The Message of Christmas (a sermon for Christmas Day)

No storyteller ever tells their story from a position of complete neutrality. We all have our point of view, and we can’t help letting it influence the way we tell our stories. The things we include, the things we leave out, the way we describe the people in the story – none of those decisions are made in a vacuum. That’s why we’re wary about convicting someone of a crime on the basis of only one witness. We know that each witness stands in a particular place in relation to the incident they’re reporting; there will always be important parts of the action that they didn’t see. So we prefer a balanced testimony, combining the reports of three or four different witnesses.

Early on in the history of the Church there was a movement to do away with the four gospel witnesses we have in the New Testament. Some Christians felt it was confusing to have these different accounts, and it would be better to work on producing a harmonized version of the story of Jesus. But the Church as a whole decided this was a bad idea; our picture of Jesus is enriched, not diminished, by the different viewpoints of the four gospel writers. And so we have four gospels, not one. Sometimes this leaves us in a situation of tension, as it’s not always easy to reconcile their stories. But the Church as a whole decided that it was worth it; better to have a fuller picture of Jesus, with some apparent inconsistencies, than to leave out the individual emphases of the four gospel writers.

We can see this in the stories of the birth of Jesus. Three of the gospels – Luke, Matthew, and John – include what we might call a ‘nativity story’, although John’s is very different from the other two. Each of these three writers has a particular angle on the story of Jesus – an aspect of his character and ministry that they’re trying to underline – and we can see it in the way they tell the story of his birth.

Luke is always on the side of the underdog. He loves marginalized people – tax collectors, prostitutes, gentiles, women and children. And he loves the fact that Jesus was born into an ordinary family in first century Galilee, even though his adopted father Joseph was a descendant of the royal house of David.

So in Luke’s story of Jesus, when Mary receives the angel’s message that she’s going to be the mother of the Messiah, she sees this as evidence of God’s bias toward the poor and needy. She says, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant…He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’ (Luke 1:46-48a, 51-53).

Later on in Luke’s nativity story he underlines that this was not a family in circumstances of wealth and power; they were pawns in the hands of the Roman Empire, forced to leave home at a very bad time, when Mary was about to give birth to her firstborn child. When they finally reached Joseph’s ancestral family home – Bethlehem – the rooms were all full, and they had to bunk with the animals. The new baby didn’t even have a proper crib; his mom had to lay him in a feeding trough. And his first visitors were rough shepherds from the hills around Bethlehem; it was those shepherds – not the people in power and authority – that God had chosen to receive the first royal birth announcement.

Don’t misunderstand me: Luke knew as well as we do that God loves everyone on earth – high and low, rich and poor, holy and unholy – and treats each person with care and respect. But he especially wanted the poor and the underdogs to know that even if no one else was rooting for them, God was rooting for them. And this may be a help to us today. Maybe some of us here today feel that we’re just pawns in the hands of politicians or multinational corporations. Maybe we’ve experienced economic hardships because of decisions made in boardrooms or luxurious palaces a long way away from us. Maybe we’ve been told, explicitly or implicitly, that God couldn’t possibly have time for anyone like us.

If that’s our situation, Luke wants us to know that the angels’ message is ‘good news of great joy for all the people’ (Luke 2:10). No one is left out. The baby in the manger will grow up to be the good shepherd who is willing to leave the ninety-nine sheep in the fold and go searching for the one lost sheep. Jesus is the Saviour of all.

That’s how Luke tells the story.

Matthew has a different interest. Matthew wants everyone to know that Jesus is the true Messiah, the king God promised to set his people free. So in his story of the birth of Jesus he tells how the angel came to Joseph – the descendant of King David – to tell him that the baby in Mary’s womb would be the royal child promised in the book of Isaiah: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1:23).

When we get to chapter two of Matthew’s story, almost the whole chapter is set up as a conflict between the evil king of Judea, Herod the Great, and the baby Jesus, God’s true Messiah. Wise men come from the east looking for ‘the child who has been born king of the Jews’ (2:2). Naturally they assume he will have been born in the royal palace, so they go to Jerusalem and ask for him there. Herod is alarmed, and he tries to trick the wise men into leading him to the baby. But God protects Jesus, and after the wise men visit him, they go home by another route, without telling Herod how to find him. Herod then flies into a rage and orders the execution of every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem, just to make sure he’s wiped out this young Messiah. But by the time Herod’s soldiers get to Bethlehem, Jesus has already left; his family escape as refugees to Egypt for a few years until after Herod’s death.

The good news Matthew wants to proclaim to us is clear: It might seem as if all power and authority on earth has been given to kings and tyrants and magnates and tycoons, but that is not the case. In reality, God has already anointed Jesus as his Messiah, his chosen King. At the moment not everyone acknowledges his authority, and this may lead to some horrific situations, like the murder of innocent children in Bethlehem – or Aleppo. But in reality, as Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 28, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18). The day will come when he will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. Everyone will have to give account to him.

