Sermon 3 Advent Yr B

You can read my sermon for Dec 11, 2011 here:3 Advent Yr B

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Sermon 1 Advent Yr B

Read my sermon for November 27, 2011 here: 1 Advent Yr B

Sermon 3 Advent YR C

3 Advent Yr C, 13/12/2009

Phil 4:4-7

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Rejoice in the midst of sorrow”

Back in the 1960s and 70s, there was a popular song that youth sang in church or at youth group functions. The song was very simple, some of you may remember it: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. Rejoice, rejoice, again I say rejoice.” We had lots of fun singing it as a canon. I can also remember that after singing this simple piece, it seemed to sink into my consciousness, and I’d sing it to myself all day long. I found it very difficult to get it out of my head once it was there. Has that ever happened to you?

Well, in today’s second lesson, upon which that popular song was based, the apostle Paul instructs the church at Philippi to: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Why would Paul say such a thing? Most of us can rejoice, however why does Paul add the word “always” and then go on to repeat himself by saying: “again I will say, Rejoice”? If Paul were alive and among us today, we might be inclined to argue with him, and say something like this: “Get real Paul, wake up and smell the coffee, there’s no way that we can always be rejoicing. How can I always rejoice Paul in the face of life’s downers? Don’t you know Paul that there’s lots of hurting and suffering in this old world? In fact, if you listen to the daily news, you’ll likely come to the conclusion that the world is becoming more hostile, corrupt and evil by the minute. How can we always rejoice when millions of people around the world are starving, naked, homeless and sick? How can we always rejoice when corporate CEOs get severance packages in the millions, while they steal pension plans from thousands of their own employees? How can we always rejoice when wars and terrorism drag on year-after-year and far too many innocent people are killed? And then Paul, closer to home, how can we rejoice when we only have until the end of this month before we close Grace Lutheran Church? We love this Church, now we have to close it, and that breaks our hearts. We are sad and grieving, closing our congregation is, in a way, like dying. Paul, tell us, how can we always rejoice in the face of such sadness?”

After such a litany of protests, Paul might answer us something like this: “Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; I do know all about suffering and sadness too. Don’t you remember what I wrote in my letters about being shipwrecked, beaten, rejected and chased out of cities, towns and villages by hostile people? Yes, I know all about suffering and sadness, I’ve been arrested and when I wrote the church at Philippi, telling them to rejoice always, I was sitting in prison. I also had to deal with all of the conflicts, disagreements and divisions in several congregations—all of which caused me much pain and sadness. On a personal level, I had to struggle with health issues, and, while in prison, I did not know if I was going to be found guilty of crimes and executed. So, in light of all these things, you doubt the sincerity of my words to the church at Philippi, telling them to rejoice always.”

“Well, listen to me members of Grace Lutheran. I am able to say rejoice always because true joy, Christian joy, is not based on external circumstances. NO! If that were so, then yes, it would be impossible to rejoice always. However that is not the case. The way to rejoicing always is clearer when you read verses five, six and seven.”

“In verse five, I said: Let your gentleness be known to everyone—be considerate of everyone. The Lord is near. I’ve discovered that gentleness and consideration of others helps you cope with life’s troubles. In gentleness, being patient and considerate of everyone, hearing them out, I’ve won the trust and respect of others. How can I do this? Well, as I said: The Lord is near. Don’t you remember the words of Jesus at the end of Matthew’s Gospel? Remember, he said: ‘I am with you always.’ For me, that has proven to be a wonderful promise. I know that I could never have gotten through all of my sufferings and heartaches without our Lord’s nearness. The message of our Lord’s nearness during this season of Advent is quite appropriate, as Advent means coming. Advent is a time for us to remember Jesus came as a human being in love as one of us over two-thousand years ago. He comes to us each day, and especially during worship times through word and sacrament. One day, Jesus said he will come again as the risen King of kings and Lord of lords to bring all of history to its completion. So, yes, the Lord is near. We can have confidence in his nearness because it’s not based on the unpredictability of our feelings. Rather, Christ’s nearness is based on his promise—which holds true now and throughout eternity. If we believe this, then we can always be joyful in our Lord.”

