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The Guiding Light

December 18th, 2012 No comments

“The Guiding Light” (Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-5)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
December 9, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A Season of Light
We are right in the thick of the many traditions of the Advent and Christmas season. Trees have come out. Holiday letters and cards are filling our mailboxes. Kitchens are filled with the smells of delicious if not nutritious goodies. Radio stations play the old favorite carols. And we read again the cherished Christmas stories.

Well, every year when I was growing up, we had a tradition that took place on Thanksgiving weekend or thereabouts. My dad would bring out several old boxes and buckets and bags, and inside there was tangled bundle after tangled bundle after tangled bundle of Christmas lights. And we would untangle strand after strand after strand, and test each string and check each bulb to be sure that the grand display of light was ready.

And then, my dad would get out the extension ladders – yes plural ladders – and climb at great peril clear up the house to outline the steep colonial Williamsburg roof edges and ridges and dormers of our house with light after light, while I steadied the ladder below.

And then that night, if we had done our due diligence, the house would light the night sky with several hundred Watts of warm, white, pure Christmas joy.

Years later, when I was in high school, and then college, those lights would welcome me home to Christmas season, a beacon of warmth heralding the message of hope and joy along the horizon of the cold night sky, saying, “Come home; come home.”

Advent and Christmas are a grand celebration of light: the glorious radiance of angelic choirs; the dawn from on high breaking upon us, a great light for those who walked in darkness; a guiding star pointing the way to a child-King; the True Light coming into the world, becoming flesh, and dwelling among us. It is a season of preparation to welcome that light into our hearts, and into our lives.

Now actually, the celebration of light at this time of year is a very ancient tradition, going back even before the birth of Jesus. And in fact, ever year, about this time of year, every household and synagogue and stable and cave in Jerusalem would be lit, and the Temple courts would blaze with the joyful light of the many wonders of God. Jerusalem: the City of Lights.

Disappointment in the City of Lights
Well, as the well-known story for this morning goes, our famous mystery men of the East – the Magi, as Matthew calls them – have caught sight of a rising light declaring a message of hope and joy across the dark night sky. A new king is born! A long-awaited heir to the promise that hold the hope of the world has come! The star of a Judean king has arisen, beckoning, “Come home, come home.”

And where would one expect such a star for a Judean king to lead? Why, to the Judean capital, of course! In the royal palace, in Jerusalem, the holy City of Lights.

Of course, the Magi find a king in Jerusalem, the City of Lights, alright, but, to say the least, he is somewhat lackluster compared to the radiant expectations of the guiding star. After following a dazzling light in the night sky for miles and miles, after crossing through many a foreign land, after braving the desert’s unrelenting heat and the bitter cold of the mountains, following after the majestic light in the night sky for month after month, they have arrived at the City of Lights, coming to the royal palace with their kingly gifts at last only to find this Herod, a sniveling, sputtering king who always kept one hand behind his back, his countenance shadowed by years of treachery born of the fear that darkens the human heart.

Forget a star, this guy doesn’t even deserve the hazy neon sign glaring in the nearest dilapidated nighttime tavern!

Light Pollution
You know, any amateur or professional stargazer can tell you that light pollution is a major problem for anyone who is staring upwards to catch a glimpse of the nighttime heavenly lights. Now I like artificial lighting quite a bit. If I need to find a nice snack in the middle of the night, all I have to do is flip on a light switch. If I want to find my way around outside when I wake up at 2am wondering if I remembered to turn the hydrant off, all I have to do is grab my trusty Mag-Lite and follow the lighted path it provides. In fact, I hardly need the sun, the moon, or any star at all in the sky to find my way around.

The problem is that artificial lighting generated on the surface impedes the observer’s ability to see the stars above, sort of like how in a crowded restaurant it’s hard to hear the person sitting next to you because all the other noise crowds out your own voice. Well, all that artificial surface lighting crowds out the heavenly lights above. Even the brightest star can get lost in a washed out night sky because of light pollution.

You know what I think Herod and his cabinet of advisers and all those mighty religious leaders in Jerusalem were afraid of? I don’t think they were afraid of some star in the sky or any helpless baby. But I think the most terrifying thing for them was the thought that if this new star was going to shine in all its splendor, all their lights were gonna have to be laid down. If this new king was going to ascend his throne, all their knees were going to have to learn how to bend for the first time.

