What Then Must We Do?

April 29, 2018
Bible Text: Act 8:26-40 | Preacher: Rev. Dr. Glenn Robitaille SERMON: April 29th, 2018 Glenn A. Robitaille, MDiv, DMin, RP, MPCC Scripture: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8 TITLE: What Then Must We Do? A. Today is Mission Sunday in the Presbyterian Church with an emphasis on the Indigenous peoples of Canada. - like many with French heritage in the Penetanguishene area, I have Metis ancestry (likely on both sides of my family). I have been aware of this fact all of my life without thinking too deeply about it until I was asked to share an office with Pierre Cascagnette—a Metis man who worked with us at Waypoint—who was filling a pilot position for a Coordinator of Aboriginal Spiritual Services. - it was Pierre who first enlightened me about the sixties scoop that saw indigenous families ripped apart and their children adopted out to well-meaning non-native parents. I watched a documentary about this recently, and it is clear that many of these adoptive parents were well-meaning and generous people. - others were, of course, abusive and cruel and adopted children for reasons other than compassion or concern or the desire to have a child, like to be farm hands or for more insidious purposes. - I have worked with a number of the victims of the sixties scoop at Waypoint, and it has had a devastating impact on many. The scoop itself was just the tail end of the John A. McDonald solution that began with putting indigenous children into residential schools run mostly by faith groups, and westernized. - the thinking was, get them away from their families, teach them English (or French), educate them in the ways of the European and they will be integrated. - few, if any, stopped to think about how they would feel if their children were being taken from them by an invader to be reprogrammed in the ways of the conqueror. Again, considering the way of the world at that time and the lack of cultural awareness and the parochial views of Christians at that time (that any way of thinking other than our way of thinking would land someone in hell) it is possible to conclude many were doing what they thought was right, even though with the benefit of time and post mortem analysis, it was fully and unarguably wrong. - it was the cherry on the top of one of the single greatest acts of cultural genocide in recorded history and, until recent times, hardly represented a blip in the awareness of the average Canadian who could not connect the dots of the present extreme poverty, crippling social problems and intergenerational dependence that has crippled those living on Canadian reservations to this day, often in conditions many would find hard to imagine, with those earlier abuses. I didn’t know any of that until I shared an office with Pierre, and later with John Rice—a third degree Midewiwin Healer from Wasauksing Community in Parry Sound—and Austin Mixemong—also 3rd degree Midewiwin—from the Chimnissing Community, more commonly known as Christian Island, or the Beausoleil First Nation. - at first I was shocked, and then a little angry; but then it occurred to me for the first time: That this didn’t just happen to them. Relatives of mine experienced and are experiencing the impact of these actions. - and let me tell you, it has a whole different importance when it’s close and personal. B. For instance, this past Monday a deranged individual in a rental van drove up on the sidewalk on Yonge Street and killed 10 people and injured 15 more. - this has been a common occurrence around the world for some years now and sad, each and every time. - all of these acts made me shake my head and say, “What a world.” But this one happened within blocks of where my son works. - my heart went up into my mouth and I texted him saying, “Wow, strange day in Toronto, are you okay?” and then sat there fixed on my screen waiting for that reply that said, “Yes, all is good.” - it was much different when I had personal vulnerability in the act and a stake in its outcome. - it’s much different when it affects me. That doesn’t make me a bad person. - obviously I care about the families in Humboldt and in Syria and in other areas of the world where great tragedy has struck recently and people are being affected. - I just care more when it affects me or mine…as does everyone. - otherwise, with all of the suffering and injustice in the world, no one would ever have leave to take pleasure in anything. The question that faces us when we consider the injustices of the world is What Then Must We Do? - Leo Tolstoy wrote a book with that title, as did Frances Schaeffer (How Should We Then Live?), and a host of others. - Google the phrase and you will see everything from Bible passages to websites, philosophers to theologians all jumping off the question into a variety of conversations and considerations. But that really is the question: What then must we do? - the sixties scoop and residential schools happened, as did the horrible abuses committed in Indian Hospitals as they were called (experiments conducted on them similar to the atrocities committed by the Nazis). - Indigenous communities all across the continent still suffer the consequences of being ghettoized and marginalized, and a strong belief still exists that the present circumstances are of their own making. And without question, just as with any social group, individuals do exist who throw gas on the fire of existing disadvantages and exacerbate things; and others rise above and excel, like a phoenix from the ashes. - but if the die was cast during colonization with the effect of “clipping the wings” of an entire culture, how do we as Christians respond to the perception that many of our indigenous