“We can rejoice in the Lord always dear members of Grace Lutheran because, as I said in verse six: Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. I know this to be true from practicing it. Throughout my stormy life and ministry I had plenty of worries, anxieties and fears. I put life and limb in danger many a time. Jesus rescued me from the jaws of death and the evils of Satan on numerous occasions. I was able to rejoice always and cope with the daily circumstances no matter how trying because I prayed, offered supplications with thanksgiving making my requests known to our God. The Lord heard my prayers, supplications and thanksgivings—he didn’t always answer them the way I asked, mind you; he didn’t always give me what I wanted; rather, he had greater purposes for me to carry out and he always gave me what I needed.”

“In addition to all of this, I ended this section of my letter to the Philippians with a benediction in verse seven. I loved that congregation dearly, and so it was easy for me to offer them blessing upon blessing—because they had blessed me in so many ways. So I wrote these words as benediction, a good word, which is what the word benediction actually means. I wrote, and I also offer these words to you too: And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. You remember that I grew up and was educated as a Jew. Peace, in Hebrew Shalom, is more than just a word. Peace, Shalom is used by us Jews to greet someone to begin a conversation, and to say good-bye to someone when departing from them. The word also refers to health, wholeness, well-being, prosperity in the physical, social and spiritual sense. Peace, Shalom also refers to the future new creation—when God in Christ shall remove forever all evil powers, then sin and death shall no longer exist. Everyone shall live in a perfect state of blessedness, where joy and love shall rule supreme. So God’s peace guards us like a surrounding army filling our hearts and minds; giving us the willpower and ability to act by carrying out Christ’s purposes.”

“In short, Christ’s presence in us through his indwelling Holy Spirit works to help us. We are not always able to keep focussed in our prayers—the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf. We are not always able to stop worrying, and our hearts and minds don’t always focus on Jesus—again Christ’s peace given through the Holy Spirit in us accomplishes that for us. So, brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t let external circumstances side-track you. You can rejoice always like I did while I faced all the sufferings and sorrows of my life. Yes, even while closing your church, you can rejoice in the Lord always. Why? Because the Lord is near. He loves you so much that he suffered and died for you on the cross. He didn’t stay dead though. On the third day God the Father raised him from the dead. His resurrection is a sign of hope and victory. One day we too shall share in a resurrection like his. Your church too, after you close your doors, shall give new life to the larger Christian community by sharing your gifts with them. And Christ’s peace shall guard you every step of the way, throughout your life, your death, and beyond.”

Someone has said, “Misery loves company, but joy requires it.” What a beautiful insight. “Misery loves company, but joy requires it.” Joy requires company, community, connectedness. We can have many satisfying experiences by ourselves, but to experience joy we almost have to be in the company of at least one other person. That’s why worship is so satisfying to our souls. That is why serving others can be a joyous experience. Anytime we move out of ourselves and connect with another human being in the name of Christ, joy is possible.1

For the Christian, joy is…in the abiding assurance that “we belong, body and soul, to our faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ (Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A #1). It was this kind of joy that a young pastor encountered when he entered the hospital room of an elderly saint named Edith. It was the last day of Edith’s life; the pastor knew it and so did Edith. So when he asked her, “How are you?” they both knew that he was talking about more than her health. Their eyes locked, and she answered with a serenity born of both suffering and grace: “I have never felt such pain, or known more joy.”

Are Christians happy all the time? No, of course not. But they can be joyful all the time. Theirs is a joy that flows directly from the fountain of God’s amazing grace, a joy that, like God’s peace, “passes all understanding” (4:7).2 So, this Advent may you live with the joy of Jesus who is ever coming and near you; guarding you like a surrounding army with his peace. Amen.

1 Cited from: Duncan King, “I say, Rejoice!” at: <www.esermons.com>.

2 Cited from: Carol M. Bechtel, Glimpses Of Glory: Daily Reflections on the Bible (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), p. 73.

Sermon II Advent Yr C

2 Advent Yr C, 6/12/2009

Lk 3:1-6

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Make the Lord’s paths straight”

 

Recently, someone sent me an e-mail with the following story: A man was repainting the outside of the church one Saturday to get it nice and spiffy for the service on Sunday. He had two sides of the church done, when he realized that he didn’t have enough paint left to finish the job. What to do, since he was a long way from any store where he could buy more paint, and he was running out of time? So he came up with the idea that he would thin the paint down so he’d have enough to finish painting. After finishing the third side, he realized that he needed to thin the paint even more if he was going to finish the job. Finally, he finished the job and stood back admiring his work when suddenly, it began to rain. The man watched in dismay as the paint ran off the last two sides he had painted.

