DecemBer 20, 2020, Scripture Readings and Sermon
Message from Rev. George Porter
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
1 Your love, O Lord, for ever will I sing; *
from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness.
2 For I am persuaded that your love is established for ever; *
you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.
3 "I have made a covenant with my chosen one; *
I have sworn an oath to David my servant:
4 'I will establish your line for ever, *
and preserve your throne for all generations.'"
19 You spoke once in a vision and said to your faithful people: *
"I have set the crown upon a warrior
and have exalted one chosen out of the people.
20 I have found David my servant; *
with my holy oil have I anointed him.
21 My hand will hold him fast *
and my arm will make him strong.
22 No enemy shall deceive him, *
nor any wicked man bring him down.
23 I will crush his foes before him *
and strike down those who hate him.
24 My faithfulness and love shall be with him, *
and he shall be victorious through my Name.
25 I shall make his dominion extend *
from the Great Sea to the River.
26 He will say to me, 'You are my Father, *
my God, and the rock of my salvation.'
1 Romans 16:25-27
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith-- to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Sermon: George Porter
Your Name Will Be...
I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking about names during this Advent season. Recently I was contemplating how most of us in our culture don’t really pay much attention to how or why we got our names, nor what they mean. Most of us likely were named after someone in the family or a family friend. Some may have been named after a famous person. Others could have a name that came from a book, or list, of potential names.
My given names and my surname were passed down to me from relatives, though I am not sure they were really ‘related’. When I was growing up, we had a number of ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ who I later discovered weren’t really aunts or uncles at all. I think of a couple of sisters, Matty and Hatty, as in the song (Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs): ‘Matty told Hatty about a thing she saw ....’ I also recall an ‘Uncle Steve’, Matty’s husband.
Anyway, my first name means ‘Earthworker’ (‘Friend of the Earth’/’Farmer’). My second name means either Friend of the Sea or Friend of Justice. My surname means, of course, ‘Servant of the King’.
In addition to these names, I have been gifted with two Indigenous names to carry. What I have discovered – and here I can only speak for myself, since I am neither an Elder nor a Wisdom Keeper – but it’s been my experience that these names aren’t just words. They are almost ‘prophetic’ – prophetic in the sense that they call me to explore and live into them. They aren’t static but living, and they’re points of connection with myself and creation, as well as myself and spirituality.
Interestingly, in the biblical writings, names seem to have a similar significance. They ‘mean’ something; they are connected to a person’s character or ‘mission’ in life. ‘Israel’, of course, comes immediately to mind. It was the name given Jacob after he wrestled with the ‘angel of the Lord’. It means ‘the one who wrestles with God’ (and later, when applied to the whole community of God’s people, ‘those who wrestle with God’). During this season, I also think of Emmanuel’, although no one was actually named Emmanuel in the biblical writings. It wasn’t ‘Emmanuel Mahershalelhashbaz’, nor was it ‘Emmanuel Jesus’. The first time I can recall seeing it as a person’s name was Emmanuel Kant, the philosopher.
Also in this season, we encounter ‘John’ who was given this name ahead of his birth. You may recall that there was a bit of kerfuffle when his father indicated this name. The people around asked why ‘John’ since there were no people in the family named John. ‘John’, in its Hebrew or Aramaic context, meant ‘Graced by God’ or ‘God has been gracious’. John lived into this name during his life and ministry.
The name ‘Jesus’ itself (Yeshua or Joshua) – the name of the one who lead the Hebrew people into the promised land following the death of Moses – was also given to the Christ (the Messiah) before his birth. It means ‘God is Saviour’ or ‘God Delivers’ – as God is depicted throughout the history of Israel in both individuals and the community as a whole.
A tradition arose of referring to Jesus as ‘The Christmas Rose’, as in the carol: ‘Lo, how a rose e’er blooming’. But why a rose? This isn’t in the Christian scriptures. It does appear in the Song of Songs (the Song of Solomon) where the bride is referred to as ‘the Rose of Sharon’ and ‘the Lily of the Valley’, though neither flower was actually a rose. These words refer to wild flowers of the field.
The same word is used in the writings of Isaiah when he speaks of how the desert will bloom like a rose. Again, it’s a lily or wildflower of the field. We find an echo of it in Jesus’s words about considering the ‘lilies of the field’ – the wildflowers – which rival even Solomon’s finery. The sense seems to be that they were quite ordinary, yet at the same time they were special and beautiful.
This also came to be associated with the blooming – the flowering – of ‘Jesse’s branch’. Jesse was the father of David – King David – so the assumption took hold that the Messiah would come from the lineage of King David, Jesse’s shepherd son. Whether this was a bloodline or spiritual lineage is secondary; the stress was on the Messiah’s coming from the ‘House of David’ – from Davidic ancestry.
