The God who saves through water

Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Now, let it be so; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:13-17

The Baptism of Jesus

This week the Christian Calendar used by the Church around the world brings us to the celebration of Jesus’ baptism.  We began in Advent with the promises that the Anointed One – that God’s Son – would come into the world, we celebrate that first coming at Christmas, and then last week, with Epiphany we celebrated God’s revealing of himself not just to the Jewish nation, but to the world.

Now, today, we fast forward some 30 years to the start of Our Lord’s public ministry, where he’s revealed not just to prophets and scholars, to his parents and shepherds, but is revealed publicly to all who were there to hear “This is my beloved Son” echoing through the clouds.

And, of course, it’s a significant day for us, too.  After all, baptism is our entry into the Body of Christ; it’s the sacrament that sets us apart and identifies us as Christians – together with a life that cooperates with the Holy Spirit to live a Christ-like life, asking for forgiveness when we mess up.

But, if we stop to think about it, the baptism of Jesus raises some questions.

Baptism for Repentance of Sin

John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin on Mary’s side, was a very strange man by any account.  He lived in the desert wearing a cloak of camel skin and eating only grasshoppers and wild honey: I’m thinking he’s the kind of guy who turned heads and probably left a bit of a stench when he walked by.

Now, he started his ministry a couple years before Jesus, announcing that he was preparing the way for the Lord, the Anointed One of God.  And, with that, he called people to confess their sins and to be baptized – to be washed – in the waters of the Jordan River.

And, the bulk of his message as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel is that it simply isn’t enough to claim to belong to God’s family without living a life that is in accordance with God’s will.

So, one day, Jesus comes to be baptized.

But wait a second.  Jesus is the Son of God.  Jesus, scripture assures us, is like us in every way except for sin.  If there’s one person ever who didn’t need baptism, wouldn’t that be Jesus?  In our Gospel lesson today, even John the Baptist is confused: it says, “John tried to deter him, saying, ‘No, it is I who need to be baptized by you; why are you coming to me?”

To find the answer, I want to suggest that maybe there’s more to baptism than meets the eye.

Saving through water: not just a New Testament idea.

You see, if we study the whole story of God’s salvation as one continuous action, rather than picking and choosing what we read, we find that this isn’t the first time God uses water to save his people. 

As we said last week, our God is in the business of revealing himself those who seek him – that’s something he’s done throughout history, and it’s something he wants to use you and me to do even today.  (Which reminds me: how have you done being an Epiphany, a revelation of God to someone who is searching this past week?)

But, together with God showing himself to those who seek him, from the beginning, he’s in the business of offering himself to be in relationship with his creation.  He does that, we’re told, in covenants – in promises made – in which the Almighty God of heaven and earth offers us his boundless blessing and mercy in exchange for our recognition that he is Lord; in exchange for our trust and loyalty, but more importantly, our acknowledgement that when we don’t trust him, when we forget that he’s Lord, we’re in the wrong, and we need to ask for forgiveness.

We see this even from the very beginning.

On the very first page of our Bibles, in just the second sentence, we see God the Holy Spirit working through water.  God, wanting to make a creature in his Image, a creature capable of true love and sacrifice, a creature capable of choosing good over selfishness, created a home for us, a home – even the most worldly of scientists would tell us – is special, not because of rock, or an atmosphere, but because it has been shaped by the water that sustains life as we know it.

From the beginning, God is at work, “the Spirit of God hovering over the waters”, to create a home for us to live in relationship with Him.  And, from the beginning, he reveals himself to those first people, and offers himself to them, reaches out to them, inviting them into a covenant: ‘you can live in this paradise if you trust me as God, and you’ll show your trust by not touching that one tree – the rest is yours.’ 

Of course, we know how that chapter ends: we’re not happy with the 99.9% we were given, but broke that one simple rule, even though we knew that choosing to live apart from God would cost us dearly.

Time goes on, as some choose to live for the one true God who revealed himself in creation, while most others choose to live for themselves.  Then, God reveals himself and offers himself in relationship to us in a man called Noah, and his family.

Humanity, we’re told, had become murderous, obsessed with killing for power.  God offers himself to Noah, and tells him, and his sons, and their wives to be fruitful and multiply and fill the land, on the condition that they remember that each life is made in God’s image, and therefore no person should kill another.[1]

And how did God enact that covenant?  How did God offer salvation to Noah, and bring he and his family to their promised land?  He saved them through water; mighty waters of death that destroyed all in their path – except, for those whom God had called and carried through, those same waters became a fresh start, a new life, a new chance to live according to God’s will.

Time goes on, thousands of years pass, and God has chosen Abraham and his descendants to be the chosen people through whom he will reveal himself to the world.  This chosen family find themselves in Egypt where, over generations, they become enslaved. 

Again, God reveals himself – this time to Moses – and God offers himself to be in relationship with them; offering freedom and blessing and mercy in exchange for their trust and loyalty.  The people set off on their journey of trusting God, and find themselves trapped, with the sea on one side and an angry army on the other.  And, once again, God uses water to save his people: his chosen people are those who walked through the sea on dry land, while the army is drowned as the tide washes over them.

Of course, we know how this chapter goes – those chosen people saved from slavery were particularly bad at keeping the “trust and loyalty” part of their covenant.  In the desert they were afraid that they would starve, even though God provided food and water for them, and then they had the gall to complain about the food they were given!

God promised them a land overflowing with crops and cattle and milk and honey, but they hadn’t trusted; after 40 years, God raised up Joshua to take Moses’ place and lead his people to the promised land.  But there was a problem; the river – the Jordan River – was in their way. 

This, we read in Joshua 3[2] was an opportunity: an opportunity for God’s people to consecrate themselves, to make a fresh start in choosing to live according to God’s will for their lives, to live as his chosen people.  And, once again, God is saving his people through water.  They consecrate themselves in accordance with the Law, the priests enter into the flowing water and stand there, as the water dries up as everyone – toddlers, old men and old ladies – crosses the river without harm, arriving in the promised land.

Our own Baptism

God works through water.  And, in Jesus, we’re all invited into those waters of baptism.

But, what is offered is no mere bath, nor a simple “symbol” for a fresh start, nor even just the washing away of sin, of which Jesus had no need.

Our God, the one in the business of revealing himself, calls people made in his Image to enter into covenant with him; the covenant in which we receive his blessing and mercy in exchange for our trusting him as our Lord, and repenting when we live as though we’re lord of our own lives.

Jesus had no sins for which to be forgiven.  But, as he responded to John’s objection, his baptism is necessary, not for Jesus’ sake, but for ours – to fulfill all righteousness, as he shares our humanity.

