Remembering the Rev. Dr. William (Bill) Hordern

This past week, I learned of the death of my favourite seminary professor, the Rev. Dr. William (Bill) Hordern. He died on November 9, at the age of 94 years. A service to celebrate his life is today, November 15, 2014, at Zion Lutheran Church in Saskatoon. Unfortunately I am unable to attend the service, but my thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Hordern’s family.

Doc Hordern—sometimes he would say to folks, “call me Bill”—in addition to being a wise administrator functioning as the President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, he was also a very gifted teacher and preacher.

As a professor and scholar-theologian, Doc Hordern had the ability to present very deep and profound theological doctrines in a way that almost anyone could understand. I loved all of the courses that he taught me. One of the things he would often do is leave time at the end of his lectures for classroom questions, discussion, debate and dialogue—giving us students opportunity to process what we were learning.

As a preacher, he went into the pulpit with a manuscript, and relied on it, yet one had the sense that he was speaking directly to you in a pastoral way. His sermons were both down-to-earth and insightful, even prophetic, critiquing injustices in the community and larger world at that time, while at the same time, proclaiming the all-encompassing power of God’s grace at work in the church and the world. On a humorous note, on one occasion when he preached in the seminary chapel, he was having “a bad hair day.” Every time he looked down, his hair would fall into his eyes, and he had to keep pushing it back into place with his hand. It became a bit of a distraction for some of us—yet, it reminded me of his humanness, and that he was always accessible to us students.

My fondest memory of Dr. Hordern was on the day that I met with the colloquy committee. When the time came for Bill to ask me any questions, he replied something like this: “I have no questions. I think that after teaching Garth for three years at the seminary I know him and his theology well enough.” That spoke volumes to me, providing yet another example of how he truly not only taught and preached, but also lived by grace.

Speaking of grace, one of my favourite quotes comes from Dr. Hordern’s book, Living by Grace: “The practice of the church will always fall short of what it preaches, and therefore it will continue to live by forgiveness and not by its achievements or merits. The hope for the church remains always in God and not in the church’s membership. God is able to speak even through an imperfect church.” (pp. 199 & 200) For those readers who knew and/or studied under or worked with Dr. Hordern, I invite you to share your reflections by leaving a comment below. Rest eternal grant William Hordern, O Lord; and let light perpetual shine upon him.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Today, in 1945, Lutheran pastor, theologian, and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at the age of thirty-nine years by the Nazis. There is some evidence that he had favoured a pacifist way of life. However ethically, after wrestling with the situation in Nazi Germany, he believed that under certain circumstances violence was necessary in the resistance of evil in the political realm for the greater good of society. So he involved himself in a plan to kill Hitler, and eventually he and others were discovered by the Gestapo, imprisoned and executed by the Nazis.

   Two of my favourite passages from Bonhoeffer’s writings are from his The Cost of Discipleship and Letters & Papers from Prison.

   Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

   Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a [person] will gladly go and sell all that [s]he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all [her or]his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man [or woman] will pluck out the eye which causes [her or]him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves [her or]his nets and follows him.

   Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man [or woman] must knock.

   Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a [person their] life, and it is grace because it gives a [person] the only true life. The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., Twentieth Printing, 1978), pp. 46 & 47.

And his beautiful poem, “Who Am I?”

   Who am I? They often tell me/I stepped from my cell’s confinement/Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,/Like a squire from his country-house./Who am I? They often tell me/I used to speak to my warders/Freely and friendly and clearly,/As though it were mine to command./Who am I? They also tell me/I bore the days of misfortune/Equably, smilingly, proudly,/Like one accustomed to win.

   Am I then really all that which other men tell of?/Or am I only what I myself know of myself?/Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,/Struggling for breath, as though hands were/compressing my throat,/Yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,/Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,/Tossing in expectation of great events,/Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,/Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,/Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?/

   Who am I? This or the other?/Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?/Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,/And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?/Or is something within me still like a beaten army,/Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?/

   Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine./Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine! Letters & Papers from Prison (London & Glasgow: Collins Fontana Books, Seventh Impression, August 1965), p. 173.

Sermon 3 Pentecost Yr A

3 Pentecost Yr A, 1/06/2008

Matt 7:21-29

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“House Building”

 

Today’s gospel marks the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is quite instructive for us that at the conclusion of this Sermon, Jesus gives us teachings that are very practical concerning not just speaking the right words but doing the right actions. He also warns all would-be disciples not to be deceived by those who speak well and call attention to their abilities to prophesy, cast out demons and do deeds of power in Christ’s name. There is a word of sober judgement here on such people. There is also a word of warning to listen carefully to Jesus’ words and then act on them. Those who do listen and act in faith are like a wise carpenter who builds on a solid foundation of rock, unlike a foolish carpenter who builds on sand.

The famous Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard once wrote a vivid parable concerning the danger of becoming just a satisfied customer with religion, an occupation so absorbing that it left no inclination to do anything about it.

He imagined that near the cross of Christ had stood a man who beheld the terrible scene, and then became a professor of what he saw. He explained it all.

Later he witnessed the persecution and imprisonment and cruel beating of the apostles and became professor of what he had witnessed.

He studied the drama of the cross, but he was never crucified with Christ in his own life.

He studied apostolic history, but he did not live apostolically.

He was an observer and a talker about Christianity, but not a doer.1

There is an old adage, “When all is said and done, there is a lot more said, than done!” Is this not true of many people in our world today? There are so many “experts” who know a tremendous amount of information about their subject that they have specialized in, but does their information really get translated into actions, to practical doing? In many cases, I think the information gets lost in the “lack of translation” from the theoretical, the academic, to the practical, active, everyday real life of the world.

This is also related to what Jesus has to say about those who say to Jesus: ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Or in modern day language: “Every day a sucker is born. Beware of charlatans who may speak with words of sweetness and light, yet are working overtime to deceive you.”

There are so many charlatans out there—everything from telemarketers on the phone to televangelists on the T.V., to false contractors who prey on seniors promising to do home improvements, to name only a few. Isn’t it interesting that, according to a recent article in The Medicine Hat News Canada is finally cracking down on telemarketers. By this fall, September I believe, Canadian citizens will be able to register and have less pesky telemarketers calling us. I for one am certainly looking forward to that!

In the realm of faith—there surely are no shortage of televangelists out there on T.V. promising things that are rather controversial and questionable. For example, I happened to watch a short advertising blurb by one televangelist lately who promised special blessings on those who would send him money to purchase a handkerchief, which, he claimed, had the power to give blessings. This fake televangelism so insults true Christianity and Jesus himself in that the false televangelists believe they can reduce Jesus to the ability to sell him like any other consumer product for their own personal gain no matter how manipulative and deceitful are their methods as long as it works for them. NO! Jesus soberly warns us today, such folks shall face a hard judgement: “Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”

In stark contrast to this false, charlatan type of faith, Jesus tells the parable of building one’s faith on a solid rock foundation. What kind of house of faith are you building? Are we building on solid rock, Christ our Lord and Saviour, or are we building on sinking sand?

