Sunday, January 02, 2000

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
on Sunday, January 2, 2000
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Matthew 2:1-11

Well, first of all, I want to take this opportunity of wishing you all a very blessed and peaceful and God-filled New Year. For those of us who were here on New Year's Eve to celebrate the arrival of the millennium and to have a service of celebration, it was a wonderful evening for us and really throughout the whole of the Advent period, within my own heart, as I am sure those of you who have worshipped here and elsewhere, it has been a wonderful time of preparation and rededication.

But I want to take this opportunity particularly at this time, as the Senior Minister here at Timothy Eaton, to thank the staff of our church for the work that they have done throughout this busy and intense and moving time. For those who prepare the building and make sure that it is clean and safe, to those who take care of our finances, to those who minister in Christ's name, to those who prepare the orders of service that you see so beautifully prepared at every single service, I want to take this opportunity of thanking my staff and our staff for their dedication and their sincerity and their commitment. I can assure you that behind the scenes there was far more going on than you will ever realize, and I think hopefully it is a testimony to them that things have gone so smoothly. Thank you also to all the volunteers who have given so much time over the past few weeks and made the transition from an old millennium into a new, a Christ-filled one, a peaceful one and we thank God in the world, a safe one.

About twenty odd years ago, there was a song written by one of the great musical influences on my life, Roger Whittaker. And he had a song and it was entitled "Why", and in the end of it all it says, "And the last word that will ever be spoken is why." I think that word why is a fascinating word. For the past century, that is now behind us, I think humanity for a large extent has been asking the question "How"? How are things done? How are things made? How are we made? How are things created? How does the universe operate? But in the midst of all that, we have also asked the secondary question, which is also, I would suggest to you, a question of faith and that is not only how things come about but why. Why?

This past Christmas period I've been reading many little books for my inspiration and one of them was a little book that I was given some years ago and I must say had put down and had not read for a while and just recently picked up. It was a book entitled, "Children's Letters to God" and for anyone who's ever seen this wonderful volume, there is more wisdom in this book than there is in many theological tomes that have been written, for there is a simplicity and a profundity to what some of these children had to say and like all children, they ask the perennial question, "Why"? Anyone who has been around a child knows, whenever you stipulate something, it is followed by "Why"? Why?

Well here were children writing to God and they ask God a number of whys, and these are whys which I must admit I have asked many times, but never so eloquently or succinctly. A little seven-year-old called Ron wrote, "Dear God, If we live after we die, why do we have to die then in the first place?" I've thought about that one as well. The answer is “sin”, but we can't get into that with a seven-year-old.

Another question was, “We read that Thomas Edison made light. I thought you did that.” "Dear God, Why do I have to pray" - (I love this one) - "when you know anyway what I want. But I'll do it if it makes you feel better." I suspect that's why we're all here today, to make God feel better, right!

I love this one the best though. "Dear God, If I was God, I wouldn't be as good at it as you. Keep it up." ? Michelle.

We all ask God the questions of "Why?", from the simplest of things to the most intense, and throughout the 20th century, we have indeed though, in the midst of the How, asked many questions as Why, for humanity is continually searching and seeking and wanting to know and understand a number of things. In the 20th century, we asked ourselves many questions about the Why of suffering. Now there are probably many reasons why we have done that in this century that has now gone. It is probably due to the fact that we have more knowledge of medicine and so we know more of the Hows than we ever did, know more about the genetic make-up of the human body and the structure of how we are made, but nevertheless, even though we are so made, we still suffer and we ask the question Why? I think perhaps the Holocaust, the Shoah, at the middle of this century that has passed, was another reason why we ask questions about suffering and Victor Frankl and others looked for questions to find meaning in the midst of that. And whenever there is suffering, whenever there is devastation and we hear more about it now because of mass media, we want to find meaning and we ask the question "Why"?

When we look at the world around us, we also, I think, ask questions about our human experience. The 20th century to a large extent was dominated by existentialism. It was dominated by the question of existence and the reason of our existence and what the meaning of our existence gives to our understanding of the world around. From the influence of Kierkegaard in the century before, to Heidegger and others, questions were asked and some came to the conclusion that our existence is almost meaningless. Existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre came to that and that idea has influenced many people over the past century.

We've also asked questions about our own uniqueness. The more we discover about the world of the stratosphere and the cosmos, the more as human beings we ask, "Why are we here?" and "Are we really unique?" This was even asked 2000 years ago when there was a man called Metrodorus of Greece and he said, "It is unnatural to find in a large field only one chaff of wheat, and in a universe that is infinite, only one living world." He like many opened the door to the belief that the more we discovered about the world around us and about the universe, we seem to think that there must be some other creatures out there, that we are not unique, that we are going on a search to find something extra-terrestrial.

