeffer on the Incarnation

Bonhoeffer on the Incarnation

Opening up an old book, written by Lutheran theologian, pastor and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (p. 341), reminded me again of Jesus’ love for each one of us and his solidarity with humankind as the Incarnate One, and through him, our solidarity with the whole human race too—a rather countercultural perspective, given our very divided, hostile, war-driven, individualistic, consumer-oriented world.

And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth, any attack even on the least of men [and women] is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man, and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form. Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race.

Sermon Advent II Yr B

II Advent Yr B, 7/12/2008

Ps 85:1-2, 8-13

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Righteousness and peace will kiss each other”

 

The theme for this second Sunday of Advent is peace. The biblical vision of peace is way more than the absence of war. Peace has everything to do with living with hearts, minds, and lives wide open—viewing life and living it in a holistic manner. That’s why in the Bible righteousness and peace are frequently connected with each other, as in our psalm today, where they are actually personified in verse ten, where we are given this beautiful picture, the psalmist says: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”

According to scholars, this psalm may have been written around the time when the Jewish people were returning to Judah and Jerusalem, and perhaps during the season just after the gathering in of the harvest, when they were celebrating the harvest festival and during the Feast of Tabernacles. At any rate, the psalm makes the connection of peace and righteousness taking shape in a just society, which is also blessed by God making the land fertile. These two go hand in hand here—a just society where peace and right relationships flourish, and a fertile land with bumper crops.

For both Jews and Christians today, these connections between right relationships of peace and justice and caring for the land that it may bless God’s people continue to be important spiritual, as well as economic and political values, as we learn from the following contemporary, inspirational story:

Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, whose tree-planting movement defied political leaders, was praised by Samuel Kobia, the World Council of Churches’ general secretary—and a fellow Kenyan—for being named the Nobel Peace Prize winner for 2004.

“Being the first African woman in history to receive this prestigious prize, you have brought honour to the African continent and its people,” said Kobia, a Methodist minister who in January (2004) became the first African to lead the worldwide ecumenical church alliance.

Maathai, 64, (at the time was) Kenya’s deputy environment minister, was named the winner of the prize for her leadership of the Green Belt Movement, which has sought to empower women, improve the environment and fight corruption in Africa for almost 30 years. She challenged policies of Kenya’s former government, led by President Daniel Arap Moi before he stepped down after elections in 2002.

“We believe that Maathai is a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on that continent,” the Nobel committee said in its citation. The peace prize (was) awarded December 10, (2004).

Maathai was Nairobi University’s first woman professor before she left full-time academic life to found the Green Belt Movement, a women’s environmental group fighting the clearing of forests for charcoal and property development. “Your campaign against deforestation across Africa is a unique contribution not only to save African forests, but also African lives,” Kobia said.

Maathai was a keynote speaker in 1979 at a major World Council of Churches conference in Boston on “Faith, Science and the Future.” The onetime Anglican, said now to be Catholic, recently contributed a chapter to a new book, Healing God’s Creation (Morehouse).1

This inspiring story connects the flourishing of land with peace and righteousness—the latter of which entails right relationships between God and humans, humans with each other, and humans with the land. These are what make for a just society where everyone has—insofar as is possible in a sinful world—enough and their basic needs, rights and freedoms are respected and protected.

When one begins to dig into the Bible one discovers that there are several other passages that also connect peace with righteousness.

For example, in Isaiah 32:17, we read: “The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness quietness and trust forever.” I like that—during this season of Advent, of course as we look into the future coming of Jesus, we can place our trust in him with quiet, peaceful hearts. Trust, of course, is required for all healthy relationships.

In Isaiah 60:17, in the vision of a New Jerusalem, the prophet, like the psalmist in our text today, personifies peace and righteousness, saying: “I shall appoint Peace as your overseer and Righteousness as your taskmaster.”

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul in Romans 14:17 says: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” And so, according to the Bible righteousness and peace go hand-in-hand—both are the building blocks of healthy, lasting relationships, churches and societies.

The oldest known comedy in all literature is that written by Aristophanes and called “The Acharnians.” The plot is very simple. One translator has outlined it as follows: An honest citizen, finding it impossible to get the State to conclude a peace with Sparta, makes a private peace on his own account, and thenceforward is represented as living in all the joys and comforts of peace whilst the rest of the City continues to suffer the straits and miseries of war. Many amusing incidents result. It would be hard to describe more clearly that wonderful difference which God has put upon believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. They are in the world but not of it (John 17:11, 14). We are privileged to live in all the joys and comforts of Christ (who is our Prince of Peace).2

So, on this second Sunday of Advent, we wait, watch, work, and pray for the coming of Jesus our Prince of Peace to reign more fully in our hearts, lives, Church and world. Amen, come, Lord Jesus!

 

1 Cited from: The Christian Century, October 19, 2004 Vol. 121, No. 21, <www.christiancentury.org/dept_news04.html>.

2 Cited from: Donald Grey Barnhouse, Bible Truth Illustrated (New Canaan, Connecticut: Keats Publishing, Inc., 1979), p. 103.