Albert P. Stauderman tells the following story: For many years a man had worked faithfully as foreman of the building crew for a wealthy contractor. The contractor decided to take a long vacation on a world cruise, but before leaving he gave his foreman a set of plans for a dream house. “Build it according to specifications and spare no expense,” he instructed. “I want this to be a good house for a special reason.”

After the contractor had gone, the foreman thought about the many years he had worked for small wages, and he decided that this was the time to make a profit for himself. He cut down on the specifications for the house and substituted cheap material wherever it would not show, pocketing the difference. Then the contractor returned and examined the house. Then he told the foreman, “You have served me well for many years. In reward I have planned this house for you. It is yours, to own and live in.”

Who got cheated?2

Upon what do we build our house, our faith and life? Is it Christ the solid rock or is it sinking sand? There are many things that people invest in—pouring out their time, energy, money and other talents and resources. However, are they lasting or fleeting? Do they satisfy the deepest needs of life? Do they enhance and strengthen life and faith? Do they contribute to the overall health and well being of individuals and society as a whole? Oftentimes those things that are fleeting and fail to strengthen life and faith may very well appeal to folks at first sight; people may benefit from them in an immediate way; however, when people begin to face the storms, earthquakes and floods of life—when the going gets tough such things shall not last nor give strength to life and faith. It is by listening to Christ’s words and then acting on them in faith that give us strength in life and deepen our faith. If we do this, then we shall surely be able to endure any storms, earthquakes, floods and tornadoes that life dishes out.

Scottish entertainer Sir Harry Lauder always left his audiences laughing. But as he came out of a theatre one night, he was handed a telegram informing him that his son had been killed in action. Lauder cancelled his engagements, but three weeks later he was on his way to France to entertain the troops. “When a man has a great sorrow,” Lauder said, “he can turn sour on life, or turn to drink, or turn to God and find joy and hope in doing his will.”3

People of faith who trust in Christ the rock, our solid foundation to build their house, are folks like Sir Harry Lauder—they obey Christ, they listen and then act, and they “find joy and hope in doing his will.” May God grant all of us sufficient grace so to do. Amen.

1 Cited from: Sermon Illustrations For The Gospel Lessons (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1980, 1981, 1982), pp. 20-21.

2 Albert P. Stauderman, Let Me Illustrate: Stories and Quotations for Christian Communicators (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983), p. 107.

3 Ibid. p. 67.

 

 

Sermon 2 Pentecost Yr A

2 Pentecost Yr A, 25/05/2008

1 Cor 4:1-5

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Non-judgemental Servants and Stewards”

 

I rather like the “Peanuts” cartoon. In one cartoon there is a girl who came to Charlie Brown and said, “Yes sir, Charlie Brown, Abraham Lincoln was a great man. Charlie Brown, would you like to have been Abraham Lincoln?”

Well, now, I don’t think so,” Charlie answered thoughtfully; “I am having a hard enough time being just plain ole Charlie Brown!”

God never expects me to be a person other than who I am. However, God does expect you and me to make full use of our God-given talents and to live a life of integrity and faithfulness before God.

One faithful follower of Jesus said it like this: “When I die I will not be asked, ‘Why were you not the apostle Paul, why were you not Martin Luther, why were you not this or that famous leader in the Church?’ NO! You and I will be asked, ‘Why were you not you!’”

That is precisely what the apostle Paul is saying to the Corinthians in our second lesson today. There were some in the church at Corinth who were trying to compare and play off Apollos, Peter and Paul against one another. They were becoming overly arrogant, proud and judgemental of Apollos, Peter and Paul and dividing themselves up into different camps. Paul counsels them to look at the leaders and leadership of the Church in a different way.

He says: “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” Or as Eugene Peterson states it in The Message: “Don’t imagine us leaders to be something we aren’t. We are servants of Christ, not his masters. We are guides into God’s most sublime secrets, not security guards posted to protect them.”

According to Professor Wm. Barclay: The word (Paul) uses for a servant is interesting; it is huperetes and originally meant a rower on the lower bank of a trireme (i.e. an ancient Roman or Greek galley with three banks of oars), one of the slaves who pulled at the great sweeps which moved the triremes through the sea. Some commentators have wished to stress this and to make it a picture of Christ as the pilot who directs the course of the ship and Paul as the servant who accepts the pilot’s orders and labours only as his Master directs.

Then Paul uses another picture. He thinks of himself and his fellow preachers as stewards of the secrets which God desires to reveal to his own people. The steward (oikonomos) was the major domo….in charge of the whole administration of the house or the estate; (s)he controlled the staff; (s)he issued the supplies; but, however much (s)he controlled the household staff, (s)he (her)himself was still a slave where the master was concerned. Whatever be a (person’s) position in the Church, and whatever power (she or) he may yield there or whatever prestige (she or) he may enjoy, (s)he still remains the servant of Christ.1

Paul then goes on to say that his stewardship, along with that of other Church leaders is that “of God’s mysteries.” God’s mysteries are not meant to be the best-kept secret. God’s mysteries do not belong to a choice, privileged, elitist group of people. Rather, the word “mysteries” refers to the ministry of preaching the word and administering the sacraments. It also refers to the content of the word of God—i.e. the message of the Gospel, the Good News that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world and through him we receive the forgiveness of sin and the promise of abundant life and grace now, and in the future, eternal life.

As stewards of God’s mysteries, Paul says the leaders, the preachers of the Church are required to “be found trustworthy.” Or as Eugene Peterson puts it: “The requirements for a good guide are reliability and accurate knowledge.”

Trustworthiness is not just a given, it is most often earned. What happens when people don’t trust God’s stewards? Well, I think we’ve seen quite clearly what happens through the media coverage of all the abuse and scandals that have occurred within Christendom. When God’s stewards are not trustworthy, people are abused sexually, emotionally, physically and spiritually. This is tragic, because lack of trust kills healthy relationships, and many of those who have been abused are wounded for life, sometimes their sufferings are so devastating that they become permanently ill and are robbed of life’s blessings.

Trustworthy stewardship of resources is also important. If stewards fail to manage and administer the resources given to them with care and wisdom that can result in the destruction, loss or extinction of such resources. We have already seen this in the natural world around us—several animal species have become extinct or are now regarded as endangered species. Moreover, the failing quality of our air we breathe, the soil we grow our food in, and the water we drink are a sober testimony to the poor stewardship of natural resources.

We speak of trust in God as if that action were one-sided. But there is another side. God also places trust in us to be the ones who express God’s love. It is an honour to be trusted in this way, but what are we doing with that trust? The other day on CBC radio, I heard that we Canadians are marketing food products in a very untrustworthy, misleading way. Two examples were given. Garlic that did not originate here in Canada was labelled “a product of Canada.” Why? Because someone in Canada cut it up and placed it in a plastic bag. Apple juice was also labelled “a product of Canada,” however, the only thing that was Canadian was the water added to the concentrate. Such are the deceitful practices of the marketplace these days here in our nation. In light of these two examples, I cannot help but ask if they are merely the tip of the iceberg. Contrary to these examples we followers of Jesus are exhorted to be faithful, trustworthy stewards of what God has given us.

