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Good morning church, my name is Jaime and I am here to share the word today. The last time I was up here, I was in quite a bad state spiritually, and shared a rather depressing sermon. Today, we are celebrating the 4th Sunday of advent, which is the season of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the coming of Christ at Christmas. So I am hoping to be a bit more uplifting in my sharing today, given that Christmas is 5 days away.
The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine. There are many different traditions and theories as to why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th (given that the date of birth of Jesus was never recorded in the bible). December 25th might have also been chosen because the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) happens around December 21st or 22nd. To pagans this meant that the winter was over and spring was coming and they had a festival to celebrate it and worshipped the sun for winning over the darkness of winter.
The Jewish festival of Lights, Hanukkah starts on the 25th of Kislev (the month in the Jewish calendar that occurs at about the same time as December). Hanukkah celebrates when the Jewish people were able to re-dedicate and worship in their Temple, in Jerusalem, again following many years of not being allowed to practice their religion. As the December period is also a time where people were already celebrating, and the theme of Christmas aligns with the theme of light overcoming darkness, so this could be a reason that helped the early church choose 25th December for the date of Christmas. This will also allow the early Christians to share more easily the good news with the other people during this time of common celebration.
So as we plan for our Christmas celebrations and ascribe our own faith significance to this date, let us remember that this is just a socially constructed date, and that our commemoration of the birth of Christ should happen every day of our life and not just on Christmas itself. In the ramp up to this special day in FCC, we had Mark sharing with us how to be happy in heaven, and Darryl sharing with us to rejoice in the Lord always. Both these sermons are available on our website if you happened to have missed their sharing. I personally find these line up of preachers very out of place for this season as all three of us are obviously not the rah rah happy excitable people, but rather we all more subdued and perhaps tend to look at life from the dark side rather than the light.
2015 in review
Thankfully, the 4th Sunday of advent functions as a Grand Pause and returns us to a more contemplative way of being, to roots, to silence, to mystery–all of which have a way of getting sidetracked in the frenzy of preparations for the celebration. I would like to use this short time to invite all of us to use this season, not only in anticipation, but also as a reflection of the year that has passed. In 2015, there seem to be a terrorist attack every month, some of which were largely ignored by the press, while others are played up. There were one million people fleeing their homes in Africa, Middle East and South Asia to seek for asylum in Europe and the United States. Natural calamities hit various parts of the world, with earthquakes, typhoons, volcano eruptions and floods causing havoc to countries near and far from Singapore. The amount of destructions, the loss of lives and homes seem to have escalated to an unprecedented level this year.
Though in Singapore, we are still relatively sheltered, and such news can seem quite distant and surreal, and do not have a direct impact on our lives in general. As for our own personal lives, some of us may have a smooth going 2015 (congratulations to you); some of us may have difficult issues relating to our finance, relationship or physical/emotional/physical health. As a faith community, we are also facing a challenge with decreasing attendance and a general sense of tiredness. Yet life goes on, and some of us drop off along the way, while the more stubborn ones hang on, hoping that things will change for the better. Is this the transformed life in Christ that we are to experience? Is this the victory that we are to claim?
What exactly does our faith in Christ impact the way we lead our lives? We know the biblically correct answer: to love God with all our hearts, mind and soul and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We pray, we attend cell groups and do ministry work, we come for Sunday services. We say welcome home every Sunday, and yet every once in a while we hear of folks feeling out of place and unwelcomed. We embrace diversity, and yet we are the relatively homogeneous upper middle class church with our comfortable air conditioned studio, with snacks and coffee served before and after service.
Our Christian faith
You know in Facebook, there is this year of review which you can click and ten significant moments of your life (as presented on Facebook) in 2015 is generated. Sometimes I wish there is also such an algorithm for our Christian life, to see if whether there is any significant moments in our faith journey. If we look back at 2015, or even look back at our journey from the first moment we uttered the sinners’ prayer, has our lives been transformed or in reality, whether we are a Christian or not has not have an effect how we actually choose to act in our daily lives for quite a while already.