   The pastor came outside to see what was going on, and saw the look of disappointment on the man’s face. The man confessed what he had done in order to finish the job. The pastor, wanting to ease the man’s burden, said, “Repaint and thin no more!”

   In today’s gospel we learn of that eccentric desert prophet, John the Baptist, who preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, in preparation for the coming Messiah. It is rather interesting how Luke begins this story. He starts out by giving us a list of “the Who’s Who” of John’s day. He names several of the political and religious “movers and shakers,” the “power brokers” of that time in history.

   Luke tells us that: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” According to one commentator, this would be either 26 or 27 A.D. Pilate, the Roman procurator had final authority in Judea. The remainder of the kingdom of Herod the Great was divided between his sons Herod Antipas (9:7; 23:6-7) and Philip. Abilene, north of Philip’s rule, was closely associated with it during the first century. Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas (Jn 18:13) controlled the Jewish temple and priests. Caiaphas was the high priest (Mt 26:3; Jn 11:49); Annas, though retired retained his prestige (Acts 4:6).1

   Why does Luke take the time to mention all of these people of power and influence? Well, Luke, in chapter one of his gospel, you remember, stated his purpose of the gospel was “to write an orderly account.” Luke thus seems concerned with the historical context of his gospel story. The backdrop of history in Luke’s gospel helps readers to have a larger, more meaningful picture of the story. Seeing the larger picture makes it more likely for the gospel story to take root in our hearts, minds and lives. 

   Luke lists these people because he wants to tell us that these were not some fairy-tale characters, the products of an overactive imagination. NO! The people in Luke’s story are real, live, human beings who lived during the time of John the Baptist and Jesus. The gospel story takes place at a certain time in a certain part of the world.

   Luke gives us this list of “the rich and famous” to employ irony to drive home his message. For Luke, God is at work in a special way when chronos time meets Kairos time. Chronos time is ordinary time, measured by seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, years, centuries and millennia. Kairos time is special time, holy time, time that God chooses to act in a saving way. For Luke, the irony of chronos time meeting Kairos time is that even though the contemporary political and religious leaders have the outward appearance of power, wealth and seem to be the central actors of history–God works through the most unsuspecting folks, like an eccentric prophet named John to accomplish his eternal purposes by announcing the coming Messiah. Moreover, God is active in the least likely place, the desert, a place of desolation. The irony for Luke is that the movers and shakers of society do not determine God’s saving activity. Rather, they miss what God is doing precisely because the LORD employs an eccentric desert prophet named John to prepare for the Messiah and announce his coming. Furthermore, Luke brings out his irony by telling us the Messiah himself is born of a young woman who has very little if any power and influence in the realms of politics and religion; and the place, in some barn or cave in Bethlehem is the least likely place in the world to expect the Messiah’s birth. Yet, that’s how God works according to Luke.

John the Baptizer, according to Luke, is God’s final forerunner to prepare folks for the soon-to-come Messiah. He is seen by Luke as Isaiah’s “voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” His message is clearly spoken, yet difficult to act upon: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Isn’t that easier said than done? Look at our society today. A lot of people, including the power brokers, like their crooked paths—dishonesty, breaking the law, deceitfulness abound. Some political and yes, even religious leaders in league with the powers of evil employ deceitfulness to confuse people and take advantage of them. Today, there are voices crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight; but, alas, such voices are ignored, mocked, rejected, and sometimes even persecuted, tortured, silenced and killed by this world’s power brokers. Sometimes the power brokers even invoke the name of God to justify themselves—calling evil good and good evil.

Preparing the way of the Lord is not easy. Repentance, turning one-hundred-and-eighty degrees around is difficult. Luke goes on to quote Isaiah 40:3-5, saying that in order to prepare the way of the Lord, everything right now has to be reversed: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”

A lot of work is involved in all of that, don’t you think? Such a project is maybe like building a country-wide highway, like the trans-Canada. Can you image the personnel, equipment, and resources it would require to complete such a project? Notice too, that the text says: “EVERY valley shall be filled, and EVERY mountain and hill made low, and the crooked made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” The energy, time and resources required for such an earth-transforming project are mind-boggling. However, with God all things are possible. If God is behind such an earth-transforming project, then it will happen. Or, could it be that God himself shall do all of this? Could this be referring to God making the new heavens and the new earth? Perhaps.