But Matthew doesn’t want us to wait for that day. He wants us to commit ourselves now to following Jesus as our King. He wants his followers to go out to all people and invite them to become disciples of the true Messiah. So his picture of Jesus helps to fill out the picture Luke gives us. The baby in the manger is not only the Saviour of the world; he’s also the world’s true King.

When we turn to the Gospel of John we get a completely different sort of nativity story. And in fact, most people probably don’t think of it as a nativity story. John doesn’t actually tell the story of the birth of Jesus in narrative fashion, but that shouldn’t surprise us; there are some other pretty important narratives he doesn’t include either, like the story of the institution of Holy Communion during the Last Supper. John chooses his stories carefully, and gives us long extended meditations on them. He’s not trying to supplant the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; in fact, I would argue that he assumes we’ve already read them. But he’s trying to help us explore the deeper meanings of the story of Jesus, and to him, the deepest and most important meaning of all is this: in Jesus, God has visited the world he loves. The Jesus who John portrays for us is not just an outstanding human being or a great rabbi or even an anointed Messiah. No; in John’s Gospel, Jesus says “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30) and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

So in our gospel reading for this morning, John 1:1-18, John starts off by describing this mysterious character he calls ‘the Word’. Actually the word John uses in Greek is ‘the Logos’, which in Greek philosophy was the rational, logical governing principle behind all of creation. But John’s ‘Logos’ is not just an abstract philosophical idea; the Logos is a person, a person in relation to God and also somehow sharing the nature of God. Don’t worry if you can’t grasp this; this is God we’re talking about, so it’s not surprising that there are some things about God we can’t understand!

So John starts by telling us ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). He tells us that all things came into being through the Word – and if we know our Old Testament we’re immediately reminded of Genesis chapter one, where we’re told over and over again that God spoke a word of command and a new part of creation came into being. The Word was the light of the world, John says; ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1:5).

But then, a bit further on in the passage, comes what John sees as the real miracle of Christmas. ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). We use the Latin word ‘incarnation’ to describe this great miracle: the Christian teaching that in Jesus of Nazareth God came among us to live as one of us. He made himself small and vulnerable, shared the ups and downs of human life, and dedicated himself to doing the will of his Father in heaven.

And what’s the purpose of this incarnation? John tells us in the last verse of today’s gospel reading: ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18).

Human beings who believe in God have always wondered what God is like. Maybe we look around at the vastness of the universe and are intimidated by the power and majesty of a being who could do all this! Maybe we notice that God has given us a conscience that has high standards for us and for others, and we fear a God who we think must look on our failures with anger and judgement. Or maybe we have struggled in vain for so long to make contact with God, and we’ve come to the conclusion that God really doesn’t have time for people like us.

But John tells us that Jesus has made God known; we often refer to the Bible as ‘the Word of God’, but it’s actually Jesus who is ‘the Word of God’ par excellence. Our epistle for today agrees:

‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

I think this is one of the main things John is trying to communicate by the language of ‘light’ that he so often uses. We sometimes use this as a figure of speech, don’t we? ‘Can you shed any light on that subject?’ we ask. One of our most famous Christmas readings begins with the words ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9:2), but Jesus’ reply to this is to say, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Jesus gives us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God; as we follow him, we walk in that light, knowing God for who he is, knowing God’s will for us as it is revealed to us in Jesus. Without him we would truly be ‘in the dark’ about our Creator, but because of him, we can have confidence in the God of grace and love that Jesus revealed to us.

So this is what we celebrate this Christmas:

With Luke, we celebrate a God who reaches out to the poor, the underdog, the marginalized. God isn’t dazzled by human power and majesty; he’s not impressed by wealth and prestige. Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said, “God must like ordinary people; he made so many of them!” Luke’s vision of Christmas is truly ‘good news for all people’. Jesus is the Saviour of the whole world; no one is left out.

With Matthew, we celebrate the news that Jesus is the true Messiah, the one who God has appointed as Lord of all. The last word won’t go to the Herods and Neros and Pontius Pilates of history; they may seem to have all the power right now, but the day will come when they also will have to bow before the one ‘born king of the Jews’, as the wise men put it – and not of the Jews only, but of all people, because all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. And we the people of Jesus respond to this by joyfully giving him our allegiance. He is truly a King we can believe in!

And with John, we celebrate the amazing truth that in Jesus, God has become one of us. This is not a God-forsaken world; it is a God-visited world! And if God cared enough about this tiny little planet – one of millions he has created – to make himself small and vulnerable and walk around on its surface, then his love for us must truly be incredible. He is not far away from us; the story of Jesus shows that he is ‘Emmanuel’: God is with us.