As Jesus rises from the waters, he is revealed as God’s Son, as the perfect Son of Man, the one who succeeds in keeping God’s Law where all others have failed, the one who death cannot hold, and whose destruction of the gates of death opens the path of life; and he invites us not to a mere symbolic bath, but to enter into covenant with him, to enter into covenant with the God who, from the beginning, saves through water.

In baptism we are buried with Christ and raised to share in his resurrected life; in baptism the bonds that hold us to the fallen world are cut free and we are given a fresh start – just as with Noah, and Moses, and Joshua. 

But, it isn’t magic.  It’s a covenant.  And covenants, like any relationship, have expectations.  Blessing and mercy – boundless, unending mercy from Christ’s sacrifice of himself – offered in exchange for our trust and loyalty – a trust that knows that, when we’ve broken that loyalty, we need only to ask for forgiveness to receive his grace.

Christ’s baptism, paving the way for our baptism, joins us to God’s covenant people, the Church, the Body of Christ.

…And, maybe, in the years since your baptism, you, like the people of Israel, have lost that trust, or at times forgotten that God is to be Lord in your life.  The good news, though, is that God is unchanging – he’s the same yesterday, today, and forever – and even if we let down our end of the deal, even if we forgot our promises made at baptism, even if our parents or godparents broke their promises made on our behalf, God is still keeping his: he’s standing, arms wide open, waiting to receive back the one who turns to him for mercy.

God saves through water.  You’ve been washed, made a new creation in Jesus.   God stands ready to keep his end of the bargain, to forgive and bless and call you a son or daughter of his kingdom – all that’s left is for us to really, truly, confess our sins, and live for our Lord.

[1] Genesis 9

[2] Joshua 3

Cover image: Baptism of Christ by Daniel Bonnell

Called to be an Epiphany

Today we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ; that occasion over two thousand and twenty years ago when non-Jewish astronomers and philosophers from Persia read the Hebrew scriptures and took note that the God of Israel had promised to send a king to sit on David’s throne, who would be a great priest and anointed one who would save his people from the consequences of their sin and disobedience.  Then, these scholars of their day noticed a bright light in the sky – one theory suggests that what they saw was the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter on August 12th in the year 3 B.C., a pattern that repeated 10 months later on June 17th, perhaps coinciding exactly with the time it would take to prepare for a journey, travel 800 kilometers across the desert, and then wait for an audience with King Herod.

The Epiphany – a word that means “a life-changing discovery”, a great insight, or a big “eureka” moment – is the realization that God’s promise that he would work through Israel to reveal himself to the entire world had happened with the birth of Jesus.

All of the Old Testament promises that God would bless the whole world through Abraham; that Jerusalem would not just be a holy city for the Jewish nation, but would be a beacon on a hill shining forth light and life for all the world to see; that the true glory of Israel would be in enlightening the nations with the truth of God’s mercy and love.  This is the “eureka” moment, the realization that all of this is finally happening, that this Holy Child is indeed God’s Son, uniting God’s nature with human nature so that he can blaze a new path for humanity, a path of humble obedience that leads to life in place of the age-old path of pride that leads to death.

Who knew a bright light in the sky could mean so much?

Epiphany is a big deal.

For much of the Christian Church around the world, ourselves included, today marks the beginning of a season of Epiphany, a season from today until the start of Lent in which we focus on how Christ is revealed for the world to see, and how we are to respond.

And Epiphany is a big deal – especially for us gathered here today.

We probably never stop to think about it, but Christmas – that major celebration of the promised Messiah, God’s own Son, coming to earth – only applies to us because of the Epiphany.  After all, as far as I know, none of us in this room are the biological descendants of Abraham, members by birth of the Hebrew people in accordance with the law given to Moses.  It’s only by the grace of God, and his revelation of himself to the whole world and not just the Jewish nation, that we’re invited to be included in God’s great work of redemption! 

It’s only by the grace of God… and that’s a key point we read in today’s Gospel as we hear of the wisemen coming to King Herod at Jerusalem – our relationship with God, our status in God’s covenant community, is not something that we can take for granted.

Just picture it: There in Jerusalem you have the beautiful, carved stone palace for the king, sitting on a hill on the western side of the city, almost directly across from the great Temple on the mountain of the Lord on the city’s east side.

Statues and art and tapestries depict the king’s greatness, while by this point, all the trappings of the Roman Empire are also displayed, while the soldiers in their blood-red tunics and bronze armour stand guard. 

The king sits surrounded by the highest ranking priests and the expert teachers of the Old Testament law, those who see themselves as the exclusive keepers and interpreters of God’s will for the world.

And then, a messenger comes in and says “Your Majesty, there’s a group of foreign scholars here to see you.”

And this is where it gets interesting. 

I’m sure they make an appointment and then enter in with all the pomp and circumstance you would expect in a royal palace; King Herod is sitting on a platform, I’d say he’s surrounded by his high-ranking advisors, and then what do these wisemen say?  “Your Majesty… what a splendid palace you have, and thank you so much for your hospitality to us.  Now, O King, please tell us where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?”

Can you imagine the look on Herod’s face?

The lesson we read this morning says that he was “disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him”, but I think that’s putting it politely.  Imagine a foreign contingent arriving at a royal palace to celebrate the birth of the heir to the throne, except the king and his wife haven’t had a baby.

I’m sure they were politely removed from the room as the King totally lost it.  Yelling at his advisors, “what do they mean?  I’m the king of the Jews!  What’s this star they’re talking about?”

The chief priests and the legal experts come together, perhaps shaking in their boots, embarrassed and now fearful of the King’s notoriously short temper.  Trying to save face, they say, “oh yes, of course, we know what they’re talking about… there are some old prophecies that we forgot about while we were going about our business and trying to get by in the modern Roman world – a ruler would come out of that farming town about 9 kilometers south of the city, the town of Bethlehem.

A great revelation with a solemn warning.

With the Epiphany comes an embarrassing warning for all of us.  God is in the business of revealing himself.  You would think that these chief priests and experts in the Old Testament law would be the first to notice and recognize when the prophesies are fulfilled, and how embarrassing that it’s not just people outside the royal household, but foreigners – those who aren’t even Hebrews – who are now teaching them their own religion. 

And it’s a warning to the Church, too.  When we, like them, become too caught up in the business of day-to-day life, when we become too worried about how we make our religion fit in a changing society, without being too costly or overbearing, lo and behold, the proud chosen ones are left behind as God carries on revealing himself to whoever is searching for him.

What happens next?  Well, Herod begins to weave a web of lies, feeling threatened that he may lose his worldly status – threatened to the point that he would lie and even kill innocent children to protect his so-called God-given right to rule.

