If you’re a wise man

It was a wonderful time of fellowship and worship at Pilgrim on Sunday as we:

  • followed a secret family recipe and baked gingerbread cookies in the sanctuary,
  • (we certainly followed our noses to find some of this deliciousness to enjoy with our morning cuppa after the service),
  • followed our hearts and welcomed visitors from different places and life circumstances – including an affectionate fur-baby named Tilly,
  • followed the music and learned a new carol,
  • followed our faith and offered spontaneous prayers for those who are finding this season tough and frightening,
  • and followed the star with the wise men to the perilous place in which God engages with the world, establishing peace and righteousness at great cost to our pride, possessions, and power ….

Yvonne reflects:

One of my meagre claims to fame is that I conducted Christmas services with the Pope. This is a true story. 

The senior minister at our large suburban church in South Africa had taken leave for the Advent/Christmas period and I had been having a wonderful time running a preaching series that was leading up to a slightly chaotic, very creative, completely interactive Christmas service.

At ten past ten on Christmas Eve, my phone pinged. 

“Just to let you know, there will be a camera crew in the church tomorrow and the service will be broadcast live throughout Southern Africa. Blessings!”

Blessings!?! Pfft – I spent most of the night tossing and turning, second-guessing my preparations and wondering whether I should switch from my very pretty Christmas dress to more formal clerical attire.

In the end, the service went ahead as planned. My mom recorded it so that we could sit down and watch it together at a later stage – which is when it all took a very funny turn because the news channel had decided to simultaneously broadcast the Pope’s Midnight Mass along with our service. 

So you had these alternating scenes on the screen of the Pope in his beautiful robes leading 15 000 worshippers in formal prayers and angelic singing sustained by a massive and well-rehearsed choir and me running around the sanctuary barefoot with the children while the congregation slowly straggled in, ducking as best they could when they passed in front of the camera ….

Sometimes you had the Pope and I together, on a split screen, while the poor news anchor back in the studio tried to offer meaningful commentary on what was happening in these opposite and obviously unfamiliar spaces.

There you have it – I have conducted Christmas services with the Pope – and what I got out of the experience was a deep awareness of how difficult it can be for outsiders to follow our rituals and traditions as we seek to “Keep the Christ in Christmas” each year.

Year after year after year, I am struck by the remarkable faith of the magi or wise men who, on the strength of an unreliable astrological sign in the sky, undertook a perilous journey to a foreign land to find a child from a different ethnic group and religion to their own in order to offer three remarkable gifts as an expression of their worship.

Year after year after year, I marvel at their openness to God at work in the world around them, the humility they displayed in their willingness to follow, and the generosity of their gifts and their spirit as they pay homage to this newborn baby, the King of the Jews, who they find lying in a manger, in a stable, in the insignificant town of Bethlehem.

This year though, I am struck by the line “When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, as were all the people in Jerusalem.” I want to know why the news of the birth of the King of the Jesus – which is such good news for us! – troubles not only King Herod but all the people in Jerusalem.

On the first Sunday of Advent, at the start of a brand new liturgical year and lectionary cycle, I said that we would be spending a lot of time with the Gospel of Matthew this year. And one of the distinctives of Matthew’s Gospel is the way in which he tries to show that God does what God says God will do.

In our dramatic reading this morning, there were two Scriptures woven together – the prophecy of Psalm 72 and the story of the wise men from Matthew 2. It was done like that so we could give some thought to what the “good news” brought by the wise men might mean for a powerful man like Herod and a prosperous people like the city dwellers in Jerusalem:

  • justice – and judgement,
  • the elevation and rising up of the poor and the needy,
  • the redistribution of wealth and resources,
  • the suppression of the oppressor,
  • and a reorientation of power with all kings and nations falling before this new King. 

For those who go along with, who follow, pride, power, and possessions, peace for all people and the flourishing of righteousness is not good news at all.

If we truly want to keep Christ in Christmas in what is proving to be a brutal, heart-wrenching, fearful time; to live “as if” Christ’s coming into the world is Gospel truth and very good news, it’s not about holding beautiful church services or keeping our traditional carols going as though we are untouched while the world around us burns – 

it’s about showing up to clean out an unused little sanctuary and offer hospitality and company in a community that hasn’t had a carol service for quite some time;

it’s about going down to our local producers market and supporting our farmers and entrepreneurs with our money and our presence and affirmation;

it’s about redirecting the resources from a cancelled Christmas holiday – as disappointing and frustrating as that is – to small rural towns and centres;

it’s about taking the risk to invite someone to church for the first time and picking them up to ensure that they get here and sitting with them to ensure that they feel a little less uncomfortable about things they might not really be able to follow; 

it’s about visiting with the frail and the ill for whom this might be the last Christmas;

and, yes, it’s about engaging in political activity around issues like climate change, consumerism, and effective and accountable governance and leadership. 