friends now simply refuse to fly? - how do we respond to the question, “What then must we do?” C. Two of the passages read this morning spoke to me in differing ways. - I was particularly struck by the reaction of the Ethiopian in Acts 8. - probably because I identify with his learning style. I am going to assume that his chariot was stopped while he was reading from Isaiah, although I have passed people on the highway with books and magazines on the steering column who were reading while they were driving. - and hardly a day goes by that I don’t pass someone who believes they are the one person who can text while driving and not kill somebody. What resonates with me is the reading and reflection—the mulling of ideas and the spirit of curiosity. - he wanted to know what the passage he was reading meant, and he was obviously interested enough in the answer that he was willing to accept feedback from an absolute stranger who had nothing but the good fortune to notice what he was reading going for him. - curiosity and a willingness to engage on the subject at hand was present with both individuals. Here in Penetanguishene and area, we are within close proximity to seven First Nations communities and are living on land that was once given to these nations. - we are here as the result of broken treaties and promises that occurred well before our time, and I would think most of us are not even aware that these abuses occurred. We hear about land rights disputes on the news (very recently, the Coldwater Treaty was a focus), and about how indigenous women shut down site 41 by fulfilling their roles as keepers of the water by protecting the world’s purest aqua fir that runs under Springwater Township. - we hear our politicians say things at public gatherings like, “I would like to acknowledge the traditional territory of the Anishinabek, which includes the Odawa, Ojibwe and Pottawatomi Nations, collectively known as the Three Fires Confederacy, the Haudenosaunne and Wendat nations, and the presence of other First Nations, Métis and Inuit residing in the Simcoe/Muskoka territory,” and perhaps wonder why they are doing that. - it’s part of the reconciliation efforts that you can read about at reconciliationcanada.ca if you are interested with the goal of improving relationships between Canadians. In the words of Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, “Our future and the well-being of our children rests in the kinds of relationships we build today.” - and I suspect that is why the Presbyterian Church in Canada chose this as a focus for this missions Sunday. - change begins with curiosity and a willingness to dig a little deeper into the larger story and to do something constructive in response. D. In 1 John 4:20-21 it says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” - What does loving our brother (or our fellow human beings in the intended context of this passage) mean when it comes to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s promise to Indigenous people? - I believe the first and most important thing we can do is embrace the opportunity to learn about the impact of colonization and the challenges our First Nations Communities are experiencing, and make whatever small shifts we can in our own thinking and practice. In 1994, the 120th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada believed it began with adopting the following statement, which both owns the abuses of the past and calls for practical remedies. - I find the statement, written well ahead of the curve where reconciliation is concerned, deeply profound and transparent and among the best I have read: It will take a minute or two, but I am going to read it; and I have hard copies available for those who would like to read it more closely: 1. We, the 120th General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada, seeking the guidance of the Spirit of God, and aware of our own sin and shortcomings, are called to speak to the Church we love. We do this, out of new understandings of our past not out of any sense of being superior to those who have gone before us, nor out of any sense that we would have done things differently in the same context. It is with humility and in great sorrow that we come before God and our Aboriginal brothers and sisters with our confession. 2. We acknowledge that the stated policy of the Government of Canada was to assimilate Aboriginal peoples to the dominant culture, and that The Presbyterian Church in Canada co-operated in this policy. We acknowledge that the roots of the harm we have done are found in the attitudes and values of western European colonialism, and the assumption that what was not yet moulded in our image was to be discovered and exploited. As part of that policy we, with other churches, encouraged the government to ban some important spiritual practices through which Aboriginal peoples experienced the presence of the creator God. For the Church’s complicity in this policy we ask forgiveness. 3. We recognize that there were many members of The Presbyterian Church in Canada who, in good faith, gave unstintingly of themselves in love and compassion for their Aboriginal brothers and sisters. We acknowledge their devotion and commend them for their work. We recognize that there were some who, with prophetic insight, were aware of the damage that was being done and protested, but their efforts were thwarted. We acknowledge their insight. For the times we did not support them adequately nor hear their cries for justice, we ask forgiveness. 