We know that believing in god is not just a press of a button and voila, we are transformed. Yet, I think that sometimes, we give ourselves too much time and leeway to say that transformation is a long process, so there is no hurry to go about changing ourselves. There is no sense of urgency, as if we have all the time in the world. I think these are but excuses that we give ourselves, because we are not willing to leave our comfort zone. We think that there will always be people to do the work that needs to be done, and the person does not have to be me. Or that God will always provide, and things will turn out right at the end of the day.
I do not know for you whether time has been flying by, or passing even slower as the years go by. For me, time is slipping through my fingers faster than I like. When Reverend Yap was not feeling well this year and had his mobility restricted for a prolong period of time, his frailty hit me in the face. I read his postings on Facebook, as he ponders over his health and started decluttering his possessions on earth, one can’t but help think of how much time he still has with us. I wonder who will step out, to take on his mandate to fight for the marginalized. Or will it be a legacy that he leaves behind, with no one continuing to hold the torch? FCC has its annual general meeting last Sunday, and out of a membership of about 100, probably only 40% stayed back to take an interest in what we have planned for 2016. And it is usually the same faces that we see for all our events. The board election only attracted one new face to run for a two year term. There are many friends of FCC here who have been with us for years, but still do not feel the need to become members. Is it a commitment phobia, probably not, but why is it so difficult for any of us, to just take that extra step, to say that I am willing to take on the responsibility to be with each of us to make FCC into the church we all want to be. I hope we can use this year end to reflect the choices we make in our lives and whether these choices reflect our faith in God?
Let’s go to today’s lectionary reading in
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.
And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; or the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
In the song of Mary, she sang it as a hymn ascribing praise to the Lord, and also as a song of hope and possibilities of liberation. She also sings of the message that “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Reverend Yap recently shared his thoughts on a disabled God quoting this verse, which I encourage everyone to read.
We as God’s church, are to be God’s messengers. Not only to share the goods news of salvation, but to do god’s work on earth. But we come to church as broken people, looking for love and acceptance, for our own healing and for comfort from our suffering. Most of us would stop searching once we think we found what we are looking for, while some of us are forever looking for comfort after comfort for there seems to be no end to our suffering. How then can our faith in God be expressed in our lives, instead of just paying lip service to what we ought to be doing? The church has been described as a hospital, where the wounded come and get healed, then they become better and can leave. This analogy makes the church a provider of sorts, and does not place a request on the people coming to church to give of themselves. Then lately, FCC likes to describe the church as a gym, where we are supposed to build up our spiritual muscles, and this gives a more positive spin to what the church should be providing to its congregation.
But I think the church should be a place where we learn to face our sufferings, to open up the places of pain that had been hidden. Where the shameful wrongs which has been committed, and the frightening experiences that has been repressed can be brought to the light. The church should spur people to carefully examine their own souls, and allows one to get closer to the truth. Where we can get beneath the superficial and get down to the fundamentals. The church should give us strength to shatter the pat narratives we tell ourselves, and to the world. The church should be a place where we learn of our limitations, of what we can control and not control. The church should help us recover from our suffering, not like recovering from disease, where we come out healed, but that we come out different. And when we come out different, instead of running from the sort of loving commitment that we know would lead to suffering, we are able to throw ourselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, we will be able to continue to choose to be vulnerable. This way, the church will give each of us a gift, which differs from what we conventionally define gifts to be. The conventional gift would be one that brings us pleasure. This gift will not give us any pleasure, but instead will give us the gift of growth and character, that will indeed transform us in our faith.
As usual, all these sounds like a lot of hard work. But we know that Jesus has never said that it was going to be a walk in the park following him. However, I want each of you to know that every little step that you make counts, and will make the difference in the world around us. We just need to be willing. In order not to end this sharing on a depressing note, I would like to share with you all an uplifting video, so please enjoy.