It’s scary to think of turning off the lights. I think everyone’s at least a little afraid of the dark. You could smack your face into something or fall down the stairs or trip over your cat or step in something icky, and who knows what or who is lurking in the shadows!

Trading our puny little lights for the dazzling light of Christ can be terrifying! Giving up our way of life for God’s ways and handing control over to God is absolutely nerve wracking! Giving up our well-laid plans and paths for God’s plans and paths is downright scary oftentimes, as scary as living in the dark.

But you know, the headlights on our cars only light up a few dozen feet in front of us. They only light up the path we’re already on; they can’t show the way or lead us home. Even the lights we string about our houses and yards are fragile, easily cut off by ice or winter storm. Even in all their radiance and glory, they disappear behind a hill or a hedge, and get packed away after a little over a month. As beautiful as the Christmas lights shining into the night sky are, they are but a representation, a facsimile, a comparatively crude imitation of the rising star of the newborn king.

I was a student at Bethel College during the great Ice Storm of Aught Five. And after that storm, we were without power for almost a week. And I remember stubbing my toe and tripping over my roommate, and trying to shower in total darkness, and it was miserable.

But one of my nightly routines that I had stumbled upon was to go outside and walk around campus to pray. And during the last portion of my path, I would always look upward to stare at the stars, to ponder the vastness of the universe and the creator’s love even for a tiny little speck of dust like me.

And I looked up to see a sky filled with stars in a way I’d never before seen it, from horizon to horizon. The stars were twinkling down through the icicles and gently gracing the ice and snow below. Thousands and thousands of majestic orbs filling the night sky dancing in my eyes. When the lights are on, we spend so much time looking down, planning our paths, busying ourselves with our own self-importance and security, dodging obstacles. When all those other lights are off, then we can do nothing, but stop, look up, and behold the glory of God.

It’s just so easy to get so caught up, so distracted, so comfortable and dependent upon all the lights that lure us with their shining, that offer to light our paths with their promises of success, of fulfillment, of purpose, of power, prestige, of happiness and wash out the splendor of the heavenly guiding light.

“Your Word is a light to my path”
As the Magi crossed the Jordan River and climbed the Judean hills and came upon Jerusalem shining in all its splendor and bustle and majesty and importance, how could they have even thought to have noticed the star moving just nine miles south in the washed-out sky to Bethlehem?

Sometimes with all the headlights glaring in our eyes, vying for our attention, blinding our sight, the right path is so very hard to find. Into this cacophony comes the word of God, like the first break of dawn scattering the darkness of the night: “You, Bethlehem, little Bethlehem, from you shall come a shepherd for my people.”

It’s like the Psalmist once said, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” The little child-king, the one these mysterious magi have traveled so far to see, is the one who came to fulfill God’s word. When we come to the little child, we come to a faith not washed by the sea or tossed by the wind or blinded by any mere imitation of the true light coming into the world, but firmly defined and anchored in the Word of God.

That’s why we read this word, why we tell this story every year, is it not – to draw our eyes away from all the blinding glint and glare around us, to the splendor, the brilliance of the True Light of God’s Word, and to go and bend our knee before the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us in a little town called Bethlehem.

True Wise Men
Herod couldn’t go. None in all Jerusalem could go. Too afraid were they to yield whatever light, whatever life, whatever power and control they thought they had to this rising star of the child king. But these men of mystery have seen the light; they have beheld its glory; they have caught a glimpse of its promise of a new and glorious day, and all other light is mere faint and flicker compared to it.

And they go, leaving behind the grand City of Lights for a small village in the hills. And as the last light of Jerusalem’s highest tower vanishes behind a hill, there, shining clearly in the night sky, is the star they had seen at its rising.

And off goes this band of Magi with their caravan of their whole entourage of camels and wagons and supplies and household staff, to a small rural town. A delegation of foreign dignitaries visiting your nearest small Kansas town. Imagine heads of state and scholars from around the world walking down Main Street Elbing!

The caravan stops at a humble dwelling – perhaps built of mud and rock, perhaps partly sheltered by one of Bethlehem’s caves, such a far cry from the grand limestone palaces and towers of Jerusalem, the City of Lights.

Sometimes we give these mysterious travelers, these magi from the east, the nickname “Wise Men.” And this is why they have earned that title: These mysterious magi, these men of complex learning, of training, of nuance and refinement and means, who have brought gifts not for a dirty peasant child, but a refined king in his splendor, have come to what must be to them the very picture of simplicity, of vulnerability, of poverty.