4. We confess that The Presbyterian Church in Canada presumed to know better than Aboriginal peoples what was needed for life. The Church said of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, “If they could be like us, if they could think like us, talk like us, worship like us, sing like us, and work like us, they would know God and therefore would have life abundant.” In our cultural arrogance we have been blind to the ways in which our own understanding of the Gospel has been culturally conditioned, and because of our insensitivity to Aboriginal cultures, we have demanded more of the Aboriginal people than the Gospel requires, and have thus misrepresented Jesus Christ who loves all peoples with compassionate, suffering love that all may come to God through him. For the Church’s presumption we ask forgiveness. 5. We confess that, with the encouragement and assistance of the Government of Canada, The Presbyterian Church in Canada agreed to take the children of Aboriginal peoples from their own homes and place them in residential schools. In these schools, children were deprived of their traditional ways, which were replaced with Euro-Canadian customs that were helpful in the process of assimilation. To carry out this process, The Presbyterian Church in Canada used disciplinary practices which were foreign to Aboriginal peoples, and open to exploitation in physical and psychological punishment beyond any Christian maxim of care and discipline. In a setting of obedience and acquiescence there was opportunity for sexual abuse, and some were so abused. The effect of all this, for Aboriginal peoples, was the loss of cultural identity and the loss of a secure sense of self. For the Church’s insensitivity we ask forgiveness. 6. We regret that there are those whose lives have been deeply scarred by the effects of the mission and ministry of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. For our Church we ask forgiveness of God. It is our prayer that God, who is merciful, will guide us in compassionate ways towards helping them to heal. 7. We ask, also, for forgiveness from Aboriginal peoples. What we have heard we acknowledge. It is our hope that those whom we have wronged with a hurt too deep for telling will accept what we have to say. With God’s guidance our Church will seek opportunities to walk with Aboriginal peoples to find healing and wholeness together as God’s people. E. On this Missions Sunday 2018, let us remember the kinds of unconscious biases that made the abuses of the past possible and the existence of such unconscious biases today that are capable of creating other abuses. - such unconscious biases exist in all of humanity and continue to create massive suffering across the world and perpetuate that suffering in our own country. Let us also determine to love our fellow human beings, whom we have seen, as evidence that we love God, whom we have not seen. - and let us love all people as they are in hope that we will all better reflect the loving nature of God as we increase in our understanding of ourselves and of those with whom we share our world.

Of Braggarts and Boasters

January 28, 2018
Bible Text: 2 Corinthians 12-1-10 | Preacher: Rev. Dr. Victor Shepherd Of Braggarts and Boasters Jeremiah 9:23-34 2nd Corinthians 12:1-10 Matthew 20:20-28 I: -- We do our best to avoid them just because we find them obnoxious. The boasters, I mean; the braggarts, the blowers. They are always blowing. We are in the middle of a worthwhile conversation when the blower spots the group and swaggers over, uninvited. (Offense #1) He “horns in” and eavesdrops on what is simply none of his business. (Offense #2) Then he butts into the conversation and takes it over, monopolizes it. Now the conversation is merely a monologue that features him. (Offense #3) You’ve been to South America? He’s been farther south than that: Antarctica. In July, no less. (July is the dead of winter in Antarctica, in case you’d forgotten.) Your daughter is graduating from university? His daughter has just been awarded a post-doctoral fellowship at a real university. You have spoken to the local bank manager about a household loan? Only yesterday he was speaking to the president of True Blue Securities – “Just to check up on the off-shore portion of the medium risk part of my investment portfolio” – he informs us with pretended nonchalance. The man is a pain-in-the-neck. We find him an irritant. Disciples of Jesus, however, regard him much more seriously and see him as much more sinister. Disciples of Jesus, we understand, have grasped how serious and sinister boasting is and why. In Romans 1 the apostle Paul lists the concrete expressions of human depravity evident in men and women who share in the world’s corruption. He speaks of fallen humankind as envious, murderous, quarrelsome, heartless, faithless, ruthless, abusive of parents, slanderous (it sounds dreadful, doesn’t it) and boastful. Is boasting really in the same league as cruelty and slander and faithlessness and parent-abuse? The apostle thinks it is. In his second letter to Timothy Paul does it again: “Lovers of self, lovers of money, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, boasters – holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.” Then he adds the clincher: “Avoid such people.” We are to avoid them before they corrupt us. Lest we think Paul is ridiculous in being upset over bragging we should hear from James, brother of our Lord himself. James says, “You boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” Evil? To be sure, boasting is annoying; it’s offensive. But evil? It’s evil just because it ruins discipleship. Jesus insisted that his disciples reject all titles of honour and all positions of privilege. Titles of honour and positions of privilege twist our thinking and shrivel our heart. Titles of honour and positions of privilege invariably lead to bragging, to