Preacher: Rev. Herb Gale
Bible Text: 2 Kings 2:1-12, Mark 9:2-9 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes
On the rocky shores, on an isolated island, off the west coast of Vancouver Island one is often not surprised to find one stand alone sign of human habitation. I think there are about a dozen lighthouses just along the western sea shore alone, and that is just the lighthouses, there are hundreds of beacons, buoys and towers, not to mention all the ones that dot the Georgia Straight and North Coast of BC. There is something historic about lighthouses, they conjure up a time before GPS and other technology. There is something enticing, they are a symbol of travel and adventure. There is something mysterious, only a few feel called to care for these isolated lights. The lighthouses on the West Coast of Vancouver Island also have incredible stories. Fisgard Lighthouse, now a historical site, but still operational, was the first lighthouse on Canada’s west coast. Estevan lighthouse was attacked, during World War II, the only manned attack on Canadian soil. Cape Scott lighthouse, despite it’s remoteness, is one of the last lighthouses not to be automated. My personal favourite is the lighthouse on Nootka island, which is also staffed. It is known best as Friendly Cove but also as Yuquot by the Mowachaht people. When James Cook approached the island the Natives were yelling “Nutka-sitl! Nutka-sitl” which he misunderstood as the place name but really meant “Go around! Go around!” They were trying to redirect him to the crescent bay which later provided safe harbour for many a mariner. Not only do lighthouses represent this human presence in otherwise desolate places but they are beacons, lights to a lost or wandering traveller. In fact, the more we change to automated lighthouses the more we loose that first point of contact for a ship in trouble. Many a lighthouse keeper has stories of going out in a storm to rescue a listing boat. It is no wonder that often a symbol for faith is a lighthouse, a beam of light traversing a dense fog. A glimpse of hope in an otherwise wild world. A flash of light in a moment of darkness.
I imagine that as Jesus stood on that mountaintop with Peter, James and John, it was just like standing in front of a lighthouse beam. A moment of brilliant bright light despite previous words of darkness. Right before the transfiguration Jesus foretells of his death. Peter begins to rebuke him but Jesus calls out, “Get behind me, Satan!” I imagine it would have been a dark moment in their time together. Peter is simply caring and fearing for his friend and the friend yells at him and calls him names. The disciples hit one of their low points right before this mountaintop experience. Right before light illuminated the hope found in Christ.
Jesus invites Peter, James and John to accompany him up the mountain, to be apart, to be by themselves. When they get to the top, Jesus is transfigured, that is , his appearance is altered. In this moment of change Elijah and Moses appear on the scene. All of a sudden as the light begins to blind the disciples, a cloud overshadows everything and a voice says “this is my son, listen to him!” When the disciples pull themselves together its only Jesus who is standing with them.
The transfiguration of Jesus is a strange story in the Bible. It is a very different kind of epiphany. In Mark’s gospel epiphany begins with Jesus’ baptism where a voice comes from heaven and says, “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased”. There is no physical change to Jesus but there certainly is a change to Jesus’ purpose. Often epiphanies are like that, the change is subtle, no one notices right away. But the transfiguration is a very different kind of revealing, a different kind of epiphany. Jesus becomes a beacon- is changed, even just for a moment, in a very physical way. Jesus’ purpose is changed as well. What transfiguration says is that Jesus is someone who will be noticed. That his ministry will not be conspicuous. What he will disclose and preach, provide and restore is, not necessarily the purpose of life but rather, his purpose- who he truly is.
There is significance to the presence of Moses and Elijah that also reveals who Jesus is. They are the two greatest prophets within the Hebrew tradition. They had a very special, even intimate, relationship with God. Moses practically had face to face chats with God, he even had an opportunity to see God, even if it was as God walked away. Elijah was called into the prophetic tradition not by a voice but rather by the sound of silence. The Jewish tradition believes that these two prophets were so closely linked to God that they avoided death, both going directly to heaven, as reflected in our passage from in 2 Kings. There are similarities between these prophets and Jesus. They all worked to help the people of God remain faithful despite the fact that the people were being drawn into idolatrous behaviour. All of them laboured to keep the people of God hopeful even as the people suffered under oppression and totalitarian leadership. This is good company for Jesus to be in. Of course what differentiates the prophets from Jesus is that the voice of God announced to all who were present, be it at the side of the Jordan river or to the three disciples on the mountain that Jesus was God’s son.
The season of epiphany comes to an end today but just as it started it includes words of affirmation by God. In one translation God says in both instances, “This is my beloved son in whom I take delight.” Mary Gordon, and American author, wrote a book called, Reading Jesus, in which she uses her literary training to read the Gospels, says, that at transfiguration, “we are in the presence of delight. Delight as an aspect of the holy.” It is as if God is smiling down at Jesus. We have all seen little Michael smile- it brings us delight. And of course, there is also a sense of delight when we love. Transfiguration Sunday is about light but also delight and love.
As the bright light of Jesus shines like a beacon it also affirms the love God has for us. The transfiguration of Jesus is not the end of God’s transfiguring ways, it continues through Jesus to us. This is important because we are about to head straight into the tumultuous waters of lent. As Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness so too do we head off into the wild. We will need to be reminded of that love, and see that light, even if it is coming from a beacon far off in the distance. That light shines ahead into Lent to keep this on coming season in perspective. We are not without hope. Through baptism and our relationship with God, we are changed and charged with the instruction, listen to him! Listen to Jesus. The light of Christ speaks of a promise that God is here in our love, providing us with delight and showing us who Jesus truly is. God seeks relationship and delights in it because God is love. Amen
Bible Text: Mark 1:29-39 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes
This past week has been rainy and grey. Thankfully not too cold but I feel as though a bit of cabin fever is setting in. I haven’t spent enough hours outside this week. I’m looking forward to warmer weather and sunnier – longer days. I’ve got an itch to get back out there. As many of you know last year almost every Sunday night from Mid-march to late October Mike and I enjoyed a night of camping in our rustically converted mini-van. I say rustic because it is really just a foamy laid out in the back of the van. I know it is not everyone’s cup of tea but for me the smell of the outdoors, the crackle of the camp fire, the early morning song birds, and a hike around a forested area, well, that is next to heavenly, even when we have to put on extra layers or eat from a can or toss and turn just to get comfortable. Be it Kitty Coleman, Miracle Beach, or Qualicum Falls or any number of campgrounds around town. It is my sabbath moment. That one night is enough for me to catch my breath and reflect on the week gone by while also preparing for the week ahead. That is not too say that I am tired and certainly I’m not exhausted after a Sunday service or a week with you folk but it is nice to just take a time a part to restore and commune with the great outdoors that God has created. Sometimes just a walk through the North East Woods is good enough for me. I am relieved to discover that I’m no the only one who needs this little rest time. Although it is not the main theme for this week’s gospel passage, the one verse, “In the morning while it was still dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place and there he prayed” caught my attention. That was Jesus’ sabbath moment, a time to catch his breath between two stories, a time when Jesus was able to be healed rather than be the healer. We all need little moments like that.