No doubt these philosophers from a distant land cannot fully understand, but in their wisdom, they can see the light, the glory shining in the child-king, and they, even they, are prepared to kneel in worship, offering – perhaps a little sheepishly – their now ironic and obviously flawed and inadequate gifts because those are the gifts they have, and they are absolutely overcome with joy, because they have, at long last, after months of following the guiding light in the dark night, found their way home.

Following the Guiding Light
Unlike even all the beautiful lights we use to fill the night sky with the message of hope and joy, a star can be seen from just about anywhere on earth, filling the heavens with its message of pure hope and pure joy: “Come. Come home.” It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, how lost you may be, how long you’ve been gone, or what you are, absolutely anyone can lay down all those other lights, stare into the heavens from anywhere on earth and see that good message, “Come home. The king is come!”

The invitation is the same, whether you’re in a dark and distant land, or whether you live in the City of Lights itself; no matter what gifts you have to offer or how inadequate you feel; or even if you’re just downright terrified of giving up the life you have, the invitation is the same: “Follow the light. Come home.”

It will guide you through every storm and desert, through every valley and over every mountain and across every distant land. And it leads to a humble family in a humble village. There you’ll find a little child with the light of the world sparkling in his eye, whose home is in every heart that bends before him and welcomes his light, the wonder of wonders, God among us.

May we all turn to follow the radiant guiding light of our king with overwhelming joy in our hearts, as we prepare to welcome the light this Advent season.

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Mary’s Song

January 27th, 2012 No comments

“Mary’s Song” (Luke 1:26-45)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
December 18, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

During the Advent and Christmas season we remember the stories of God’s salvation, of God becoming flesh and coming to live among us in the most ordinary and yet unexpected ways. The stories are beautifully written by the gospel evangelists and lovingly told every December by congregations around the world. These stories are familiar, they proclaim power and truth and speak to us of who God is and how God chooses to move within creation. Even Luke knew the power of repeating the familiar, as the beginning of his gospel account says that it is written for one who has already heard the story. (Luke 1:3-4) And for his first hearers, the new story of God coming into the world echoes the ancient stories of God’s Spirit moving within creation from the very beginning; for this is not the first time that God gifts an elderly couple long thought barren with a son. This is not the first time that God chooses to work through the one who is born second rather than through the firstborn child, that the one who is born last will be greater than the ones who have been born before him. This is not the first time that God will turn the expectations of the world on its head and be revealed in unexpected and yet ordinary ways. “The new continues and fulfills the old, with the same God remembering covenants kept and making good on promises made.” (Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Series)

And so I invite you to hear again the familiar story of how God has come into the world, how the third evangelist proclaims how God has chosen to come and dwell among us, the account of God’s miraculous movements from the gospel of Luke:

[Read Luke 1:26-45]

Thanks be to God for the reading and hearing of this familiar and beloved story, one that proclaims the truth of who God is and testifies to the unexpected ways that God chooses to move within the world. This is a story that we repeat and ponder in our hearts every year, and there is power in repeating that which is familiar to us, to remind ourselves of how this story speaks the truth of who God is. And as I have read this story over and over, there are three things in particular that have spoken to me from this familiar story, a reminder of how the Holy Spirit does continue to come upon us and speak to us through these ancient words.

The first is the angel’s reminder to Mary, and to us, that “Nothing will be impossible with God,” a truth which Jesus himself will later affirm.

God’s Spirit broke into the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation, one which had caused much grief and perhaps doubt in the lives of those most affected by it. For you see, Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed and prayed for a child, but for whatever reason, they were not able to conceive. No doubt, people around them wondered what they might have done to be punished by God in this way, but the text makes it clear that both of them “were righteous before God” and lived “blamelessly according to all of the commandments of the Lord.” (Luke 1:6)

I wish that I could tell you that the world operates in a way that is fair and just, but sometimes good people suffer, through no fault of their own. Yet God was still able to work through this hopeless and seemingly impossible situation. “Do not fear, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear a son, and you will name him John.” (Luke 1:13)

But it must have seemed too impossible for poor Zechariah, just as God’s promise of a son did for Sarah and Abraham. Though Zechariah had encountered the holy presence of the Most High, it just didn’t seem possible that they should be able to conceive in their old age and barrenness. For there are times when God’s promises just seem too good to be true, to defy logic, to go against the expectations of the day.

