A Parting Word: Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, December 26, 2021
Readings: Matthew 1:18-25; Romans 1:1-6
It was 40 years, 22 days, and about 11 months ago when I sat down and relaxed, after having preached my first Christmas Day sermon. I did so in the beautiful village of River John in Nova Scotia. I remember going back to the manse, which was an old sea captain's home, with four or maybe even five bedrooms, alone. According to Environment Canada, the temperature was -26 degrees Celsius, and I sat by the fire. The wind was howling off the Northumberland Straits. So drafty was my house, that the pages of my sermon were blowing along the hallway, even though the doors and the windows were closed. But I felt warm and I felt good. I had for the first time, proclaimed the good news of the birth of Jesus Christ, my Lord.
This is my last sermon as a United Church minister in a United Church congregation, and I do so under a sad setting, with nobody present, except for our musicians. I received some comfort though, yesterday from a ministerial colleague in Nova Scotia who said, “Andrew as predicted, you’re preaching would empty churches forever.” Oh, how my friends and colleagues were right, but I know that deep down in their love for me, too, they feel for me in this moment.
Between that very first sermon in River John, and this very last sermon here at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, I can honestly say to you, that my faith has not diminished. I believe with the same passion that I did then, that the coming of Jesus Christ changes the world. I cannot think of a moment in my ministry, where I have ever doubted his sovereignty, his love. I have doubted myself. I have doubted the church universal at times, but I have never doubted the Lord and Saviour whom I proclaim.
I have been blessed and honoured to proclaim him in so many places. I have proclaimed him in universities and lecture halls, in small villages in Northern New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and in Nova Scotia. I have proclaimed him in cathedrals of the great cities of Canada, in a revolution church in Concord, Massachusetts, and an ecumenical church in Santiago, Chile. I have proclaimed him in my hometown of Haslingden in Lancashire, England, and in my church where I grew up in Bermuda during their 113th anniversary. I have proclaimed him on the streets, and have conducted services, for homeless people. I have been able to proclaim him before senators, governors, the lowly, the lost, and the hurting. I have proclaimed him in moments of death and profound sadness, many times here, when we've lost loved ones. I have proclaimed him in Cape Town, in so many places, and I am honoured.
I am honoured to have done this not because at any point have I ever felt that preaching is actually about me. In fact, for all preachers, I think those who are sincere will say it is never about them. It is always about the Lord whom we proclaim, and the God whom we adore. When accolades have come our way, and if people have decided to bestow gifts upon us, or have given us praise, I am reminded of the words, yes, of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who in prison wrote these words, and I have never forgotten them: “Any honours, that come our way are only stolen from him, to whom alone, they really belong. The Lord who sent us.” All honours, come from the Lord, who sent us.
It is precisely because of the conviction of the Lordship of that Jesus, and the belief and the commitment, that regardless of whether my ministry has been successful, has reached the heights, or the lowest points, it has been through a very broken jar at times. I know that it is his call and his call alone that has moved and inspired me. Thinking about words that I can leave you today, lasting words, I turn to inspiration from none other than the inaugural service of the United Church of Canada. It was in 1925 that the United Church of Canada was created, and I have had the inaugural service on my bookshelves for the last 40 years.
In the prayer that was said by the moderator constituting the General Counsel of the United Church, it had these words as its opening: “God Almighty, Father of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who loved the church and gave himself for it.” These words have resonated with me so profoundly because they describe Jesus Christ, his birth and his coming into the world with two words and these are the words that have dominated my life. The first is “Saviour”. In today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew, these words are recorded: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.”
From the very beginning, the name of Jesus etymologically founded in the Hebrew words, Yeshua, Joshua, Jesus, Saviour, we find God's intention of coming in person and dwelling among us. God came in person as Saviour, and writing to a Hebrew audience, Matthew would have known that people would immediately recognize the name, Jesus, immediately knowing its meaning and purpose. It was not an accident that Jesus was so named. He was so named because of what he did and who he was. What is even more powerful about this is that when Matthew wrote his gospel, he wrote of having witnessed the life of Jesus, of seeing how the story developed, recognizing the life, the ministry, and the teachings of Jesus, and witnessing the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus.