We hold a treasure of possibilities, gifts from God to be shared with others in the world God loves. What kind of trust is shown if we give grudgingly, if we are afraid to give more than what we think is our fair share?

There is plenty of mistrust in our world that keeps people from friendship and community with others or with God. Trust in God calls for a different way of being in the world, including a different way of sharing gifts. Gifts from God are never just for us!2 Through our giving, hope becomes real for others. I think we here at Grace are particularly blessed in this way. Our deceased brother, Art Stenby, is an inspiration to us; he was a trustworthy steward. He gave generously, as Scripture teaches us to do. God had blessed Art and, in response, Art shared with his church the generosity of God’s blessings. Now, as trustworthy stewards we are privileged to manage wisely and generously share what has been given to us in such a way as to bear witness to God’s love in Christ for us.

After Paul emphasises the importance of trust as stewards of God, he addresses the issue of judgement. He tells the Corinthians that it is not up to them to judge Paul. In fact, Paul says, he doesn’t even judge himself. Rather he leaves the judging up to the Lord. He will judge us all on the appointed judgement day and reveal things that are now in darkness—bringing into the light even the most hidden motives of our thinking, speaking and acting.

As Eugene Peterson puts it: “So don’t get ahead of the Master and jump to conclusions with your judgments before all the evidence is in. When he comes, he will bring out in the open and place in evidence all kinds of things we never even dreamed of—inner motives and purposes and prayers. Only then will any one of us get to hear the “Well done!” of God.”

It is very tempting to judge others prematurely and unfairly. Yet when we do, in most cases we are wrong and called into judgement ourselves. Francis Gay tells the following story: I remember a minister telling about conducting a service in a church where he had not been before. Everyone was sitting towards the back of the church so before the sermon he suggested it might be better if they all moved forward.

Everyone did this except 3 people sitting together in a back pew. The minister proceeded with the sermon but couldn’t help feeling that the 3 might have followed the lead of the rest of the congregation.

However, after the service he went to the door, pausing to speak to the three as they passed. He discovered that one of them had a severe handicap who would have had a great difficulty getting to church at all but for the help of the other two.

How important it is to be sure of the facts before we make our judgements on others!3

Paul’s final emphasis concerning God’s judgement of us is an interesting one, he states with hope that after God’s judgement: “Then each one will receive commendation from God.” In other words the judgement of God will purify us like a refining fire and remove, purge us of all impurities, all sins and shortcomings, and make us right with God, worthy to receive God’s commendation, the “Well done!” declaration of God.

So, even God’s judgement is good, life-giving, and gives us hope; after we are confronted with our sins and God deals with them, we are forgiven and given God’s blessing. God in Christ has paid the price for humankind’s rebellion, sin, and evil. God wills that all be forgiven and blessed. Such judgement then is like the love and welcome of the prodigal son by his father when he returns. Praise God for his mercy and loving kindness. Amen.

 

1 Wm. Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians Burlington, ON: G.R. Welch Co., Ltd., 1975), p. 36.

2 Cited from “So Much Trust!” Ecumenical Center for Stewardship Studies, 1994 bulletin insert. Produced by and for churches in Canada and the U.S.A.

3 F. Gay, The Friendship Book 1986, meditation for June 26.

 

 

 

 

3 Easter Yr A

3 Easter Yr A, 6/04/2008

1 Peter 1:17-23

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Life in Christ”

 

Once there was a young lad leading his donkey in front of some soldiers. Several soldiers began to harass the boy. One soldier asked him, “Why are you holding onto your brother so tightly?” Without hesitation, the boy replied, “So he won’t join the army.”

The author of 1 Peter, was also writing to Christians living in Roman provinces of Asia Minor—modern day Turkey—who felt like this young lad, harassed and threatened by the pagan culture around them. The writer provides several word pictures of what Christ has done through his death and resurrection; who these Christians are now because of Christ’s saving work; and how they are now able to respond as they proceed to live a new life in Christ.

The first picture we are given of these new Christians in Asia Minor is that of exiles, aliens, or refugees. If you talk with exiles today, many of them share similar concerns or fears of the dominating culture into which they have come to live. As a minority group, it is difficult to maintain and preserve one’s identity—especially if the mainstream culture is hostile to you and pressures you to give up your own cultural or religious identity. These Christians lived in a culture that worshipped many gods and goddesses. The worship could involve wicked and immoral acts and beliefs in conflict with Christian acts and beliefs.

In one sense, we Christians are all exiles in this world—since our true, eternal home is in heaven. Therefore, there will always be certain temptations of the mainstream culture that threaten our status as Christians and may lead us away from Christ and our Christian faith. Exiles, if they face hardships and even persecution, long for the day when they can return to their true homeland where everything is familiar; where they can feel and live in peace and security. The same is true for us as Christians, we long for our true homeland where we can live in familiar surroundings; where we can feel and live in the peace and security of God and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Therefore, the author of 1 Peter instructs these Asia Minor Christians to live with the proper kind of fear—not the fear of the majority culture all around them. Rather, they are to live in reverent fear of God, as are we while they and we live in exile. What is reverent fear? Well, it is fear that expresses itself in awe. Awe and wonder at the power and love and presence of God in Christ. Awe for what God in Christ has done for us. Awe that trusts and believes God is in control of the world and has planned things out very carefully and lovingly even since before the foundation of the world. Awe that says, “No matter how difficult it is to live in this world, I am in God’s hands. He gives me life today and every day and provides what I need. He has also provided for me eternally—thanks to the saving work of Jesus Christ.”

A second word picture that the author of 1 Peter provides us is that of Christians who are captives, slaves in need of being rescued and freed from the sinful ways of the pagan world. The saving work of Christ here is pictured as a ransom—that is to say, he paid the costly price to rescue and free us from our sinful ways. This word picture is also meaningful in our contemporary world.

A few years ago, you may recall the story of Canadian hostage, Norbert Reinhart, owner of the Ontario-based business, Terramundo Drilling. He turned himself in to Colombian rebels in exchange, as a ransom for a kidnapped employee. The story began when the rebels kidnapped diamond-driller Edward Leonard.

Reinhart eventually made a deal with rebels to free Leonard. The deal involved Reinhart changing places with Leonard. At the time, Foreign Affairs Minister, Lloyd Axworthy did not approve of the deal. He told Reinhart and Reinhart’s family that negotiations should have been left to the Colombian government. However, once Reinhart turned himself in to the rebels, they released Leonard, who went back to his family in Creston, B.C.

Christ, says our second lesson, ransomed the Asia Minor Christians and us not with perishable things of this world, but with his precious blood, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He paid the price of his suffering, even dying on the cross, shedding his precious blood, which atoned for the sin of the world. Just as the Passover lamb’s blood on the doorposts of the Israelite slaves in Egypt saved their lives—so Christ’s blood atones for and saves our lives. Just as the Passover for the Jews is a festival celebrating their freedom from Egyptian slavery; so Christ’s death and shedding of blood and God’s raising him on the third day is our celebration of our freedom from the powers of sin, death and evil.