A couple of days before Christmas a friend of mine posted on Facebook that there are two kinds of people at Christmas time: those who think of what they are going to receive, and those who think about what they are going to give. I suggested to him that there might be a third kind: those who think about what they have been given, and are thankful for it. That’s us, brothers and sisters! In 2 Corinthians 8:9 Paul says ‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’.

That’s the good news of Christmas. Tomorrow we can think of what that good news is calling us to do – how it might be calling us to change our lives – but not today. Today is a day to stay in this place of deep gratitude for the amazing gift that God has given us – truly the greatest gift that we could ever imagine. And it is truly a gift: not something we have to earn or deserve, but something that comes to us free of charge, not because we are lovable but because it is the deepest nature of God to love. All we are asked to do today is to receive that love, and to say “Thank you”.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

(Reblogged, slightly adapted,  from 2013.)

No – not what you’re thinking. Not Christmas: Advent. It starts today, November 27th (the fourth Sunday before Christmas), and lasts until Christmas Eve.

Ever since my children were little I’ve loved the season of Advent with a passion. Advent tells us that there’s a better future ahead; it reminds us of the Old Testament promises of the coming of the Messiah, and the New Testament hope that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom of justice and peace will never end. The Advent hymns and scriptures (mainly from the Old Testament prophets) reinforce these themes for us.

The oldest ‘layer’ of Advent, in my experience, is the traditional hymns. I was brought up in a churchgoing family and sang as a chorister when I was a boy, so these hymns are indelibly fixed in my memory. ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’, ‘On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry’, ‘Hark the Glad Sound – the Saviour Comes’ – these are just some of the best known examples of hymns that celebrate the Advent message. I love the music of Christmas, too, but I really don’t like it when stores start playing it right after Remembrance Day (all in an effort to enhance Christmas sales, of course). I don’t want to get to Christmas too soon; I want to wait, and savour the sense of anticipation that Advent gives. Singing the Advent hymns helps me to do that.

Speaking of waiting, when my kids were very little (back in our Arborfield days), Marci and I found a book about family Advent customs called ‘Celebrate While We Wait’, by the Schroeder family. It was this book that first introduced us to the Advent wreath; the wreath had never been a part of my childhood Advent experience, and until I read about it in the Schroeders’ book, I had never heard of it either. But we quickly made it a part of our family Advent practice.

I made our first wreath from a piece of circular styrofoam, but later I made a more permanent base from the top of an old wooden stool into which I drilled five holes for the candles. The candles are traditionally purple (some people now use blue, but I myself prefer the traditional colours), perhaps with one pink one, and a white one in the centre for Christmas. Marci and I still light our wreath at suppertime every evening, and after supper we use a book of Advent devotions to help us meditate on the themes of the season and to lead us into prayer together. There is a wealth of resources available for this; simply googling ‘Advent devotions’ brings up 304,000 hits in a quarter of a second, and searching for ‘Advent devotional’ on amazon.ca produced 570 results! We sometimes add our own prayers, and conclude with the Lord’s Prayer together.

Advent, of course, is about God’s kingdom of justice and peace breaking in to transform the world, and so Advent is a good time to think about what we’re doing to forward the work of God’s kingdom. What am I doing at this (often rather selfish) time of year to care for the poor and needy and to transform the structures of our society so that our world becomes a more just and peaceful place? A few weeks ago, in our church (St. Margaret’s, Edmonton), we were visited by representatives of a couple of Edmonton outreach agencies. Listening to them speak about the work their organisations do reminded me again that there are things that each of us can do to help translate the Advent hope into reality in the world for which Jesus gave his life. What might God be calling me to do this Advent, in a practical way, to live out the message of his Kingdom? (Here’s a good perspective on this.)

Christmas celebrates the central mystery of the Christian faith – God coming to live among us as one of us in the person of Jesus. Advent helps me enter more meaningfully into that celebration. It reminds me that as the light of the candles shines in the darkness, so the words of the prophets shine in the darkness of despair and hopelessness and point us to a time when we will study war no more, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

Let me close with my favourite Advent prayer, composed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the original 1549 Book of Common Prayer and used in Anglican churches worldwide, with little variations, down to the present day:

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ
came to us in great humility,
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge both the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

‘A Double Share of Your Spirit’ (a sermon for Pentecost on 2 Kings 2:9b)

Today is the day of Pentecost, sometimes called the birthday of the Christian Church – the day we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first followers of Jesus in Jerusalem in fulfilment of Jesus’ promise that his disciples would be baptized in the Holy Spirit and would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. We’ve heard the story in our first reading for today: the believers were all together in one place when they heard the sound of a mighty wind that filled the room, and they saw little tongues of flame that rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them that ability.

But I’m not going to preach on this passage this morning. Instead, I want to take you to a rather obscure verse in the Old Testament, because I think it sheds a lot of light on what we’re celebrating today. In the 2nd Book of Kings, we read this request from the prophet Elisha to his old mentor, Elijah, who is about to be taken up into heaven by the Lord: “Please, let me inherit a double share of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9b).

