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A meditation for Christmas Eve

 

“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.  This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.  They were sent to the house of an old professor who lived in the heart of the country….”

So begins C.S. Lewis’ children’s fantasy novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  The ‘something that happened to them’ was a series of adventures in a magical land called Narnia.  The way into Narnia was through an old wardrobe in the spare room of the old professor’s house.  It was not always possible to get into Narnia through the wardrobe, but sometimes, they would open its doors, push their way through the fur coats that were hanging there and, instead of coming up against the back of the wardrobe, they would just keep on walking.  Soon, they would find themselves in the middle of a forest in a place very different from England.

For one thing, in Narnia the animals –some of them anyway – were able to talk.  For another, time passed differently in Narnia.  The children might spend months in Narnia but, when they made their way back through the wardrobe and tumbled out its doors into the spare room, they would discover that only a few seconds had gone by back in England.

There were two worlds existing side-by-side.  The four children moved back and forth between them, sometimes living in the ordinary world of school and homework and games and arguments with each other, and sometimes having amazing adventures with talking beavers and fauns and a wicked queen and a mysterious lion called Aslan.

The analogy isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t do justice to the story, but in some ways, Christmas Eve can feel like the border land between two different worlds.  There is the ordinary world of getting ready for Christmas – decorating, shopping, travelling, all mixed in with children’s hockey games and doctor’s appointments and shovelling the snow.  Then, we make our way into the night for the Christmas Eve service.  We put aside the busyness, the candles are lit, we sing the carols and we enter into worship.  We sense that we are in the presence of mystery – mysteries we cannot explain or really understand.  Mysteries we can only enter into.

Those mysteries speak to the longings that are deepest in our hearts:
for someone who will bring peace on earth;

for things that are beautiful and holy and true;

to live for the things that matter;

to be what we were created to be.

Sometimes, in a moment haunted by grace, we catch a glimpse of the glory of God.

Luke tries to help us touch the glory.  He fills the story of Jesus’ birth with images that are large — larger than life.  There are angels, but not just any angels.  There is the “angel of the Lord” who makes even hardened shepherds ‘sore afraid’.  The skies explode with a “multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and singing, ‘Glory to God in highest heaven.’”  For a few moments the night is filled with light from a world beyond our own.  We touch the mystery of things holy and eternal.

Then, Luke draws us into the glory in another way.  He shows us a scene of profound simplicity.  Two ordinary peasants, far from home, arrive in Bethlehem to pay their taxes.  While they are there, they welcome their first-born child in very humble surroundings.  They wrap him in swaddling clothes and use a manger for a cradle.  It is all so ordinary.  It’s not really worth taking notice, except that Luke makes sure we know that here the Saviour is being born.  This common, ordinary place is full of the glory of God.

In C. S. Lewis’ story, England and Narnia don’t intersect.  The children venture into Narnia but creatures from Narnia don’t come into England.  The children talk about their adventures in Narnia only with each other because they are pretty certain that people in England would neither believe them nor understand.  The two worlds are split apart.

But, that’s not the way it is with the story Luke tells.  Here, as we stand at the borderland between two worlds, we are given startling news.  In the baby born in Bethlehem this night, God has put our two worlds back together.  God  has traveled across the boundary between the two worlds and has taken up residence in our midst.  In Jesus, God brings God’s glory and God’s Goodness and God’s beauty and God’s holiness into our ordinary world.

Most of us have few dramatic, extraordinary moments in our lives when we glimpse glory or touch holiness.  We long for it.  We spend our lives searching for it.  But, for the most part, it’s not part of our experience.

Tonight we train ourselves to see that glory and to touch that holiness in the midst of the mundane.  We listen to the story that points us to the glory in humble circumstances.  We come to the table to receive ordinary bread and drink that have been made holy by the presence of Jesus Christ with us.  Then, we begin to realize that it wasn’t just a story that happened long ago.  Because of what happened that night, we can know that God’s salvation is being born in our trips to the hockey arena, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, around the supper table, in our schools and in our places of work.
The wonder is that we get to participate in the holy work God is doing in our lives. It is a gift, which means that what is required of us is simply to open our eyes to see it, our hearts to cherish it and our hands to receive it.  As we leave this place, the taste of grace lingers in our souls.  We return with the shepherds to our ordinary lives, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen.

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Where We Live

 A sermon by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett.  The worship service in which this sermon was originally preached can be found at Reformed Worship, week 4.

Scripture: Genesis 2:4b -15

“Where shall I look for enlightenment?” the disciple asked the elder.
“Here,” the elder replied.
“When will it happen?” the disciple wanted to know.

“It is happening right now,” the elder said.
“Then why do I not experience it?”

“Because you do not look.”