This Gospel passage is a continuation of our story from last week. As soon as Jesus rids the man of the unclean spirit in the Synagogue he comes to the house of Simon and Andrew where Simon’s mother-in-law is suffering from fever. As I mentioned in the introduction our stories are linked not only because they occur on the same day but because they are healing stories. Mark continues to portray Jesus as one who has ultimate power and authority. It is also symbolic of God’s desire for health and wholeness. Simon’s mother in law as well as those later on in the passage are all restored by Jesus and the line between healing and exorcism is very fine. As I mentioned often symptoms of a fever were believed to be related to possession by an unclean spirit. This is in part because ancient medicine generally assumed that illness, of many different kinds, was the result of some form of demonic possession or oppression. If you have ever suffered from a fever or a cold, especially the ones going around this season, you know that is often how you feel. It’s as if a beast takes over. There’s a fog that descends, if you’re stuffed up you will often have a deeper voice, and well, you can get a little loopy. I know, that’s exactly how I felt for a few days last week! So it is not beyond us to understand fevers in this manner.
But despite these similarities between the man in the synagogue and Simon’s mother-in-law, there are two very important distinctions. The healing in the synagogue was very public, people were amazed and commented on Jesus’ authority. The second portion of our reading this morning seems to have a similar effect. But first in this morning’s passage we have Jesus providing healing in a private home with only a few of his close friends watching and witnessing. Also, the healing in the synagogue involved a man, now Jesus is healing a woman. If we put the two stories together they provide us with quite a range to Jesus’ healing. They are different settings, involving different people, suffering from different symptoms. The implication is that Jesus’ ministry, healing ministry as well as ministry of deliverance and preaching has widespread influence and has the potential to benefit all kinds of people. In every realm, in each space, Jesus brings the presence of God’s restorative power to light. This wide scope continues as we hear that, that very evening Jesus continues to provide healing to both the sick and the possessed. The following day Jesus is up at it again, only this time he is travelling throughout the region healing and preaching. No wonder Jesus needed a sabbath moment, a moment a part, a moment of rest and restoration, a moment to pray.
I suppose that’s why a different phrase from this passage irks me. I know I need time to refuel, clearly Jesus needed a break every now and then, so why is it that as soon as Simon’s mother-in-law is cured she immediately begins to serve the disciples? Of course there are gender biases going on and there are cultural expectations of the hostess so I’m not about to debate any of that. What intrigues me is that Mark felt it was important enough to include it in his telling of this story.
The term to serve translates as diakoneo in Greek and is often used within the context of food service, so it could mean that Simon’s Mother-in-law “waited on” them. But Mark, throughout his Gospel, tends to use this term in a slightly different manner. He uses it to mean “to minister” to them. Mark often restricts use of this verb. In fact one of the next times that Mark uses it is within the context of Jesus, that Jesus declares that he came to minister. In Mark 10: 45 Jesus says, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” and he uses the same Greek verb. This woman actually ends up being Christ-like in her healing. So, perhaps Mark wanted to demonstrate that those who are healed by Jesus are then able to be Jesus to others. Some commentators say that to serve is to be totally vulnerable and to be totally vulnerable is to be open to God. So what Mark may be telling us is that those who are truly vulnerable are capable of true service or ministry because they are freed by their lack of power. But I don’t feel like that’s a fair assessment.
Do you know what I think? This tells the story of Jesus’ true healing, of truly lifting up burdens and taking our yoke, of truly revitalizing a weary world, of truly being able to soar as an eagle. It demonstrates the vastness of Jesus’ ministry and power. Jesus’ mission stretches from the ordinary, like everyday realities of common household tasks to the extra-ordinary realm of healing and defeating darkness and demon possession. The woman was healed at once- not just from her fever but from all that weighed her down. She was given new energy and enthusiasm, strength and a sense of service. Not only was this such a great miracle that she did not need to time recuperate but that she was ready to minister with her gifts. That is true healing.
Through this story, Mark proclaims the power of Jesus to restore life and to relieve those who have been suffering from dis-ease. In the public and private realms, the sacred spaces like the synagogue, to the ordinary places like a home, to the very public crowds throughout the countryside. Jesus is bringing not only life-saving power but also new uplifting energy. There are times when we are tired, times when we need to refuel, times when we need to seek out quiet calm moments. In our vulnerability we can also seek that new energy which Jesus provides. We can be lifted from our fatigue and invigorated with the Spirit among us. Amen
Bible Text: Mark 1:21-28, Deuteronomy 18:15-20 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes
Let me preface this sermon by saying I know nothing about American football, truth be told, I know nothing about any style of football. In University I went to the games and yelled when the ball was going in the right direction, but that really is about it. My mother, on the other hand, is a huge fan. As a result I felt I should do a little research for this afternoon’s game and assuming that some of you are like me I thought I would share what I found out. According to nfl.com the match up between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots (and yes, I even had to Google who was playing in the Superbowl) has the potential to be an outstanding game. It is a match up that pits a legendary coach and quaterback combo against the greatest defence of the era. Tom Brady, that’s the qb for the patriots, is heading into his sixth super bowl appearance. Russel Wilson, the qb for the Seahawks, I am told conjures up memories of a young Brady who “plays wise beyond his years. Now the two passers collide.” I really do not know what any of this means but it does make it sound like this afternoon’s game is going to be exciting. Makes you want to watch the game doesn’t it. It appears that it will be an equal fight and whoever wins this Superbowl will have some authority among other teams. Many commentators are calling it a classic old guard-new guard match up with the stakes at their highest.
