The following sermon was preached at the annual Christmas Memorial Service for St. John’s Columbarium on December 10, 2008. The service took place at St. John’s Cathedral in Saskatoon, SK.
John 1:1-5, 14, 18
Many years ago, before the time of Jesus, God’s People, Israel, were struggling with their circumstances as an occupied People, and they were struggling in their relationship with God. The Roman occupiers had control of their land. And though the Jews were allowed to live there and practice their religion, they had to pay taxes to Caesar, deal with the Roman soldiers, and cope with the fact that they were not really free.
Of course, this was not the first time that God’s People had experienced being conquered by a foreign power, it was not the first time that they had been controlled and oppressed by a more powerful nation, and it was not the first time that their difficulties led many among them to doubt God’s presence and love and to turn away from God.
Through the Season of Advent, in particular, the bible readings that we hear each Sunday in church remind us of other times of struggle and doubt in the history of God’s People. We are reminded that the People of Israel have always experienced troubles in their attempts to maintain their culture, their religion, and the land that God promised to them. The history of God’s People includes being conquered by a series of foreign powers, being exiled from their land at various times, having their cities and temple destroyed, and often losing trust and hope in God during those times of trouble.
The time just before Jesus came on the scene was a relatively stable and tranquil time, compared to some of the things they had experienced in the past. Still, God’s People were waiting and hoping for a Messiah to come, for God to send someone to lead them, to help them to rise up against the Romans, to lead them to freedom and independence in the land that God had given to God’s own people.
At Christmas each year, we celebrate the fact that God responded to the longing and hoping of God’s People. God sent the Messiah that they were praying for. As Matthew’s Gospel begins the story… “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…”
Of course, Jesus wasn’t accepted as the Messiah of God by many of the people. Many of those who showed interest in him and his teachings quickly gave up on him when it didn’t look like he was going to do much for them in terms of taking power from the Romans. Jesus didn’t turn out to be the kind of Messiah that the people were expecting. He didn’t come with military might. He didn’t rise up against the occupiers. He was bold in what he said and taught, but he was peaceful and not willing to rise up and fight, even to protect his own life.
Many people dismissed Jesus of Nazareth as another unfortunate case. He had some good ideas, but he didn’t really get anything done to help us. But those who really got to know him, those who experienced his healing, those who took his teaching to heart, those who shared meals with him and welcomed him into their homes, and those to whom he appeared after his death and burial… those people were the ones who told his story and witnessed to all who would listen:
“He was the Messiah of God. He was the one sent from above. Remember how the prophet said that a young woman would conceive and bear a son, and he would be called Emmanuel. Jesus was Emmanuel. Jesus was “God with us”. When he spoke to us, we heard the wisdom of God. When he touched us, we felt the healing power of God. When he shared bread and wine with us, we experienced the nourishment of God. When we were alone and feeling abandoned by God, God came to be with us in Jesus. He was God’s Word made flesh. He was God with us.”
This is the Good News that we celebrate at Christmas each year… that God did not forget or abandon God’s People. God came to us in human form, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And most of the time, this good news is a cause for joy and celebration. We rejoice in the amazing gift of Jesus into our world and into our lives.
Still, for many of us, Christmas is not a time of pure joy and gladness. Over time, Christmas has become not only a time for celebrating the gift of Jesus, but it has developed into a time for family gatherings, giving and receiving gifts, and repeating family traditions of food and fellowship.
For those who have lost loved ones, Christmas celebrations are often tinged with sadness, with longing, and with remembering good times past and gone. Christmas can be a most difficult time of the year for people who are grieving… a time when we feel like we need to put on a happy face, even when our hearts are very heavy indeed.
And so we gather together in places like this… to be with others who feel the same sorrow, to be with others who need the space to remember their loved ones and give thanks, to be with others who may also be entering this season of joy with heavy hearts.
Tonight though, I invite you also to take hold of the message of Christmas that is truly good news for all people… the message that is not only good news for those who are already happy and ready to rejoice… but the good news that is meant for the lonely, for the sad, and for the despairing ones.
I invite you to grab hold tonight of the good news that was for a People that were oppressed and bowed down. I invite you to take hold of the good news that is for you when you are lonely, grieving, or sad. Our God has not abandoned you. Our God has not forgotten you. Indeed, our God has come to you in Jesus — God is with you.
We’ve likely all heard the anonymous poem called “Footprints” many times. You’ve seen it on greeting cards. You’ve received it in email messages. You’ve noticed it on posters on the wall. It is a poem that is well-loved by many, perhaps because it conveys the assurance that God is truly with us, even at those times when we feel most alone and afraid. Though you’ve heard it before, I will share it with you again tonight. As I read it, and indeed, as you go from this place tonight, I encourage you to remember the truth that in Jesus, God is Emmanuel. God is with us.
One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the LORD. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand. One belonging to him and the other to the LORD.
When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times of his life.
This really bothered him and he questioned the LORD about it. LORD you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.
The LORD replied, my precious, precious child, I love you and I would never leave you! During your times of trial and suffering when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.
May you experience Emmanuel this Christmas. May God’s presence and love be made real to you in the scriptures of the season, in quiet moments of prayer and reflection, and in the love and care of neighbours, friends, and family. And if there are times when you do not feel God’s presence with you, I pray that God will carry you through until God’s love is made flesh in your life once again. Amen.