A third picture the author of 1 Peter provides concerning the work of Christ and the identity of Christians is having been born anew thanks to the immeasurable love of Christ displayed by his suffering, death and resurrection. Such profound, all encompassing love of God in Christ transforms us; gives us new birth through the living and enduring word of God. The Good News, the Gospel, proclaiming and receiving this word of God changes us. Having received this love of Jesus, we now are free to love one another.

Something of Christ’s love for us and our freedom to respond in love by passing it on to others is demonstrated in the following story. Richard Wauro was only a toddler when his parents were given the shattering news that their little boy had been born with serious brain damage and would be mentally defective for the rest of his days. His speech, sight and hearing would always be seriously impaired. Bravely, Olive and Ted Wauro decided that, whatever the difficulties, they were going to keep Richard at home and look after him themselves. It was a heartbreaking choice, and it meant endless work and personal sacrifice.

Then, when he was six, Richard began to draw. Not the scribbles of a demented child but the figures and scenes from life all around him. His talent, as it developed, astonished the experts and delighted the growing number of people who wanted to buy one of Richard’s pictures.

Richard is now an adult, and his paintings are exhibited all over the world. His remarkable story is told by Ron Thompson, a television reporter, in his book Never A Dull Moment.

As Ron Thompson wrote, “Somewhere in the darkness of Richard’s mind there shines a light which has brought Olive and Ted Wauro out of their despair and into the sunshine of a new life.”1

That is the power of love, when given away and generously spent on others, it is amazing how it can change people and give them new life—as Christ’s love has done for us. Amen.

 

1 Cited from Ron Thompson, Never A Dull Moment (Dundee, Scotland: David Winter & Son Ltd, 1974).

 

 

Sermon Palm/Passion Sunday Yr A

Palm/Passion Sunday Yr A, 16/03/2008

Matt 26:36-46

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Gethsemane”

 

It was night. Jesus had just celebrated the Passover and instituted the Lord’s Supper. He had told them one of the twelve would betray him. He also had predicted Peter’s denial. Now they make their way to the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane. Here Jesus takes along Peter, James and John to keep vigil with him. He had been their source of comfort throughout his public ministry. Now, this night before his death, he seeks their comforting presence.

Matthew tells us at this point Jesus was: “grieved and agitated.” Telling the three inner circle disciples: “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” Here we have a picture of Jesus’ humanity; he could be grief-stricken, agitated and full of sorrow. This grief and sorrow is something that Isaiah described centuries earlier, saying: “He was despised and rejected…a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” (RSV, Isa 53:3) Composer G.F. Handel, in his Messiah, sets these words from Isaiah to music, which is hauntingly, yet tragically beautiful.

What was the root of Christ’s sorrow, agitation and grief unto death? Most likely it was a combination of many things. He knew that he was about to leave his disciples behind, whom he loved dearly. He knew that after his time of agonizing prayer in Gethsemane that his disciple, Judas Iscariot would soon betray him and Peter would shortly deny him three times before the rooster’s crow. He knew that as the drama of his Passion heightened and he was nailed to the cross his disciples would split the scene and abandon him. He knew that the devil, the powers of evil were at work on this night to try and prevent him from doing what he needed to do. He knew that he would be treated like the lowliest and hated of criminals. He knew that he was about to be tried, sentenced and executed like a criminal on the trumped up charge of insurrection. He knew the crowds would condemn him, slander him, mock him. He knew that some of his own people along with several of their religious leaders would reject him. All of this and more was almost too much to bear. In light of this all now Jesus hopes his three inner circle disciples will stay awake with him for a brief duration of companionship and comfort.

After he tells them to stay awake, he walks a little farther to be alone; to pray to his heavenly Father. Matthew tells us that in his extremely troubled state Jesus: “threw himself on the ground and prayed.” His throwing himself on the ground again suggests Christ’s humanity. He comes to God the Father with humility; this position of prayer epitomises humility; the pain is so great; carrying the sins of the world; he falls down to the ground in prayer.

It was French theologian Jacques Ellul who once said: “Whoever wrestles with God in prayer puts his (or her) whole life at stake.” Is that not precisely what Jesus did at Gethsemane, put his whole life at stake?

In his humanity, Jesus prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Or as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message: “My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do you want?” Here the deep inner anguish; the unbearable agony of having to do what he dreaded and feared most—dying on a cross for the sins of the world is the cup of suffering Jesus in his humanness; in his love of life asks God the Father to be spared of. However, each sin had to be atoned for; every human being, all of humankind from beginning to end had to be forgiven—thus his suffering was beyond our comprehension.

While this incomprehensible battle was raging within Jesus, the three disciples were overcome with stress and so chose to fall asleep and look after their physical need above their spiritual need to stay awake with Christ and suffer with him. Some comfort they were! Yet there is much truth in Jesus alone at prayer, struggling to accept God the Father’s will, not his will. We too face at times our Gethsemane. Sinners that we are, we struggle with doing God’s will rather than our own will—especially if God wills us to face suffering and a cross. We too, like Jesus, may think that we are carrying the world on our shoulders. We too, like Jesus may feel abandoned by our closest friends or family members. However, the example of Jesus is ours to follow—turning to God in prayer and asking him for help to do his will.

After his exhortation to the disciples to stay awake and pray not to fall into the time of trial; Jesus went to pray alone a second time. This time Jesus’ prayer is more resolved to accept his destiny: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Or as Eugene Peterson renders it: “My Father, if there is no other way than this, drinking this cup to the dregs, I’m ready. Do it your way.”

Once again Jesus went back to Peter, James and John only to find them fast asleep. This time he does not awaken them. Instead, he goes back a third time to pray the same prayer.

Prayer for Jesus at Gethsemane was extremely important. Prayer allowed Jesus to commune with his Abba his Loving Parent, just as a young child trusts her or his parent for everything. Prayer made it possible for Christ to pour out and hand over all of his fears, agony, agitation, sorrow and grief to God the Father. Prayer provided Christ with the single-mindedness of purpose to carry out the Father’s will. Prayer gave him the strength and courage to willingly accept the loneliness and God-forsakenness ahead of him. Prayer helped him face the events of the Passion—to endure and overcome them.

What about us? Do we believe that God is with us and is our only, our highest and best Source of help, comfort, guidance and strength when we face our Gethsemane? If Jesus turned to his heavenly Father three times in prayer in order to help him face his suffering and crucifixion—then how much more we imperfect sinners do we need to turn to God in prayer? This short verse of a an anonymous poem illustrates the point very well: “I got up early one morning and rushed right into the day,/I had so much to accomplish that I didn’t have time to pray./Problems tumbled about me, and heavier became each task./ “Why doesn’t God help me?” I wondered, and He answered: “You didn’t ask.”