And it’s about prayer – not the one-off, desperate, somewhat dubious intercessions that we often offer but a deliberate and determined seeking from God the peace that is promised in Christ Jesus.

As the wise men left behind all that they knew in order to find all that they longed for, may we journey day by day towards peace and righteousness, knowing full well that such things do not come without a cost and willing to bear it – as Christ himself bears our death and our life. ***

The journey of the wise men

To all who seek the bright Morning Star ….

An ancient prophecy, 
a sign in the night sky,
a dangerous journey across the desolation,
the camaraderie of travelling companions spurring one another on with hopes and expectations, 
a treasure carried as tribute to a King …

… this is the stuff of fairytale and legend –
captivating, romantic, remarkable.

How far removed from every Christmas play I’ve ever seen where, as Eugene Peterson so perfectly put it:
“Three bathrobes wise men with six or seven
Inches of jeans and sneakers showing, kneel
Offering gifts that symbolise the gifts
That none of us are ready yet to give.”

As we light the fourth candle for the wise men and make our way in a few short days to the manger to welcome Immanuel, God-with-us, I wonder just what it is that we’re hoping to receive … 

… and what we’re willing to offer in our wonder and our worship.

Blessings to you and yours in this holy time of giving and receiving. 

And may the God of hope be with us
in our Advent journey to the stable and beyond,
in our meeting and in our travelling together,
in our feasting and our resting.

Yours in Christ

Shepherds in the fields nearby

To all looking for Joy in the midst of the world’s troubles …

One of my all-time favourite movies is an animated film titled “Inside Out” which is set almost entirely inside the head of an 11-year old girl named Riley. Inside there, five main characters – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust – work (somewhat together) to help her navigate her way through her world. 

It’s well worth watching – on your own or with the grandkids – as the manic pixie-like character named Joy struggles to keep Riley happy after a stressful cross-country move and a difficult period at work for Riley’s father by dismissing the voices of all the other characters. 

In the end, Joy discovers that her significance is much more than making Riley feel upbeat and positive all the time and that the experience of life as meaningful and worthwhile requires that Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust live and work alongside her too. 

As we light the third candle in our advent wreath, we open ourselves up to Joy of the shepherds who were the first to receive the glorious news of the birth of Christ, the promised Messiah. The purpose behind the angel’s tidings was to bring good news that would cause great joy for all the people: people living under the oppressive force of Roman power, religious legalism, and poverty.

As the pronouncement sent the shepherds on a journey from their fields to seek the truth for themselves, may we bear glad witness to God-with-us on the highest mountains and in the shadows of the deepest valleys.

Yours in Christ

A long time to wait

Sunday’s sermon at Pilgrim; also shared at liturgies4life.com

Today, we look at Jesus’s family tree from Matthew 1 against the backdrop of the prophecy in Isaiah 11 regarding the shoot that shall spring from the stump of Jesse. You’re welcome to read through the first half of the first chapter of that Gospel but for those who may be put off by all those names, here’s a handy little lyrical version that I found on youtube:

Isaiah’s hope-filled vision occurs, interestingly, in the context of the growing Assyrian threat, in a time when the legacy of King David is all but lost in spite of God’s promises that his house would endure forever.

In the midst of those first 39 chapters of the book, we hear the voice of first (or proto) Isaiah: a voice full of judgment and warning about the bad things that are about to happen because the people of God have not lived in right relationship with God nor with one another nor with their neighbours. 

It’s a countdown to conquest really; but, against all odds, a new shoot will grow from an old stump – the stump of Jesse who was David’s father and David was Israel’s first and greatest King. 

And this new King – the Messiah – will receive the fullness of God’s Spirit: wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and reverence for God and delight in doing God’s will. Through him, the poor and the needy will find favour and all that are divided will find peace and harmony. There will be no harm, no hurt in his kingdom.

Isn’t that a beautiful image?
A hope to hold on to?

But what do words and pretty promises mean when your home is burning, your child is dying; when you have no freedom; when there is no peace or harmony – only harm and hurt, hurt and harm day after day, month after month, year after year after year? 

It was 700 years or so before the promised child was born – so full of Spirit; the Son of God. Born into the midst of Roman occupation and religious exploitation and poverty and need …

… for the more things change, the more they stay the same as we say so casually.

But when we step back a little further and look at Jesus’ family tree, we see, in fact, God’s promise to deliver, to rescue, to save spanning the fourteen generations from Jesus’ birth to the exile in Babylon. And fourteen generations before that between the tile and the reign of King David. And fourteen generations from David all the way back to Abraham, who is known as the father of our faith for God made a promise to him and he left all that he had known to follow God.

Forty-two generations! That’s a long time to wait for a promise; a long time to hold on to a hope when you’re hurting right now.