“But what should I look for?”
The elder smiled and answered, “Nothing. Just look.”

“But at what?” the disciple insisted.

“Anything your eyes alight upon.”

“Well, then, must I look in a special kind of way?”
“No.”

“Why ever not?”

The elder said quietly, “Because to look, you must be here. The problem is that you are mostly somewhere else.”

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, once said, “The hardest thing in the world is to be where we are.” It is hard to be where we are because life is hard and we want it to be easier than it is. It is hard to be where we are because the three thousand advertisements we see per day tell us that life — our life— can be better than it is. We deserve more. We deserve the best. All we have to do is to buy the products they are selling: beer, soap, drugs, shampoo, lottery tickets. We can drive a better car. We can impress better people. We can travel to a better place.

“The hardest thing is to be where we are.” Where we are, says Genesis, is the garden in Eden. “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east. And there he put the human he had made.” Genesis 2 tells us that twice in seven verses. “The Lord God took the human and put the human in the garden of Eden.” Perhaps the storyteller was afraid that our minds might be elsewhere. We might be distracted and not know where we live our lives.

When many of us think of the Garden of Eden, we think of a perfect place, of paradise. Since we don’t live in a perfect world, we miss what the storyteller is saying about our lives. The place where humans “are” is Eden. Eden is bounded by four rivers — Pishon, Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates. We know where the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers are. Use a search engine and they show up on a map. However, nobody knows where Pishon River is. Nobody knows where the Gihon runs. You cannot find them on any maps. Not on the internet. Not in an atlas.

God places us in Eden. Our lives are bounded by the known and the unknown. We live in the midst of visible realities like rivers and maps and trees and buildings and different kinds of soap and beer and shampoo. We also live in the midst of invisible realities like love and forgiveness, truth and humility, hope and mystery. You cannot touch them but they influence our lives in powerful ways.

Generally, we are more comfortable with the visible, concrete, material realities of our lives. They are easier to control and manage. I do not know if it is peculiar to Western culture, or whether it is just human nature, but we tend to like things we can control. At least, we like things that feed our illusion that we are in control. One phone call, one appointment with the doctor, and that illusion dissipates in a flash, but still we cling to the illusion that we can control our lives.

The largest part of our lives — the love, mystery, hope, truth — they are not things we control as much as we experience them. We enter into them. Generally, we do not attend to them as much; however, they influence our lives in deep, profound ways. If we are to live well, we need to drink deeply from the rivers of Pishon and Gihon.

The names of the rivers are plays on words. “Pishon” means “that which spreads out far in the distance”. It is a river that overflows. It floods its banks and destroys home and farms and roads. It is a wild, destructive river.

“Gihon” is also a river that grows. However, it grows in a positive sense. The harmony is large and growing larger. It leads to life and fruitfulness and vitality.

Tigris and Euphrates hold a similar tension. hideqel means sharp, violent, hard, piercing.

pherat means being fruitful, productive. This garden in which God places us includes both positive and negative possibilities.

We live in a wonderful world. We are especially conscious of this as we live in Canada. It is a land of enormous beauty. It has bountiful, productive land. It abounds in amazing diversity. However, this is also a world where one out of three children in Sub-Saharan Africa is dying of hunger. This is a world where earthquakes and tsunamis wipe out whole villages; where refugees crowd into boats that capsize before reaching freedom; where greed and exploitation put whole ecosystems at risk so that the coral reefs around the world are all dying. Eden is a good place but it is not perfect. Bad things can and do happen here. Good and evil are part of the realities of our lives. So are birth and death, harmonious growth and violent destruction.

Any faith worth having is a faith that helps us deal with both realities truthfully and with hope. Said Craig Barnes, “Christians always live carrying in one hand God’s promises of how it will be and, in the other hand, the hard reality of how it is”.  We carry God’s good and holy purposes for us in one hand. We carry the hurts and losses and pain and grief that contradict the goodness and joy and peace that God intends in the other. That’s where we are. “Life isn’t logical or sensible or orderly Life is a mess most of the time. Faith must be lived in the midst of that mess.” (Charles Colson)

That is where we wrestle for faith: which is why it is crucial that the garden is in Eden. Eden, says Genesis, is in the east. The east is where the Messiah, the Saviour, comes from. The word Eden is qedem, which also means “the glory of God”. We live in “the glory of God”. Most of the time we miss it, but that is where we are.

Eden can also mean, “where new beginnings come from”. It can mean “the place where grace comes from”. We live our lives in the midst of God’s glory, in the midst of the new beginnings God is making possible, in the midst of God’s amazing grace. Said C. S. Lewis, “God walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”

Genesis 2 spends a lot of time telling us the lay of the land where we live. It is getting us oriented in the presence of good and evil, of life and death, of fruitfulness and destruction. Much of life consists of negotiating our way among those realities with courage and hope and faith when courage and hope and faith are not easy to come by.