The match up between Jesus and this unclean spirit was hardly fair. More over, the scene in this Capernaum synagogue, a place of prayer, teaching, worship and community, centres around the question of Jesus’ authority. Mark wants us to know at the outset of Jesus’ public ministry that Jesus’ authority will be contested. Jesus’ very presence, words, and actions threaten the other forces that claim authority over people’s lives, be they religious teachings, idols, distractions, or darkness. In particular the religious authority but others as we discover in this story, have something to lose, have a lot to lose.
It is a difficult passage because we are uncomfortable with the subject matter. Possessions, exorcisms, demons and unclean spirits are all subjects for horror films rather than our real life experience and there have been many discussions over the years about whether this person was suffering from a possession or mental illness and perhaps in the future I will go down that road a little further but it also strikes me that whether it was one or the other that is not the point of the story. Regardless of his situation Jesus heals this man. I also decided that I needed to look at it from a socio-historical perspective. The people who witnessed this event and certainly Mark and the early readers all believed and interpreted that this man was suffering from the presence of an unclean spirit and so to delve into the story we must also look at it from that perspective, how the original readers would have understood it.
This man, with an unclean spirit, seeks Jesus out in the synagogue. The first question he asks is a strange one, “What have you to do with us?” It seems to convey something more like, “Why are you here to pick this fight? Couldn’t you have just left things alone?” It appears that Jesus, by his sheer presence in this sacred place has upset the order and crossed a margin. Time and time again Jesus crosses an established boundary and tears it down.
The next question, “Have you come to destroy us?” appears to be a fearful acknowledgement on the part of the unclean spirit that their end is in sight. This spirits’ fate is sealed because at that moment it leaves the man’s body- where it goes Mark does not elaborate. But the authority and power it once had with this man is gone. In some ways this man foreshadows teachings Jesus will share about the religious authority- how they who thought they would be first will actually be last. How the structured order will be turned upside down. How what once had great authority over other’s lives will no longer have power. It also foreshadows Jesus’ death- that what once gripped and crippled the people- sin and death- will be no longer, will have no position of power.
Also those present at this astonishing event are surprised and it resonates with reactions that Jesus will have throughout his ministry. I love the language used to describe how the people felt, “they were amazed!” The fact that Jesus is allowed to teach in the synagogue is not necessarily remarkable but what captures their attention is the manner in which he teaches- with such authority, with such knowledge and wisdom, with such confidence in the Word of God. The religious authority and scholars of the Torah see this as a challenge. If you recall from last week the disciples are northerners, what do they know about the Torah? What authority do they have? Matt Skinner, a new testament theologian calls Jesus’ teaching style, “More declarative than deliberative. That is, he interprets the law and speaks on behalf of God without engaging in much dialogue about the traditions, as the scribes were known to do… at minimum, this passage provokes us to stop assuming that “the way things are” must always equal “the way things have to be.””
This is early on in Mark’s gospel and so he is establishing a clear understanding of Jesus’ nature. Mark clearly chooses to portray Jesus within the prophetic tradition that is referred to in the Deuteronomy passage. Mark establishes that it is Jesus who has the ultimate authority, who is the ultimate winner, who provides the ultimate forgiveness, who is the ultimate mediator between God and God’s people. It is also important to note that Mark portrays Jesus as one who works on God’s behalf in particular ways. Notice how Jesus is not the one who declares any authority. Jesus doesn’t even demand that people listen to him. Rather the attention and fame he receives are through his actions of healing a man who is tortured internally by the presence of the unclean spirit. At this very early stage in his ministry it is not through his words but through his actions that others see him as someone to pay attention to. Jesus demonstrates his power as one filled with God’s Spirit through an act of liberating compassion.
I tried to imagine what it would be like for those first observers those people who came to the synagogue for prayer and ended up having a trans-formative experience. How amazing that would be. I wondered, where and when are we still amazed by Jesus’ authority? The theme for this Sunday calls for a discernment of the presence of God’s love and justice in the midst of words and deeds. We should be amazed at the continual liberating compassion of the gospel in the actions of those around us. Today, Superbowl Sunday, often has a different focus but if you recall we are still in the midst of epiphany, a time of year when we focus on God revealing a presence in our world. It is not just about acknowledging these past manifestations of Jesus’ greatness, authority and wisdom. It’s about being amazed now! Through Christ we are part of a winning team! Amen
The Roaring Twenties
Bible Text: Mark 1:14-20 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes
Well, look at you now Comox Valley Presbyterian Church. Twenty years ago 45 people became charter members, 15 more joined as adherents, and twenty children attended the presbytery service of constitution on January 24, 1995. The presbytery was then moderated by Ivan Cronsberry. The congregation now holds steady at just over 100 (105) members and 50 adherents (52). This is a big deal. Sure you’re only twenty but at 18 you moved out and started a life all on your own following the final mortgage payment. Do you remember what you were doing in your twenties? The twenties is when we will really come of age. It’s when we really grow up. It’s the college years. A time when a lot of mistakes are made, a lot of fun is had, a time when true friendships are solidified, a time when we start to seriously think about our identity and future. It is both an exciting time and scary time. There are a lot of unknowns. And not all twenty year olds are the same. Perhaps what separates us from other 20 year olds is that we know we are getting older and not as invincible as we once were, we know our future is fragile and we know we still have a lot of work ahead of us.
Today’s gospel lesson continues the story from last week. It is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and he is calling his first disciples. Today Jesus calls four fishermen at the Sea of Galilee, Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John. It is a powerful moment in the Gospel because there seems to be little to no hesitation. What separates these four disciples from Philip and Nathaniel in last week’s reading is that Philip and Nathaniel were already disciples of John, they had been preparing for Jesus’ arrival, and even so, Nathaniel is a little hesitant and as we discovered needed an extra nudge. Whereas these four fishermen seem to be caught unawares and yet they simply drop their nets. Jesus calls out, “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.” The NRSV says, “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”Eugene Peterson’s The Message interprets, “They didn’t ask questions. They dropped their nets and followed.” They became disciples, just like that.