We will spend a lot of time with the Gospel of Matthew in Year A of the lectionary cycle, and you will see how often he draws attention to things happening in fulfilment of what the prophets said. The author wants us to know – in both head and heart – that God does what God says God will do.

But each person has a part, a place, in fulfilling these promises, including:

  • Tamar, who was nearly burned to death for being pregnant out of wedlock,
  • Ruth, the foreigner,
  • Rahab, the prostitute,
  • Bathsheba, who was so beautiful that King David had her husband killed so he could have her for himself,
  • and Mary, who was pretty much an insignificant little nobody until she was chosen to bear the Christ-child.

Everyone has a place – including those we deem unlikely, insignificant, and unworthy (hence my choice of women from Jesus’ family tree) – in the unfolding promises of God who is active in every generation.

As we hear again in this Advent season that familiar story of the Christ-child born in our midst who will come again one day to establish the perfect peace of his kingdom, once and for all, it would serve us well to wonder – and perhaps to talk about over the table:

  • what does that promise really mean?
  • what might it mean for those who are in the midst of drought, destruction, and despair right now?
  • do we walk with dread each day because of bad things happening?
  • do we set out into the world in anticipation that God will draw near to us?
  • do we offer hope through pretty words or through active participation in what we see God doing to bring comfort and healing and peace in the midst of harmful, hurtful situations?

My prayer as we travel the prophet’s path is that we will enter into each new day as if God is coming – not in 700 years’ time or 7000 – right here and right now, in the words that we speak, and the love that we share, and the space that we make at the table.

Journeying with the prophets

On Sunday, at Pilgrim, we encountered the prophets: people who come so close to God and who God comes so close to that they know the most important things.

In particular, the prophet Isaiah inspired us with the promise:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

Isaiah 11:1

The sanctuary was full of the colour purple to remind us that we have entered into a time of great mystery, and circles to show us that this is God’s time in which every beginning has an ending and every ending, a beginning.

The sanctuary was also full of laughter and conversation as we shared Harry’s story (keep an ear out for tomorrow’s blog post – and I do mean an ear), offered one another peace, ate together in Holy Communion, and coloured in a lovely little Advent calendar with all the characters of the Christmas story (mainly the kids, but I must confess that I’m still working on one that I brought home with me).

Our worship service was a wonderful start to the Advent season as we welcomed over 20 visitors who were part of the sacraments training held by the Riverina Presbytery. We were greatly blessed by their energy, their insights, and their company for morning tea.

Using name tags from last week’s High-Five Anniversary to which we’d added the names of our visitors and those who had been away, we prayed for one another in the simple act of holding each others’ names between our hands as a sign of the love, hope, peace, and joy enfolding each person.

We continue to pray for those in the place of pain due to bushfires and the ongoing drought.

God of gatherings, turnings and imaginings, 
you make all things possible through Christ.
Inspire us with new vision,
and the wisdom of ancient dreams.
Give us strength to walk together 
until we come to our eternal home – 
the place of peace and plenty.
In Jesus’s name.

We would love to have you join us next week as we travel a little further – this time with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem where she gives birth to a little baby boy.


An “as if” ADVENTure

Our Sunday services over the next few weeks draw us into the Christmas story
as we journey with
the prophets,
the holy family,
wise men,
and angels.

Join us at Pilgrim (10 Tanda Place) for an “as if” adventure for old and young alike
with carols (traditional and Australian), walking, hunting, and even a little baking
as we share this familiar story in unfamiliar ways.



First Sunday in Advent

Grace and peace to you from him who is, who was, and who is to come as we find ourselves, again, in the blessed season of Advent, making ready to celebrate the Christ-child who comes to us in human form and anticipating the Christ-King who will come again to rule and reconcile the world in and to himself ….

Today, we start a brand new lectionary cycle: at Year A which focuses on the stories of Abraham through to Moses in the Old Testament and the gospel of Matthew. 

These are our origin stories: stories of how we came to be a pilgrim people bound to God by the best ways of living, and of God’s faithfulness along all of the ups and downs, the wanderings and the arrivings, and the joys and the struggles of the ongoing journey of which we are part in this particular time and place.

Matthew consistently points us to a God who keeps every promise as Jesus fulfils the prophecies of the Old Testament and shows his followers how to live out the heart of God’s law. You may find it interesting to keep a note of how many times the words “fulfilment” or “prophet” appear as we journey together.

At Pilgrim on this first Sunday in Advent, we focus on the prophets. I love how the Godly Play stories describe them as “people who come so close to God, and God comes so close to them, that they know what is most important” rather than as mere characters of the past.

As we journey with the people who came close to God and the prophecies that Jesus fulfilled throughout Scripture in this next year, I pray that you will know God coming close to you too that we might walk together in the light of the Lord (Isaiah 2:5).

Yours in Christ

Food for the road – Advent series

As we prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas,
join us for a simple weekly communion service
and a time of conversation
around journeys, old and new.