In 1950, Enrico Ferme challenged all these ideas and he asked the question, "Well, where are they then? Where are these extra-terrestrials if we are not unique?" And different schools arose, one of them said, for example, that there is the zoological school, that all the extra-terrestrials are out there just looking at us and watching us as if we're in a little cage. Another school of thought had what we call the ancient visitor belief, that somehow we were visited by extra-terrestrials millions of years ago, didn't like what they found here and left. Or there were those who had what they call the economic school of thought, that it was just too costly for the extra-terrestrials to stay here. I think that was even before GST too!

But then we now have this other belief that maybe we have aliens among us. This is a very popular thing at the end of the 20th century. I think the aliens are amongst us and I think they play for the Buffalo Sabres, that's what I think after last night's hockey game! But we have many different beliefs, but we're always searching, we're always wanting to find something. People are on a spiritual search. Just look at the end of the last millennium, how people were turning to new age mysticism or they were turning to the occult or they were turning to crystals or they were seeking for angels. I mean all the images are around of a humanity that is seeking and searching and wanting to find meaning, maybe even outside of itself.

Well, the Christian faith that has been around 2000 years has always said that the meaning of life is found in the one who created us. That the meaning and the importance of our uniqueness is found in Emmanuel, God with us. That the meaning of suffering is shown on a cross between two thieves. Indeed, we look to history to find the meaning now and we look to God with us now in order that we can look to the future. Never was this more clearly seen than in our passage from the book of Matthew, and it is what I call the search for an authentic God and it revolves around the Magi. The Magi, which we all know came to Bethlehem because they had seen a star in the sky. Now the Magi could have been almost anyone. They were probably Persian wisemen from the East, those who belonged to sort of the literati of the occult who looked to the skies and looked to the stars for meaning and guidance. I think that has been there since time immemorial, and the Magi in a sense represent the gentile world coming to Jerusalem. And when they get to Jerusalem they meet the King and as they would, because they were searching for someone special, they go and see Herod. And Herod was there and Herod wanted nothing to do with this king. He was frightened indeed, for when he heard, for example, that this King was going to be from Bethlehem, his mind immediately went to the book of Micah, Chapter 5, that the Messiah, the King of David would come from Bethlehem. When he heard there was a star that was showing it, he was terrified because he knew that the star represented the line of Jacob and therefore ultimately the line of David and he was terrified. But the Magi persisted and when they went not to the capital city, but to the wee town of Bethlehem, their search came to an end. God confirmed in their hearts. God confirmed in their minds that what they were seeing in this house in Bethlehem was the very God, the very King they'd been searching for all along.

And herein lies the power of this story. The power of this story is that their search, their search came to an end, that their mystical experiences, that their seeking was realized when they came and saw a Jewish maiden in a Jewish stall and a baby, and there they found God. Their search was over.

My friends, I think that is one of the things at the beginning of a new millennium, that we can say to humanity, oh continue to seek, continue to knock, continue to search, but here is what we have found. For those, for example, who are struggling with their materialism, who have been trying for years to find the meaning of life and the purpose of life and the blessings of God in the things that are around them, the things that they possess, the things that they have, and have found them wanting, we say, you can find what you're looking for but not in materialism but in life with God.

Some years ago, I had, I think it would be fair to say, the honour of being a chaplain in a hospital for the mentally ill in Nova Scotia, and for eight hours a day, six days a week for twelve straight weeks, from the beginning of the day to the end, I was locked on a ward with people who were mentally ill. It was, I must say, one of the most inspiring and one of the most joyful experiences of my life. Now it might also happen to coincide with the time of my engagement to Marial, which happened four days before I went into the mental institution and I got married four days after I came out and that may explain a lot of things, why Marial is sadly disappointed in what she got, but that's another matter!

But there I was in this hospital and the people who were in there and I, fell in love. We did. I fell in love with them because I think the sheer honesty of the world had hit many of them. Many of them were serious cases, some were not, but all were in need. And there was one particular gentleman that I was introduced to just three days after I had gone in there. At the time I thought he was a rather old gentleman who had had many experiences, but now looking back, eighteen years back, he's exactly my age as I stand here today. But he was the vice-president of a very, very influential corporation in the Maritimes. He was talking to himself, he was muttering aimlessly, and he was sort of delinquent and shaking. And as I sat down and began to talk to him, I realized that apart from definitely a psychotic problem he had, it had been exacerbated by one thing, and he said to me, "You know, all my striving, all my searching, all the hard work and the hours that I put in, all the desire to get to the top, has actually brought me to this point here and now. Surely, surely, Reverend, there must be something more than what I have."

I think many people feel that way. It's not that we shouldn't work hard, it's not that we shouldn't accumulate, it's not that we shouldn't make money. It's not that money is evil, it's none of those things, it is purely and simply that the ultimate meaning of life is always found in God.

I think we're also looking in this world and searching for good people. One of the most fascinating interviews in preparation for the end of the millennium was done by Larry King. Larry King had three people on ? Robert Schuller, Desmond Tutu and the Reverend Hinkley, who is the head of the Mormon Church. It was a brilliant interview. They asked Desmond Tutu one of the questions and said, "What do you think is one of the things that people really want as they go into a new millennium?" He said, "One of the things that they're really searching for is good people, is good people. Look," he said, "how the world has mourned the loss of King Hussein."