At any rate, we all know that a straight path in real life is easy to follow. You know where you’re going and where it leads. A crooked path is more difficult and can be dangerous. You don’t know where you’re going, how sharp are the curves, how narrow and rough is the road? On a crooked road, you don’t always know where it leads, you can get lost—sin and evil may await you. That is true both in the physical world and spiritually.

So, God’s earth-moving work continues, it started with John, and continued with the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The work also has continued down through the centuries in the Church, and yes even today, whenever Jesus’ followers have been faithful to him and his gospel. As Luther said, every day we followers of Jesus need to repent; turn away from our self-centredness and focus on what we can do to lovingly serve the needs of others. In loving others, caring for the neediest, we are making God’s paths straight and preparing for Jesus and his coming to us as the baby at Christmas and in the future Kairos time when he shall come again to bring all of history to its completion. We look forward to that day when: “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” All flesh shall see; we will come to realise, participate in, inherit, and celebrate the kingdom of God coming in all of its fullness. To that end we keep preparing for, waiting and hoping. One day our hopes and deepest longings shall come true, for that thanks be to God! Amen.

1 Cited from my Oxford Annotated Bible notes, NRSV, (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1991), p. NT 82.  

Sermon I Advent Yr C

1 Advent Yr C, 29/11/2009

Jer 33:14-16

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Hope amidst hopelessness”

 

Do any of you know surely? I’m not talking about a person of the female gender named Shirley. No, rather, I’m speaking of that little English word. A word that refers to confidence and certainty. Surely you know it. In today’s first lesson the prophet Jeremiah speaks of it like this as he quotes what he heard from the LORD himself: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Notice that Jeremiah does not say or quote the LORD as having said something like this: “The days are perhaps coming…” or “The days are maybe coming…” None of that kind of ambiguity here. “The days are surely coming…”

And sure enough, as day follows night, surely the season of Advent has arrived. Advent is too short, only four weeks. The season reminds us of Christ’s coming. We look at Christ’s coming from the perspective of the past as Jesus came to earth and live among us as a human being like us in every way, except without sin. And we celebrate Christ’s presence among us today in the present; as he reveals himself to us through Word and sacrament, and the communion of us sinner-saints. We also look forward into the future when he shall come again and usher in completely his eternal kingdom. Advent marks the beginning of a new church year, which usually gives us cause to look forward into the future.

However, there is much irony as we celebrate Advent for the last time here at Grace Lutheran Church. The irony bespeaks hope and sadness, loss and grief. I believe that’s why our passage from Jeremiah is tailor-made for us today. The predicament that we find ourselves in as a congregation moving into the future with sorrow and grief has similarities with the predicament of Jeremiah and the people of Judah. We, like Jeremiah, can say that “The days are surely coming…” Our predicament here at Grace Lutheran, like that of Jeremiah and his people, is one of hope amidst the hopelessness.

Jeremiah’s little oracle of hope is almost out of sync for the prophet, in that the circumstances were most likely anything but hopeful. Jeremiah was either serving time in jail or under house arrest, because he prophesied against the king, Zedekiah, and the people of Judah and Jerusalem, charging them with being unfaithful to the LORD and his covenant with them. Moreover, to add insult to injury, Jeremiah had said that the present siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadrezzar and his Babylonian army was God’s instrument of punishment upon the people of Jerusalem and Judah, thus it was pointless to resist them. Such a prophetic message went over like a lead balloon, no wonder Jeremiah was in jail. In contemporary times, it might be compared with something like a pastor from Lethbridge standing on main street Medicine Hat and prophesying that our city is going to be invaded and taken over by the citizens of Lethbridge; and it’s pointless to resist them, for they are God’s instrument of wrath upon us. Such a pastor might also very well be arrested, perhaps even thrown into jail, and most Hatters would likely reject and condemn their message.

And yet, Jeremiah remains faithful to God and proclaims this oracle of hope in spite of the immediate situation of hopelessness. At times it is difficult for people to live with hope when all they can see in their situation is hopelessness. Yet, as people of faith, we like Jeremiah and the people of Judah are called to live with hope—even as we face the hopelessness of closing our church doors. Jeremiah’s oracle of hope communicates certainty and confidence that God shall, in the future, make good on his promises to the people of Israel and Judah. How can we, like Jeremiah be a people of hope amidst our hopelessness? Well, by trusting in God’s Messiah-King Jesus, like Jeremiah did; for he is our righteous Branch.

