Thursday, December 24, 2015

The People Who Walked in Darkness - A Homily for Christmas Eve, 2015

Christmas Eve, Year C, 2015
Thursday, December 24th, 2015
Trinity Anglican Church Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Isaiah 9:2

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  The prophet Isaiah foretold a time when the yoke of the burden of the people would be lifted and the rod of the oppressor would be broken.  The people in Isaiah’s time dared to dream that it would be so.   And to shepherds abiding in the fields, to a young couple from Nazareth, to the people of Judea who struggled under the yoke of the oppressor, could they believe it would be so?  In the birth of this tiny babe, had the rod of the oppressor been broken, had the yoke of oppression been lifted?  Only time would tell, for while that child rested in the manger, he was still but a child, and what can a little child do to break the rod of the oppressor and lift the yoke that burdens the oppressed?

However, we ought to listen carefully to what Isaiah says. Does he say that the people who walked in darkness will see a great light? No!  His proclamation is a bold one: that they have seen a great light.  For Isaiah, the Lord of hosts is ever with us.  And so it was in Bethlehem, too.  At the birth of this blessed babe, the angels did not announce what was to come, but what had happened.  Unto you is born THIS day, in the city of David, a saviour which IS Christ the Lord.  The shepherds did not go to Bethlehem to see a thing that was about to take place, but rather, to see this thing which the Lord has done! 

The birth in time of the timeless Son of God is the moment in history in which God acts definitively and decisively to break the rod of the oppressor, to destroy the yoke of the oppressed.  In the birth in time of the timeless Son of God it is done, the rest of the ministry of Jesus is the working out of all that has already come to pass.  There is no going back to oppression. There is no going back to slavery. There is no going back to darkness. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, on them the light has dawned. 

The birth in time of the timeless Son of God is the dawn of a new day, a day that ever lies open before us.  Even the day, though, must come to an end.  But thanks be to God that he has given us the victory in Christ Jesus.  When the night seems to fall upon us again, when the darkness of death seeks to overcome us and oppress us, when it seeks once again to make us its slave, then Christ himself goes into the darkness, into the land of deepest darkness, on the cross, to the grave, and shines his radiance into the darkest places. No darkness will stand against his light.   Darkness is not darkness in your presence, O Lord.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who dwelled in a land of deep darkness, on them the light has shone.  To shepherds in the field, on a night covered by cold and darkness, a light shone forth.  In the midst of darkness, the heavens opened to them.  On a dark night they were surrounded by the glory of God, and heaven filled the earth with its presence. It was such an unusual and unexpected sight that they were sore afraid, terrified.  Sometimes we seem to dwell in such deep darkness that darkness becomes what is normal for us.  Sometimes the darkness becomes so normal, that we bristle at the light.  The light surprises us, frightens us, astonishes us. But from the light comes the voice, “Fear not, I bring you good news! Tidings of Joy!”  Fear not, the light brings joy, the light brings hope, the light brings peace.  And as fast as the light can move, so joy, hope and peace are upon us. They are not something that is merely on the way, they are have arrived.  Christ is born. The Light has arrived, and with it has come our salvation from the darkness. Darkness shall never overcome it.

Wise men, seeking hope looked into the darkness of the night sky.  When you consider the darkness of the night, the depths of blackness that the night sky holds, what a marvel it is that amongst all the blackness, they saw the light that was dawning. In the deep, dark night sky, wise men from the East, caught a glimpse of the light.  It was a star that must have begun its life millions of years before they had ever seen it. It had begun its work of shining in the darkness long before men walked upon the face of the earth.  Is this not so with the ways of God? We cry out, “where are you God?” and “Show me your light?”  But has God not been present from before the foundation of the world? Has his light not shone from time immemorial?  When we stare into the darkness what do we see?  Does the darkness overwhelm us?  Or can we catch a glimpse of the light?  And shall we follow it?
And that’s just what the people in our Christmas stories did.  The shepherds got up, and went, not slowly, not lingering, but with haste, and sought out what had already taken place, sought out the one who was born not to become king of the Jews, but the one who was king before he was ever born.  That was why Herod feared him so much.  The Shepherds went with haste, and they found him, already born, already in their midst, lying in the manger.  And their lives changed forever.

