Saturday, December 28, 2013

We Are God's Gift to the World

RCL Christmas 1
29 December 2013

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

         We have reached the midpoint of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  There are still some gifts being exchanged and, as New Year’s Day approaches, friends and families will gather for the annual ritual of feting the New Year into being.  For some people melancholy and a sense of absence will begin to creep in:  Perhaps the gifts received were not enough to fill an emotional emptiness or the people with whom one spent time were not the dear ones, the loved ones, whose presence would have made the season especially sweet.
         For Christians our celebration of the incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus of Nazareth will continue for a little bit longer.  Next Sunday many Christians will celebrate Epiphany, the commemoration of the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, and our Orthodox and Eastern Catholic sisters and brothers will celebrate their ‘Christmas’.  Epiphany will be followed by a number of Sundays when we will remember many of the events in the life and ministry of Jesus where his divine mission is revealed to the people among whom he lived and worked.
         This extended period of ‘remembering’ is in some contrast to our neighbours for whom the celebration of Christmas and New Year’s comes quickly to a halt after the 1st of January.  While we spend our weeks recalling the signs of God’s presence in our time and space, other people begin to experience a feeling of absence, a kind of vacuum, that cannot see any meaning to life beyond making a living, experiencing the stresses of daily life and, in some places, dealing with the uncertainties of personal safety and well-being.
         Today we heard a very short section of what is sometimes called ‘Third Isaiah’.  It’s the concluding portion of the biblical book we call Isaiah.  Most scholars believe that these chapters were written after the return of the Jewish people to the land of Judea from their exile in Babylon.  As they look around them, they are experiencing a similar sense of emptiness as some of our contemporaries.  After several generations of longing for return, after the excitement of the preparations to return to the land, the returning exiles have to deal with the reality of a country that must be rebuilt and a religious community whose basic convictions about their relationship to God have been deeply shaken.
         There is the ruined city of Jerusalem.  There is no Temple where the divine presence of the Holy One can be experienced and where sacrifices may be offered.  The people who did not go into exile are not thrilled to have the exiles back.  Troubles abound.  But the prophetic voice of God is not silent:  “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favour to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. . . . It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”  (Isaiah 63.7, 9)
         To this dispirited, uncertain and despondent people the Prophet dares to proclaim that their very existence is a sign of God’s love and favour.  There is no denial of the challenges they face nor of the tragedies they have experienced, but there is an affirmation that they are here in this place and in this time because ‘the (Lord) lifted them up and carried them all the days of old’.  If they need any proof of God’s steadfast love, then they need only look at themselves to find it.  They need only remember the courage of Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego who withstood the demands of the king.  They need only remember the wisdom of Daniel who rose to leadership in a foreign court.  They need only remember Joseph who, after being sold into slavery by his brothers, rose to become second in the kingdom of Pharaoh.  God is never absent; whether we invoke God’s presence or not, God is present.
         It is this affirmation of faith that empowers our community as well.  No one can deny that we have challenges to face nor that we have moments of uncertainty, but the one thing we can affirm is that God is not absent.  We, this wonderfully diverse and sometimes fractious human community of faith, are the living evidence of the presence of God in our times and in our spaces.
         I have been pondering these past few days our use of the word ‘present’ in English.  Why, I wonder, do we use this word as a synonym for ‘gift’?  It came as no surprise to me when I thought about the gifts I have received throughout my life that continue to mean much to me.  These meaningful gifts fell into two categories.  The first category are the physical objects connected with people whom I love and respect.  The second are those experiences where those same people shaped the person that I am, for good and for not-so-good.  In these objects and experiences these people, whether friends, loved ones, teachers, even opponents, have made themselves ‘present’ to me.  Whenever I hold or use the object, whenever I remember the experience, these people are present to me.  There is no absence, only a continued relationship that has meaning, depth and potential for transformation.
         What is true of these objects and experiences for me and, I dare to say, you can also be said about our very existence as God’s people in these times and places.  Whenever our neighbours or friends or families encounter us, the potential is there for them to encounter the living God who creates us.  Whenever we reach out to those in any need or trouble, the potential is there for them to encounter the compassionate God who sustains us.  Whenever we work, in great or small ways, for justice and reconciliation, the potential is there for the whole world to see and to know the reconciling God who redeems us.
         Even as some in our world are beginning to throw away the wrapping paper and face the weight of each day, God is working in us through the Scriptures, through our prayers, through our worship to make God’s very self present.  When we offer ourselves to others in loving service, hospitality and compassion, we are saying, ‘If you look at the contours of my life, the story of my life’s journey, then you will begin to see God, the Beloved, who is present to you right now, right here.’
         We are God’s gift of life, created in Jesus the Christ.  We have been sustained by the Lord and live as presents of the Light.  Keep the confidence of faith so that others may meet Christ when we come.  Blessed be our God who becomes present to others in us.  We are God’s gift of life, created in Jesus the Christ.  So let the gift-giving continue in every time and in every place where God’s people are found.  Amen. [i]

[i] Paraphrase of ‘You Are God’s Work of Art’ by David Haas as published in Common Praise (1995), #39.

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