Meanwhile, it’s foreigners, Gentiles, who fulfil the Old Testament prophecies with their gifts.  Gold, a gift fit for one who would be King of Kings and Lord of Lords; Frankincense, the incense burned by priests in the temple and still used by millions of Christians around the world in their worship today, demonstrating that Christ is the Great High Priest, the one foretold by prophets who is able to enter the heavenly sanctuary and offer the blood required for the price of sin; and myrrh, the perfumed oil of anointing, the oil used to anoint kings and prophets, the oil used to prepare bodies for burial, proclaiming that he is the Messiah – a word that literally means “the anointed one”. 

This is the Epiphany – the life-changing eureka moment that proclaims that Christ is the one who fulfills the Promises of God.

The Epiphany Challenge

But, we have a problem.

The anointed saviour of the nations, the light to enlighten all humankind has come into the world, but so many haven’t recognized him.  So many, like Herod and the priests, were so busy with their goals and priorities that they forgot what they had been taught; many more, I’m sure, were just worn down with the struggle of everyday life that, if they even noticed Venus and Jupiter lining to make a bright light in the sky, they thought “oh, that’s nice” and went on their way.

But God is in the business of revealing himself.

And one of his great revelations – a great epiphany – is that he doesn’t want to use lights in the sky or the movement of planets and stars, but now wants to use us instead.

Every person who is baptized, whether we realize it or not, is called to be an epiphany – a revelation of God to the world.  We are called to speak the truth and reveal the good news of God in Jesus just as that light in the sky called wisemen to cross the desert.  We’re all called to do that – some of us do it well, some of us really need to work on it, but, if you’re baptized, there’s no escaping that duty to reveal Christ to the world.

And as we start this new year together, this is an opportunity for each of us to reflect on how we’ve done.  God wants each of us to be that star that shines for those who are searching for truth, not pointing to ourselves, but leading the way to Jesus.

And how have we done? 

I can guarantee you that there are many who are searching.  Each of us rubs shoulders each week with those who have no direction in their lives, who are searching for meaning and purpose; each of us knows someone who is silently struggling, putting on a strong face to mask frustration, and disappointment, and pain; we’re all surrounded with people who, at the end of the day, feel like they don’t belong anywhere, like they don’t have anyone to really share their burdens. 

And how have we done with showing them the way?

When they look to us, do they find a light inviting them out of the darkness, or do they find us silent, or perhaps worse, do they find us bewildered ourselves as we, like the priests and teachers of the law, have missed the point of our own religion.

You are to be an epiphany; you are to be a revelation, a “eureka moment” for those you meet.  How many have we invited to church this year?  Or invited to Kids’ Club, or offered to pray with, or even offered for them to talk to your priest in their time of need?  Or do we only invite our friends to share our worldly concerns, to give us money for fundraisers, without inviting them to share in the benefits of belonging to a church family that cares?

These are big questions, but a new year is always a good time to start.

The point of Epiphany is that it’s only by the grace of God that we’re here; and that, one way or another, our great God is in the business of revealing himself to the world, and he wants us – he wants you to be a part of that. 

Now, are you willing to be that light, to be that Epiphany for those around you?

May God help us to respond, as with all our promises at baptism: I will, with God’s help.  Amen.

The Song of the Angels: God with us, even in our mess.

This Advent we’ve been focusing on the songs of Christmas – not “Jingle Bells” or “Deck the Halls”, but those ancient Christian hymns as found directly in the pages of scripture itself.

We looked at the great proclamation sung by Zechariah, that God can do the impossible for those who fully trust in him.   

Then we looked at Mary’s dramatic solo, where she, our Lord’s mother, proclaims her unshakable faith that God will keep his word to right the wrongs of the world; that unshakable faith that God will make all things new, beginning with breaking down our own pride.

And today we come to the most well known hymn of the scriptures – the song of the Angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

There are two things for us to notice in the angels’ song.  First, it’s “glory to God”.  Christmas, our salvation, and indeed all of creation is intended not to be an end in itself, but to demonstrate God’s glory and power. 

This is an important reminder as we contemplate our Lord in a manger.  This – this humble scene – is the One through whom all things were made stepping into his own creation. 

And it’s glorious – complete with animals, and stables, and jam-packed guesthouses.

Sometimes, we’re ashamed of our mess – and, to be sure there are times when we just need to roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty, and clean up our act.  But, part of the glory of Christmas is that, while we might be ashamed of our mess, God isn’t.  Our God is so great that he’s content to be found in a noisy, smelly stable, making even that lowly place beautiful; and he’s content to enter into the noise and mess of my life, and, by his grace, make it a dwelling place fit for a king.

That’s the point.  “Glory to God in the highest” they sing, and “God finds glory” is the message, “even here”.

Peace on Earth

“Peace on earth to those on whom his favour rests”, we read.

This is one the world – and the popular Christmas songs – don’t get quite right. 
“Peace on earth, goodwill to men” is the message we hear.

But the angels sang “peace to those on whom his favour rests”, or, perhaps a more accurate translation of the Greek, “peace among those with whom he is pleased”.

One of the constant, and constantly shocking, phrases we hear on the lips of Jesus throughout the gospel is when he says “I have come not to bring peace, but division”.  One of the absolute promises of Jesus is that, until he returns, we will be divided – mothers against daughters, fathers against sons, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law, nation against nation, and faithful Christian against the unbelieving world. 

Yes, peace is our goal.  But to simply proclaim peace where there is no peace is the sign of the worst kind of deceit; the prophet Jeremiah likens it to a doctor who, seeing a patient with a mortal wound, slaps on a band-aid and says “you’ll be fine, go on your way”.[1]  The prophet Ezekiel says that one who says “peace” when there is no peace is like a contractor who puts up drywall without any studs and says “you can move in, the house is finished”, knowing full well that when it rains, the house will fall down.[2]

The message of the angels is specific: it’s a message of peace for those with whom God is pleased. 

It’s not talking about contentment or putting up with one another.  No, the Peace of God, true, lasting peace, passes all understanding, and is powerful enough to keep our hearts and minds in the love of God.  And the message brought not to kings or priests or the exalted leaders of the people, but to lowly shepherds in the fields, is that God declares “peace” for those with whom he is pleased. 

…And who are those with whom he is pleased?  Those who stay the course, who finish their race, repenting when they lose their way, and trusting Christ, the one in whose footsteps they tread; it’s to those that God says “well done, you good and faithful servant”. 

It’s those, his faithful servants, to whom he declares the peace which passes understanding.

God with us – even in our mess.

In the next 10 days, as we do all that needs doing before Christmas, as we get flustered with last minute gifts, , and keeping anxious kids occupied after the last day of school, and re-doing that baking that doesn’t go right, and remembering loved ones no longer with us, and dealing with the family drama that always seems to rear its head this time of year, lets remember the angels’ song.