inflated superiority, to pomposity. Titles of honour and positions of privilege invariably cause us to disdain those who don’t have titles of honour and positions of privilege. Quite simply, the disciple who has begun to brag is making herself useless to the kingdom of God. After all, Jesus washed feet. John Wesley ate with the poorest people he could find and ate the same food as they. Robert McClure, United Church missionary surgeon all his working life, told a highschool graduating class in Mississauga (I had been asked to go along to pray) that throughout his missionary service in India he’d ridden the Third-Class section of the train. He laughingly told the teenagers and their parents that he’d done this for two reasons: one, there wasn’t a Fourth Class; two, he had noticed that the Third-Class section of the train travelled at the same speed as the First-Class. Scripture includes bragging in its recitation of wickedness for one reason: bragging is the self-advertisement of the person who has come to despise the way of discipleship, since discipleship entails foot washing and other forms of uncomplaining service. Bragging is the self-advertisement of someone who prefers the company of the self-important, the so-called superior. Jesus insists we are to walk the Way of discipleship with him. Boasters don’t like to walk; they prefer to strut. The apostles, not merely James and Paul whom we’ve mentioned today but all of them together; the apostles, like the Lord they love, see a stark “either/or” where we prefer to see gradations. The either/or they put before us is as stark as any: either we follow Jesus on the Way of self-forgetful service or we brag. Is there nothing in between? They think not. Our Lord thinks not. II: -- Then why does Paul, who condemns boasting, also speak of a kind of boasting, a different sort of boasting, that he believes to be good? Translators of the bible, aware that we might be confused to read of both a boasting that is condemned because evil and a boasting that is commended because good, often translate boasting in the good sense by the English word “glorying.” Where the Greek text tells us that Paul boasts of the congregations under his care, modern English translations tell us that he glories in these congregations. He glories in these congregations for one reason: God is manifestly at work in them. God is doing something in them. Paul glories not in himself (this would be boasting in the reprehensible sense) but in God’s work among the people Paul loves. On another occasion Paul cries, “It’s necessary that I boast; I must boast.” But then he doesn’t start blowing about himself. Just the opposite. So moved is he at the manifest working of God in the people he cherishes that he must glory in, he’s impelled to glory in, the goodness and grace of God. He feels he must publicly extol God and praise God for God’s patience with fractious people; praise God for God’s perseverance amidst obstreperous people; praise God for God’s penetration of stony hearts otherwise impenetrable – all of which eventually redounds to the praise of God’s glory. This is what the apostle means when he speaks of boasting in the good sense, “boasting in the Lord.” Then he brings it closer to home. He must boast of, glory in, where God is most at work in his own life. And where is God most at work in his own life? In Paul’s weakness. It is Paul’s weakness that God has taken up and used most wonderfully. “If I’m going to boast at all,” he says, “I’m going to boast of, glory in, my weakness, for it’s precisely here that God works most effectively.” If we were asked right now where we thought God was most at work in our life or had been most at work, where we thought we could most clearly see the hand of God tellingly at work, almost certainly we’d mention something positive: the new job we landed with a large raise, the scholarship our teenager won, the international athletic recognition our daughter finally gained, the good fortune (as it were) that turned up when we least expected it. Would it ever occur to any of us to name something negative, something painful, something confusing, even un-understandable? Would it occur to us to name a “downer,” a real “downer,” adding that we were certain God was especially effective here, in the “pits” of our life? Paul tells us he boasts of his weakness, glories in his weakness. What’s his weakness? We don’t know for sure. We do know that he was an inept public speaker. He was so very ineloquent, in fact, that the congregation in Corinth laughed at him. His public addresses were devoid of rhetorical smoothness and polish and flourishes. Hearers snickered. As for his physique, not even the costliest fitness club could have done anything for him. When the Corinthian Christians saw the bow-legged, under-sized man from Tarsus they laughed. (As Christians, of course, they shouldn’t have been laughing at any human being. But then the Corinthian Christians, we all know, were immature and shallow.) Paul, needless to say, would never be called to a prominent pulpit today. In fact he wouldn’t be called to any pulpit. Even though his speech and physique were laughable, there was something about Paul that the Corinthian Christians didn’t laugh at just because they craved it for themselves: his vivid, ever-so-vivid, psychedelic spiritual experience. It had been graphic, intense, striking. It had stamped itself upon him so memorably that he would never be able to forget it. “Caught up to the third heaven” is how he speaks of it. It had been an experience of such consummate intensity and intimacy and weight that no word could describe it or come close to it. When asked about it Paul could barely croak, “I heard what cannot be told; I