Gethsemane teaches us that when we feel utterly alone; when we suffer betrayal or denial; when we are falsely or unjustly judged or punished; when we face obstacles and sufferings that seem unbearable; when we face our Gethsemane—then God promises to be with us as we commune with him in prayer; then, when we pray “thy will be done” he will supply the grace and everything we need to face life and accomplish his will. Jesus teaches us that all things are possible through prayer. Our heavenly Father provides everything we need and is always available and waiting for us to ask that his will be done. Amen.

 

Sermon 3 Lent Yr A

3 Lent Yr A, 24/02/2008

Jn 4:5-42

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Jesus and the Samaritan Woman”

 

PRAYER: O God, the well-spring of life, pour into our hearts the living water of your grace, that refreshed by you, we may live this day in steadfast reliance on the strength you give; through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.* Wow! What a story in today’s gospel! It is one of the longest conversations with an individual in all of the gospels. It’s a wonderful, surprising, remarkable story because Jesus says and does some exceptional things, which go far above and beyond predictable, Jewish customs, traditions, beliefs and practices. Jesus in this story reveals the uniqueness of his identity as Messiah and Saviour of the world. I invite you to join me now as we take a closer look at some of the rich insights of this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

   First of all, John tells us that Jesus, unlike so many devout Jews of his day, did not avoid travelling in Samaria. You see at this time in history, Jews and Samaritans were enemies. The Jews looked down on Samaritans as half-breeds, not purely Jewish. They also looked down on them because the Samaritans only regarded the first five books of the Bible as authoritative scripture and they thought that the true place of worship was on Mount Gerizim, where they once had built a temple, but it had been destroyed in 128 B.C.

   It is noon, burning hot, Jesus, in his humanness, is tired out and thirsty. He stops at Jacob’s well, at the Samaritan city of Sychar—most likely the same place that centuries before was called Shechem, north of Jerusalem, which had been part of the old northern Israelite kingdom. In the heat of the day, a Samaritan woman, we don’t even know her name, came to draw water. Jesus, then does something totally out of bounds for any other Jewish leader of his day—he speaks to this woman, this Samaritan woman in a public place, saying: “Give me a drink.” Any male, Jewish, religious leader wanting respect would never speak to a woman, including their wife, let alone a Samaritan woman in a public place. This was a shocking, radical, unexpected thing to do. The Samaritan woman, realizing this, answers Jesus, expressing her surprise: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And John adds for readers unfamiliar with the customs of that day this detail: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”

   Jesus as the Messiah and Saviour of the world demonstrates here that he refuses to accept the traditions and customs of the Jews that placed a barrier between Jew and Samaritan and male and female. He came to remove such walls and divisions of the past as the true Messiah and Saviour of the whole world.

   Jesus then continues the conversation, now offering the Samaritan woman “living water,” which, at first, she thinks Jesus is still speaking about the water in Jacob’s well and wonders how he can get the water out of such a deep well without a bucket. Jesus however, speaking on a spiritual level promises that those who drink of the living water will never be thirsty again: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Centuries before, Jeremiah referred to God himself as “the fountain of living water,” (Jer 2:13; 17:13). And in the book of Proverbs 13:14, we learn of this promise: “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, so that one may avoid the snares of death.” Water, of course, is also the symbol in this Gospel for the sacrament of baptism. Here, however, according to Professor Walter Brueggemann: It is clear that the gospel narrative has taken the concrete-material reality of water and transposed it into a metaphor. Water is now gospel; water is the good news. Water is sign and symbol that in Jesus we are given a new quality of life, as the text says, “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” This is extraordinary good news that in the life of this defeated woman, durable quenching is possible. It was outrageous good news that from the hard rock of a failed life durable quenching happens, good news for ancient Israel in the wilderness, good news for the woman thirsting for a better life, good news for us in a culture of paralyzing anxiety.1 Jesus as living water gives us eternal life, abundant life, which starts right now, and flows on without end.

After Jesus offers the Samaritan woman this living water, she asks Jesus for it, and Jesus responds by sending her on the task of fetching her husband and bringing him back. She tells Jesus that she has no husband. He is very pastoral in his next comment to the woman, affirming her for telling him the truth, yet, at the same time, confronting her with the truth of her past marital history and her present status. Notice here that Jesus is not condemning her for having five previous husbands and not being married to the present man she is living with. Rather, he merely states the truth of her past history and present situation. This is very instructive for us too. We should not draw the conclusion based on an argument out of silence that the woman was sexually immoral given her past history. Indeed, as some feminist scholars have observed, we have no detailed information on the sexual history of the woman or her previous husbands, therefore we should not jump to the wrong conclusion that the woman was sexually immoral. Jesus does not make such a comment or judgement, therefore neither should we. Rather, Jesus states the truth in a way that invites the woman to respond.

Notice then that the woman does not walk away because she feels condemned. Nor does she feel that she needs to respond in a defensive way. Rather, she remains in conversation with Jesus, likely surprised at what he had just told her, and realising that this was no ordinary person, admitting that he was a prophet, and then raising a theological issue concerning the appropriate place to worship God—is it Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem? Those in our society or community who feel like outcasts; who feel that they are the subjects of malicious gossip; who are ostracized and condemned by others; these ones need Jesus and his love as much as the rest of us. The way Jesus handles this situation with the Samaritan woman is a perfect example of how we can offer pastoral care to the outcasts of our day. We, like Jesus, can speak the truth without condemning others, and then invite those who hear the truth to respond to it, like the woman of Samaria.

Jesus then takes the Samaritan woman’s statement seriously and explains what true worship really means. I like the way professor and pastor, Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “Believe me woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.”

“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

In other words: Cities, states/provinces, nations, and denominations are not holy. God is holy. God’s people are holy. No more artificial divisions—Jews/Samaritans, Protestant/Catholic, Presbyterian/Lutheran—no more divisions to separate human beings one from another—good news—gospel.2

In response, to Jesus’ truth concerning true worship, and the truth of his own being, the woman now continues the conversation by saying the whole truth shall be proclaimed when the Messiah comes. Jesus then gives her the greatest surprise of her life: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

The woman, there and then is never the same again. Joyfully surprised and shocked at this revelation from a conversation about the truth to meeting The Truth Himself; she leaves her water jar behind—perhaps a symbol of her old way of life before meeting up with Jesus, and goes back to the city and preaches the Good News. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” That truth-telling, which came from Jesus The Truth; that Gospel preaching went right into the hearts, minds and lives of many Samaritans who heard the woman preacher. God’s Spirit was at work in their spirits to draw them into a living encounter with Jesus The Truth. They too, with that Samaritan woman came to “know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.”

To this day, that nameless Samaritan woman, the first unexpected evangelist, is revered in many cultures. In southern Mexico, La Samaritana is remembered on the fourth Friday in Lent, when specially flavoured water is given to commemorate her gift of water to Jesus. The Orthodox know her as Saint Photini, or Svetlana in Russian. Her name means “equal to the apostles,” and she is honoured as apostle and martyr on the Feast of the Samaritan Woman.3

You never know how Jesus will surprise and reveal his truth to you. In the Lenten wilderness of temptations aplenty and countless sins, which nailed Jesus to the cross; there is good news; life transforming news. Jesus the living water; Jesus The Way, The Truth, and The Life, comes to us through word, water, bread and wine to satisfy our deepest hunger and thirst; to give us free, abundant life, full of Spirit. We, like that Samaritan woman are never the same again as we worship and serve God in spirit and in truth. Like her, we are invited to respond by spreading the Good News of Jesus to everyone. Amen.