Old Elijah was the first great prophet of the people of Israel, and he lived about 850 years before Christ. He appeared without warning in 1 Kings chapter 17, during the reign of King Ahab, one of the most wicked kings ever to rule the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab was married to Jezebel, a Sidonian princess who worked hard to introduce the worship of the Sidonian god Baal in her new country. Ahab went along with her, and together they won over much of the population of Israel to the extraordinary idea that there could be more than one god worshipped by the people of Yahweh, the God of Israel.

So Elijah appeared in 1 Kings 17 and announced to King Ahab, “As Yahweh the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word”. Then Elijah disappeared into the wilderness, and for the next three years there was no rain in Israel.

Eventually after three years Elijah appeared again (I’m summarizing here!), and he challenged the prophets of Baal to a public contest on Mount Carmel. “Let’s each build an altar and lay out a sacrifice”, he said; “and we’ll each pray to our god. Whichever god answers with fire to burn up the sacrifice, we’ll know he’s the true god”. The prophets of Baal agreed (there were 450 of them, by the way), and Elijah invited them to go first. So while all the people were watching, they built an altar, laid out their sacrifice, and began to pray. They prayed and danced and worked themselves up into a frenzy all day long, but no fire came.

Then it was Elijah’s turn to build his altar and lay out his sacrifice. We’re told that he even went so far as to pour buckets of water over it, to make it even more difficult for Yahweh! Then in a very simple prayer he asked God to vindicate his name and show everyone that he was the only true god. Immediately fire from heaven fell and consumed the sacrifice and the stone altar. The people were suitably impressed and all fell down and worshipped Yahweh, the God of Israel. As for the prophets of Baal, they quickly came to a sticky end.

One person who was not impressed was Queen Jezebel, and she sent word to Elijah that she’d make sure he died just like her prophets had died. So Elijah, the great man of faith, ran away. He went to the desert, to Mount Sinai where Moses had received the law of God. There he prayed to Yahweh and complained that there were so few followers of Yahweh left, and that Jezebel was trying to kill him. But God met him in a quiet place on the mountain and told him to go back; “There are more of my followers out there than you think”, he said. He told him to anoint new kings in waiting for Israel and Judah, and he specifically commanded him to take on an apprentice, Elisha son of Shaphat, to learn the prophet-business from him and to take his place when he was gone.

So Elijah did as he was told; he went and found Elisha and, in a symbolic action, “threw his mantle over him” (1 Kings 19:19c). Obviously the mantle symbolized Elijah’s prophetic office, and Elisha understood immediately what was going on; he went home, told his parents he was leaving, and then ‘set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant’ (19:21c).

There are a few more chapters of stories about Elijah in 1 Kings; always he is speaking the word of the Lord in judgement against the idolatry and injustice perpetrated by Ahab and Jezebel. But eventually, in the last chapter of 1 Kings, God’s judgement comes upon Ahab. He goes into battle against the Arameans at a place called Ramoth-Gilead, and even though he has disguised himself so it won’t be obvious who he is, he is struck by a chance arrow, and in the evening he dies. His death is the last major scene in the first book of Kings.

And so we come to 2 Kings chapter 2. Elisha has been following Elijah around as his servant for some years now, and we can assume that he’s been suitably impressed with the old man’s faith and courage. I think we can also safely assume that he’s terrified by the idea that one day the old man will be gone, and he will have to take his place. After all, that’s how we would feel, isn’t it? Imagine yourself in Elisha’s place; you’ve been watching all this time as Elijah boldly prays to God for miracles, fully expecting that God will answer – and God does! Elijah is constantly speaking the word of God to kings without fear – or so it seems to Elisha – and his words always seem to come true! Talk about a big pair of shoes to fill!

So 2 Kings chapter 2 tells us that the time has come when the Lord is going to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind: the old prophet is so great that he won’t even die a normal death! So Elijah and Elisha walk together to the place where this will happen. They come to the Jordan River, and Elijah takes his mantle – the very same mantle that he threw over Elisha’s shoulders when he took him on as an apprentice – and strikes the river with it. The water is parted before him, and the two men walk together on dry ground.

Now at last Elijah speaks to Elisha. He says, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you”. Elisha replies, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit”. Elijah says,

“You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not”. As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The Spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha”. (2 Kings 2:10-15)

And indeed, as the 2nd Book of Kings continues, Elisha does the same sort of things as Elijah, only more so. He speaks the word of God without fear to kings – not only Israelite kings, but foreigners as well. He performs extraordinary miracles, and God protects him in spectacular ways. I haven’t counted myself, but I’ve been told that Elisha is recorded as performing exactly twice as many miracles as Elijah – obviously the writer wants to make the point that God answered the prayer for ‘a double portion of Elijah’s spirit’ in a literal way!

Now, what connects the old story of Elijah and Elisha with the story of Jesus, the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, and us today?