God finds glory, God wants to be with us, even in our mess.

And peace, true peace springing up inside regardless of whatever is swirling around us, is a gift; and it’s a gift that God will give to his people who commit to be his servants.

In these 10 days, find time, make time, to prepare ourselves to welcome him in; because, where he comes, even the mess becomes beautiful, and the chaos becomes peace.

[1] Jeremiah 6:13-14

[2] Ezekiel 13:9-12

The Song of Mary: Proclaiming Faith in Things Unseen

And Mary sang: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.

Today we pick up where we ended last week, looking at the four songs – four of the earliest hymns of the Christian church – which make up the story of Christmas as we read in the Gospel according to St. Luke.

Last week we looked at the Song of Zechariah, the old man with his wife Elizabeth who, by God’s grace, were given a child in their old age; a child who would be John the Baptist, the great prophet preparing the way for the Lord.

In that song, that first act of this great musical, we saw how this birth was connected to so many other “impossible” births before it, as so many of the crucial turning points in God’s plan to save his people depend on God providing a child in an impossible situation.

We also saw that this theme of childless couples proves a point – that God’s mighty intervention doesn’t come for those who “sort of” depend on God, but is for those who realize that they’re out of options, that there is nothing that they can do in their human strength, to change their situation.  It’s in those situations that we see God keeping his word to defend the powerless.

A Hymn of Praise

Today we hear another great hymn of the Church, this time on the lips of a more familiar character in this Advent drama: Mary, the mother of Jesus.

If we look at that text, the text we recited on page 86 of the BAS, we see that this triumphant song of praise has three parts.

It begins as all good hymns should begin – by praising God.  “Deep in my soul – with all that I am – I proclaim the greatness of the Lord”, why? “Because, as he promised through the prophets and has displayed throughout the Old Testament, he has favour on his lowly servant.”

Then, from that opening full of praise, we hear that this, indeed, is part of God’s plan unfolding.  Just as generations before had known God as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’, just as the entire nation of Israel knew God as the one who spoke through Moses, as the one who established the throne of David, so, “from this day,” says Mary, “all generations…” will know that our God, the One True God, is the one who brought forth his Son Jesus Christ from the Blessed Virgin Mary, something that we proclaim every time we gather.

“The Strength of His Arm'”

Then the song takes a different direction. 

“He has mercy on those who fear him; he has shown the strength of his arm; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones; he has filled the hungry with good things.”

…but wait now.  Here we have Mary singing this great song about God’s power and might… but who is she?  She’s a pregnant teenager from an unimportant, practically unknown village, engaged to be married to a common tradesman.

And she’s singing these words as a person whose government has been overthrown, and who is now subject to a vast military empire, and empire in which the mighty sit quite happily on their thrones, and the poor are taxed heavily even on what little they have.

By any objective worldly measure, “the hopes and fears of all the years”, the hopes and dreams of freedom from oppression and justice for the lowly aren’t all delivered as Mary sings her song; not even close, as St. Matthew tells us it won’t be long until her own little family, Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus, flee to Egypt to escape a proud, conceited ruler on his throne.

And, certainly as Christians gathered to sing this song in the generations that followed, their experience wasn’t better, but even worse than when Mary first sang these words.  These earliest Christians were ridiculed, dragged before the rulers of their synagogues, beaten and at times even stoned to death by the powerful rulers; yet, gathering in homes, or hiding in caves, or meeting in fields outside of town they sing that God has shown the strength of his arm, that he has scattered the proud and cast down the mighty.

What’s going on here?  How is it that this becomes one of the popular, universal hymns of the Early Church when it clearly doesn’t reflect the persecution and real pain experienced by these early Christians?

Well, the thing that persecuted Christians remember while we who enjoy our freedom so easily forget is that we, all of us who are part of the body of Christ, hold dual citizenship.  Persecuted Christians remember, and we so quickly forget, that our Lord’s Kingdom is not of this world.

Yes, we have a God-given duty to work for justice; to remove oppression, to feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, to put hats and mitts on those cold heads and hands whose parents – for whatever reason – cannot care for their children.  But, even if we created a perfect country, even if we somehow got our act together and managed to live in harmony as so many popular Christmas songs say over and over, still, crowns and thrones will perish, and the kingdoms of this world rise and wane.  Though it’s our duty to do what is right, no amount of good deeds or happy thoughts can correct a world that is fundamentally bent towards pride.

The Paradox

And that’s why this song, and the whole Christmas story, the birth of the promised saviour, appears to be so great a paradox:  the greatest king of all kings is laid in a manger, and God himself is nailed to a tree that he created.

It’s such a great paradox that it’s a stumbling block to all who think they’ve got the world figured out.  But, either Jesus is God incarnate or he isn’t, and there is no in-between that makes any sense. 

If he’s God, then this lowly birth is proof that his mission, his purpose, is not to patch up this broken world with its rulers and empires, but to re-make it, to make all things new.  If he isn’t God, then this is simply a poor, unknown family giving birth to their poor son; a son who will be unknown for most of his life, and then after three years of teaching, be crucified for political crimes.

But, if he’s God, if we trust these words, then what we have here is proof that God’s plan is to get right to the root of the problem.  If it’s the humble – those who know that God is God – who inherit the kingdom, then the greatest glory, the place of greatest power, is found in the greatest lowliness.  Exaltation and true strength are found in complete obedience and humble service.

The Grand Solution to the Fundamental Problem

So we look at this ancient hymn, these great words about God’s display of strength not as a battle song for an earthly ruler, but as the national anthem about the Kingdom of Heaven, these words first sung as God joins himself to our humanity so that we may join Him in the place He is preparing for us, just as He promised.

And to do that, to make us fit to dwell with him, takes a complete overhaul of that humanity.

The solution for our sin of disobedience is not for God to give up and start over – after all, God delights in his relationship with people, and we were created to be the crowning jewel of creation, made in God’s own Image and declared “very good”.

It was a disobedient man and woman who caused humanity’s problem, corrupting the world itself, and in the process, making it impossible for us choose humility over power, and right over wrong.

But the glory of this hymn – and the entire story of our salvation – is that, with God, all things are possible.

If no mere mortal can overcome this bending of our wills toward selfishness, if there is no other good enough to pay the price of sin, then the truth is that God loves us so much that God himself would take on human flesh and be born as a lowly baby to show us the way to God, blazing the path and trampling down the gates of death so that we can follow where he leads.

And, for our humanity to be set on that path, it took the humility of a lowly teenage girl.

Where Eve in the Garden chose disobedience and gave birth to fallen humanity that lost its access to God, now Mary offers complete humble obedience; in the face of a birth sounds impossible, where many earlier players in this grand drama would laugh, Mary responds simply “I am the Lord’s servant; so be it”.

