November 21, 2010

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

I don’t think I will forget the sound of her voice on the phone. She said, “Everyone is against me!” The words themselves, and the fear and desperation in her voice brought back memories of some of the folks I worked with years ago in a group home.

When they said, “Everyone is against me” it was usually a case of paranoid symptoms coming up in what was a relatively well-managed mental illness. These were people who were well cared for, safe, and secure, but who suffered from paranoid delusions at times.

But the single mother of four on the other end of the phone line was not delusional. She was simply lamenting the reality of her situation. She didn’t have a safe place to live. She didn’t have good food to feed to her children. And as often as she tried to access services to help, she came up against one road block after another. She felt alone and abandoned, and like everyone was against her.

As I stumbled to speak the words of reassurance that I knew she needed to hear, I was aware that my words would not be enough. As a preacher, I could easily find words to express God’s love, and as a person of faith, I could convey my own conviction that God’s love and grace extended even to her – that she too was a beloved child of God.

But unless my actions matched up with my words, she would have no reason to believe what I was telling her. I could not say, “God loves you,” and then turn my back on her situation of need. And so I did what I could to help… praying not only that what I offered would truly be a help, but that my actions would be a practical expression of God’s love and concern for this woman and her children.

As Gill and I were choosing the music for today’s service, I came across a beautiful hymn from the Iona Community. I really liked the melody of the music as well, but we chose to sing it today mostly for the words. “Before the world began” is a paraphrase of the first chapter of the Gospel of John. You may remember that famous chapter that we often read on Christmas Eve… “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us… full of grace and truth.”

John chapter 1 is about the incarnation. It’s about the Word becoming flesh. It’s about God moving from far away, from invisible Spirit, into human form in the man, Jesus of Nazareth. What we are going to celebrate at Christmas is the incarnation – the fact that God was incarnated, that God became flesh and lived among us.

We believe that Jesus came, not only to teach us and direct us in our lives. But Jesus came to show us what God is like, to reveal God to us, to be God’s very presence in the world… bringing hope and peace, joy and love into the world and our lives.

John’s Gospel points out that when Jesus came, there were many people who did not accept him. They didn’t recognize that he was from God. They thought he was a blasphemer, a trouble-maker, or a dangerous false prophet. And that’s how he ended up getting crucified.

But no matter what the response of the people to God-in-the-flesh, I like the way the hymn summarizes God’s message to the people in Jesus Christ: Through Christ God spoke and said, “I am for you.”

“I am for you.” In a day and age when the values and priorities of the so-called “me” generation seem to be rubbing off on all of us, this is a counter-cultural promise of love and faithfulness and care.

“I am for you.” When you hear those words, is there someone you know or have known that comes to mind? Perhaps you are thinking of a parent who lived and worked tirelessly for the well-being of their children. Perhaps you are thinking of a husband or wife who was dedicated to serving or caring for their partner. Perhaps you are thinking of a volunteer in the church or in a community organization. Perhaps you are thinking of a professional social worker, or a nurse, or a lawyer or business-person or researcher who dedicated their time and energy and concern towards the well-being of the other.

Perhaps you are thinking of someone who figured out that the purpose of their life was not to achieve great honours, or to acquire great wealth. You are thinking of someone who discovered, by God’s grace, that they are deeply and unconditionally loved, and that their true purpose in life is to pass on that love and care to their neighbours.

Today’s readings from scripture provide a helpful reminder of how deeply and unconditionally God loves us. In the text from the prophet Jeremiah, God is portrayed as the lead shepherd, making plans to gather together the sheep and to keep them together in safety and plenty.

The passage begins with an expression of anger (or at least frustration) with the shepherds (or the human leaders) who destroy and scatter the sheep of God’s pasture. And after making it clear that God is not pleased with the actions of the leaders, God declares God’s intention to put things right.

“Then I myself will gather the remnant of the flock,” God says, “and I will bring them back to the fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing.”

While the people of Jeremiah’s time were longing for a human king or leader who would gather them again in the land promised by God… While they were hoping for someone with power to demonstrate some care and concern for the needs of the common people… As we reflect on God’s promise today, we can see that God did so much more.

Jesus did not come as a powerful ruler to overthrow the hateful or neglectful shepherds of the people. But Jesus did come with the power to shine light into the darkness. Jesus came to tell us, and to show us, and to demonstrate for us, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that GOD IS FOR US.

We have to do little more than read the stories of Jesus’ activities in the world from the Gospel of Luke to see it…

Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place… and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. (Lk 6:17a, 19)

Speaking about a sinful woman, Jesus said, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” And to the woman he said, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Lk 7:47, 50)

And Jesus took the five loaves and the two fish… and blessed and broke them… And all ate and were filled. (Lk 9:16-17)

When Jesus saw the lepers, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.” (Lk 17:14)

When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today… for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Lk 19:5, 10)

And to the criminal on the cross, who asked for mercy and help, Jesus promised: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk 23:43)

In healing, and helping, feeding and forgiving, in befriending and blessing and encouraging, Jesus showed that God is FOR US. And when the people of the world misunderstood him, and feared him, and accused him, and rejected him, Jesus demonstrated the depths of God’s faithful love towards us. His willingness to accept our hatred, to endure our rejection, and to go on loving us all the way to the cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Interpreting that event on the cross can be difficult, and at times Christians may become divided over the interpretation of the event that is the foundation of our Christian faith. Was Jesus the Lamb of God, offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins? Was Jesus paying a price that humans owed to God? Or was Jesus simply loving human beings until the end… accepting our hatred, refusing to fight back, and continuing to love us faithfully, even to the point of death?

Although we can read the scriptures, and explore and discuss the doctrines of the church, we can never fully comprehend the depth of God’s love for us, or the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But by faith, the writers of the scriptures somehow came to understand that, in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Word had become flesh and lived among the people. And the message from God which Jesus embodied in his life and ministry, in his death and resurrection, might simply be expressed as “I am for you.” As the author of the letter to the Colossians put it, “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

And so, no matter what challenges or difficulties we may face in our lives… and no matter what mistakes we may make, or what doubts may plague us, we can be assured that GOD IS FOR US. GOD IS FOR YOU.

But the message of the Gospel goes way beyond good news for the “me” generation and all of us who get caught up in our own needs and desires. Although God’s message “I am for you” is clear in Jesus Christ, it does not end there. Because Jesus calls each one of us to follow his way and to join with him in proclaiming – both in our words and in our actions – that “God is for you, and you, and you…”

As the people of God, we are Christ’s body and Christ’s presence in the world today. And so we have a high calling to truly embody Christ’s deep and unconditional love for all people. When there is someone in our community, or nearby, or even far away, who has reason to believe that “Everyone is against them” it is our calling to say to them, and to demonstrate for them, that “I am for you.”

As we begin the seasons of Advent and Christmas, may we prepare to celebrate the good news that God’s Word became flesh and lived among us, and that we who receive him will, indeed, become the very children of God. And may God’s Spirit fill us and help us to be the hands and feet and voice of Christ, proclaiming with joy to all people, “I am for you.” Amen.