saw what may not be uttered.” Myself, I have had a psychedelic experience only once. It was drug-induced. Following the automobile accident that killed three people, fractured my spine, and left me hospitalized for 45 consecutive days, I was given a narcotic several times to reduce pain (this on a physician’s order). The cumulative effect of the narcotic overtook me. Not only was I in no pain (one night only), on this particular night in hospital I was euphoric. I floated. Better than that, I flew. Better still, I soared; I soared to regions and reaches that I haven’t visited since. (Obviously I’ve never forgotten the experience.) As a result of his apprehension at the hand of Jesus Christ Paul had undergone something even more vivid – without narcotics. He could have bragged about it before the congregation in Corinth, since those people admired anyone who had been on such a “trip.” Yet before these shallow people the apostle glories in one matter only: his weakness. He knows it’s at the point of his weakness – whatever it is – that the power of the Spirit rests upon him. As he continues to glory in his weakness (boast of this) he continues to hear God speak to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, since my power is made perfect in your weakness.” III: -- Then it’s precisely at the point of your weakness and mine that God is going to work most effectively. But this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we Christians are aware that God did his most effective work precisely where, from a human perspective, he couldn’t do anything. God did his mightiest work, his “all-mightiest” work (he reconciled a wayward world to himself) precisely where, in the person of his Son, he was utterly helpless. Who, we must consider soberly, who is weaker, more helpless, and therefore more useless apparently, than a beaten-up man unable so much as to wriggle while he dies between two terrorists at the city garbage dump? In the days prior to this event Jesus had insisted that the moment of his glory – his glory, no less – (I’m speaking still of the cross) was upon him. Then we too must learn to glory in our weakness, for it is here that the power of Christ rests upon us. When you had that nervous breakdown and your family (understandably) tried to protect you, and tried to cover up their own embarrassment by calling it something else; when you had that breakdown (I know, the mere memory of it is hideous,) it wasn’t an episode in which God deserted you or you had fallen out of his favour. It wasn’t a sign of unbelief or diminished faith. It was a period of weakness in which the power of Christ continued to rest upon you regardless of how you felt. What’s more, at the point of your weakness (hideous as it was to you then) others saw a vulnerability in you, even a humanness, that they hadn’t seen before. Seeing it in you freed them to admit their own vulnerability and fragility and frailty and weakness. Being freed to admit it in themselves (that is, freed from their illusion of invulnerability and superiority) was a work of grace. And no longer feeling guilty about their own weakness was another work of grace. A minister told me he went to sit with parishioners whose child had just been crushed by an automobile. As soon as he was admitted to the home his carefully rehearsed palaver deserted him. He found himself crying uncontrollably. That was all he could do. He had nothing to say. (Of course a minister who finds himself with nothing to say feels useless, since ministers often think they make their living with their mouth.) He told me he felt stupid crying like that; felt inept, and felt most unprofessional. After all, aren’t ministers accustomed to dealing with this sort of thing? Months later the parents told him his very helplessness was their greatest consolation. (In fact, had he uttered his carefully worked out palaver, from a position of strength, he would have been asked to leave.) At one time a friend of mine was the chaplain at Maplehurst Prison, in Milton. Maplehurst, like all medium-security jails in Ontario, has been upgraded to maximum security. More electronic locks and more razor wire. Maplehurst houses 400 convicts. Their average age? Twenty-two. My friend was leading a workshop aimed at equipping church people as prison visitors. She was relating the suffering servant motif of Isaiah 53 to the men she sees every day in prison. You recall Isaiah 53: “He was despised and rejected, one from whom people hide their faces…we esteemed him not.” My friend isn’t naïve: she doesn’t pretend that men are in prison because they are innocent; doesn’t pretend that men are in prison for no reason at all. They have offended, and the society-at-large has recognized their offence and reacted to it. These men have rent the social fabric; many have wounded others. The point my friend was trying to have church visitor-trainees understand was this: before the convict lands in prison for damaging something or someone, he is a frightfully wounded person himself. Long before he violates someone else, he’s been violated repeatedly himself. My friend was trying to have church folk see that in drawing near to these convicts who are despised and rejected and unesteemed we ourselves become acquainted with the presence and power and healing of God. When she had concluded her workshop she felt she had failed. She wandered off into a corner of the church hall by herself, overcome. (Subsequently she told me that for years she has felt futile, unable to convey adequately to people like you and me the extent to which convicts, dear to her, are victims themselves before they ever victimize anyone else.) Weeks later, when we leaders of the event read the evaluation