But nothing will be impossible for God, and even in their old age and barrenness, Elizabeth did indeed conceive and give birth to a son. And she knew right away that this was in fact the Lord’s doing. She must have remembered the stories of old of God fulfilling seemingly impossible promises. She must have drawn great strength and joy from the ancient story of Hannah, who in her barrenness was able to give birth to the prophet Samuel. Elizabeth also must have delighted in promises her child to God, knowing that he would do great things for the Lord, a forerunner, the one sent to prepare the way. She must have sung her own song of joy and praise to God. “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” (Luke 1:25) And Holy is God’s name!

But Luke includes for us not just one seemingly impossible birth story, but two. The first child is given to the elderly and once-barren Elizabeth, the second is conceived by a young unmarried girl.

It must have been the most ordinary day. Mary would not have expected to encounter the extraordinary in her every-day tasks, perhaps preparing food in her own home or drawing water from the town well. Yet the angel of the Lord appeared before her. “Rejoice, O favored one, the Lord is with you! Do not fear, for you have been graced by God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:28, 30-31)

Yet Mary was perplexed and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. And she wondered how this was possible, as she had never known a man. But the angel assured her that the divine presence would be with her, and told her of the seemingly impossible conception that her kinswoman Elizabeth had also experienced all through the power of the Most High. “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) And her betrothed, Joseph, stayed with her; he did not forsake her nor divorce her nor humiliate her publicly, though it would have been well within his rights. Another testament to the power of God at work in the seemingly impossible.

God would not have needed to work in such a way. God could have brought salvation into the world and fulfilled the promises of long ago all on God’s own. But God chose to work through two seemingly impossible situations, a child conceived within both an elderly, barren woman, and a young, unmarried teenager. God has chosen to work in such a way that no one would have expected. God has chosen to work with humankind so that we too can be a part of the efforts. Does this make things more complicated? Absolutely; but nothing will be impossible for God.

Which brings me to a second way that this passage continues to speak. As God has not chosen to work on God’s own, but to work with humankind in the promises of salvation, we too can respond with Mary, “Let it be with me according to your word” and be bearers of Christ in the world.

When we were in Nazareth, Mary’s home town, we reflected on God’s messenger coming to her and promising God’s presence coming into the world in the form of a tiny baby born to a young girl. And our leaders offered this thought for us to ponder in our hearts: that Mary was, in a sense, the first disciple, as she was the first person to say Yes to Jesus.

Now it is intriguing that when Gabriel appeared before Mary, he did not ask for her consent. He simply told her that she would conceive in her womb and bear a son. Yet Mary would not have needed to respond as she did. Perhaps she could have protested, considering that she could have been executed for such a pregnancy before marriage. Perhaps she could have responded as others had to their own encounter to the divine, “Why me, God? I am not worthy of such a high calling! Why not someone else?” Or perhaps she could have simply averted her eyes, returning to her food preparation or to gathering the water, and she could have simply ignored the angel’s presence until he left. But not Mary.

Naturally, she wondered how the impossible would come to pass, but she responded with the amazing and faithful response, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

Now we in the Western world like to tout our choices and our ability to choose our own destiny. But sometimes even our most meticulous plans can be waylaid by the unexpected. Now sometimes tragedies that are not of God strike and disrupt our lives, such as through a loss, or an illness, or death. And when this happens, we have the choice of remembering the promise of the little baby born in a manger, and his name Emmanuel (“God-with-us”). In this very name is the promise that God is indeed with us, and we do not weather any tragedy alone.

But as it was with Mary, we know that God has a way of breaking into our lives and disrupting even our most carefully laid-out plans, such as through a nudge, or a calling, or a gift that we did not expect. Now we can protest, or we can question why God would possibly choose us, or we can try to live our lives as though nothing happened and ignore our calling, but then, perhaps, no angels will ever trouble us again. (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Mothers of God” in Gospel Medicine)

Or we can respond as Mary did, “Let it be for me according to your word.” Now this doesn’t mean that we aren’t terrified, or that we don’t wonder how the seemingly impossible will come to pass, but that we can trust that the Holy Spirit will come upon us and that the divine presence will be with us.