The first thing is the miracles. A lot of people have the impression that the Bible is full of miracle stories from start to finish. Actually, it isn’t. The miracles tend to cluster around specific periods in biblical history. The time of Moses and Joshua is one of those periods; the time of Elijah and Elisha is another. The third period is the time of Jesus and the early apostles. It’s not that miracles are absent at other times; it’s just that they’re rather rare.

Elisha prayed that he would receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and his prayer was answered: God worked mighty miracles through him, even more so than through his mentor Elijah.  Interestingly, Jesus promises his early followers the same sort of thing. In John 14:12-14 he says,

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it”.

Greater things than Jesus? How can that be possible? It’s possible because he is ‘going to the Father’, and he is going to send the promised Holy Spirit on his followers.

Now, the truth is that we do not see the early Christians performing twice as many miracles as Jesus did. Yes, there were many spectacular healings, but there were also times when they experienced unanswered prayer, just as we do today. But where their works did exceed those of their Master was that the early Christians preached the gospel to far more people than Jesus did. Jesus restricted himself mainly to the people of Israel, but the early Christians obeyed his command and went not only to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, but also to the ends of the earth, and many thousands became believers through their witness.

I’m sure that they found it hard to believe that they would do ‘greater things’ than their master, just as Elisha would have found it hard to believe that he would actually receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit and do greater things than his beloved mentor. And I’m also sure that the early Christians would have had a hard time believing another thing Jesus said to them in John 16:7:

“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you”.

‘The Advocate’, of course, is the Holy Spirit. Now if you’re like me, you might have found yourself thinking from time to time that we modern believers are at a disadvantage. We’ve never seen Jesus in the flesh. We’ve never heard his voice with our physical ears. We’ve never seen any of the miracles he did in the gospels. So aren’t we somehow ‘second class Christians’? Isn’t it actually to our disadvantage that Jesus ‘went away’?

Not at all. After all, if something is being taken away from you, your reaction will depend on what’s being given to take its place. And in our case, the gift of the Holy Spirit is not an inferior gift at all! In fact, in several places in the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit is referred to as ‘the Spirit of Jesus’ – just as Elisha talked about receiving a double portion of the spirit of Elijah. When Jesus walked the earth as a human being, he could only be in one place at a time, so if he was with a group of his followers in Jerusalem, he couldn’t be in Galilee at the same time. But now that the Spirit of Jesus is available to every believer we can all experience the help and support we need from him as we try to do the work he has called us to do.

So today, my sisters and brothers, you and I are probably in the same sort of place Elisha was as he contemplated his beloved mentor being taken from him. How could he possibly carry on Elijah’s work? The old man had such a powerful faith, while Elisha, in contrast, probably felt his own faith was weak. Elijah seemed fearless, while Elisha probably was desperately aware of his own fears. And when we think of carrying on the work Jesus began, we probably have similar feelings.

But remember last week’s gospel reading, and Jesus’ command to his followers: “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). As Jesus spoke these words, was he perhaps thinking about the story of Elijah’s mantle falling from heaven to clothe his successor, Elisha? ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha’, and just as surely the Spirit of Jesus rests on you and me today. So let’s turn from our fears and pray that the Spirit will fill us and give us the gifts we need – and the courage we need – to do the work that Jesus has asked us to do. And then let us go in the power of the Holy Spirit and do even greater things than Jesus did, just as he promised, taking the message of his power and love to people who have not yet come to know him, so that his kingdom will come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This Joyful Eastertide

This is my favourite Easter hymn. A joyful Easter, everyone! Christ is Risen!

 

This joyful Eastertide,
away with care and sorrow!
My Love, the Crucified,
hath sprung to life this morrow.
Had Christ, that once was slain,
ne’er burst his three-day prison,
our faith had been in vain;
but now is Christ arisen,
arisen, arisen, arisen.

Death’s flood hath lost its chill,
since Jesus crossed the river:
Lover of souls, from ill
my passing soul deliver.
Had Christ, that once was slain,
ne’er burst his three-day prison,
our faith had been in vain;
but now is Christ arisen,
arisen, arisen, arisen.

My flesh in hope shall rest,
and for a season slumber,
till trump from east to west
shall wake the dead in number.
Had Christ, that once was slain,
ne’er burst his three-day prison,
our faith had been in vain;
but now is Christ arisen,
arisen, arisen, arisen.