And it’s in this act of obedience that God is reunited to us – that Emmanuel, God-with-us, comes here, as Christ himself becomes the new Adam, the first-born of the new creation, and the head of the body to which we may be joined in the ultimate show to strength as death itself is defeated, as the offspring of woman finally crushes the head of the serpent as the strongest worldly powers are confronted with the thing that they fear most – the truth that, in spite of all their wealth, strength, and glory; in spite of the victories they appear to have won through conniving and ridicule and oppression; in spite of all of that, they will pass away.

Just as God promised.

For he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our forefathers, the promise from the beginning, that we would be his people and he would be our God, that he would reconcile us to himself, that when this world has passed away, when the mighty have fallen from their thrones and the wealth of the rich is worthless, those who fear the Lord, who walk humbly with their God, are lifted up, filled with good things, and dwell in that kingdom where the lion and lamb lie together, where there is no pain or fear.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.  My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

These words – this conviction of faith in things that we do not yet see – have been true for Christians in every age.

Will they be true for you?

Four Songs of Christmas: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel"

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 1:68-79, ICEL translation.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always enjoyed a good musical.  Growing up, I have great memories of watching the Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, back when Disney movies used to come on TV on Sunday nights.

I’m of the generation that was raised on The Lion King and Pocahontas, with hit songs that made it off the screen and onto the radio, and I can remember riding the school bus, screaming along as Elton John belted out “The Circle of Life”.

I’ve always had a soft spot for musicals.

Part of it, I’m sure, is the musician in me, appreciating some well-written tunes.  But part of it, I think, is that music, as an art form, communicates meaning in such a special way.  A good song can summarize a thousand words of complex feelings in just a few memorable lines.  …and memory is part of it, too: one of the realities facing any preacher is that you can come to church every Sunday and hear sermons your entire life, but you will probably never remember even one sentence of a sermon word-for-word.  But, each and every one of us, even the youngest children who cannot read, have memorized the words to our favourite hymns.

Music, too, across cultures, has a way of communicating those things that are too deep for words.  Think back to a Remembrance Day ceremony: the speakers can read poems and deliver speeches about the meaning of remembrance and sacrifice; but nothing makes it sink in like those first blazing notes of that solo trumpet playing the Last Post; it’s a sound that gives goosebumps and calls us to focus in a way that words never could.

This Advent, as we prepare ourselves not only to celebrate Christmas, but to make ourselves ready for Christ’s coming, his advent into our hearts and lives both every day and at the last day when he comes in glory, we’re going to focus on a wonderful but often-overlooked musical.

That musical is the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus.

A Grand Production: More than a Christmas pageant

If you sit down and read the start of Luke – something I encourage you to do when you go home today, it’ll only take 5 minutes – you’ll see that this account of Christ’s birth is no dry news article or history book. 

St. Luke, as the apostles were entering old age after long lives of preaching and teaching by word of mouth, was called by God to record, to write down, their teachings so that they could be carried to the ends of the earth.  And as you read about the birth of Jesus, you’ll see that he included the oldest Christian hymns that we have; hymns sung by the earliest Christians, summarizing exactly what the birth of Christ means, and, like all great songs, saying in the most efficient and memorable way possible how it is that this unlikely birth — an unwed teenage mother giving birth to a helpless baby in a shed in a forgotten farming town — is, amazingly, exactly how God intended to keep his promise to restore and redeem a broken world.

So today, we zoom in on the first song from that musical: the Benedictus, on page 88 of your BAS. 

The Setting

Luke starts us off in his wonderful account of Christ’s birth, not in Bethlehem, but in Jerusalem.

It isn’t Mary and Joseph on the stage, but the story begins with an old priest and his old wife.  In art this priest, Zechariah, is shown as a kind, old man: a long beard, a warm smile on wrinkled cheeks, with a once-strong body now slightly hunched over by the weight of time.  By his side, centre stage in the Gospel, is his wife, Elizabeth, her rosy, wrinkled cheeks framed by her gray hair.

They were faithful believers in God’s promises, and Zechariah was a faithful priest, serving in the temple in Jerusalem. 

But, in spite of their faithfulness, in spite of their faith in God, they were childless.

And that’s an important point – and, if we think back to the Old Testament, it’s a familiar point.

In the days before Old Age Pensions and RRSPs, without welfare or income support, your children were your retirement; your children were your insurance policy for when your body became too weak to work.

Children are a blessing from God, not least because it’s their God-given duty to honour their father and mother, to care for them and provide for them in that great role-reversal of each generation, as the one who once cared for, fed, and changed a helpless baby is now the one being cared for by that child.

Elisabeth is barren; this faithful couple, entering old age, has accepted that they are entirely dependent on God and the good will of others for their survival.

And that should sound familiar, if we look at God’s plan of salvation.

Abraham and Sarah were childless.  They were practically ancient, and God says “your descendants will be like the sand of the sea”, something so ridiculous that Sarah laughs in the face of the angel.

God gives them Isaac, who marries Rebecca.  Clearly, it’s up to Isaac and Rebecca to produce these great descendants, but guess what, Rebecca is barren too. 

God gives them Jacob and Esau; Jacob is to inherit the promise of God, and God changes his name to Israel and says he will make a mighty nation through whom the knowledge and saving truth of God will reach the whole world… except, guess what, Rachel can’t have children either, until God intervenes and she becomes the mother of the tribes of Joseph and Benjamin.

Hannah, too, is unable to conceive until God intervenes and she gives birth to Samuel, the prophet who is responsible for anointing David as King of the Jews, as we know God’s ultimate plan was that that earthly throne would be united with God’s throne in Jesus, who reigns as both Son of Man and Son of God.

The Message

And that’s the first important point that this song teaches us about the message of Christmas: God’s mighty intervention isn’t for those who are “sort of” dependent on God.  God’s outstretched hand and mighty arm doesn’t flex his muscle for those who are faithful but who are “getting along just fine, thank you very much”.

No, God’s promise to lift up the humble and meek, is, throughout history, for those who reach the realization that there is nothing they can do to ‘fix’ their situation. 

God doesn’t want a chosen people who can look back and say, “wow, look how great we are”.  He doesn’t choose mighty heroes, models of human strength.  No, he chooses to raise up a people out of those who are barren. 

That’s the point: God does the impossible for those who love him and have a holy fear, the fear, the awe that comes when you recognize that you are powerless but he is powerful; he does the impossible not when we’re “trying their best” or when we think we’ve “got this under control”, but he does the impossible when those who love him admit that they’re in an impossible situation.  When we admit that He is God and we are not.