Mary’s situation was unique. She was the only one called to bear the Son of God into the world. Yet in a way, each of us are also invited to be bearers of Christ in the world through our lives and our actions and our words. How will we choose to respond to this high calling?

How are we already being bearers of Christ in the world that needs him so desperately?

Perhaps we can find strength and hope in the models of faith provided here in the beginning of Luke’s gospel. Elizabeth never doubted that God would do the impossible through her, indeed she recognized right away who it was who had granted her such a precious gift. She also recognized immediately that her relative, Mary, would bear the savior of the world. And Elizabeth as the first person in Luke’s gospel to proclaim that Jesus is Lord. (Luke 1:43)

And Mary responded to God’s calling with courage and grace. She believed that God’s word would be fulfilled. And she was the first person to say Yes to Jesus.

But though these women showed great faith in response to God, this story from Luke isn’t primarily about them and how they responded, but is about what God is doing and how God is acting to save the world.

Which brings me to a third way that this passage continues to speak, that the same God who is so deeply at work here in the lives of Mary and Elizabeth, and the life of Jesus, and the life of the early church of Acts, the God of Mary’s Song is the same God who is actively at work within our lives and within creation today. This is the God for whom nothing is impossible. This is the God who chooses to work through two women who found themselves in hopeless and humiliating circumstances. This is the God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things.

The God of the Bible has not abandoned us; indeed God’s presence is the promise of the Son, God-with-us, Emmanuel. As we anticipate the birth of our Savior, may our eyes be opened to the ways that God continues to break into the world, continues to work in unexpected and yet ordinary, every-day situations. May we watch for the ways that God lifts up the lowly and continues to fulfill the promises of long ago. May we watch for the ways that God continues to work through ordinary people, just as God will work through us, who also are called to be bearers of Christ in the world that needs him so desperately. May we watch for the ways that God works in ways that are beyond our expectations and the ways that God does the seemingly impossible.

For the God of these familiar, beloved, powerful stories is still with us, bringing to birth new stories of hope and promise and salvation in the world. When we see God at work, may we ponder these many things in our hearts, and continue to proclaim them year after year so that we too can glorify the Lord. For God has done great things and continues to do great things. God is faithful through all generations. God’s mercy is everlasting to the people he has chosen. And holy is God’s name.

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Light of the World

January 27th, 2012 No comments

“Light of the World” (John 1:1-14)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
December 11, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

I’ve always been fascinated by light. My older brother, when he was little, didn’t sleep with a teddy bear or stuffed animal. He slept with a red light bulb – fortunately my parents found a rubber look-alike so he wasn’t in danger. And I remember every Christmas, my dad would climb up the steep roof and scoot across the ridge, fastening the lights in place, and he would go on to outline the dormers and structural edges of the house, and we’d come home in the evening and could see the house from a mile away. I understand several of you share a similar enthusiasm. It would seem it runs in the family. I’ve always been fascinated with light.

Lighting of the Green
A couple weeks ago, I shared one of my favorite Christmas light memories with the Challengers Sunday School class. My dad is the maintenance director at Bethel College, and as a young boy, I would scurry closely behind my dad’s brisk step as he hurried from building to building, switching off all the lights facing the Green (a large lawn in the center of Bethel’s Campus) in preparation for Bethel College’s annual Lighting of the Green Christmas service. The campus, majestic and ornate in its soft night-time lighting, gradually slipped into a bold, dark solitude.

At last all the lights had been extinguished, and, with the campus perfectly dark and still, we climbed the old wooden steps in the Administration Building to a window overlooking the Green. My father lifted me up so I could see, and we waited in silence as several dozen students began to gather in the crisp, cold December night for the still-young Bethel College Christmas tradition.

I strained to hear the scripture reading. Then some barely-perceptible singing. Then came my favorite part. A single candlelight appeared, and I watched intently as that single small flame gradually spread across the green, each small flame taking its place in the stunning wreath of warmth and light in the cold, dark night.

As a young boy, I could not have understood the meaning of the first chapter of John or have grasped the powerful symbolism of the flame being passed around the Green, but somehow I knew that it was special and significant. I knew I wanted to be a part of it, to see my little flame dance before my eyes and pass the light on until all was bright. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Science of Light
Today, we know by scientific curiosity what ancient writers knew by intuition about light. Physicists tell us that nothing in the universe can move at a higher speed than light, which travels in a vacuum at 186,000 mps. By contrast, sound travels at 0.2 mps. A space shuttle re-entering the earth’s atmosphere travels at 5 mps.