Words: George R. Woodward (1848-1934), 1894

Music: Vruechten (This Joyful Eastertide) (Dutch melody from David’s Psalmen, Amsterdam, 1685, arranged Charles Wood, 1866-1926)

 

‘A New Commandment’ (a sermon for Maundy Thursday on John 13:1-17, 34-35)

This day in the Christian year is called ‘Maundy Thursday’; the word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘maundatum’, which means ‘commandment’. This day is called ‘Maundy Thursday’ because on it we remember the new commandment that Jesus gave us – the commandment to ‘love one another as I have loved you’ – and his dramatic demonstration of that commandment when he washed his disciples’ feet. Of course, we just heard that commandment in today’s gospel:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

We might be a little puzzled to hear Jesus referring to this as a ‘new’ commandment’. Surely the command to love is not new? After all, in the Old Testament the Israelites were commanded to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, and Jesus has already confirmed this as one of his two great commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. So how is this a ‘new’ commandment?

Two things are new here. The first is that this is not just a general commandment to disciples to love their neighbour; it’s a command about the love that is shared in the community of disciples. This is a commandment that the Christian community is to be characterized by love for one another, and this love should be obvious and visible to outsiders: ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’. The second new thing is the example of Jesus; he doesn’t just tell us to love each other in any old way, but ‘just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another’. Let’s think about these two things for a minute.

First, then, Jesus tells us as Christians not just to love our neighbour as ourselves, but to ‘love one another as I have loved you’. This love for one another is meant to be the family characteristic of Christians. When people think of the Christian church, the first thing that comes to mind should be the visible love between members of the Christian community.

When I think of my family of origin, and I ask myself ‘what are our family characteristics?’, two things come to mind immediately. The first is that we seem to have rather large heads – I mean that in the physical, not the metaphorical sense! The second is that we share a love of a good argument. We can’t resist it, and once we’re in it, we can’t let it go. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed the second characteristic receding a little in me, but I’ve still got the big head!

I wonder what family characteristics come to mind when people outside of Christianity think about the Christian church? I would suspect that in many cases they are not good characteristics.

This week, as Holy Week was starting, I noticed on Facebook that some Christians couldn’t resist the temptation to start an argument about the meaning of the Cross. People who take one particular viewpoint accuse other Christians – their brothers and sisters in Christ – of believing in a God who ‘commits cosmic child abuse’. Those other Christians respond by accusing their brothers and sisters in Christ of being ‘revisionists’ and dismissing the clear teaching of scripture. Meanwhile, the world is watching. Facebook is a public forum. Is the world thinking ‘See how these Christians love one another’? I don’t think so. The world is thinking, ‘See how these Christians love to attack each other’s opinions’.

This is serious, because in our verse for tonight Jesus has given the world the right to judge whether or not we are his followers on this one point. The world, says Jesus, has the right to see visible love between members of the Christian community, and if it doesn’t see that love, it has the right to judge that the people in question are not disciples of Jesus. That judgement may be wrong, but according to Jesus, the world has a right to make that judgement.

We’re called to be a ‘city set on a hill’. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said:

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:14-16).

So this is the first distinctive: we are meant to be a community of love for one another, so that the world can see we are followers of Jesus. The second thing is that Jesus tells us ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’.

People today are often confused about what ‘love’ actually means. When we use the word ‘love’ we tend to be describing a feeling; “They’re so in love with each other”, we say, meaning, “the feeling of love they have for each other is overwhelming”. If we’re defining love in this way, we’ll find it very difficult to understand Jesus, because it’s very difficult for us to make ourselves feel something.

That’s why it’s important for us to remember that when the Bible talks about love it’s almost always talking about choices and actions, not feelings. To love someone, in the Bible, means to choose to be a blessing to them, to serve them in humility, with practical actions. This is made very clear by the example of Jesus. When we ask ourselves ‘How did Jesus love his disciples?’ two answers come to mind immediately: by dying for them on the cross, and by washing their feet.

Dying for them on the cross is perhaps the main thing that John has in mind in this passage; in verse 1 he says, ‘Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’. ‘Loving them to the end’, of course, meant loving them all the way to death, even death on a cross.

So one essential characteristic of Christian love is sacrifice. There were no limits to Jesus’ love for his disciples; he literally loved them more than he loved his own life.

The chances are that you and I will probably not be called to die for our fellow Christians, although we might do well to ask ourselves what it says about us that sometimes we can’t even make time to have coffee with one another and get to know each other a little better. But the second example cuts closer to the quick for us: the example of the footwashing. This was a thoroughly practical action: the roads of Judea were dusty and muddy, and people walked in open sandals, so their feet got filthy and smelly. At the door of the house was a container of water, and when a guest came into the house, the first thing that happened was that a servant would wash their feet. For some reason, on the night of the last supper this had not happened; perhaps there was no servant there that night. And the fact that it had not happened became painfully obvious to the disciples, because in those days people didn’t sit down to eat on chairs as we do; they reclined on couches around a low table, and their feet would literally have been in their neighbours’ faces!

By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus radically redefined the social structure of the Christian church. It wasn’t to be a church where some were lords and some were servants. ‘If I, your lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done for you’ (vv.14-15). No one is too important to do the servant jobs; everyone is called to acts of practical care and compassion for one another. This is what it means to love one another as Jesus has loved us.