* Prayer cited from: A New Zealand Prayer Book (Hastings, New Zealand: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. & HarperSan Fransisco, 1989 & 1997), p. 92.

1 Walter Brueggemann & Anna Carter Florence, Editor, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 141.

2 David E. Leininger, Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit: Series VI Cycle A (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2007), p. 64.

3 David E. Leininger, ibid, p. 64.

 

Sermon 1 Lent Yr A

1 Lent Yr A, 10/02/2008

Gen 2:15-17; 3:1-7 & Rom 5:12-19

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Sin and Death, Christ and New Life”

 

Today one of the taboo words is sin, and along with it, death. We live far too much of our lives in denial of both sin and death. In fact, many bow down and worship at the altar of sin. As for death, we like to sanitize it by employing phrases such as “passed away,” and we attempt to confine and control death by the use of science and technology—going to all kinds of heroic measures, which are nothing more than out and out denial of and rebellion against death, attempting to be gods and goddesses in our True God’s place.

   The story is told of a fence between Heaven and Hell, which was falling apart. It was badly in need of repair. Saint Peter consulted his records and saw that by the terms of an ancient agreement, it was Satan’s turn to fix the fence. So he gritted his teeth and sought an audience with the Prince of Darkness.

   He found him in the nether regions, cleaning his pitchfork. Peter did not sit down. The smell of brimstone was heavy in the hot air. “You need to fix the fence,” he said.

   The devil twitched his red tail. He scratched behind a horn. “Now Pete,” he said, “you could be a little more friendly, after all these years.”

   “I don’t want to be here at all,” Peter said. “I just came to tell you the fence needs fixing.”

   “My people are too busy to spend time on your lousy fence. Fix it yourself.”

   “See here, you devil; it’s your turn to fix the fence. It’s the right thing to do. And if you don’t fix the fence, I’ll sue.”

   The devil laughed his wickedest laugh. “Go ahead and sue! Where are you going to find a lawyer?”1

   This joke is rather negative towards lawyers, with its demonizing them. However, theologically I think the joke complements both our first lesson from Genesis and second lesson from Romans today. Both of these passages underscore that there is a power existing in the world that is resisting God and God’s will. A power in rebellion against God.

   In the Genesis passage, the power is described as the serpent. In the text, the serpent is not however called Satan or the devil, even though the serpent’s behaviour, by questioning God’s words to the woman and by telling the woman an out and out lie implies that it is a power resisting God and God’s will, and in rebellion against God.

   Something that is difficult for us in the story of the Fall is that God actually must have created the serpent in the first place, since he created all creatures. Why would God create such a serpent, which is described in 3:1 as “more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God made”? A second troublesome question is: Why would God wish to create the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil? According to one Jewish tradition, creation was flawed from the beginning and God, by creating the serpent and the forbidden tree, deliberately set up or framed the original human beings so that they would be tempted and choose to eat of the forbidden fruit. However, for Jews, the man and woman eating of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is interpreted not necessarily as the Fall or the wrong choice. Rather, it is viewed as a necessary choice for human beings in order for them to become full, mature, adult human beings who exercise their independence and therefore must learn to properly accept and be responsible for the consequences of their decisions.

   Christians, on the other hand, have interpreted this story of the Fall differently. We have viewed the choice to eat of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil as a wrong choice, a choice that was made in rebellion against God and God’s will. According to one biblical scholar, Elizabeth Achtemeier: “knowledge” in Hebrew includes also the ability to do. And the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” is, therefore, a symbol of omniscience and omnipotence, of the ability to do and know everything, including right and wrong. In short, the tree symbolizes the ability to be gods. But we are not gods, of course. Human beings are creatures who are totally dependent on our Creator for all good gifts and for life itself.2 Therefore, the restriction placed on the original man and woman in the Garden of Eden not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; served at least two purposes. First of all, it was God’s way of reminding the first man and woman of their limitations. Human beings are God’s creatures, therefore finite, and having to live within certain limitations. This limitation here was to protect humans from sin and death. Second, by giving the first man and woman the responsibility and the freedom to choose not to eat of the forbidden tree; God was actually treating them with respect as mature, adult human beings and giving them the opportunity to face the consequences of their choice. God was holding them responsible for their choice and their freedom to choose. That is not at all a negative thing; it is the reality of life in this world as mature, adult human beings.

However, the first man and woman, by choosing to give in to the temptation of the serpent and believe the serpent’s lie; by eating the forbidden fruit; sin entered into the world and with it, the consequence, death. Ever since that choice, every human being has inherited sin and its consequence, death. Paul, in our second lesson, makes that quite clear. He pictures sin and death like a contagious disease, which spreads to everyone by virtue of being born a human being. Sin and death are what we have inherited from the first man and woman. That means we all too often abuse our freedom and responsibility and make the wrong kind of choices—choices that result in sin and death.

Here’s one example. In Japan there is a type of blowfish that is a great delicacy. However, there is a problem—it is poisonous. It is understood to be such a delicacy that people are willing to pay a high price per pound for the fish. Chefs preparing it are required to study something like two years before being allowed to serve it to customers.

Those who eat it feel a tingling in their tongue, toes and fingers. However if eaten in small quantities it is not fatal. Nevertheless, about sixteen people a year die from eating the fish since there is no known antidote for the poison, which is permeated throughout the meat.

Ever since the Fall of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, human beings can no longer choose not to sin and not to die. That freedom and privilege has been lost. That is why we need a Saviour. If sin and death are like a contagious disease that spreads to us all; then God in the Person of Jesus is like the Remedy to heal us from the disease. In the ancient Church, by receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, Christians were receiving what they referred to as the Medicine of Immortality. Sin and death do not have the last word.

This becomes quite clear in Paul’s very tightly reasoned presentation of the situation. Thinking of and referring to the story of the Fall in Genesis, Paul tells us we’re all sinners through our first parents. He tells us we all suffer the consequence of that sin, which is death. However, Paul writes with great certainty and confidence regarding our new state of being as baptized Christians, telling us that in Christ we are given a wonderful inheritance—”the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ.” A phrase that stands out in this passage is the superlative “much more surely,” and the word “abundance.” In other words, Paul is saying that sin and death are powerful, but they cannot equal God’s power in Christ; they cannot defeat or overcome Christ and his life-giving power. Christ is a superpower, so great and mighty that he and his power far exceed the powers of sin and death.