Other than their names and former occupations we don’t really know much about these disciples. We do know that they are northerners- men from the northern province of Galilee. This is interesting because the capital of Israel is Jerusalem which is in a Southern province, formerly known as the Southern kingdom. Jerusalem is also the religious centre of the Jewish faith in part due to the fact that it is the location of the temple. As a result it is not at all surprising that when Jesus and his disciples travel to Jerusalem they are greeted with scepticism. Jesus and his disciples would naturally be considered outsiders. They are northerners, what do they know about faith and practice? Perhaps that’s the point, they don’t have to know much about faith and practice to be faithful followers.
With this basic information we can tell that these companions were ordinary men (and certainly there is evidence that there were ordinary women disciples as well). Jesus doesn’t appear to check references or even assess their abilities. There are certainly no tests with regards to their knowledge of the Torah or even if they practice their faith on a regular basis, what about their prayer life, does it even exist? I’m betting that these four, being fishermen, probably lived according to the schedule of the fish not the Sabbath. But Jesus called them, no matter their ability or experience, status or i.q. In fact, some of the disciples were of such ill repute that they gave Jesus a bad reputation just for following him. We also know that they were not perfect and certainly struggled to understand Jesus’ teachings. Despite this example of them leaving their nets and immediately following him we know they did not always follow so blindly. Peter denied and Judas betrayed him. Yet, Jesus personally chose and called each one of these ordinary fishermen.
We often refer to being called by God when talking about clergy but God’s call is not limited to ordained ministers. We believe God calls each one of us, ordinary people, regardless of status or iq, ability or experience. Over twenty years ago God called a group of people together in this valley, close to fifteen years ago a building began to take shape, around ten years ago, despite pain and challenges this congregation grew even more and out of sorrow arose a caring community, about five years ago new programs and ministries were introduced, one year ago my church family grew. Each one of you is called- no matter how ordinary and no matter what wisdom. You have been personally chosen. New Testament scholar Deborah Krause says, “[In this Gospel passage] one message is clear: God calls God’s people and creation into a transformed relationship with God. This transformation requires a release from our preconceptions and assumptions about who is and is not worthy of God’s love and mercy.”
When the disciples were called by Jesus there must have been something remarkable about him because they left their lives to begin an unknown journey. They followed him into an uncertain future. These disciples followed Jesus with no idea where it would lead. Perhaps if they had known how long the journey would be, or how much work it would take, or the pain they would experience they would not have left and followed in the first place. But when all was said and done few of them had regrets- yes, they probably would have done a few things differently but they realized that they had been privy to God in their midst.
God’s call is always into an uncertain future. When we enter into our callings we have no idea how it will all end up. However, if we use the gifts and talents God has given us, when we open ourselves up to the Spirit’s guidance, when we take that journey together we can look back and realize that God was indeed in our midst and if God was in our midst during those first twenty years imagine how much more God will be present with us as we head into the unknown future together. Amen
Bible Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, John 1:43-51 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes
I enjoy listening to a program on CBC radio called, Under the Influence, it exposes some of the secrets in advertising and is hosted by Terry O’Reilly, a advertizing guru. On one such episode I heard about Nudge Marketing. Nudge Marketing is when an organization uses small nudges to gently steer people toward making more positive decisions in their lives. Nudges are often small and invisible to the untrained ear or eye. Often resembling whispers. Here is an example. In Britain, the government tried to encourage homeowners to insulate their attics to save energy costs and prevent heat loss. They worked on creating all kinds of campaigns that gave compelling economic reasons why the public should insulate their attics including monetary incentives and subsidies. However, nothing seemed to be working. There was a great lack of interest and the government couldn’t figure out why. When they researched a little further they stumbled upon the reason for the resistance. The British people simply did not want to clear out all the junk in their attics. The attic being the predominant place for storage. Perhaps it was embarrassing, perhaps it was too difficult, but mostly it was because the mere thought of having to clear out their attics was enough for people to forgo the energy and economic savings of insulation. Once the government figured out this problem they teamed up with a home improvement company and offered an attic cleaning service. The amount of people who insulated their attics doubled. The attic cleaning offer was the nudge people needed to get to a bigger issue. This nudge marketing worked so well that the British government soon began to experiment with other nudges. For example, they discovered that people who were behind in paying their taxes responded to handwritten notes far better than computer-generated ones. Prime Minister David Cameron saw how great the effects of these nudges were that he set up an official “nudge unit”, making Britain the first country to adopt nudging as part of their strategy but they certainly weren’t the last.
Learning about nudge marketing made me think about how we often refer to the nudges of the Holy Spirit. That sometimes we experience nudges that make us do something a little out of routine but ultimately have a positive effect. Or perhaps a nudge reminds us that we should check in on a friend, pray for someone in need, or follow up with a comment. We sometimes call those nudges the prompting of the Holy Spirit from within. I’m not suggesting that the Holy Spirit or God are using dirty marketing tricks but rather are truly using nudge marketing in the best way possible, truly nudging people toward making a positive decision in their lives. When we think about the various ways in which God calls us we realize that nudging is one such way. But how often are we open to these nudges? And how often do we ignore them or mistake them for something else or even, like Samuel, someone else?
The passage from 1st Samuel was the first one to direct me down the path of Spirit nudges. Samuel is a young man, perhaps a teen, and he is living in the temple with an elderly priest, Eli. In the middle of the night Samuel receives these nudges, a voice, calling out his name. There are two very interesting sentences in this passage. The first, “The word of the Lord was rare or precious and visions were not frequent.” This is the only time such a phrase comes up in the entire Bible. The Hebrew word for rare is typically reserved for items like precious gems, something that is extremely valuable due to pure lack of supply. For the first time in memorable history the word of the Lord is in short supply. It does not explain why all of a sudden God’s voice and visions are no longer abundant it just simply states that they are. Perhaps it is because people had started to tune out the Spirit’s nudges. If not during the time of Samuel than it reflects the time now. Certainly we could claim that like Samuel’s time “The word of the Lord is rare or precious and visions are not frequent.” But it is not because God has stopped communicating but rather that we have stopped listening.