This is the story that Luke is proclaiming as he opens the Gospel with this great song: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has come to his people and set them free.  He has raised up for us a mighty saviour, born of the house of his servant David” – a house built, not on might, but on unlikely people lifted out of impossible situations by an almighty God.

…Just as He promised.

And that’s the second point being made as Luke opens with this great musical number, this great hymn of the Church.  This – what we’re about to see – “is the oath God swore to our forefather Abraham”. 

The message of Christmas, the message of the Gospels, is that God keeps his word. 

Now, it might not be as we expect – and that’s part of the point.  In our Bibles we just need to flip a few pages to see where God’s promises were fulfilled.  But, for the people of Israel, for Zechariah and Elizabeth standing here on centre stage, it’s been 700 years since the prophets said the Messiah would come.  700 years.  That’s like someone making a promise to your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother in the 1300s; it would take a lot of faith for you today to wait for that promise to be delivered; but that’s where we have to remember that God’s timescale isn’t ours; as we sing, a thousand years for Him are like an evening, as the ever-rolling stream of time carries its’ sons away.

But God swore an oath.  Have you ever sworn an oath?  Have you ever made the declaration that your very life and freedom depend on what you’re about to say?  Now, imagine, God, the very Creator of life, has such a plan for our Redemption that He, the Eternal One, swears an oath – swears on His Life – that his people, the holy and righteous, will be free.  Free from the hands of our enemies; free to worship him without fear, all the days of our life.

As we begin the Christmas story, as the first characters walk onto the stage, we sing “God will do the impossible”, and why?  Because this, this birth in a manger, as unlikely as it seems, is God keeping his promises – just wait and see.

And then the song closes with a surprising twist: Zechariah says “you, my child” speaking of John the Baptist, the baby that God sent to this old man and his barren wife, “You will be the prophet of the Most High”. 

That’s the twist: in each of these situations where God has intervened, where God has done the impossible, the end is the same.  Your life is not your own.  When you admit you’re powerless; when you accept God’s promises, you become part of God’s plan.

This child from this barren womb would be the last of the Old Testament prophets, born to prepare the way for the Lord, to preach salvation by the forgiveness of sins.

John the Baptist is no hero: he’s a strange man living in the desert wearing camel skin and eating locusts; he’s not what you want your child to be when they grow up.  But, by the grace of God, he’s an essential part: it’s through Him that God reveals Jesus as his beloved Son when he is baptized in the River Jordan.

Do you ever wonder about your purpose? 

I’m not talking about work or ‘success’ – after all, by all accounts, John was a madman in the desert. 

But, as we prepare for Christmas, as we prepare for Christ to enter our lives in our own day, once we accept that we are powerless and depend on God for the impossible; when we finally come to believe that God will keep his promises, then the clear message of Christmas is that our lives are not our own; that each of us has a purpose, each of us, as we acknowledge God as Lord, has a part to play in God’s plan, a part in this great musical, this great drama playing out from the foundation of the world.

That’s why a wrinkled old man and his wife will hold the baby that baptizes Jesus. 

That’s why a teenaged mom lays the Saviour of the world in a bed of hay

That’s why you and me have been called to bring the Good News of healing, and forgiveness, and freedom from the past and fear of the future to a world …and neighbours… who don’t know that God will do the impossible; who don’t know that God keeps his promises; who don’t know that they, if they’re willing, have a part in this story too.

This is the first song of Christmas, and it’s no “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”, but it’s more than a classic – these are words to live by, words to teach our children, words to bring to the ends of the earth, as we prepare, one day, to see our Saviour face to face, when, like the shepherds and the angels above, we fall on our knees and veil our faces as we come and adore Him, as we worship Christ, our Risen King.

Gospel Lesson: Luke 1:5-24a
Hymns: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence”
and “Lo, He comes with clouds descending” (Easily sung to the tune Regent Square (“Angels from the Realms of Glory”) if the traditional tune is unknown).

The general idea for this series — but not the content — is borrowed from Alistair Begg’s book The Christmas Playlist

Remembrance: A Call to Duty

925 years ago, the Church, entangled with kingdoms and governments, called for crusaders, saying it was a Christian man’s duty to fight for the name of God in the Middle East.  About 2 million died.

401 years ago, the Thirty Years’ War erupted in Europe, a war between Catholics and Protestants.  Each church and country declaring that it was a man’s duty to fight for their understanding of God.  About 5 million died from fighting and famine.

105 years ago, clergy in pulpits across this country proclaimed that it was a person’s Christian duty to defend the global empire that secured our prosperity, as the “war to end all wars” erupted, and some 24 million combatants and civilians lost their lives, and 214,000 Canadians – then over 2.5% of our population – were killed or wounded.

80 years ago, once again, the Church declared that it was a person’s duty to take up arms, not in the name of God or Empire, but for the cause of “Freedom”, as a full 10% of Canadians entered the armed forces, as upwards of 100 million people worldwide lost their lives directly or indirectly in that war.

Then, as we entered the Cold War, opinions changed.  The Church, and society at large, was unsure of its position, until, around 1985, when the churches of North America generally agreed a Christian’s duty was, as we recited last week in our Baptismal Vows, a duty to “strive for justice and peace among all people”, while “persevering in resisting evil”.  Tens of thousands of Canadians still answered their country’s call to serve in Korea, then the Gulf, then Yugoslavia and Somalia, returning home broken and bruised, but now without the heroes’ welcome or widespread support that helped their parents’ generation return from World War II.

And, the story continues, as our country and her allies deployed again to the Middle East, and even today, our Armed Forces list 33 ongoing peacekeeping and other operations at home, in Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

There’s no question.  War is a difficult and complex matter.  And there’s also no question, as we look back, that whenever the church forgets its purpose and identity and simply becomes a shadow or echo of the state, our fallen humanity, our temptations to pride and greed lead us, over and over again, down the dangerous path of thinking that God is on our side, as though we were the ones with the eternal plan.  We forget so quickly that the good news is the opposite: that God calls and invites us to be on His side.

Why we Remember

On this Remembrance Sunday, the Church calls us to gather with several intentions. 

First, as the People of God have done since Issac told Jacob about God’s Covenant with Abraham, we gather to recite the story of how we got here; a story that includes both great blessings at God’s hand, as well as great atrocities in the name of ‘empire’ as certain regiments were deemed less valuable based on their heritage, and sent to their doom. 

As the prophets of old recounted both the good and the bad to call God’s people to obedience, it’s our duty to remember the good and the bad, as we look back and see that there is no “war to end all wars”, and until Christ returns, no amount of deterrence or rational debate can save a distraught people from following the rantings and calls to war of a crazed leader.  We gather to remember our story.