A man had felt himself to be badly wronged. It was not true, but he refused to look at facts and stubbornly held to a spirit of gross malice. The longer he held the grudge the more it festered, poisoning his thinking. At last he decided to get even. He concocted a plan to bomb the place of business where his imagined adversary worked. It was a large manufacturing plant, rising six stories and covering an entire city block. Eight hundred employees spent each weekday at work in this building. The fact that 800 people could possibly be destroyed by his bomb did not affect the man with the grievance. As long as his “offender” was killed he did not care how many others were killed or maimed. So 800 people were killed or maimed in a horrible explosion.

Or were they? A police officer somehow learned that the man was making a large bomb. So he carefully planned a search of the man’s premises, found the bomb, and turned it over to a demolition squad. Many could have perished through one man’s sinfulness. But all were saved by another man’s efforts to prevent the mass tragedy.3

Christ, says Paul, not only saves us from sin and death he gives us life, superabundant life, which flows from the present, right now into the future, eternally. This Lenten season, may we be ever mindful and appreciative of the Costly Grace we are freely given thanks to the saving work of Jesus on the cross, which has overcome sin and death—reversing the Fall by making us the new creation in Christ. Amen.

 

1 Bill Mosley, “Family Tree,” Sermons on the First Readings: Series I, Cycle A (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2004), p. 125.

2 Elizabeth Achtemeier, “The Story of Us All: A Christian Exposition of Genesis 3,” in Fredrick C. Holmgren and Herman E. Schaalman, Editors, Preaching Biblical Texts: Expositions by Jewish and Christian Scholars (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), p. 2.

3 Emphasis, Vol. 25, No. 5, January-February 1996 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 57.  

 

Sermon 2 Epiphany Yr A

2 Epiphany Yr A, 20/01/2008

Jn 1:29-42

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson,

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Keeping secrets or spreading the word?”

 

Our nephews, Marc and Darrin came to visit us several years ago, when they were quite young, between five to seven years old. One of the first things they spotted in our house was a painting of the crucifixion, which was painted by an artist friend of ours. They were quite intrigued, never having seen such a picture before. They asked a lot of questions, such as: What was that red stuff on his hands? And why was he there anyway?

After our conversation with them, Marc and Darrin tried to draw their own picture of Jesus on the cross.

Then, after they had visited us for a while, they went to visit another family. Later, they stopped in again to visit us on their way back home. This time, they had a cousin along. One of the first things they did when they came into our house was to take their cousin to see the picture and to try and tell him what it was all about. That was good evangelism; that was witnessing at its finest; that was fulfilling the calling the Lord gives us all to be his missionaries and evangelists.

What about us? Are we better at keeping secrets than spreading the word? In today’s gospel, John the baptizer can’t help himself. He sees Jesus walking by and has to tell everyone within earshot, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” And the next day, he’s at it again, bearing faithful testimony to anyone who would listen, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The words of John bearing witness to the truth of Jesus’ identity were in fact heard by at least two people, who happened to be John’s disciples—one of them is not named, the other is Andrew. Andrew is, in fact, one of my favourite disciples. Why? Because he’s seldom in the limelight, quite content to let Peter or Paul or James or John take on that role. Yet, he is a genuine witness, a faithful evangelist, a willing missionary—spreading the good word about Jesus and bringing others to Jesus—not by the hundreds or thousands mind you, but one by one, so it seems. We can, I think, be encouraged by disciples like Andrew. We don’t have to be overwhelmed by the task of evangelism and mission work. We don’t have to set unrealistic goals and think that we need to bring in hundreds of thousands of people to Christ. Rather, like Andrew, we can invite a family member, a close friend or a neighbour to “come and see.” We do not need to keep secrets; we can spread the word, even if it is in the form of the simplest of invitations. God, through the Holy Spirit can work in you and through your words of invitation and reach people in surprising ways.

Ken Taylor tells the following story: A friend of mine serves as a missionary in a restricted access country. For many years the government of this country has taught the people that there is no God. My friend had the opportunity to interact on a regular basis with a nonbeliever of that country who is a highly educated professional.

After developing a friendship with the professional, my friend had the opportunity to share the gospel story with him. My friend was taken aback by the man’s response: “What you have told me cannot be true. If it were true, it is such good news that someone would have told this to me before.”1

Sad, but too many Christians prefer to keep secrets rather than spread the word. Prophets like John the Baptizer and disciples like Andrew, thank the Lord, were not good at keeping secrets—they enthusiastically spread the word. John and Andrew were sharing the truth about Jesus that had been revealed to them through a direct encounter with him. They were re-telling the story. This is instructive for us today too, since we are called to do the same: share the truth about Jesus that has been revealed to us through a direct encounter with him. Whether that has been some dramatic high, mountaintop revelation; or whether it has been a still small voice; or whether it has been some other way; Jesus has given you that revelation about himself for you to share with others—just like John and Andrew. Are you keeping this a secret or are you spreading the word?

I admit that because of the bad name and reputation that Christian evangelism and missionary work has been given; because of some of the manipulative tactics that have been employed in the past, and perhaps even today; many of us may be sorely tempted NOT to be evangelists or missionaries.

Evangelism is the “E” word; there is something mildly disreputable about it. We feel uncomfortable about the images it conjures up: accosting people on the street and stuffing a tract in their hands; threatening people with the fires of eternal hell like (some are inclined to do) unless they make a commitment; revival preachers interminably imploring “just one more” to raise that hand and make a decision for Christ; folks with bad hair on cable television begging folks to send more money to keep this soul-winning ministry on the air. That is not us. That is not our way of reaching people.

Do you know whose way I like? The fellow we meet in chapter 1 of John’s gospel, Andrew, the apostle with the missionary heart. Apparently, he had always been a religious man—up until now he had been a disciple of John….But one day Andrew met Jesus and Andrew was never the same again. Three times we find him on center stage in the gospel record: John 1, when he introduced his brother Simon to Christ; in John 6, when he introduced the boy with the loaves and fishes to Jesus; and in John 12, as he introduced some devout Greeks to the Saviour. Andrew was always introducing people to the Lord. We do not know very much about Andrew other than that, but what we do know is wonderfully attractive…and at the same time, a wonderful model for Christians who desperately need some help in doing “the ‘E’ word.”2

The world needs the Lamb of God who takes away its sin as much today as it ever did; the world needs Jesus the Messiah as much right now as it did back in the days of John and Andrew. We have been given, by the sheer grace and love of God, this wonderful GOOD NEWS. The question for us remains: Do we keep this a secret or do we spread the word? I hope and pray it is the latter—since our lives depend on this; as do the lives of everyone—for God so loved THE WORLD! Like John and Andrew may we be eager and willing to share this GOOD NEWS STORY, and invite others to “come and see.” Amen.

 

1 Citation from: Perfect Illustrations For Every Topic And Occasion, Compiled by the editors of PreachingToday.com (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2002), p. 111.

2 David E. Leininger, Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit: Series VI, Cycle A (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2007), p. 36.