The second interesting phrase is that it says that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord” which is why for the first three times that Samuel heard the nudges he mistook it for the voice of Eli. I do find it a little strange that Samuel has been living in the temple for most of his childhood and yet he still doesn’t know the Lord. If I was the one in charge of the Sunday, rather Sabbath School, I would be a little concerned and definitely reviewing the curriculum. However, God called out to Samuel despite Samuel not knowing the Lord and God did not give up but rather the voice continued to call until Samuel was ready to answer. Despite the chances that most of the time we miss the nudges of the Spirit, the Spirit continues to nudge and call us. Despite the chances that we may not know or understand the Spirit in the fullest sense, the Spirit continues to nudge and call us.
Thankfully we also have the examples of the disciples to teach us about these nudges and sometimes a nudge comes not from our inner being but from others. When Philip meets Jesus he is ready to follow, straightaway, no nudge required. Then he goes to tell Nathaniel and says, “We have found the one promised in the Old Testament.” Nathaniel needs a little more nudging. After all, nothing good seems to come out of Nazareth, let alone a prophet or even the Messiah. But Philip responds, just come and see for yourself! This is important as well. Philip didn’t feel the need to try and analyze or even answer Nathaniel’s scepticism. He didn’t need to “prove” anything. Philip could have given Nathaniel some of his own thoughts on the matter. Instead he just simply says, come and see. Come and experience it for yourself. Sometimes when we try to express to people why they should come to church we feel we have to prove something but perhaps we should just say, “Come and see for yourself!” Sure Nathaniel continues to be sceptical until he truly experiences a meeting with Jesus, and talk about a nudge that brings about a positive change. Nathaniel is so impressed that he calls Jesus the Son of God and King of Israel. Philip used another marketing tool, word of mouth. In fact, we know that ‘word of mouth’ is one of the best ways to advertise but it is also the way in which Jesus managed to meet the needs of the most people. Jesus did not send out emails, Facebook updates or tweets, just simply travelled the countryside and by word of mouth the people came. Philip was not the only one to say, “Come and see for yourself!”
Samuel and the disciples are not unwilling to hear God, but they still struggle with discerning how God is revealing God’s self. Who are you in these stories of nudges? Are you Samuel, who can hear the nudges but doesn’t quite understand? Are you Nathaniel, who needs physical evidence and someone to nudge him along? Are you Philip who doesn’t need any nudging at all but rather nudges other people? I suspect we are each one at different times. Nevertheless, we must remain open to the Spirit’s nudges so that we can experience God in Christ in the fullest way and as followers of Jesus it isn’t our job to try to prove anything but rather invite people to “Come and See. And experience it for themselves!” Be open to the Spirit’s nudges in your life and be ready to nudge others. Amen
What’s a baptism?
Bible Text: Mark 1:4-11 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes
Many of you have likely heard of or know the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He wrote incredible texts on discipleship, prayer and theology. He was a professor of systematic theology at the University of Berlin before being ordained as a Lutheran pastor. Two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address in which he attacked Hitler and warned Germany against slipping into an idolatrous cult. He was cut off the air in the middle of a sentence. He became vehemently opposed to Hitler’s behaviour and participated in Nazi resistance. As a result he was arrested in April 1943 by Gestapo and imprisoned for one and half years before being transferred to a concentration camp. On April 9th, 1945, just two weeks before Allied forces liberated the camp he was executed. But as he was led to his death he said to one of the prison guards, “For some this is the end, but for me it is the beginning.” Bonhoeffer was so confident in the acts of baptism that he knew he had already died and been reborn. I question whether I would have such faith. In all honesty it has been awhile since I thought about the theology of baptism or the reasons for baptism. However, as I read Bonhoeffer’s remarks I was moved to truly delve into what baptism means. And baptism is complicated. I truly believe we take it for granted and perhaps we sometimes misuse the act of baptism. If you will indulge me, I think a sermon on baptism is in order, if not for you, then for me. To help us build up confidence in our own baptisms. Baptism is one of two sacraments within our tradition, it is fundamental to our practices and faith. However, we often use baptism more of a rite of passage than a transformed life. Yet, even for Jesus baptism signified a change and a new beginning.
For Mark, the baptism of Jesus is an origin story. Mark does not start his gospel with stories of Jesus’ birth or childhood but immediately begins with Jesus’ baptism. That is because, for Mark, it is the baptism that begins Jesus’ ministry. It is not the birth story that has importance but the re-birth story that is most influential in the life and work and ministry of Christ. For Mark this origin is deeply rooted within the convenantal promises of the God of Israel. A new Elijah, John, stands outside Jerusalem in the wilderness, preaching baptism for the forgiveness of sins. People are drawn to him, if not for confidence but for curiosity. Jesus arrives on the scene and is anointed with God’s presence and blessing to begin a ministry of proclaiming the kingdom of God in this world. When we are baptized we are anointed with God’s presence and blessing. In his baptism Jesus is confirmed as the one who will bring forth the Holy Spirit. Jesus not only announces but also bears in his person and through his actions the very presence of God. Through Jesus’ baptism heaven and earth are joined.
Jesus’ baptism changed the face of baptism forever. John’s baptism had two components, repentance and forgiveness. Our very own baptismal words reflect renouncing evil and turning from sin but also forgiving our old life so that we may begin anew. Jesus himself is clear that to be baptized is to lead a new way of living. However, when Jesus is baptized there is another component, that of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit became a part of the regular practices of the early church. When the crowds saw and understood the disciples they asked Peter how they should respond to this witness and he said that they should repent, be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
As we know there are clear distinctions within denominations about baptism. The issue of infant baptism versus believer’s baptism has divided churches. Clearly as early as our Acts passage there were different views of baptism. The Presbyterian church is very comfortable with infant baptism and here are a few reasons why. Throughout the book of Acts there are references to entire households being baptized. Often a parent in the family would convert to Christianity and one of the Apostles would come and baptize not only that parent but the spouse and children as well. Baptism always follows faith either the faith of the person being baptized or the faith of the parents. There are also passages in the New Testament that compare baptism to the rite of circumcision, by which infant boys are made a part of the people of the covenant. Despite the divisions about when one should be baptized we can all agree that baptism is always done in faith and that children who are learning the faith are indeed part of God’s people.