The magi, the wise men, left their home in the east, and made the long journey, perhaps even a couple of years, and found the child and his parents. They offered their gifts, not only gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, but the gift of themselves.  And when they went home, they went not the way they came, but by another road.  I have often thought that there is another meaning to this phrase. The early Christians were first known as “the people of the road”, or “the people of the way”. To go another way, means to follow a new path, a new road. Their lives were changed forever, for they recognized God in their midst in the Christ child. Their lives forever followed another road.

Think of the nativity sets we build and make.  There is Mary and Joseph. There are shepherds. There are wise men.  But if your set is at all like ours, there is always room to grow.  Our set has villagers, wanderers, perhaps you might even have a little drummer boy coming to worship Jesus.  I have seen some nativity sets in which the stable seems to be surrounded by a whole village that is taken in by the birth of the babe.  It is a far sight from that lonely stable. And so it should be. 

Friends, we are continuing to build that nativity set this Christmas, with every generation of new worshippers, new Christians come and fall down before the manger on this holy night.  At this time of year, when the days are short and nights are long. When we seem enveloped in a great darkness, a deep darkness; when the world seems shrouded not only in the darkness of night, but the darkness of evil, there is good news.  A Son has been born to us.  The news is not that he will be born, but that he has been born. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The news is not that we will see a great light, but that we have seen a great light.    So, as the angels proclaimed long ago, as the appointed messenger on this Christmas I proclaim to you now, and again, “Fear not, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour which is Christ the Lord.”  Let us go then, with haste, and see this thing which the Lord has done. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

From Unworthiness to Holy Service: A homily for Lent 1, 2015

Homily for Lent 1, Year B, 2015
Sunday, February 22nd, 2015
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 1 Peter 3:18-22