 

Sermon 1 Christmas Yr A

1 Christmas Yr A, 30/12/2007

Matt 2:13-23

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson,

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Celebrate the Christ-Child and Remember the Children”

 

Many people have this far too romantic and idealistic notion that Christmas has to be perfect. Such people have the tendency to dwell on the sentimental aspects of Christmas as an escape from the harsh, cold realities of life in this world. The truth of the matter is that the powers of evil were actively at work when Christ was born and they are still actively at work today. Yes, even at Christmas time, there are countless, untold stories of child abuse, torture and even murder—most of these stories don’t make it into the news. Today, our gospel would have us focus on the stories of such children, just as we focus on the Christ-Child. So, let me indulge you a little today, as we remember the far too many children around the globe who have suffered and continue to suffer from the powers of evil.

Gnanaguru Aravinthan, a Sri Lankan Tamil, was just 13 years old when his father last saw him in September 1985. He had been sent home by his father to change his clothes. He was then supposed to meet his father at a friend’s house. Gnanguru never arrived. Neighbours told the father they had seen his son in the custody of soldiers from a nearby army camp. However, when he went to the camp he was told the boy had not been arrested.

Nahaman Carmon, 13, was a street child in Guatemala City. Early on the morning of March 4, 1990, he was sniffing glue, as a means of quelling hunger, with a group of other street children. They were then surrounded by the police, who poured glue over their heads and reportedly kicked Nahaman viciously. He was later treated in the intensive care unit at the hospital and operated on for a ruptured liver. He died on March 14 without regaining consciousness.

Three-year-old Clesio Pereira de Souza of Brazil was riding on his father’s shoulders when he was shot in the back by gunmen, who then shot his father in the head at point-blank range. The killings were carried out by gunmen believed to have been hired by men claiming the land cultivated by the local peasant community. When his mother tried to report the case, the police chief alleged he could not record it as he had no pen or paper.1

Far too many parents are wailing and lamenting today for their children and they refuse to be consoled because they’ve lost their children to forced child labour projects where the children are treated like slaves; they’ve lost their children to terrorist militias who force young children to kill their own people or themselves be killed if they refuse; they’ve lost their children to the makers of pornography and child prostitution and sometimes the pimps kidnap and market these children to another country so that the parents never see them again. Such are the harsh, cold realities of the world today. In this sense, nothing much has changed under the sun. Far too often it seems that the powers of evil are winning.

If they had lived in another place, they would have been safe. But they lived in El Salvador in the 1980s. They lived in one of the outlying villages, and the guerrilla war raged in the communities around them and often in their own.

If they had lived in another place, they would have been safe. But they were not safe, not even in their own homes. They were Christians, and their mom and dad had a picture of Pope John Paul II on one wall and a crucifix on another. These pictures made their home suspect.

If they had lived in another place, they would have been safe. In Mexico, their lives would not have been in danger. In Spain or France, they would have been safe. But in El Salvador in the 1980s, mothers, fathers, teens, children, even babies were murdered. All Christians were suspected of being subversives, and the killing of innocent children was a powerful signal to other Christians in the area that their lives were also in danger. The death of the innocent ones was used as a threat against their elders.

Martyrs. Innocent, young martyrs. All because Jesus was in their midst.2

In today’s gospel, we learn that the celebration of Christmas in not so pretty, romantic or idealistic. Rather, we learn through this divine drama in three acts that life in this world can be very dangerous. Life in this world can be cruel. Life in this world can be subject to evil plots, schemes and acts orchestrated by power hungry people who themselves are possessed by evil and rely on evil to protect their power and status.

In the first act of this divine drama, God speaks to Joseph in a dream through an angel, a messenger of God, commanding him to: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” WOW! What a message! No romantic or idealistic picture of Christmas here! Rather, we have the harsh, cold reality of a tyrant ruler, Herod, who is determined to shed innocent blood. He’s doing everything possible to kill the Christ-Child. According to Jewish historian, Josephus, Herod was an extremely cruel man, who seems to of had no problems ruling by evil means. …Herod ordered the execution of three of his sons (even Caesar in Rome is reported to have said it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son); and at his burial, one member of every family was to be slain so that the nation might really mourn.3 However, Herod did not manage to kill Jesus. Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt and lived there as refugees until after it was safe to return back to the Promised Land, after Herod had died, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

I wonder what life was like for Joseph, Mary and Jesus in Egypt. After all, there was the history, along with its memories of Israel in Egyptian slavery. It may have been risky to go back to Egypt. Would they as refugees be safe there? Or would they be giving up one oppressive ruler for another oppressive ruler? Could Joseph really trust God’s messenger and the message? What would life be like in Egypt? Could they adjust to life as refugees in a land where their ancestors were slaves? Were they destined to be slaves like their ancestors? Such may have been Joseph’s thoughts as he set out for Egypt. If only there were more dreams like Joseph’s. If only there were more messengers of God instructing poor, vulnerable people in the world today. If only there were more refugees finding safe places to flee to and live for a time. If only there were more innocent lives saved—especially the lives of children.

As the second act of our divine drama unfolds, we are told that Herod was infuriated when he learned that he had been tricked by the wise men. So “he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.” According to Matthew, this fulfilled the nightmare, tragic prophecy of Jeremiah 31:15, which warned: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” There are far too many Rachels in our world today. There are far too many mothers of children who were innocent and have been brutally abused, tortured and killed. As some of you may know, to lose a child is one of the most difficult losses, the most tragic of deaths that we can face. How much more difficult it must be if one loses a child by evil means. How might we as followers of Jesus have compassion on the Rachels of today? Might we share the love of Christ with them by walking with them in their wailing and lamentation? Perhaps we can be God’s messengers for such parents.

In the third act of the gospel’s divine drama today, once again Joseph has two more dreams and God’s messenger speaks to him, instructing him first of all that the tyrant Herod has died and now it’s safe to return back to Israel. And, in the second dream, Joseph was warned not to settle in Judea, where Herod’s son Archelaus now ruled, and was almost as cruel as Herod. Rather, Joseph was instructed to go to Nazareth in the district of Galilee and live with Mary and Jesus there.

This third act of the divine drama reminds us that the Herods of this world do not prevail. Sooner or later they lose their power. Sooner or later they die. Today, as we remember the Christ-Child and the danger he was in, and his flight into Egypt as a refugee; we also pause and remember today all of the children in this world who have been or who are right now being abused, tortured, murdered or living somewhere as refugees. We remember too the parents of these children. One day, these children and their parents shall be first in the kingdom of heaven. One day they shall be healed and restored completely from their sufferings and their grief. One day when the Christ-Child shall become King of kings and Lord of lords, all tyrants; all the Herods of this world shall be no more. One day King Jesus shall destroy all evil powers completely and rule eternally in perfect peace and love. And that’s worth celebrating during this season of Christmas and every season! Amen.

 

1 Cited from a letter I received written by Paul Bentley, former President, Amnesty International, Canada Section, English Speaking, 1990.

2 Emphasis, Vol. 5, No. 4, November-December 1995 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 67.

3 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities Of The Jews, Book XVII, written between 66-74 AD. This citation is from: David E. Leininger, Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit: Series VI Cycle A (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2007), p. 25.