We might ask ourselves today what practical acts might be the equivalent of footwashing. Tonight we will be washing feet as a symbol of practical love, but the fact is that, in our day and age, this is no longer a pressing need! It would be good for us to ask ourselves what essential and practical tasks we need to be ready and willing to do for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Back in the 1980s when I was living in Aklavik in the western Arctic, the local native people sometimes asked me if I would do their income tax returns for them. I always refused; I was too busy, I said, which was a lie. I wasn’t too busy; I just didn’t want to be bothered. But I knew how to do tax returns, while for many of them, tax returns were absolutely incomprehensible. One of my predecessors, Tom Osmond, had done dozens of them each year. He understood what the command to love one another was all about; it meant doing practical acts of love, even when you don’t feel like doing it. I was a long way behind him.

So to sum up: tonight we remember the new commandment that Jesus gave us, to love one another as he has loved us. He loved his disciples by washing their feet and by giving himself for them on the cross. He calls us to love each other sacrificially and practically, so that the world can see that we are a community marked by his special brand of love.

Tonight we symbolize our willingness to do this as we participate in the symbolic action of washing one another’s feet or hands. But it’s important not to stop with the symbol, but to go on to live it out in practical ways when we leave this place. So let’s remember what Jesus says in verse 17: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them”.

‘Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him’

Our gospel reading for tonight gives us the beginning of the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. In John’s Gospel it takes place after the footwashing, so we know for a fact that Judas was one of the ones whose feet Jesus washed. But John’s account of the Last Supper does not include the moment when Jesus took the bread and wine and gave them the new meaning as his Body and Blood, so it’s not clear from John whether or not Judas participated in the first Eucharist. Luke would seem to indicate that he did; in his gospel, after Jesus has shared the bread and wine with his disciples, he says “But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:21-22). Mark, however, places the conversation we read in tonight’s gospel before the sharing of the bread and wine, seeming to suggest that Judas had already left when the first Eucharist was celebrated, and Matthew seems to agree with this timing. The best we can say is that it’s not clear exactly when Judas left the Upper Room, or whether or not he participated in the first Eucharist.

The truth is, there’s a lot in the story of Judas that’s not clear, and that comes as a surprise to some people. To them, the lines have been drawn. When Mark records Jesus calling his twelve apostles, the last one is named as ‘Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him’, as if that false treachery was part of his character from the beginning. John tells us in his gospel that Judas was the treasurer of the apostolic band; he kept the money purse, ‘and used to steal what was put into it’ (John 12:6), and when Mary of Bethany poured the expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet to show her love for him, Judas was harshly critical of her. So it seems on the surface to be quite clear: Judas was a thoroughly bad man, and he had been from the beginning. A betrayal was necessary, Judas was foreordained to be the betrayer, and that was that.

The truth, however, might not be so clear cut. It’s important to remember that everyone who wrote about Judas in the New Testament had an excellent reason to hate his guts! No one reports the story from his point of view. Peter’s denial of Jesus is also a kind of treachery, and it’s clear that Peter was completely overcome by what he had done. But no one describes Peter in the lists of apostles as ‘Simon Peter, who denied him’. That’s because people knew and were sympathetic to Peter’s point of view; they understood his fear, and they also knew that he had repented and been forgiven by Jesus. But no one really had access to the inner workings of the mind of Judas, so no one could tell the story from his point of view.

In fact, many things about Judas are a mystery. He’s called ‘Judas Iscariot’, but we don’t really know what ‘Iscariot’ means. Some people think it means ‘from Kerioth’; there were at least two towns named Kerioth at the time, one of them in Moab, and the other not far from the Judean town of Hebron. If the second was Judas’ home town, then he would probably be the only member of the twelve who was not a Galilean. But some people say that the name is derived from the word ‘sikarios’, which means ‘dagger-user’ or ‘assassin’.

The truth is that we just don’t know. We don’t know where he was from, and we don’t know how he became interested in Jesus or why Jesus chose him as one of the Twelve. But he’s in all the apostle lists. Mark’s is the earliest; he says that Jesus ‘went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons’ (Mark 3:13-15). He then lists the Twelve, ending with ‘and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him’.

It’s inconceivable to me that Jesus’ call to Judas was insincere. Jesus may sometimes have been hard to understand but he was not deceitful; if Jesus called Judas to be his follower, his disciple, and his missionary, then I think we have to take it as given that Jesus saw the potential in Judas and hoped he would fulfil it. Certainly by the time of the Last Supper Jesus knew who would betray him, but I don’t think we have to assume that he knew that right from day one.

It’s very interesting to me how the arrangements for the Last Supper are described. William Barclay points out in his commentaries that in order to have the little conversation with John and Judas that tonight’s gospel describes, those two must have been reclining on either side of Jesus. Remember that in those days people didn’t sit on chairs at the table as we do today; the table would have been a lot lower, and the dinner guests would have been reclining on little couches, leaning up on one elbow and reaching for the food with the other. John would have been sitting a little in front of Jesus, so that he could lean back to speak to him. Judas would have been on the other side of Jesus.