In writing these words, it might be a vaticinium ex eventu (after the event) as they call it, but it makes them all the more powerful because he knew that Jesus as Saviour, had indeed come, and he witnessed that very incarnational ministry. So, these words, while they're written about the birth of Jesus, are written also about the life and the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. He had seen him also to be saviour and a saviour is what the world always needs.
I recognize that the humanists, and those who look at the human condition with pride have a lot to celebrate and enjoy. I've never been one to diminish human progress and recognize how things can change for the better. I recognize that humans have done great things and will continue to do great things. The very fact that we have a vaccine that could very well save your life is a testimony to human progress. That we can care for one another medically, educate each other from a distance, travel to the outer parts of the universe, and do all manner of amazing things. Even the Toronto Maple Leafs are getting better. That’s human progress! They’ve got a long way to go yet though, and it's still not the playoffs, but I digress.
We have progressed. But if at any points along the way, we feel that we cease to be human beings, with all our flaws, biases, and problems, we deceive ourselves. You see, Jesus came to save us from our sins and our sins are a part of who we are. Our sins are part of our sinfulness, our brokenness, our mortality. No matter how much you might want to paper over the cracks of our sinfulness or tell us that our sinfulness is okay when it isn't, no matter how we might attempt to do that, we cannot fool ourselves. Those of you listening and watching today know in your own heart the imperfection of the human soul. You know that you too, like all of us, needed a prayer of confession today.
The good news is about the saving power of Jesus’ words on the cross. He said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” His whole ministry, the embodiment on the cross, is one of self-giving love for the sake of the forgiveness of sins. To call Jesus saviour of our sins is by no means bad news. It is the exact opposite. It is the ultimate good news, for even in the depths of our own depravity, God forgives and reconciles.
This morning over my coffee, I couldn't help but reflect for a moment on dear Desmond Tutu’s plea to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. For all the findings of atrocities and terrible things, he hoped and prayed that the heart of it would be truth, but also reconciliation and forgiveness. He spoke as a follower of the Saviour, Jesus Christ and that should always be our approach to life and the sin of others. To follow and emulate the words of Jesus, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
When I look at the violence that so often besets the human condition I wonder if we really have progressed. I wonder whether persecuted minorities such as the Tuareg, the Uighurs, the Rohingyas, the First Nations people and the terrible things that have unfolded here in Canada over the last year would ever tell us, “Oh, things have mightily improved”? I doubt it.
There is still the need for the word of the Saviour, and the word of the Saviour, is this. “Love one another as I have loved you.” How can we hold on to racism? How can we treat people as if they are non-beings? How can we live in a world that moves closer to genocide, in the light of the Saviour? How can those who proclaim his word not speak for those who are often the silenced? Therefore, if I am proud of the United Church of Canada for anything over the past 40 years, it is that it has spoken, when possible, for those who have had no voice. It is one of the reasons why I have felt comfortable within my denomination. Though at times, at odds with some of its teachings.
As I look at death, I see the power of death. I see what death does not only to those who have died, but to those who continue to live. There's not one of us watching today, who isn’t right now is thinking about someone that they loved who died. I might be thinking right now about the countless funerals I've done in 23 years of people who I've loved. Rev. Lori and I were talking about this earlier this morning and coming into this place and remembering them as if they're still here. Death, you see, is something that no amount of human progress can overturn. The one thing that can overturn it eternally are the words of Jesus of Nazareth who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall they live.” The Saviour comes even into eternity.
I'm not sure if Joseph and Mary on that first Christmas had any idea what their child would become. I can only speculate that they had an insight that if God was going to come in person in the form of their son, something pretty dramatic would occur. I do not believe they had any conception, any more than Simeon did when he held Jesus in his arms and declared him to be the saviour, that this child would die on a cross, be raised on the third day, and be lifted up and draw all humanity to himself. Saviour is a powerful and a good word to describe the ministry of Jesus.