Genesis 2’s most decisive orientation is the one that keeps us awake and alert to God’s gracious presence: we live in Eden, a holy place filled with the glory of God.

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Pay Attention

“Pay Attention”

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett. The worship service in which this sermon was originally preached can be found at Reformed Worship, week 2.

Scriptures: Psalm 19

Chaim Potok was a Jewish rabbi and novelist. Even as a young boy, he knew he wanted to be a writer. His mother would tell him, “Be a brain surgeon. You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.” Chaim would always reply, “No, mama, I want to be a writer.” He went away to college but, whenever he came home, his mother would try to persuade him again. “I know you want to be a writer, but listen to me. Be a brain surgeon. You’ll keep a lot of people from dying. You’ll make a lot of money.”  He would reply, “No, mama. I want to be a writer.”

This conversation went on this way over and over again. Then, one day Chaim’s mother exploded, “You’re wasting your time. If you were a brain surgeon, you could keep a lot of people from dying.” Chaim replied, “Mama, I don’t want to keep a lot of people from dying; I want to show them how to live!” (Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant, 47.)

St. Irenaeus once said, “The glory of God is seen in men and women who are fully alive”, and yet, said St. Paul, “All have sinned and fall short of the divine splendour.” (Romans 3:23) Part of the moral and spiritual poverty of our day stems from too many people who are settling for “not dying”, when we are created to be “full alive”. People settle for comfort and ease when what God intends for us is glory.

Someone wrote a book about running in which he began by saying that he reached the peak of his vitality, creativity and accomplishment when he was five years old. Do you remember what you felt like when you were five? He said that, when he was five he was a runner and an adventurer. He was an actor and a dancer and a singer of songs. At five, he could give and receive love freely. He laughed easily and took delight in many things. Then, the hurt and heartache of life began to drain all that away.

That’s what happens, isn’t it? Broken dreams, the loss of innocence, love betrayed or lost. Sometime just selfishness or complacency. They all chip away at that zest for living that we have in childhood. Sometimes those experiences lead us to doubt ourselves. Or, they consume all our energy so that we do not have space in our minds or spirits for something creative or adventurous. We live on auto-pilot, by default, doing what we are simply used to doing.

The Bible often contrasts things that are coming alive with things that are crumbling into dust. It distinguishes between ‘really living’ and ‘not really living’, between true life and life-gone-wrong. The difference between the two, it claims, is whether or not God is present. When God enters the scene, things that are crumbling into dust are given new life. God breathes and people come alive. God acts and new possibilities open up.

When the Bible speaks of God as Creator, it is never merely saying that a divine being made the world. God is Creator because the God revealed in the Bible is creative now, not just back at the origins of the cosmos. God is actively working in our lives and in our world, bringing new life.

Bill Brown, professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, points out that there are seven creation stories in the Old Testament (The Seven Pillars of Creation). Those creation stories are not trying to explain how the world got started. They were told and put together by the people of Israel when they were facing a dead end. Their society was full of troubles. It look as if there was no way to move into a livable future. Everything important to them was disappearing. It was being destroyed or it was crumbling into dust. They could not see any way to stop what was happening. It was in that context that they told the creation stories. They told stories about new beginnings and starting over. They told stories about God who offers new possibilities that they were not able to imagine on their own.

The Bible’s creation stories direct us to places were hope and courage and the capacity to persevere are found. They remind us that we are not alone in a world that is descending into chaos. We worship a God who speaks into chaos and makes a new creation. We live in covenant relationship with a God who put the stars in the heavens and who guides the blazing sun across the sky day after day.

It is as if the sun arises each day, joyfully anticipating new life, making a fresh beginning, eagerly running towards God’s glorious creation and God’s restoration of all things. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; the earth proclaims God’s handiwork,” shouts Psalm 19.

Wake up! Pay attention! Lift your eyes higher than the troubles that are wearing you down. Your life is set in the large, expansive context of God’s ongoing creativity. There is more going on here than just you and me trying to make all things work out right. There is God and God is at work in our world. God is at work in Christ, reconciling the world to Godself. God is at work, calling people to live well, to be human, to live up to our creation and into our salvation.

Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) He invites us on an adventure that requires of us courage and sacrifice as we join in his work of renewing human society. That adventure includes conflict and struggle as we resist those forces that would diminish human dignity and freedom. That adventure takes us both to the heights and to the depths of loving and being loved.