Light is the fastest medium for carrying information. John said of the Light of the World, “It is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Jesus is the fastest and best information about God!

Moreover, we know that the speed of light remains constant as it travels through space. Mass increases with velocity, and time slows, and length contracts, and so forth, but the speed of light remains constant. The author of Hebrews said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

The eternal character of God is unchanging, a constant in the universe. You could say a lot about God’s unchanging character, but sometimes I think John summed it up best: “God is love.” God’s love is a universal constant. Even in every dark day, in every moment of loss and despair, in every hour of loneliness, in every season of failure, the love of God revealed to us in the light of Jesus, is a universal constant that does not change, ever transforming brokenness into beauty.

Biologists tell us that all living creatures ultimately depend on the sun’s light for their source of energy. Without sunlight, there would be no life on the earth. John puts it this way: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of humankind.” Jesus is life. Just as the sun gives life and light to the earth’s creatures, Jesus gives life and light to God’s children. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

John and Genesis
John’s gospel starts off with the same words as the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible: “In the beginning. . .” In Genesis, we hear the powerful Word of God for the first time, saying, “Let there be light,” and there was light, and God saw that the light was good.

The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus as the Word who was with God, and was God, through whom all things were created. Every Advent, every Christmas, we tell how the dictum of old, the word, “Let there be light,” first uttered at the beginning, finds its fullest and greatest fulfillment in the light that shines in the darkness – the true light, which enlightens everyone and has come into the world, and the true Word, which became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus of Nazareth.

The first verses of John’s Gospel call to mind the first verses of Genesis, as if to say that what has happened in Jesus is the very fulfillment of Genesis 1, and an event of such cosmic significance that it can only be compared to the act of creation itself. It is the story of God’s definitive answer to all the rebellion, sin, suffering, and darkness of the world.

“The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” The Word, through whom all things came into being, the light that illuminates every corner of creation and infuses it with God’s love, became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus of Nazareth.

How often do we not receive him, do we fail to see the light? How often do we miss God incarnate in our lives? How often do we forget that all things came into being through the eternal Word, which means that God is not to be found merely in the extraordinary things that we cannot explain, but also especially in the ordinariness of human joy, routine, pain, relationship, and toil?

How often do we miss seeing the light of Christ shining even in our darkness? How often do we not see Jesus enfleshed in the people and circumstances of our lives? Jesus is to be found among us every day as we live and worship and serve him together. His light is shining all around us, even in deep darkness, if we but look and see.

Word become flesh: A Story1
My mom’s cousin, Helga Schmidt, was doing some last-minute shopping in Alco in Newton one Christmas season in the mid-1970s. She was in the middle of licensed practical nursing school, and Christmas gifts were not the first thing on her mind. Helga got frustrated with the idea of buying gifts for people who had everything, and the cost for a mother in school with kids at home made the experience anything but fun.

She hurriedly found her last-minute items and got in line to check out. In front of her, there were a couple of small children, a brother and sister, dressed in tattered clothes. The girl had a pair of golden house slippers, and the boy had a few dollar bills in his hands. They were quite the sight, and the girl was humming merrily along to the Christmas music playing in the store.

The girl put the shoes on the counter, and the clerk rang them up, a little over six dollars. The boy only came up with a little over three dollars, and told his younger sister that they’d have to put them back and come back some other time, maybe the next day.

His little sister started to cry and said, “But Jesus would have loved those shoes.” “We’ll go home and find some more money somehow and come back,” her brother said. “Don’t cry; we’ll come back,” he said bravely.

Helga overheard the conversation and just gave the clerk three dollars, figuring the kids had been in line a long time, and it was Christmas, after all. The little girl wrapped her arms around Helga’s legs and said, “Thank you, lady.”

She asked the girl what she meant when she said Jesus would like the shoes. The boy explained, “Our mommy is sick and going to Heaven. Daddy said she might go before Christmas to be with Jesus.” The girl added, “My Sunday school teacher said the streets up in Heaven are mad from shiny gold just like these shoes. Won’t my mommy be beautiful walking on those streets to match these shoes.”

“Yes,” Helga answered, “I’m sure she will.”