sheets, we discovered that her presentation had been moving, effective beyond all appearances. It is always upon our weakness (or what we perceive to be our weakness) that the power of Christ rests. Today I have mentioned several instances where people who were embarrassed by their weakness, even humiliated by it, were yet able eventually to see how, and how fruitfully, the power of Christ rested upon their weakness. What about those instances where no less weakness is evident in us but we haven’t seen how, let alone how fruitfully, Christ’s power rests upon us? Here all we can do is trust God for what we haven’t yet seen as surely as we cannot deny what we have already seen. And so when our teenager runs off the rails and we are powerless over the development, and powerless again over our humiliation arising from it; when we are given the pink slip and the not-so-golden handshake at work and all we can do is rage uselessly about it; when…. You fill in the rest from your own experience. Even then we are going to trust the God who did his most effective work precisely when his own son was most helpless, most humiliated, and most in pain. We began today by recalling not merely how offensive bragging is, but also how dangerous it is. For bragging or boasting is the self-advertisement of those who scorn the self-forgetfulness of discipleship. In addition, braggarts always deny their own weakness and despise the weakness they see in others. Therefore we had better not boast. And yet Paul says we are to boast. We are to “boast in the Lord.” We are to glory in God’s activity within us and his power attending us. We are even to boast of or glory in our weakness, for it is here that God will use us more effectively than we have ever imagined. So reads the gospel of the Crucified One. Victor Shepherd Penetanguishene January 2018

The Old and the New

December 31, 2017
Bible Text: Luke 2: 22-40 | Preacher: Donna Drapkin Prayers of Adoration and Confession and The Lord's Prayer God of grace and glory, we praise you from the heights and from the depths; in the heavens and on the seas; in the courts of power and from the margins of society.  Your splendour shines from a manger, where the Light of the world was born to pierce the darkness.  In the fragility of flesh you are revealed to us face to face. And so we gather with all people who have glimpsed your salvation and grace. Together we worship and praise you as Creator, Son, and Spirit; Source of life, Glorious light, Wisdom of the ages. You, O God, are the source of all hope. You invite us to live in the light and to experience the splendour of your glory. We confess that we are reluctant to embrace this new life and choose instead to remain in the darkness. We allow our fears and hurts to hold us hostage and our illusions to hold us back from new and real possibilities. You offer us unconditional love, but we expect our own love to be earned. Forgive us and create us anew in the image of your Son who taught us to pray by saying: Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil - for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever, Amen Assurance of Pardon Here is the good news of the Gospel: Jesus Christ is our light and our salvation. In him we are made new. Let us give thanks to God, and be at peace with ourselves and with one another.     Scripture readings - Isaiah 61: 10 – 62:3 - Psalm 148 - Gal 4: 4-7 - Luke 2: 22-40 SERMON – 12-31-17 – The Old and the New Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be pleasing to you, O God. Amen. So it's New Year's Eve! It's hard to believe that 2017 is over. When I was a child, I sometimes thought that time was standing still, especially when something exciting like Christmas was approaching. It seemed as if the big day was taking forever to arrive. Now, as an adult, I think that time goes faster, especially when something exciting like Christmas is approaching. There never seems enough time to do all the things that I would like to. This year when I pulled out my Christmas bins to decorate our Christmas tree, on top of some decorations I found a big note that I had written to myself last year. It said, in large capital letters, “DO NOT USE THIS STUFF! KEEP IT SIMPLE?” So I heeded that excellent advice and kept our tree simpler. What I appreciate is the way my old experiences prepare me for the new. What I try to do is figure out, with God's help, what I should take with me and what I should leave behind. Our Scripture readings today reveal three faithful Israelites who were very attuned to God and to His will. Isaiah, Simeon and Anna were part of the old order, but they, too, were excited about the new things that were to come. The role of Isaiah and of the other prophets was not to predict the future the way some unscrupulous souls might claim to do. The prophets' role was to foster obedience to God's covenant among the people and to bring about repentance among the people who, like us, continually failed to live up to their good intentions. Prophets never claimed any power for themselves but did everything they could to follow God's orders, no matter how hard these might be. They lived difficult and dangerous lives but counted their personal difficulties as nothing compared to the importance of their message to the people: Remember the old ways and times when God was with you and cared for you and comforted you. If you repent and turn to God, you will experience that same comfort and love and will be able to show to the world a new thing: that God is still God of all the world. Over and over again, Isaiah talked about the importance of leaving behind the old ways of sin and moving forward into a new joyous relationship with the