Second, we remember not just our history, but the great sacrifices of those who gave so much.  And perhaps we serve their memories best if we don’t romanticize it too much.  They were brave, they were courageous, they fought for the cause of freedom against oppression and evil.  But they were also curious, in search of adventure, excited to leave their small quiet town and see the world; young men and women – even boys lying about their age – who, serving their country, traded youth for the horrors of war, as many never came home, and all came home changed, wounded by the physical and psychological scars of warring humanity.

And, having remembered our story and having recalled the sacrifice of those who died, thirdly, this is a day of prayer.  This is a day of longing, as we pray that these sacrifices will not be repeated.

Church and State:
‘Already’ and ‘Not Yet’

War, it seems, is an inevitable fact of life in our fallen world.  And it is good and right for us to honour those who serve, protect, and defend us from threats foreign and domestic.  As we are taught by the scriptures, the worldly authorities are a part of the God-given order – even though crowns and thrones may perish and kingdoms rise and wane.

And if there’s a lesson a Christian today can learn from the long, sad history of the church and state as strange bedfellows in support of war, it’s that the Christian position, the Gospel position, our position, doesn’t fit well in any worldly camp.  In no way can the Body of Christ justify marching out in the name of worldly empires: after all, we must remember that our conflict is not against flesh and blood – our fellow humanity; no, our conflict is against evil and the spiritual forces of wickedness.

At the same time, we neglect our Gospel call to be a city on a hill, a light to enlighten the nations, and to be the messengers of peace if we bury our heads in the sand; and our task to bring the Good News of peace in Christ to the ends of the earth means that we, like those first apostles, must find ourselves on the dangerous frontlines between justice and injustice, between peace and the evils of war.

And there’s an important theological idea that explains this difficult position in which we find ourselves.  It’s summarized in three simple words: already… not yet.

As we proclaimed last week, Christ has already defeated death and the grave… but we are not yet able to see that defeat on this side of the veil between time and eternity.

God has already built that kingdom where swords and weapons of war are beaten into plows to provide for the needy, that land where lion and lamb, men and women, slave and free, of all races and languages and nations live peaceably side by side, where wars and rumours of wars are no more… but we are not yet there to experience it.

We, here today, are by baptism already made full members of the Kingdom of God, that one true kingdom that endures while all the others, like every nation in history, rises and falls, as one day, even our own great nation will pass away.  But, we are not yet present in that Kingdom, and as such are called to live as resident aliens in this land, subject to its laws, and active in its society.

And that Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, of which you and I are already citizens, has a crucial difference.

In this world, the call comes to serve our country, for patriotism: to serve our fatherland, to serve and protect the crown, the structures, the institutions, and the government.

But the Kingdom of God doesn’t ask for patriotism.  Patriotism is for the kingdoms of this world.

…In junior high English class, we read the classic poem “Dulce et Decorum Est pro patria mori” – it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country; what the poet and World War I veteran William Owen described as “the old lie”, preached from pulpits as young men shipped off to war.

But the message of the Lamb of God, our Lord, is this: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  But, my friends, it doesn’t stop there, for this is no airy-fairy love; this isn’t about positive thinking or happy thoughts.  For he continues, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”.[1]

This is no catch phrase.

No, the very Kingdom of God – the new Jerusalem, the new Heaven and the new Earth, that country where the lion and the lamb lie side by side – is built around, founded upon, the man who laid down his life for his friends – even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Our eternal hope, our very faith, is founded on the one who willingly, without compulsion, entered a battle that was not his own – but which would never be won without him – so that those who were oppressed by the forces of evil could know the freedom of justice and peace.

And, if we are to be included ourselves, then “friends” isn’t just those with whom we like to spend time; the word there is companions, associates, those who choose to be on the same side.

Greater love has no one than this.

Our Duty

So, even in 2019, with church and society having learned so much about the horrors of war, we as Christians are called to duty.

Not to fight for the name of the God of Peace, as though that’s what God desires. 
Not to fight for the prideful divisions that keep the church divided in ministry and witnesses.
Not to fight for empire, or even for the political ideals of freedom or democracy, as every empire one day passes away.

Our duty, as those already citizens of the Kingdom of God, is to love this hurting world so much that we are willing to lay down our life, in imitation of our Lord.

Our duty, as those blessed with God’s provision, is not to hoard what we have been given, but to sow from our freedom and bounty so that others, even those under oppression in foreign lands, may reap what we’ve sown.  That, as we read in the Gospel, when that great harvest comes, we may all rejoice together in what the Lord has done.[2]

So, this day, let us commit ourselves to remember: to remember the great story, the honourable and the horrific, that has brought us to this day, and let us pledge never to forget God’s goodness to us through it all.

Let us commit to remember those men and women, from every walk of life, who sacrificed for the freedoms we enjoy; those freedoms that, if we’re not careful, we and those who come after us can so easily take for granted.

And, as those citizens of the Kingdom of God, living – for now – as foreigners in this world and, by God’s grace, as citizens of this great land of Canada, let us long for our promised peace, yearning for an end to our divisions, and living as those who, when called, would take up our cross and bear it to the end for the sake of our brothers and sisters.

Will you persevere in resisting evil…?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people…?

To which we responded: I will, with God’s help.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget.

[1] John 15:12-13

[2] John 4:31-38

The Cheering Crowd of Saints

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  Hebrews 12:1-2

Once each year, Christians around the world observe the Feast of All Saints, an opportunity for us to stop and think about what it is that we believe when we recite our faith in “the communion of saints” in the Creed.

All Saints, or in the older English, All Hallows, which comes each year on the first of November, is a Christian celebration going back to the late 300s, when Christians would remember the great heroes of the faith, the God-given examples of men and women who were not afraid to stand up for what they believe in, who were not ashamed to serve the weak and the poor, and who were not afraid to be rejected by those who are powerful in the eyes of the world.

The Church, from an early age, celebrated these heroes as inspiration for our own Christian pilgrimage – ordinary, imperfect men and women from all walks of life, who followed in the footsteps of our Lord, and in whose footsteps we ourselves now walk along that narrow path of discipleship.

For centuries, All Saints, or All Hallows, was a major high-point in the year.  In fact, the celebration lasted over three days, and even now, if you visit France, Spain, Portugal, or pretty much anywhere in South America, you’d encounter a public holiday with parades and special family meals. 

For many Christians around the world, there are two parts to this celebration: first, we remember those heroes who are examples that we can follow as we also strive to imitate Christ; then, as we did last night, we remember before God those who have died, praying for the repose of our loved ones, as we entrust them to the mercy of God in the hope of the resurrection. 

Sadly, in this country, that deeply meaningful custom is largely forgotten. 