There will be times when you cannot see a way forward. There will be times when you will be so weary that you cannot see how you can possibly keep going. There will be times when you will be tripped up by your own selfishness or foolishness or fear. There will be times when you will be blind-sided by someone else. You will stumble and fall and lose your way. That, too, is part of the journey.

Then, the great grace and mercy and forgiveness of God will pick you up and set you on your feet again and enable you to begin again. Your life is significant and important because you are part of God’s great and holy work to renew the earth. You have a part to play, a part you need to play or you will miss out on the glory.

How do you get in on it? How do you join the adventure? How do you know how to play your part? God has given God’s Word to guide us, says the Psalmist. God’s Word reveals to us what God is up to in the world and pulls our lives toward where the action is. God’s Word acts as a signpost, pointing out the right road. God’s Word is a life-map, showing the way to joy. God’s Word leads to wonder and awe and reverence at the persistent, mysterious ways that God is overcoming the power of death that makes things crumble into dust. God’s Word leads to wonder and awe and reverence at the surprising, unexpected ways God is opening up new possibilities. God’s Word steers us away from death valleys and directs us to the paths that lead to life.

God’s Word is a great treasure, more precious than gold, sweeter than honey. When we set ourselves under the Word of God— when we wrestle with it and let it form our lives — we come alive to all that God is doing in our life and in the world.

It is said that the rabbis would place a drop of honey on the Torah scroll. Then, they would invite their very young students to lick the scroll. They wanted them to experience, even before they could read, that the Way of Life revealed in the scroll was sweet.

Today, we are invited to be reminded of that as well. As Psalm 19 is read again, you are invited to come forward and share the fruit that is on the communion table. Enjoy its sweetness. “Taste and see that the Lord is God” (Psalm 34). Then, take a few minutes to reflect on words of scripture that have been precious in your life. And pray, “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord my Redeemer.”

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We worship you, O God, with songs of praise.

We worship you with words of prayer

and with ears that listen for you to speak

         your saving truth into our lives.

We worship you in the silent spaces

         where we struggle for hope and for courage.

We long for a glimpse of your glory

         — the glory that shines in the darkness

                   and the darkness cannot overcome it;

         — the glory that touches lives with a beauty so holy

                   that it heals the wounded soul;

         — the glory that gives strength to the weary.

 

We, who stumble and fall so often,

worship you,

longing for your light to shine upon us.

Dazzle us with your holy love,

draw us into your purifying presence,

speak to us your transforming truth.

Then, grant us grace

         to live every moment

         changed by such glory—

daring to live with hope and courage and love

reflecting the life of Jesus,

through whom your glory shines

in the most unexpected ways.  Amen.

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Surrounded by your grace

A prayer based on Exodus 3.

God of blessing, God of promise:

We live day by day surrounded by your grace:

Every bush is burning with your glory;

every person we pass is a child of your love;

your saving power is in motion all around us.

All of life is made holy by your glorious presence.

 

We confess that often we are blind and do not see;

deaf and do not hear;

busy and distracted and do not notice.

 

Faithful, persevering Spirit,

we are grateful that you keep

nudging our hearts and minds,

inviting yourself into our lives.

You come to meet us

in the most unexpected places,

among the most unexpected people.

Awaken us to the nearness

of your presence

and of your kingdom.

Gather all the pieces of our lives

in response to you.

So may our lives blaze with your glory.

We pray in the name of Jesus,

your Word made flesh,

who comes to dwell among us,

full of grace and truth.  Amen.

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A prayer for Transfiguration Sunday

God of glory,
you took your friends with you
when you went to pray on the mountain.
You revealed to them
the glory of Jesus,
your beloved Son,
on his way to the cross.
We do not live on mountaintops,
but we, too, would glimpse your glory
in the ordinary days of our lives,
and in the community of your Son
in which you have chosen to dwell.

We look for you among people who have
no power
no rights
no voice.

We look for you among those who
live on the streets of our city,
whose housing is inadequate,
whose homes are not safe.

We look for you among those who
grieve a past that is no more
and fear a future that seems full of loss.

God who meets us
in the broken places,
shine the light of Christ deep into our lives,
so we may carry that light into dark places
and point to the One
whose brokenness is our salvation.

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Holy Mystery
Your ways are not our ways
and Your purposes are often hidden to us.
We look to you as Saviour
and you talk to us of suffering and sacrifice.
We look to you for comfort
and you wake us to your glory.
We look for God
and you come to us as a peasant Jew from Nazareth.

This takes some getting used to.
We are often slow to see Your work in our midst.
We misinterpret,
get confused,
afraid.

Don’t give up on us!

Transform our hearts
so that we desire the things you desire.
Entrust us with your risky purposes.
Tune our ears
so we listen
when Your Son speaks

and hearing,
dare to follow

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