Related is the reality that baptism is also not an individual act. In baptism we become part of the people of God. We are baptized into the one body. In baptism we become part of the Christ’s body. We are baptized into something- into a family, adopted and loved. The Living Faith states, that “baptism assures us that we belong to God. In life and in death our greatest comfort is that we belong to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.” This is the point Bonhoeffer was making. Perhaps it is a bit obtuse or morose but this is the freedom we talk about over Christmas and Easter. That we die in baptism, with Christ, but we also rise up to new life in Christ.
In today’s Gospel reading when we look at the meaning of Jesus’ baptism we realize that we are baptized into something greater than ourselves. That there should be a noted change that takes place at baptism. Michael Rogness, a homeletic professor at Luther Seminary says, “We often speak of baptism as a “means of grace” that is, one of the ways that God’s grace comes to us. Physically it’s only a small splash of water, but it marks the beginning of a whole new life- of forgiveness, of the presence of God’s Spirit, of our union with Jesus and our becoming part of the world-wide Christian church.”
I’m betting that so many of us were baptized either as children or so long ago that we barely remember. It appears as though our lives haven’t changed all that much. Presbyterians don’t do re-baptisms but we do, do reaffirmations. If you were baptized long ago re-affirm your commitment with Christ, re-affirm the transformation into new life. Maybe our new year’s resolutions have failed but the good news is that through baptism we are invited to constantly re-affirm who we are in Christ. If you have not been baptized, well, we do have a membership Sunday coming up and it is never to late. And when Jesus was baptized he was reminded that he was beloved by God. This is our reminder that we, too, are beloved of God and known by name. Have confidence in your baptism. Amen
Who are these Magi?
Bible Text: Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72: 1-7, Matthew 2:1-12 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes
The hymn, “We Three Kings” is often sung over the Christmas season. Albeit, that it is more about Epiphany, which is officially celebrated on Jan. 6, than Christmas, it was written as a Christmas gift by John Henry Hopkins Jr in 1857. We could blame this hymn for some of the mythology around the three kings but in actual fact the thought that there were three and that they were kings was a long established tradition by the time the hymn was written. Actually the celebration of Epiphany is older than Christmas in terms of liturgical traditions. In fact originally epiphany used to also include the story of the birth of Christ as a sidebar. The term epiphany stems from the Greek epiphaneia which literally means “revelation of God”. As a result it is quite appropriate that we include the story of the magi in this revelation. God revealed to them the birth of a king. Popular culture and centuries of myths have created images for us that are less accurate than most literalists would like. Good thing I hardly call myself a literalist. But that is the mystery of epiphanies, they are mysterious, hard to explain, often very personal and over time sound more like legends than reality.
Despite these popular myths this story is an important narrative in the function of the Gospel of Matthew and who Jesus is in all the Gospels. Understanding the language and where some of these myths come from is important. The Bible does not state how many wise men there were. It could have been three or thirty, but as early as an Alexandrian manuscript it was interpreted that there were 3 and they even had names, Bithisarea, who later became Balthazaar, Melchior and Gaspar. In the medieval period theologians concluded that each magi represented three of the then known races of humanity as descended from the three sons of Noah. They became kings because their gifts were only afforded by the richest of men. The term magi is the Greek word for wise men but is also the root of words like magicians and magic. We often interpret the magi to be astronomers, due to the fact that they were obviously looking at the sky and noted a change in the constellations but they likely were also adept in various occult arts such as astrology, fortune telling and the interpreting of dreams. What is important about these magi is that they take on the role and represent Gentiles who came to worship Jesus. Also, their paying homage reflects the bringing of gifts to the Messiah found in our psalm reading. God reveals part of the plan to these foreigners, these gentiles, in modern day language we might even call them heretics or heathens. God reveals to them a king and enlightens them with an epiphany. God illuminates a dark world with not only the presence of Jesus Christ but the opportunity for these people to truly encounter him and worship him.
Along with the magi, the star, a light in the sky, is central. The magi are from the “East”. The Greek word is anatolai which is really the root for the verb “to rise” and literally means the region of the rising sun. The word the “orient” comes from the Latin oriens and it has the same meaning. The idea that these magi came from the place where the sun rises is important. The rising of the sun implies the image of light and light was often associated with salvation in the Bible. In fact the passage from Isaiah, “Arise, shine, for your light has come” uses the same verb. The word arise is anatetalken in Greek. Isaiah’s vision of salvation includes a pilgrimage of the nations to Israel’s light. These Gentile magi are fulfilling this prophecy. Making a pilgrimage from the place where God’s creation rises each day to the light of the world.
The sincerity of the magi’s worship is contrasted with Herod’s insincere pledge to worship Jesus. When the magi ask where is this king of the Jews they ask it with delight and privilege. The next time that term “king of the Jews” is used is much later in Matthew, close to the end of his Gospel. Jesus is charged with claiming to be king of the Jews and is eventually crucified for having such a title. Matthew wrote his Gospel already knowing the end of the story. He already had Jesus’ death in view when he has the magi refer to Jesus as the king of the Jews. This is not only a foreshadowing of what is to come but reflects so much of our world today. How do we reconcile our understanding that Jesus is the light to the world, the personification of hope and salvation, when there is still so much darkness in our world.
Who are the magi today? Who will make the pilgrimage? Who will present their gifts to the king of kings? Who will find light in today’s darkness? The year 2014, like so many years, included stories of tragedy, fear, pain and violence. We tend to focus on those news stories at this time of year. But there was a lot of light too. My personal favourite news story is that of the Olympics when a Canadian ski coach ran out and fixed the ski of a Russian Olympian so that he could finish the course with dignity. Who will share the glimpses of light, of God, in our midst?
The birth of Jesus alarms Herod. After all Jesus threatens to usurp Herod’s title as king of the Jews. Herod’s plot at the end of our passage constitutes the reason for the holy family’s flight to Egypt and return a few years later. The flight to and from Egypt reflects the story of the Exodus. Jesus’ experience early in his life reflects that of the nation of Israel. Later in Matthew Jesus further represents Israel when he embarks on a wilderness journey and remains faithful to God despite the many temptations. The difficult story of the flight to Egypt highlights that God is present in the pain and suffering of this world. That there is a flicker of light just waiting to light up the sky.