What an extraordinary thing! The two seats closest to the host would have been the places of highest honour at the feast. We would expect those places to be given to two of the three leaders of the apostolic band: Peter, John and James. And John does seem to have been close, but the other place had been given to Judas. We know that Peter was not in that place, because we read that Peter ‘motioned to (John) to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking’ (John 13:24). Jesus then said – and I think we can assume that this was a whisper – ‘ “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish”. So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot’ (John 13:26). Note: it doesn’t say ‘He passed it to him’ but ‘he gave it to him’. So Judas must have been sitting next to Jesus.

Barclay understands this placement at the supper table as being Jesus’ last appeal to Judas. Jesus’ words recorded by Luke – “For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:22) – are not words of judgement but of sorrow. Jesus loved Judas as much as he did the other apostles, and he knew how this betrayal would end up for him. He longed to spare Judas that sorrow, and so he honoured him at the Last Supper with a seat next to him. Even now, he hoped that he could dissuade him from doing what he did.

But it was not to be. Judas had made the arrangement with the authorities, money had changed hands, and the die had been cast. They wanted to arrest Jesus, but in a lonely place where there was no crowd around. To make that work, they needed someone on the inside who knew where Jesus would be, and could lead them to him. And that’s exactly what Judas did. He knew Jesus was in the habit of going to Gethsemane, so he left the Upper Room, went to fetch the authorities, and took them straight to the place. And in a world where not everyone would have seen the face of Jesus on an Instagram post or a TV screen, he pointed out the right person to the guards by greeting him with a kiss.

Afterwards, as we know, he regretted his action. Matthew tells us that Judas repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the authorities, but they dismissed him contemptuously. So he threw down the money in the Temple and went out and hanged himself. Then the priests, suddenly developing a conscience, decided that it would be wrong to use blood money for the Temple treasury, so they went out and bought a field with it, which soon got the name ‘Field of Blood’. Luke, however, tells the story quite differently in Acts; the way he recalls it, it was Judas who bought the field, and then went to inspect it, he had a disastrous fall there, and all his bowels gushed out – which was why the field was called ‘Field of Blood’.

In other words, like everything else about the story of Judas, his end is unclear to us! If Matthew’s version is truer to the facts, then it would seem to indicate that Judas hoped he could dissuade the chief priests from having Jesus crucified; when it became clear that he could not do this, he fell into despair and went out and committed suicide. In his mind, changed feelings would not have been enough; if he couldn’t save Jesus from death, then Jesus was lost and so was he.

But I want to end by raising the question: was Judas automatically a lost cause? If he had held on for a few hours, until after the resurrection, and seen that no, it was not the end for Jesus, would there have been hope for him as well?

I think we have to say ‘yes’. After all, that’s exactly what happened to Peter. Peter also was cut to the heart by what he had done when he betrayed Jesus. Matthew tells us that after the cock crew Peter ‘went out and wept bitterly’ (Matthew 26:75), and Luke’s wording is similar. Mark says ‘He broke down and wept’ (Mark 14:72). We can imagine that his sense of guilt over what he had done was just as strong as Judas’.

And yet, Peter was restored. No doubt the other apostles were struck by the irony of the fact that he had loudly proclaimed that even if everyone else fell away, he wouldn’t – and then he had fallen away. But Jesus made it clear by his actions after the resurrection that he had forgiven Peter, and Peter never forgot that.

The tragedy of Judas is that he refused to believe in that possibility. To him, it was all over; he had sinned in the worst imaginable way, and there was no possibility that God could forgive him. Judas was lost, not because he betrayed Jesus, but because he just could not believe in the possibility of grace.

Many people today have the same problem. They believe firmly in the principle of justice. Good deeds are rewarded, bad deeds are punished. They know that they have committed many bad deeds – maybe, in some cases, particularly heinous ones. If they are believers in God, they know that God is a righteous and holy God. And so they are afraid.

They have forgotten those famous words of John Newton:

‘Amazing grace (how sweet the sound), that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see’.

Some people are offended by that word ‘wretch’. Their offence betrays the fact that they don’t understand the good news of Jesus. The good news tells us that Jesus died for sinners. We are all sinners, so we all qualify. Peter qualifies. I qualify, you qualify. And so does Judas.

Grace was reaching out to Judas. Sadly, Judas could not bring himself to believe it; he punished himself, rather than accepting God’s forgiveness. Tonight, let’s not make the same mistake. Whatever we’ve done, let’s not believe that it’s too awful for God to forgive. After we’re finished weeping bitterly, as Peter did, let’s come to Jesus, the friend of sinners, and receive the grace and forgiveness offered to us. And then let’s pass it on to those who sin against us as well.