Now, I've asked many people even here in this congregation over the last few weeks who they thought was the most influential and important person of the 20th century. It's been a matter of great curiosity to me. I spoke to one lady in the hallway on New Year's Eve. She said it was Oprah Winfrey and I said, "Why?" She said, "Because she's on television more than any other human being imaginable."

I asked another person who they thought it was and he said, "I think it's Joe Clark, he's had more resurrections than the Lord Almighty."

And I asked one of our members which was the most significant day in the new millennium and he said, “The day I was born!”

So we all have had many different answers as to who the most important person is, but the fact of the matter is, and Desmond Tutu is right, humanity still looks for the good. In the midst of all our sin, we still want our heroes to be good. Oh, we might not always, because of our sin, desire to be so, but we look for the good and we seek it and we try and find it. But we are always looking outside of ourselves. Christianity has always said, yes, you do look outside yourself, but you look outside of yourself to God incarnate. But not God incarnate held at a distance, but God incarnate invited in. God with us. The power of Christ's spirit. You want to be good, you want the good, you invite Christ in. You seek for meaning, you seek for richness in your life, you invite Christ in. The search for the authentic God, for the Magi, was over.

What then finally do we do in response to having found the authentic God? Again the example is given and it is given very clearly and very powerfully. When the Magi came to the home, they brought gifts that were worthy of royalty, but they themselves got on their knees and they worshipped, they worshipped.

If Jesus, who was in that manger, was not divine, then their worship was idolatry. It was idolatry. If Jesus in the manager was God with us, it was the authentic worship of God in our midst. For 2000 years, Christians have said yes, you can worship Jesus Christ and through him worship God the Father. You can take the bread and the wine, as we will do in a few moments and you can take it as an act of worship and you come to God. You can be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit and you can come to God. You can sing the praises and get on your knees and pray because you can come to God. This is what the Magi found. This transformed their lives.

The great Dr. David Reid, who was a preacher in New York City of some renown, and I think maybe at one point had even preached here at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, wrote a book a few years ago saying, “The faith is still there.” And in it said, "You know, humanity really deep down wants to worship something. It wants to have not only the horizontal within worship, it also wants to have an experience of the vertical. The worship doesn't always have to be relevant, it doesn't always have to address every issue that is going on around it, that worship has an innate value of bringing people on their knees together to worship God." He said also that people are looking for the supernatural. They're wanting to have an experience of God, they're wanting to have a lively encounter with God. They want to be known by God and they want to know God. But they do not just find it in the natural, they do not just find the answers in the rational, they find it by the very gift of God himself. He said they also want reverence and honour in their lives. I think that's true.

I think we all want something to revere. I think we all want something to honour. I think we want the spirit of holiness. When those Magi got before the manger and they gazed upon the Baby Jesus, they had reverence and they had honour and they had awe. I think people also want more than the God of the golf course and I say the God of the golf course, because many times I've had many friends of mine say, "Oh, Andrew, I can worship God on the golf course just as well as I can come and worship in your church." Well, clearly their golf game must be superior to mine, because on the golf course I invoke the name of the evil one more than anything else! But what I think I mean by this is that indeed yes you can find God anywhere. No one has said you can't. You can worship God driving your car on the 401, but coming together like the wisemen came together to pay honour and to respect and to publicly declare their faith, that is worship. That is worship. It is the worship that God craves. It is the worship that God desires, it is the worship God loves. But it is also a worship that transforms.

A number of years ago, I went to a Christian conference and there met three of the most moving women I have met in my life. They were three women who had lost their sons, who had disappeared in Buenos Aires. And many mothers in South America over the last twenty years have lost children, and sons in particular. It is a sad, sad reality.

These three women were at this conference for two reasons: the first was to solicit our support, to solicit the church's strength, to come and to ask us to stand and to be a voice where they had no voice, to give them the power that they did not have, to ask for their sons, even if they were simply their bodies, to be returned. But they were also there to bear witness and through a translator I was speaking to these three women and I was asking them why they had come and why they had kept their faith in the midst of all this and they said there was one night in Buenos Aires when they had been told absolutely by the Junta that their sons were gone and that they would never be returned, they went into a small Roman Catholic church on a street corner in a poor part of Buenos Aires and they walked in and they saw a picture that they had seen many times but it had never had its power before. It was the picture of Mary holding Jesus in her arms. And they said for the first time in our lives when we saw the Mother Mary holding the baby boy, Jesus, they said there we found life. There we found hope. Why? Because in Mary's arms were the hopes and fears of all the years. In Mary's arms was the meaning and the power of life. It was in Mary's arms the affirmation that life is important. In Mary's arms, there was the sign that God cares. In Mary's arms there was life. There was God. Let us come to the one who is in Mary's arms and in worshipping, find the answer to the question "Why". Amen.