While Christmas may focus on the babe, Epiphany bursts open on that glowing moment of God with us. Foreigners travel, Herod feels threatened and stars move their course. The lesson of Epiphany seems to be that in no way is Christ’s birth a private matter; the manifestation of God’s presence in the world engages all aspects of our lives, political, cultural and natural realms. It’s a big news story. Perhaps we are the magi of today but we are often so busy looking at ourselves that we forget to see God. Isaiah calls the people of Israel to see that God will work to restore and redeem Israel through the resources and presence of those formerly known as outsiders. Through the power of God’s presence the community is a centre of life and justice. It’s time to let those outsiders in and shine the light on God’s grace, love, and redemption at work in our world. Amen
Bible Text: Luke 2:22-40 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes
Christmas traditions run pretty high in my household. There are certain things that must be done, as a rule! Following the Christmas Eve service we must drive around looking at lights while listening to a radio drama of A Christmas Carol dating back to the 1960s. On Christmas day one must not look, open or touch the stockings until everyone is ready and after stockings one has strata, a bread, cheese and egg casserole for breakfast. A more recent but now just as important tradition is that we must skype with family members some time between the morning flurry of gifts and the main meal. Which interestingly enough, the dinner, in our house can be anything from a fancy fish to chili by the camp fire. You can blame my type A personality for these rules or the desire to be nostalgic or the fact that I like to be in charge. But I know there are traditions in your own households. Perhaps those traditions have changed over time, adapted to circumstances, and perhaps you have picked up new ones each year or perhaps this Christmas was different and difficult because some traditions couldn’t happen. That’s the problem with traditions, if we hold too tightly to them they get in the way of us enjoying ourselves. They take away from the meaning of the day, moment, event. The Old Testament is full of traditions that developed into the Law of Moses. Even the very first “Christmas” had traditions to follow.
The presentation of Jesus in Jerusalem is motivated by specific requirements, laws and traditions. But Luke is also very confused because in our Gospel text all these practices happen on one day, when in fact they would have happened over several different days. Of course the circumcision happened 8 days following Jesus’ birth. But the presentation should have happened that day as well while the purification would have happened 40 days following Jesus’ birth. Getting wrapped up in what Luke wrote and how wrong it is takes away from the true meaning of the story. However, it is rather interesting to know what laws it was that Luke is referring to.
The Torah has specific requirements for parental duties following the birth of all children but especially first born sons. Of course God claims the right to firstborn sons, based on the story of God passing over the firstborn Israelites in Egypt. There is also a strong link between Jesus and the story of Samuel. When Hannah, who had no children, prayed to God for a son, she vowed that if she had a son, she would give him to God. And indeed when Hannah bore Samuel she brought him to the temple and presented him and gave his life to God. So, when Mary and Joseph present Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem they are in effect dedicating his life to God. The story thus sets the stage for Jesus’ life to be dedicated fully to his heavenly Father.
The purification of Jesus is motivated by specific laws in Leviticus. After a woman gives birth to a son she is impure for 40 days. At the end of that period she is to bring an offering to the temple, which the priest offers as a sacrifice, effecting her purification. Further in Exodus there are all kinds of statements regarding first borns, even all first born animals are sacrificed. First born children however, are brought to the temple not to be sacrificed by purified. According to the law of Moses, Jesus, being the firstborn, needed to be redeemed. But then, as will happen throughout Jesus’ life, things don’t quite happen according to the law or tradition.
At the moment when the parents would present their offering, Mary and Joseph are interrupted almost intercepted. Instead of a priest residing over the blessing we have two old but very wise people, Simeon and Anna. In our translation Luke writes, “When the time came” the Greek, kai hote eplethesan hemerai literally means the “days were fulfilled.” Fulfilment is the real message this morning. Simeon and Anna function as the people who realize that God has fulfilled a promise. They serve to embody the hopes of Israel and depict the fulfilment of those hopes.
When Simeon lays eyes on this child he cannot help himself but take the child in his arms, perhaps a startling moment for the parents, and he begins to sing! But he does not sing a lullaby as one might expect for a babe in arms but rather a revolutionary song. The shape and hopes of this song reflect the same content that has already been sung by Zechariah and Mary. For anyone in the music world it is as if Simeon’s song is a final coda. A final reminder, a poetic summing up of the events. But there is also a hint of melancholy.
The King James Version says it best, “Lord, now lettest though thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.” Simeon then gives prophetic voice to the realities about to face this child. This child will be both a stone upon which many will stumble and upon which many will find salvation. The child’s destiny will be one of radical transformation. Simeon is granted peace upon which he may see the Messiah but he also acknowledges the deep pain and great cost that it will bring.
Anna in her great age and deep piety recognizes Jesus for who he is and begins to praise God and speak about the child to all who are looking for redemption in Jerusalem. She has a great and important prophetic role in speaking God’s truth about the child’s future. She provides a clear model of what faithful behaviour looks like. Her patient waiting, her rejoicing at the good news and her deep desire to share that good news all seems to exemplify the proper response to the gospel.
Simeon and Anna play another key role. At this point in the story we know that Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zecharaiah and a few Shepherds know about Jesus’ true nature. These two seniors worshipping in the temple are the next to respond. I often hear sentiments like “we’re getting older and can’t do the things we used to” or “It’s too bad we’re all a little grey in hair” but this story of Simeon and Anna two elderly people tells me that we are never too old to worship God or to see the true nature of Christ among us. Never too old to praise God. They both model a faith that embraces Jesus fully, full of what such faith means and may cost but they also share it so that people of every age may respond. Anna and Simeon have waited patiently. They embrace Jesus as soon as they see him and joyously sing and bless this child. They tell the truth of who this child is to all who will listen. More than any traditions, laws or rules isn’t that what Christmas is all about. Rejoicing at God’s promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Amen
Bible Text: Psalm 98, Luke 1:26-38 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes
Imagine being a young boy and travelling to the prison gate with your Mother to sing hymns to your Father who was imprisoned due to the fact that he would not conform to the state church in England. Imagine that father telling you that if you don’t like the hymns found in the hymnal to write your own and so you begin with just a few and end up writing hundreds. Imagine writing one such hymn and it becoming one of the greatest Christmas carols despite the fact that you do not actually celebrate Christmas. Isaac Watts did not need to imagine because it happened to him. Mr. Watts never intended for “Joy to the World” to become a carol. The extreme version of protestantism that the family practised prohibited them from acknowledging Christmas. The hymn is in fact based entirely on our psalm reading, psalm 98. You may have noticed the words of joyful noise and that heaven and earth are truly singing in one accord. Sing to God a joyful song, for God made a world of wonders! In the original hymn the first verse reads “Joy to the World the Lord will come” rather than the version we have “the Lord is come.” In the original hymn Watts is not referring to Christ’s birth but rather Christ’s second coming. In fact there is no direct reference to Christmas, the nativity or the Gospels in the song.