Creator. In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, we find many examples of this conflict between the old and the new. In the 540's B.C.E., 2 Isaiah had announced to the Jewish exiles in Babylon that God would bring about their release from captivity and return to Zion. He had even named King Cyrus of Persia as God's instrument for this purpose. However, life had become too good for some of the Jewish captives in Babylon and they didn't want to leave. They were not interested in going back to their old ways. Others chose the difficult known situation of captivity rather than take a chance that the new one would be better. This tension between the familiar old and the uncertain new is one which we see today. People live in very difficult situations because they are afraid to take a step forward to a new life. In times of adversity, it is very easy to blame God for one's suffering, to think that He does not care but Isaiah pointed out that God does care. As our scripture this morning said, God “will not keep silent”. He wanted the nations to see the Israelites as a light in the darkness, “a crown of splendour in the Lord's hand”. In 538 B.C.E., the Persians overthrew Babylon and allowed the Jewish captives to go home if they wanted to. Initially the experience of the Remnant of the Israelites who returned to their homeland was not good. They made the wrong choices of what to do. They focused on what they thought was important rather than listen to what God had asked them to do. They experienced great hardship because they didn't put God's orders first. They didn't immediately rebuild His temple in Jerusalem to show their gratitude for His leading them home. And they continued to think that it was not important to show to the world that God was Lord of all nations. Both civil and religious leaders built up their own power and wealth at the expense of the poor. They turned to their old habits, and ignored the new things that God wanted them to do. However, once again, God sent his prophet Isaiah to remind them that they were to leave behind their old self-centred ways and share the new good news with all nations that God was indeed Lord of all. Luke wrote his Gospel sometime between 59 A.D. and perhaps twenty or thirty years later. Obviously a lot of time had passed between Jesus' birth, life and crucifixion. Luke wanted to make sure that the record of the life of Jesus was accurate and he was very specific about historical events. For example, he begins Ch 2 with In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria If we wanted to write about something that happened in the 1950's, our task would be ever so much easier with all the media reports and documents available to us. Probably Luke had to rely a great deal on oral memories and he wanted to make sure that this history was not lost. By his time, the Christian church was becoming an institution and as such needed to be kept aware of God's purposes. Luke wanted to emphasize that God was very much the principal character and power in and through all the events of the life of Jesus and the early church. With Luke, old stories become new stories: an old couple is to have a child. Zechariah and Elizabeth are to have a son John just like Abraham and Sarah back in Genesis were to have Isaac. Angels announce miracles. Women like Hannah (mother of Samuel) and Mary (mother of Jesus) who were unexpectedly pregnant sing songs of praise to God. And, always, God uses ordinary people to bring in a new era of justice and mercy. According to Jewish law, following the birth of a son, the mother (in this case Mary) had to wait 40 days before going to the temple to offer sacrifice for her purification. It was about a six mile journey from Bethlehem for Mary and Joseph to complete this ritual which dated from the ancient book of Leviticus. Jesus' parents were devoted to their religion and tried to follow its precepts. The first born of both man and animal were supposed to be dedicated to the Lord. The animals were sacrificed but the human beings were to serve God throughout their lives. The Levites actually served in the place of all the firstborn males in Israel. So Mary and Joseph showed their faithfulness to these old rules in bringing to the temple their new baby boy Jesus to dedicate him to God. In the temple was an old man Simeon who had been assured by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he saw God's Christ who would be the “consolation of Israel”, the bringer of the messianic age of which Isaiah prophesied. According to Isaiah, Jesus was to be the saviour of Jews and Gentiles alike. Can you imagine the excitement and the joy on Simeon's face when he held the baby Jesus in his arms, realizing how precious he was to the world? What love and what awe he must have felt looking down into the face of the Saviour of the world. Yet in the midst of his own joy came the old knowledge that while Jesus would save the world bringing in a new era of relationship with God, it would come at terrible personal cost to both him and his mother. The prophetess Anna appears next, brought here by God to affirm Simeon's proclamation. She is very old and thanks God for sending this redeemer to his people. She also tells anyone who will listen that God is revealing himself through Jesus who has come to save them. Anna and Simeon are examples of devout Jews. They spend their time at the temple, follow the best they can the religious rules, and they are led by the Holy Spirit. They know God's promises and trust in the fulfilment of them. God is doing something new, the fulfilment of an old promise. Mary and Joseph, also devout Jews, had thought they were going to the temple for her purification and for Jesus' dedication but their