I like that image of Jesus as our righteous Branch. Apparently one of the military tactics that the Babylonian army engaged in against the people of Judah and Jerusalem was to chop down the olive trees. The olive orchards were, in many respects part of “the life-blood” of the economy for God’s people—providing food and oil for eating, cooking and other uses. So, when the olive trees were cut down, the people of Judah and Jerusalem no doubt lamented at their loss. Such a hostile act would have made them feel hopeless. Yet Jeremiah sees hope amidst that situation of hopelessness. Jeremiah sees the righteous Branch. Looking into the future, Jeremiah knew that the olive orchard stumps would produce shoots and branches. In a few years down the road, they’d even come to live again and produce olives.

So it was spiritually too. Jeremiah was saying to his people: “Don’t give up hope in the midst of this Babylonian hopelessness. Yes, we will go into Babylonian exile. However, look into the future, the LORD shall fulfill his promises to us. Hope in him and he shall not disappoint you. He shall send his Messiah-King, the righteous Branch to govern us. One day we shall be back in the Promised Land and eat from the fruit of the olive orchards. On a new day we shall worship the LORD in a new Jerusalem temple. My people, don’t lose your hope amidst the hopelessness—even if you cannot see the hope now. Hang onto it, for the LORD is a God of hope and where there’s hope there is life.”

Members and friends of Grace Lutheran, can you see the hope amidst the hopelessness? Yes, the doors of this edifice shall close at the end of December. And yes, such an event breaks your hearts. We all had hopes, now that are in the past and lost, for the situation to improve here at Grace so we could carry on our ministry. We mourn those lost hopes of the past. Now we face the future. Advent is a season of hope—pointing us to Christ our righteous Branch. After the ministry here comes to an end and our doors close; when we’ve completed all of the last things, then we shall go into a new future. A future where we can find another congregation and become accepted in that faith community. In that future a new hope can be born after the sorrow, pain, sadness and loss—just as new olives are born from chopped down tree stumps.

The days are surely coming, Jeremiah prophesies, when the Messiah-King shall come to rule with justice and righteousness. According to later Jewish tradition, the rabbis said: “The life of a single righteous person is equal in value to the whole world.” And: “Through the merit of one righteous [person] the world survives…”1 That, too, is our hope. The first Sunday of Advent points us to the one righteous person—Jesus, our righteous Branch. He can and does save the world and ensures that the world survives. As the old familiar song puts it: “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” Moreover, Jeremiah tells us: “He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” According to this promise, we are reminded that there is no justice without hope.

Hope is symbolized by the birth of the Christ child, who taught us by example how to make peace, how to heal division, how to restore community.

Hope is born when an Hasidic Jew extends his hand to a fallen Arab, helping him to safety before the collapse of the twin towers.

Hope is born when the parents of savagely murdered teenager Reena Virk help their daughter’s killer gain parole so that he may begin to “lead a useful life.”

Hope is born when the Amish Mennonite parents of five murdered schoolgirls in Pennsylvania encircle the family of their executioner, ensuring forgiveness amid embraces and tears.

Love—not law—is the spirit of justice. Hope is the agenda of justice. There can be no justice where there is no hope. To do justice is to create hope. Justice without hope is like law without gospel.

Restoring hope in this 21st Century will require great sacrifices—especially among those of us who have gotten used to receiving far more than we are willing to give. Whether we take up the cross freely in love or have it forced upon us in hatred, that will be our personal and political choice.2

So brothers and sisters in Christ, do not give up hope for your future amidst the hopelessness. Let go of past hopes so that out of them a new hope shall be born—just like the new olives from the chopped-down olive tree stump. Live with expectation that Jesus our righteous Branch is coming. Prepare for his coming into your hearts, minds and lives this Advent. Be ready to welcome his coming at Christmas. Find the hope for your future and the future of your fellow members of Grace by trusting that Jesus our Messiah-King shall lead you through your hopelessness and exile, sadness and grief into the realised hope of his Promised Land; the kingdom which shall have no end. Amen.

 1 Cited from: Rabbi Alexander Feinsilver, The Talmud For Today (New York: St Martin’s Press, Inc., 1980), p. 48.        2 Cited from: Erich & Miranda Weingartner, “No Justice Without Hope,” in Canada Lutheran, December 2006 (Winnipeg, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada), p. 13.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.