As I mentioned Watts was exposed to hymns at a young age when he and his mother would travel to the prison to sing hymns to lift his father’s spirit. He began writing hymns in
earnest at age 15. Over his 74 year life Watts wrote over 750 hymns none of them meant to be Christmas carols. He became a minister at 21 years of age and he even managed to write a book on logic. This book later became the standard textbook on the subject at Cambridge and Oxford for over a century despite the fact that Watts was banned from either school due to his rather strict religious leanings.
Joy to World was first published in Watts’ collection entitled Psalms of David in 1719. In 1839, American, Lowell Mason put the words to music. Mason later admitted that he stole the tune from Handel but as yet scholars have been unable to find any evidence of such a tune in Handel’s repertoire. It wasn’t until the 1940s that people began to sing this hymn at Christmas time and since then it has been moved from the general hymns section in many hymnals to the Christmas section.
For me this hymn be it a carol or not resounds with words fitting for the season. Joy, love, singing and all of creation exploding with rejoicing for the coming of Christ. The hymn echoes what we have reflected upon throughout this advent season. The carol Away in the Manger reminds us of the vulnerability and humility found in Christ’s first arrival and the hope it brings to the least and vulnerable of our world. Lo, How A Rose e’er blooming reflects the words of Isaiah and brings a sense of peace just as the simple word lo brings attention to a major miracle. The Huron Carol reflects Mary’s song of Joy. It speaks to the language, history and experience of God’s people. Joy to the World reminds us that the love that came at Christmas will come again- in fact it has the capacity to come each time we act as Christ to our neighbours or even act as Mary, bearing God to the world.
This is the only time of the year when we truly delve into the life and mystery of Mary. The church, throughout history, has had a difficult time knowing how to regard her. Protestants tend to ignore Mary’s role in the drama all together and yet like certain words and hymns she is as much a part of the season’s fact and mythology. Like a familiar carol, Mary’s presence is essential to the story. Luke’s Gospel is the only one to spend time with Mary. In Mark, her most memorable appearance is the account in which she and her other sons come to take Jesus home and essentially call him crazy. She doesn’t fare much better in Matthew, though she is present at the empty tomb. John never mentions her by name and Paul makes no reference to her at all. But in Luke, Mary is the most Christ-like person in this passage.
It is hard to say whether or not Mary was filled with joy the moment she saw Gabriel. I doubt that her initial reaction was anything like psalm 98. We know from last week that joy and love eventually came but, what went through her mind that very moment? This is one very unplanned pregnancy. She likely had her own plans, certainly Joseph thought that things would happen a little differently. How do you love a child that turns your world upside down and who you know will love the world so deeply that he will spare nothing to save it. Mary believed that Jesus would bring new life to all who believed in him, that no more sins and sorrows would grow, that he would come to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found, that he would make the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.
As I mentioned Mary’s story reflects in a lot of ways that of other women in the Old Testament. She likely knew their stories and obviously she found comfort and refuge in Elizabeth’s house. History has made Mary into a saint, a feminist and throughout the medieval period she was even considered a God. But looking at the Gospel reading, hearing this sacred conversation, we see another image, a more comprehensive symbol. Mary is the first disciple and it is in her discipleship that I find a joy and love akin to the words in psalm 98.
Mary’s responses to Gabriel are more fearless and less humble than often interpreted and it shows hints of the kind of fierce love that she will have for the child. It is entirely understandable that initially she would be perplexed upon seeing the angel. When she questions him it is not due to fear but rather an effort to understand the extraordinary words and experience coming at her. Luke does not call her a god, does not even acknowledge her as a mother let a lone a woman. He calls her favoured one. Luke claims Mary to be much more than anything labelled by her gender. She is the ideal follower of Christ, the ideal Christian. Her words to the angel are a direct parallel to what Jesus later prays at the Mount of Olives, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Love for God, love for Christ is ultimately expressed in these words. Not my will but yours be done. When she is confronted with an unprecedented proclamation she accepts her unique call with faith and trust, two essential ingredients for a disciple.
Mary clearly has faith because when Mary approaches Elizabeth, the elder calls out, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken.” Yes, Mary is blessed because she is about the be the physical mother of Jesus but Elizabeth acknowledges that the true reason is because she believed in God’s word. It is a blessing we can all share. We cannot be physical parents to Jesus but we can believe that God’s word has been and will be fulfilled.
Mary shows trust because Luke’s final verse in this passage is “for nothing is impossible with God.” Despite the strange vision, despite the awkward words, despite the impossible Mary calls herself a servant of God. She questions, she ponders, she accepts God’s will for her life because she trusts in God. Often trust can be harder to achieve than faith. Trust is built up over time. But Mary finds that through trust she is able to achieve exactly what God is calling her to do.
The reason why so much of Mary’s experience recalls stories of prophet’s births in the Old Testament is because Mary really is being called to a prophetic task; to bear and raise Jesus. She is bearing Christ, within her. The orthodox church calls it theotokos, or God-bearer. Although it can be a controversial topic and has split denominations I really believe in some way we are all God-bearers in that we are all tasked with being disciples and witnesses, bearers of God’s love. Mary is blessed not because her womb bore Jesus but because of her devotion, her faithfulness and trust to the word of God. Joy to the world may not be about Christ’s birth but in our own trust and faith we realize that it is not only about having faith and trust in the familiar story of Christmas but also about what impossible things God will do for us in the future and of the wonders of Christ’s love. Joy to the world indeed! Amen