For centuries, in England, Portugal, and parts of Northern Europe, on the eve of All Saints or All Hallows – that is, Hallow’s Eve or Halloween – children would go door to door, singing hymns or even praying litanies, knocking on doors to pray for the departed relatives and loved ones of each family, and in exchange, receive little sweet treats, “soul cakes” they were called.  In some places in England, groups would even dress in costume and perform a short play about death and resurrection, where those representing the saints of God would defeat an actor playing the Devil, reminding the audience of Christ’s triumph over death and the grave.

That, of course, was the root of Halloween, which has lost it’s Christian mooring altogether – if a child knocked on your door asking to pray for your family and your departed loved ones, I doubt many of us would even know how to respond!

On this day, as we remember and celebrate the Saints of God, I think there are two questions for us to answer.  First, who are the saints?  And secondly, why does it matter?

Simply put, the saints are those who are “set apart” for Christ.

The saints are the holy people of God, and the whole idea of “sacredness” means someone or something that is dedicated and set apart for the work and service of God.

Of course, there are those saints known to all Christians around the world – Peter, Andrew, James, Thomas, Paul and the other apostles, those first messengers who founded and were the first bishops of first churches in Rome, Greece, Jerusalem, India, and the cities around the Mediterranean.  The evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Those biblical examples of faith: St. Mary, St. John the Baptist, Sts. Mary and Martha of Bethany.

But it’s also important not to limit the definition of “saint” too much – after all, the great news of the Gospel is not that God calls perfect people, but that God calls and equips everyday people, the only requirement being that they’re willing to follow: if Peter, who sank in the sea and publicly denied Christ not once, but three times could be a Saint; if Paul, who persecuted the Church and held the coats of those who stoned Stephen the Deacon for his faith in Jesus could become a Saint, then there’s hope for all of us if we’re willing to follow.

God raises up saints in every age – not that any of them are perfect in their own right, but that they are examples of what it means to live a life that is sacred, that is “set apart” to the service of God.

In each generation, the Church looks to those who have gone before, who have finished their race, and sees that God has given us examples of what it means to be a disciple in our own age, of what it looks like to love your neighbour as yourself, to offer yourself in the service of others, to repent of sin, and to take up your cross and follow Christ.

The saints are not perfect – only God is perfect.  But the saints are important examples to encourage us to persevere in following Christ.

Holiness is contageous

There’s another important idea, from the Old Testament, about who the saints are.  Going back to the book of Genesis, there is the idea that sacredness is spread by coming into contact with something that’s holy.  The People of the Old Covenant built altars – sacred sites – on the mountains where God revealed himself. 

In a way, the holiness of the presence of God is contagious – in Exodus God tells Moses that the altar in the place of worship must be set apart for no everyday use, and that anything that touches the altar becomes holy in the eyes of God.[1]  The same goes for the sacred vessels used in the worship that God directs,[2] and in Ezekiel, God directs that the priests should have special garments reserved for their ministry at the altar, which become holy by their use in the holy place.[3]

It’s this idea that St. Paul has in mind when he refers to all the baptized – to you and to me – as “saints”.  By the grace of God, we’re made members of Christ’s body; through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we’re invited to approach the throne of God boldly, as we receive the holy food and drink of Christ’s body and blood – and as we all know, you are what you eat.

Who are the saints?    The saints are those who have answered the call to follow Christ, and in doing so, are examples to us in our journey. 

Now, to be fair, there are some who are uncomfortable giving much attention to the saints; and certainly, there are entire denominations that at times have gone overboard.  But, if the way is narrow, and Christ is the one name by which we are saved, then to follow in the footsteps of those who follow Jesus is to walk in Christ’s own footsteps as well.  And it’s by the grace of God that our faith isn’t some distant memory in a far-off culture; but God gives examples and heroes of faith to every generation and every language and culture, that we may follow where he leads.

The Role of the Saints in our own Pilgrimage

So, if we know who the saints are, we might still ask, why does it matter?

Well, first, I’d say that an understanding of the communion of the saints is essential because it proves and even requires that “my faith” cannot be about ‘me and Jesus’.

Now don’t get me wrong: it’s important that each of us decides to follow Jesus, that each of us has a relationship with God.

But the Christian faith is anything but personal in the sense of being individualistic. 

There are those who believe that we have to search for Jesus, to “find him”, as though he’s been hiding.  There are those who teach that we are to read the scriptures and come to our own conclusions, as though there isn’t 2000 years of continuous, unbroken teaching and preaching that has come before us.

When we decide to follow Jesus, it’s not as though we’re walking through a food court picking what we might have for lunch.  When we follow Jesus, we join a family, as we receive the inheritance of those who have gone before us, and are entrusted with the great responsibility of handing that inheritance down to those who come after.

The whole idea is not that me and Jesus are now best buddies, but that I am joined to the whole family of those who, across space and time, have joined themselves to God’s covenant community. 

Or, think about it this way: baptism isn’t just about you being washed from your sins.

Baptism is about us, together, being led through the Red Sea, from death and slavery to the land of life and freedom, though the one offering of Christ for the life of the world.

In our baptism, we join ourselves to Christ, and as we allow ourselves to come into contact with the Holy One and to follow where he leads, that holiness is contagious, and we ourselves become holy.

The other side of it is this: as we proclaim on All Souls Day and really every time we gather, death is not the end.  Our eyes don’t close when we die. It’s the exact opposite: when we die, the veil is lifted and, for the first time, we see God as he truly is, and we are fully known.

The Book of Hebrews describes the saints as this “great cloud of witnesses” – but I don’t think that’s the best translation of the Greek.  The word translated there as “witnesses” also means a crowd of spectators in the arena, watching a sporting event.

Now think about it: as we heard last week, St. Paul in his second letter to Timothy describes the faith as a race that we run, a race where we are to keep our eyes on the prize that is Jesus, as we run with endurance the course that lies ahead. 

This “great cloud of witnesses” – the saints – are those who have finished the race ahead of us, and now, with Christ, stand at the end of the course, cheering us on.  In the book of Revelation we read that these witnesses cry out around the altar of God, saying “how long”, praying for us to finish the race.

In just a few minutes we will renew our baptismal covenant.  All Saints Day is the opportunity for us to remember our own baptismal covenant, and to recommit ourselves to live as the holy ones of God, and to reunite ourselves with the Body of Christ, that great and wonderful family that extends across all nations, across all times, in which we are all brothers and sisters, and those who go before cheer on those who follow after, just as we, running the race today, pick up those who stumble, carry the burdens of those who mourn, freely give even the shirt off our back to the one who needs it, and pass the torch to these little ones.

The Lord is glorious in his saints.  Let us live as those who are part of this family, let us live as those who are being made holy, even as we this morning are invited to recommit ourselves, to approach the altar, and to receive the body and blood of Christ.

To God be the Glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Exodus 29:37

[2] Exodus 30:29

[3] Ezekiel 44:19