encounters with Simeon and Anna must have made them pause and reflect on how old promises had come to life in a brand new way. So what do these people have to say to us on the day before the New Year begins? These stories are old. When we read them, we think, “Okay, now, why did Luke think it was important to include these two brief mentions of two old people?” We wonder what the essence of Isaiah's message was. What was it that kept Isaiah, Simeon and Anna so devoted to God? If we look at the characters of Isaiah, Simeon and Anna we begin to see similarities. All are open to the Holy Spirit and let themselves be guided by it. They do not care what other people think. They know they have a mission and in spite of probable opposition from their families and friends, they persevere. Theirs is a lonely life, bereft of the usual comforts and perks one might expect. Anna spends all her time in the temple worshipping God, fasting and praying for the redemption of Israel. Simeon has waited patiently his whole life to see the Christ and finally views him as just a baby. There is no conquering hero riding on a fine horse, leading a military life and running the Romans out of the country but instead he holds in his arms a baby and he praises God for the light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of Israel. Isaiah, the greatest of the prophets, also brings God's message of salvation to his people. Yet, old or new, often the people do not listen or heed the advice these three offer. What are the truths in their messages? Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to learn. Often the old messages are the ones to which we cling. Many of us can almost recite the nativity story of Jesus. This story rests in our hearts because it touches our hearts. It is old but every year it is new again. Isaiah talked about “a new thing”, the return of the Israelites to their homeland and to the covenant with God. They had forgotten the old and were unwilling to seek out new ways of living. Simeon saw the old oppression of Rome and looked forward to the Messiah whom God would send to save the world from oppression. Anna kept sharing her hope for the future. That is the real message today. Jesus was the incarnation of all the previous promises rolled into one. What became important was not the law and its impossible fulfilment. What was important was the old message that God was prepared to do a new thing for His people. He would provide a Saviour who would lead us into a new relationship with God since we had such a hard time living according to the old code. And why would God freely offer his forgiveness through his son? Because He loves us so much. Of course we are flawed. Of course we have made mistakes. But, as Isaiah said, God is doing a new thing and that is promising us a new life of joy and grace if we just leave behind the old and move forward to the new, confident that, no matter what, God loves us and wants us as his very own. As we begin the new year, 2018, let us remember that God still loves us just as we are. When we turn to him, we can be forgiven for our old sins and enter into a brand new life of blessings. Take that forgiveness with you into 2018. Leave the old behind and have a Happy New Year! WE RESPOND IN FAITH Hymn #811 – Standing at the portal... This morning we will be lifting up to God those people who are on our prayer list. Every Wednesday in our Bible Study prayer time we do this as well, and after each name, we say Amen. I would ask that when we get to this part of the Prayers of the People that you say Amen as well. The prayer list is in your leaflet if you want to follow along. You may not know who these people are nor why they are on the list, but God knows each one of them as He also knows everything about each of us and we trust that He will act on our petitions as He knows best. Let us pray. Prayers of the People: God of love, as we celebrate the birth and life of Jesus, our Saviour, we are filled with thanks. Our gratitude overflows in prayers for our world. We pray for all children. Guard their minds, protect their bodies, strengthen their characters, and give them joy. We pray for those whose hearts are filled with pain and fear. We pray for those for whom Christmas is linked with loss or grief. Surround them with a strong sense of your healing presence. Who pray for those who do not have enough to eat, or who lack adequate shelter. We pray for those who eat alone, without the comfort of human contact. We pray for those whose hearts and lives have been broken by trauma and loss. We pray for the names on our Prayer List: We pray for family members and friends who are struggling. Hear us now as we name them in the silence of our hearts: [Silence] To all who are burdened, O God, give your gift of peace. As the year draws to a close, help us to look back with gratitude for all that has been. Give us strength of mind and body to make the changes necessary so that the year ahead will be one of transformation and growth. May we look forward with eager anticipation to new opportunities to grow closer to you and to each other. In Jesus' holy name we pray, Amen. OFFERING Remember it is more blessed to give than to receive. Be generous to God. He has been very generous to you. The offering will now be received. DOXOLOGY OFFERTORY PRAYER We give thee but thine own, whate'er the gift may be. All that we have is thine alone – a trust dear Lord from thee. Please, dear God, accept these offerings and use them for your purposes. In Christ's name, we pray, Amen. HYMN # 166 – Once in Royal David's city, ... Receive a Blessing May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you, and all whom you love, peace. Amen. Parting Hymn – Go in Love ...