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The story of a glimmer of light in the darkness became the basis of a book, a song, a movie. Light. Simple house slippers in a discount store and a small act of compassion.

Focusing the Light
We were in Jerusalem during this past January, which is the season called Epiphany in the church year, and it’s a time of light, so we got to hear lots of sermons about light. Now the church in Jerusalem, in the West Bank, is a church that has weathered many seasons of hardship as it has tried to stand in witness to Christ’s peace amid so much violence, hatred, and oppression, even while its own members tire of living under occupation and migrate elsewhere. But even in such darkness, the preacher proclaimed that the light still shines.

He said it’s like an old-fashioned oil lamp, the kind that has a mirror or reflective surface attached to the back. Like John the Baptist in our reading, we ourselves are not the light, but we can be like the mirror, focusing and reflecting the light as we follow Jesus in witness and proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and declare the year of the Lord’s favor!

I had the opportunity to study the Gospel of John with Jerry Truex, who wrote his dissertation on the Gospel of John. And you could tell how much this gospel, this good news, is a part of his life and ministry. I remember him especially talking about this first chapter of John with such passion and conviction, about the true light, which enlightens every person. And he would say it in Greek to be sure we got it: panta anthropon. Every person.

Jesus was with God in the beginning, when God said “Let there be light,” and just as the sun and the moon and the stars enlighten every person, whether we make much significance of it or not, so too does Jesus enlighten every person. Just as surely as the sun shines during the day, you have the light of Christ. It doesn’t matter who you are, as someone who came into being through the Word, you have the light of Christ, and it’s your calling as one of his followers to hold a magnifying glass or a mirror up to that light and focus it for the world.

We talked some this advent season about changing how we see. Jerry, my John professor, works in Wichita with a lot of people who have addictions and mental illnesses.

He said the place he begins with everyone – drug addict, alcoholic, someone with deep, dark depression, someone who’s been in the church for 40 years, even someone who doesn’t know a thing about Jesus, is by reminding himself that that person has light of Christ just as surely as you and I do, just as surely as we have the sun shining on us from the heavens, so too the Son of God shines on us from the heavens, and he wants to help people identify that light that they already have simply because they’re God’s creatures, to name it, to turn to it, to embrace its illumination and warmth, to follow it.

Jesus once said, “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)

Mysterious Light
One of my favorite things about light is that its basic make-up remains a mystery. It seems to be both a particle and a wave at the same time. While we don’t know exactly how this works, we can simply name its existence. Scientists simply accept the paradox of light and seek various ways of describing it.

John 1:18 begins by saying, “No one has ever seen God.” We know that there is mystery and paradox to God. One of my favorite verses is Isaiah 55:9: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Something of God always remains a mystery, unknowable, and yet, John 1:18 goes on: “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” If you ever want to know something about God; if you want to know God more deeply, look to the light, look to Jesus, know Jesus and follow him, and he will make God known. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life!”

I have never lost that desire first sparked in a dark room on the Bethel College campus overlooking the Lighting of the Green, to be a part of the wreath of warmth and light, to see my little flame dance before my eyes and pass the light on until all was bright, more and more every year as I have grown older and come to understand more and more the meaning of the Light.

I still want to see my own light grow and dance before my eyes, to see my faith grow stronger and closer to God. And I still want to pass on that light, to share the peace and love in the Good News of Christ with those around me, even as others share with me. I want to be a part of that warmth and light that touches even the coldest and darkest of hearts in the coldest, darkest corners of the world. What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of humankind.

The world has turned as the word has become flesh and dwelt among us. The shadow of death is driven away by a new burst of light. All of creation, formerly submerged in a darkness and despair, rouses and shakes itself in the brilliant illumination of a new beginning.2 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it!

Notes:
1. Originally published as Helga Schmidt, “Golden Slippers for Christmas,” Mennonite Weekly Review (December 21, 1978).
2. Paraphrased from Kharalambos Anstall in Stricken by God?, ed. Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, 488.

Categories: Sermons Tags: , ,

Road of Repentance

January 27th, 2012 No comments

“Road of Repentance” (Mark 1:1-8)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Audio: Road of Repentance

It’s time to turn (aka “repent”) from whatever else we’re doing and welcome Prince of Peace into our world, into our lives, into our hearts. It’s time to return to God! It’s a season of repentance, of turning to something much greater than we could ever hope for!