“Christ suffered for sins once for all.” – 1 Peter 3:18

I think one of the great struggles people have with God is they wonder how an all-powerful God who created the entire cosmos could love and care about them?  When we contemplate the expanse of time and space on a cosmic scale, my life is but a blip.  Even when we move from the cosmic perspective to a human perspective, our lives can seem still quite insignificant. I do a lot of genealogy, and it is amazing how completely a person can be forgotten in just a hundred years, or even less. It is humbling for me to look at that gallery of clergy hanging at the back of this church and think about how little we know about some of those people and that in sixty or so years, people with look at my picture and say “who was he?” and likely no one will remember.  If I will be forgotten in less than a century, who am I that the God who created the cosmos should love me and care about me?
            And yet, God does love me and God does care about me. God does love you and God does care about you.  Today, on this first Sunday of Lent, we hear in the First Epistle of Peter about that love and care God has for us, and God brings purpose and meaning into our lives. Some scholars believe this letter was written to a group of early Christians who found themselves in exile for their faith.  Some may have been persecuted or even killed for their belief in Christ Jesus.  It would have been very easy for them to have become discouraged. Yet, Peter wrote to them to give the courage, to strengthen their faith, and remind them of the purpose God had given them, when they asked does God really love me, does he really care about me? 
            To all of this Peter responded with an encouraging reminder about the foundation of their faith, Jesus Christ and his saving work.  He told them to remember that Christ also suffered, and that it was the suffering of Christ that brought them to God, unworthy as they were.  What a remarkable proclamation this is; God came to us in Christ Jesus, although we were unworthy, to bring us closer us to God. 
As stated at the outset, many people believe that they are unworthy of God’s love and care because they have made mistakes, sinned, or hurt others. Some just have a general sense of unworthiness before God.  Indeed, one of my first deeply religious experiences was when I was on a school trip in grade eight to Quebec City, and we visited that great church of St. Anne de Beaupre. As you walk into that church you see crutches hanging from the arch of the nave, no longer needed by people who received healing at the church.  In that church is a relic, allegedly the arm (encased in gold) of St. Anne, the grandmother of our Lord.  As a child I looked at that relic and was overcome by the greatness of God, the magnitude of God, and as I stood in the presence of a holy relic of a great saint, I felt myself somehow in the presence of God, and found myself unworthy.  Many people describe religious experiences in which they come to a sense of awe and wonder of the almighty nature of God and sense their own unworthiness in the presence of the Almighty.  But God does not leave us there.  I am reminded of the story of Isaiah found in chapter six of that book. Isaiah has a vision of the throne room of God and sees the angels around the throne crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, and Isaiah is overcome by his own unworthiness and his own sinfulness. He cries out “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  Who among us would not respond as Isiah did?  But God did not leave him there. An angel touched his lips with a live coal from the altar of God and proclaimed that with the touch of the coal to his lips, all his sin had departed him and his guilt had been blotted out. Isaiah then felt free of what burdened him, free of the weight of unworthiness, so freed in fact, that he when he heard the Lord ask “Whom shall I send?” he called out bravely, “Hear I am: send me!”
            It seems to me that Peter was reminding this very same thing to the exiles to whom he wrote. He reminded them that in Christ Jesus, their guilt had been removed, their sin had been blotted out, and that in Christ their lives had new purpose and meaning. He was telling them that no matter their broken histories, and no matter their present suffering, in Christ Jesus they had been made worthy of God, and worthy to proclaim his gospel.  Jesus, who was righteous, suffered for the unrighteous, to bring them to God. 
            And how magnificent and how powerful is the work of God in Christ that guilt might be removed and sin blotted out?  As we read on Ash Wednesday from Psalm 103, “So far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us.” That is a long way!  Peter, however, takes this even one step further, for he tell us that after his death, Christ went to proclaim good news to the spirits of those in prison.  This passage is considered one of the most difficult passages in Scripture, and what does it mean?  According to Peter, they were the ones from former times, the ones who did not make it onto the Ark when God was waiting patiently for their repentance, who disobeyed the word of God.  Peter is actually telling the Church that God’s mercy is so great that it extends to those who have died.  It says to me, that there is no one who is so sinful, so miserable, so broken that he or she is beyond the bounds of God’s grace, in this life, or the next.  What a wonderful thing to contemplate. If we believe not only that God is all-powerful, but all-merciful and all-loving, then we must believe that his power stretches not only from the heights but to the depths as well. His love extends beyond the grave. This is why the Easter Icon of the Orthodox Church shows Jesus trampling down the gates of hell and rescuing Adam and Eve, the primordial sinners, our ancestors in unworthiness, from its clutches.  St. Peter makes no bones about it, for he says Christ suffered for the unrighteous.         
            This is good news for us today.  We have a great privilege in the land in which we live. We can love and serve God without persecution, unlike the early Christians, and unlike Christians in some other places in the world today. Indeed, the heavenly throne room recently received the souls of 21 brave Coptic Christians, who would certainly have deemed themselves unworthy of the witness of martyrdom to which they were called, and yet through the power of Christ Jesus proclaimed their faith even to the last.  We have not been called to such a witness, but that should never be taken for granted. For although we are all unworthy in and of ourselves to proclaim the gospel of life in a culture of death, Christ Jesus makes us worthy witnesses. The point of all this is not to say that we are all called to such martyrdom. Indeed, God desires a world in which such martyrdom was not necessary, rather it is to say that Jesus has joined us in our suffering that in his victory over suffering and death, so too are we victorious.
            The ultimate point of Peter’s message to the Church is that the God, before whom we feel unworthy, looks upon us in our sin, in our brokenness, in our sense of unworthiness with great compassion and deep love. How do we know the almighty creator of heaven and earth cares about us? We know because in Christ Jesus, he came to us, to be with us, and in one supreme act of love participated in our suffering that we might participate in his glory.  He loves us so much that he chose not only to be with us in our worst, but to join us to him in his best.  The vision of Isaiah becomes our reality. In Christ Jesus, God turns the unworthiness and meaninglessness of our lives into worthiness and meaning. Where once we called, “who am I?” we now call “Here I am! Choose me!”  In Christ Jesus, we are made fit for joyful, meaningful, loving service, even when we shall meet hardship and trial.