New Year’s Day at Hi-Way

Two thousand years after He walked this earth, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah for whom the Jewish people had yearned, is worshipped in many ways.  In several churches, Bible readings, hymns and prayers follow a yearly pattern in which the events of Jesus’ birth, life and death, his rising again and ascension to heaven, and the subsequent gift of his Holy Spirit to his followers are each marked at the same season annually.  For those who follow this church year, the Sunday on or nearest to November 30th is New Year’s Day.  The first four weeks of the new church year, collectively called Advent, Latin for ‘arrival’, are a time of focussing on that yearning to prepare our hearts for Christmas, commemorating Jesus’ arrival, his birth.  Twelve days after Christmas comes Epiphany, Greek for ‘manifesting’ his true divine nature – as the wise men from afar saw divinity in the infant Jesus, as the rabbis in the temple of Jerusalem saw authority in the youthful Jesus, and as Jesus’ cousin John recognized when the Spirit of God descended on the adult Jesus in the form of a dove.  As cold fades and days lengthen, Lent, Old English for ‘longer’, marks the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, after John’s recognition of him and before beginning his public ministry.  After that, Good Friday memorializes Christ’s death, Easter his resurrection from the dead.  Seven weeks later Pentecost, Greek for ‘fifty’, marks the birth of the church, the coming of God’s Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers fifty days after the Jewish holy Passover, during which Jesus had died and risen again.  Come the end of November, Advent, season of yearning, comes again.  

In the church of my childhood, our hymn book contained twice as many advent hymns as Christmas carols, possibly because the yearning advent marks is both complex and foundational to the Christian religion.  Their themes permeated the hundreds of Advent sermons I had heard in that denomination over a period of six decades as well.  A senior citizen new to Hi-way, with the first Sunday in Advent my first time managing to attend a full service, I wondered what might be different.  The worship space was glorious, its front portion, a bit higher than the rest of the room, was outlined with two dozen huge red poinsettias in gold pots.  A manger scene graced the left of the area and a Christmas tree the right.  Between them a visiting band prepared to sing.  In front of this raised section, an Advent wreath evoked memories of past years.  I wondered what hymns we would sing and what the sermon on Advent the pastor would preach.  It was the wrong question, but more of that later.    

Some Advent hymns concern the longing of Israel to return to being a kingdom ruled by a just and faithful king; in the latter parts of the Old Testament especially, warnings that God had withdrawn his blessing from Israel due to endemic injustice in society and rampant hypocrisy in its religious leaders stood alongside promises that a descendent of the former king David would be anointed to rule justly over Israel.

Other Advent hymns refer to the longing of all humankind, from the beginning of time, not just for right dealings with people but for the restoration of an intimate relationship with our creator, God.  In my Bible of over one thousand pages, that intimacy was lost at the very top of page three.  Eight hundred pages later, the Old Testament ends with these words: For behold the day comes burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble… But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.  This is in the book of Malachi chapter 4, parts of verses 1 and 2.  Turn the page, and the New Testament opens with Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and assumption to glory, his overcoming the evil which separates humankind from God and his making restored relationship possible through repentance and forgiveness, through faith in his shed blood and his promised newness of life.  On the second page, Jesus’ cousin John warns: Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  By the third page, Jesus says: Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Jesus preaches about this kingdom all over Galilee, while healing many diseases and infirmities.  By page seven, he is telling a Roman centurion that many will come to it from east and west due to faith such as his, the like of which he has not seen in Israel.  These excerpts are from The Gospel According to Matthew: chapter 3 verses 1 – 2; chapter 4 verse 17 and 23; chapter 8 verses 10 – 13.  In the rest of Matthew, Jesus, until mere days before his death, teaches about this Kingdom of God in which those who believe in him and fear God live.   

Both of these groups of hymns are celebrations of the first Advent, our Jesus’ longed-for coming two thousand years ago.  But anyone alive on this earth can see that, although Jesus has utterly defeated the father of evil, the complete eradication of evil and evildoers lies in the future; he taught that it will occur at his second coming.  Many Advent hymns are songs of anticipation, a hopeful yearning for this second Advent referred to repeatedly throughout the New Testament. 

After the visiting band’s lovely worship in music ended, I again turned my thoughts to what sermon on Advent the pastor would preach.  The real question, though, was: What sermon on Advent, initiated by the Holy Spirit, would the pastor and the congregation live out?  Taking the floor, the pastor preached to the hundreds present in the same excited, energetic outpouring of spiritual insight and Biblical reference that he did in his smaller midweek Bible studies.  I am writing this now but in fact what happened towards the end of it so moved me that I forgot about this altogether.  Because then Pastor Randy, a fit, energetic man in his prime, said that despite the festive décor and wonderful music, in church he had begun to feel sick in the pit of his stomach.  It was due to the severe spiritual oppression some of those present today were experiencing.  The Spirit of God, he said, had been speaking to his heart during the service, reminding him that this Jesus whose birth the season commemorates was the Messiah long prophesied to be coming, and that there were people here tormented in heart and mind for whom He came to bring deliverance.  Pastor Randy called them to the front for healing and deliverance, not because it was on a typed up agenda but because the Spirit of God desired to flow through him to provide the deliverance available in Jesus’ name to those here who needed it.  The Spirit chose to deliver a living sermon, right before our very eyes.  And Pastor Randy became as a pen in the hand of God through which the Spirit could flow to write Christ’s word of love into our hurting world.  It was not a show.  It was not a summoning up of God’s presence by us humans.  It was God’s own initiative that made of us a living sermon: those who came for prayer, those who at the front or in their pews prayed quietly for them, and the pastor who had gone ahead with it despite it being not very ‘festive’ on the surface.  Because he knew it to be the essence of Christ, whose coming Christmas celebrates.  And because, when the Spirit spoke to his inner being, Pastor Randy listened. 

It is the privilege and calling of all believers to become actively receptive to the leading of the Spirit in which we have been baptised, and to lend our poor selves to his work.  Because it happened, the first Sunday Advent, the deep yearnings of people’s hearts for salvation through accepting Christ as lord of their life, for healing of body, mind or spirit, or for deliverance from oppression by the enemy of God were fulfilled in the house of God.  For them it was not just a new year but a new freedom and a new – or a renewed – hope.

You can listen to Pastor Randy’s sermon here and read further reflections on our Advent hope here.

blog written by Linnie Peterson