No transcript is available for this sermon; enjoy the audio!

Keeping Watch

January 27th, 2012 No comments

“Keeping Watch” (Mark 13)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
November 27, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Audio: Keeping Watch

This sermon was accompanied by a series of slides:

[Slide 1]

Current view of the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives


[Slide 2]

Model of the Temple at the Time of Jesus


[Slide 3]

“Teacher, Look, what incredible stones and what magnificent buildings!” (Mark 13:1)


[Slide 4]

“Do you see these ‘magnificent buildings’? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down!” (Mark 13:2)


[Slide 5]

During the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, falling stones broke through the roadway below.


[Slide 6]

“Tell us, when will these things be?. . . What will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?” (Mark 13:4)


[Slide 7]
“What will be the sign?”

  • How many ‘signs’ do they get?
  • “Be discerning that no one may deceive you. . . False Messiahs and false prophets will arise and produce signs and portents to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” (Mark 13:5, 22)
  • If there is a sign, what does it signify?
  • Sign of the Temple’s Destruction, or Sign of the coming of the Son of Man?
  • “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; do not be alarmed; this must take place, but this will not yet be the end. . . For in Those Days, there will be suffering. . .” (Mark 13:7, 19)

[Slide 8]
“When will these things happen?”

  • “But about that Day or the Hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be discerning! Watch! For you do not know when the Time is.” (Mark 13:32-33)
  • “But when you see the abomination of desolation. . . in those days there will be suffering. . .” (Mark 13:14, 19)
  • “At that time, they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds. . .” (Mark 13:26)
    “This generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Mark 13:30)

[Slide 9]
“When will these things happen. . . What sign?”

  • Jesus says the Temple will be destroyed.
    • “Do you see these ‘magnificent buildings’? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down!” (Mark 13:2)
  • The disciples ask when and what will be the sign.
    • “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?” (Mark 13:4)
  • Signscannot be trusted to help us predict what is to come.
    • “Be discerning that no one may deceive you. . . False Messiahs and false prophets will arise and produce signs and portents to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” (Mark 13:5, 22)
  • Coming catastrophes may or may notlead to the End.
    • “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; do not be alarmed; this must take place, but this will not yet be the end. . . For in Those Days, there will be suffering. . .” (Mark 13:7, 19)
  • Jesus does not know whenthe End will come.
    • “But about that Day or the Hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)
  • We cannot know whenthen End will come.
    • “You do not know when the Time is.” (Mark 13:33)
  • To summarize: We don’t really know.

[Slide 10]
“When will these things happen. . . What sign?”

  • Jesus says the Temple will be destroyed.
  • The disciples ask when and what will be the sign.
  • Signs cannot be trusted to help us predict what is to come.
  • Coming catastrophes may or may not lead to the End.
  • Jesus does not know when the End will come.
  • We cannot know when then End will come.
  • To summarize: We don’t really know.
  • “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12)
  • “But about that Day or the Hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)
  • “You do not know when the Time is.” (Mark 13:33)

[Slide 11]
“Answering a different question”

  • “You will be brought before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. . . The gospel must first be proclaimed to all the nations. . . Do not be anxious beforehand about what you should say, but say whatever will be given to youin that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13:9, 10, 11)
    • Whatever the times bring, it is always a time for mission, even in the context of persecution.
  • “Be discerning, lest anyone deceive you. . . Be discerning, for they shall betray you. . . Be discerning. . . I have told you everything already. . . Be discerning, watch!” (Mark 13:5, 9, 23, 33)
    • Whatever the times bring, it is always a time for discernment.
  • “The on enduring to the End will be saved. . . commands his doorkeeper to be on the watch. . . Keep awake. . . What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!” (Mark 13:13, 34, 35, 37)
    • Whatever the times bring, it is always a time for faithfulness.

[Slide 12]
“When will these things happen. . . What sign?”

  • Jesus says the Temple will be destroyed.
  • The disciples ask when and what will be the sign.
  • Signs cannot be trusted to help us predict what is to come.
  • Coming catastrophes may or may not lead to the End.
  • Jesus does not know when the End will come.
  • We cannot know when then End will come.
  • To summarize: We don’t really know.
  • Because we do not know, it is always the time for mission, discernment, and faithfulness.
  • Because we do not know, we expect the coming of the Lord at every moment.

No transcript is available; enjoy the audio!