This theme of a royal birth is prominent in the Gospel birth narratives, perhaps even more so than the idea of divinity. The signs described signified such a royal birth, as the accounts of the encounter between the Magi and Herod clearly indicate. They were all looking for the one born ‘King of the Jews’.
Nevertheless, the contrast with Caesar is obvious. The scriptures make this quite clear: the kingdom foretold by John and announced by Jesus would not be ‘from this world’. It would not be like the kingdoms of the world. This kingdom had a different source: God. This kingdom would have a different sort of power.
In the Hebrew scriptures, God is sometimes – approximately 50 time, in fact – called ‘El Shaddai’. This name of God is usually translated ‘God Almighty’. Indeed, the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures, as well as references in the Christian scriptures render this as ‘all powerful’ or ‘omnipotent’. The Hebrew, however, carried quite a different connotation, being literally ‘the God with breasts’, referring to God being like a nursing mother. Rather than ‘power’ in the usual sense of the term, it indicated that God is the ‘All Sufficient One’ – as a mother is to her nursing child.
This kind of power isn’t the sort that manifests in structures of rulers and ruled, of privileged and underprivileged or in some inequality of relationship. It’s the sort of power that comes from a lover. It’s an ‘attractional’ power. It’s not a ‘crush’ like we might have as children or young people, nor is it an abusive crushing sort of power. It’s not mushy and sentimental, though biblical writers didn’t shy away from using intimate language of our relationship with God or God’s relationship with God’s people. Neither is it a violent sort of power.
This power doesn’t just involve individuals, either, but manifests as resistance to evil. I think of a humble pastor standing in the railway blocking the train carrying Jews to the oblivion of concentration camps. I think of the power of nonviolent resistance lead by Gandhi that eventually freed India. I think of that same kind of power with Martin Luther King, Jr during the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement. Think of the power of Mother Teresa – that short, frail-looking woman who made such a huge impact on India and the world.
This is the power of love that manifests in justice – in reconciliation – in peace (though in ‘peace’ understood as ‘shalom’ – a word that means far more than the absence of conflict but wholeness or completeness – a healing unbrokenness). All these are relational terms. It’s the power manifested in the mother caring for her nursing child, or in the words of Jesus, like a mother hen sheltering her chicks.
There’s a fierceness to this, however – or perhaps a ‘fearlessness’ – too, as a mother protecting her young. I have heard it expressed as ‘provoking mother bear’.
In connection with the Christmas story, we often hear about Mother Mary meek, mild and submissive. I think, however, that people that think this way or speak this way have never really heard the Magnificat – that Song of Mary – that we heard last week. While there is an act of submission to god’s will expressed by the angelic messenger, this isn’t meek, mild and submissive in any of the usual ways. As some might say: ‘Them’s fighten words!’
But this fighting isn’t against other people – not against ‘flesh and blood’ – but against the forces of darkness, death, oppression, violence and hatred. Here the conventional weapons of war don’t work. The scriptures say that ‘some trust in chariots, others in war horses, but we will trust in the Lord.’
Here, weapons become instead plows to grow food for the hungry. They become compassion to recognise the dignity of every human being (like a former President building houses for homeless people).
The weapons become sort of ‘light sabers’ that dispel the power of darkness and ignorance and racism. They become spirit-weapons that break the chains of addictions, abuse and dependence. They are weapons of welcome and acceptance that break the curse of loneliness, that sense of ‘lostness’ and ‘worthlessness’ that pervades so many people and communities – that break into the prisons of isolation and shame and rejection. They become weapons of healing. They become ‘weapons’ like the death of a cross and the new life of resurrection experience and the deep immersion in the Spirit – into the very life of Godself.
I get so frustrated sometimes when I hear people go on about ‘spiritual warfare’ like it’s some sort of Hollywood horror movie. For the most part, I doubt that we have really even begun to imagine what God can, and will, do – ‘more than we can ask or imagine’. I think that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the armour of darkness.
Yet, ‘the true light shines in the darkness’. It shines in the foolishness of a baby born in the obscurity of poverty, forced to live as a refugee, fleeing before the powers, but returning to proclaim to those same powers that the kingdom of God has come – a kingdom that will unseat them. It unseats them, as Bonhoeffer said, ‘not through conquest but through reconciliation’.
It’s into just such a kingdom – a kingdom described as love, joy and peace in the Holy Spirit – that we are called to be citizens and ambassadors. It is into such a kingdom that we are called to know peace and become peacemakers with the Prince of Peace (remembering that ‘peace’ is used in the sense of ‘shalom’).
This is a kingdom that has no map because the topography is always changing. It has no borders, no walls, but stands with doors thrown open and table set for all who would come, hungry and thirsty, for a life beyond mere existence – real life. It’s a kingdom blooming with all the wild beauty of the flowers of the field clothed with the incomparable glory of the Creator.