The second word is “Lord”, and I take this from the words of the Apostle Paul. He said, “This is the gospel concerning his son, who was descended from David according to the flesh, and was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
I want to give you a little personal insight here. I'm often asked, and I probably shouldn't say this going to the Bible Society moving forward, but “What is your favourite book in the Bible, Andrew?” There is no question. Absolutely no question. I made it clear when we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It is the book of Romans. This epic work, this enormous statement of faith, this magisterial book by the Apostle Paul was written in order that Jew and Gentile alike may know the Lordship of Jesus Christ. How miraculously, as I studied under the great James Dunn in a course at Acadia, it became clear to me that this understanding of the book of Romans bringing Jew and Gentile together was absolutely central to the ongoing life and ministry of Jesus Christ our Lord.
I would like to think particularly over the last 23 years, or even before in my relations with Rabbi Bulka and others in Ottawa, that the relationship that I and this church has fostered over many years with the Jewish community has been a sign of our mutual respect, and the belief that the covenant with Israel is inviolable. But so too, is that same covenant extended to the Gentiles, to you, and to me, and to the whole world. The Apostle Paul was writing at a time when the word “kyrios” “Lord” applied to so many. It applied to the Emperor of Rome, it applied to some of the great senators and Greek thinkers, it applied to those who were in the hierarchy of religions, to powers and principalities. However, for the Apostle Paul, unreservedly, unapologetically, unashamedly, there is only one Lord and that is Jesus Christ. He went everywhere, proclaiming that wherever he could. The more I think of it and look at the state of our world, the more convinced I am of it too.
Look, I am not unaware of the problems of the notion of a Lord, of how that can conflict with sensitivities about gender, or how it sounds like an extension of some medieval monarchy. I'm aware of all the nuances that are negative about the Lordship of Jesus, but I still know of no words, and certainly no biblical word, that captures the essence of the ministry of Jesus Christ for all people.
What has touched me over the last few days, on Facebook in particular, have been the comments that have been made by my Jewish friends, by my Muslim friends, and even from friends questioning whether they have any faith at all. Because in many ways in being able to have that conversation, I am at least believing in the Lordship of Jesus, free to engage and love and respect everybody. Knowing that the Apostle Paul knew that Jesus Christ is always the man for others, always the Lord in humble form, I engage others from a conviction in the Lordship of Jesus but in a compassionate and caring way.
I have mused these last few days about my call to the ministry. I might have begun this sermon with my first sermon on a Christmas in a cold River John, but my call to the ministry occurred, and some of you know this, at St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town. With great irony today, it is precisely where Desmond Tutu served as Archbishop. It was in 1979 and during a gathering of Christians celebrating the South African Christian leadership assembly. An assembly of 1000s of Christians who had gathered in Pretoria, and then later in Cape Town, to proclaim their belief in the Lordship of Jesus Christ in a land that was severely divided and violent. It was there that the Lord called me to ministry.
At the time, Nelson Mandela remained on Robben Island and the days ahead seemed very dark for South Africa. But against all the laws of the time and all the racial segregation enshrined in apartheid law, Christians defied it and came together as all races in St. George's cathedral. There were two preachers that evening. The first sermon was given by Colin Urquhart, an Anglican charismatic evangelical healing minister from the United Kingdom, who was glorious. But the second one blew my socks off. It was by Festo Kivengere, the bishop of Uganda, who had defied, even the face of assassination, the tyranny of Idi Amin. When this African preacher got up to speak, he had a quote from, you guessed it, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I was riveted to my seat. The quote from Bonhoeffer was this. “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along a corridor in the opposite direction.”
Kivengere made this point: There is only one train on which humanity should alight and that is the train that follows the Lordship of Jesus Christ. If a nation or a country or a people or a church denomination does not get on that train, then no matter which direction they may want to run, they will not go with God. But if they go in the direction that the Lord leads, then they will be going where God wants them to go.
As I walked out of the cathedral, we were all in awe. All of us got on trains to go back to the suburbs of Cape Town. Two Xhosa women were there with me as we left the building. As we were about to board the train, they explained to me, “Dumisa inkosi.” Praise the Lord. As I got on that train, I was forced to go into a car designated for ‘whites only’ and they went on a car for ‘non-whites’. I got off in the posh suburb of Pinelands. They were going on to the township of poverty of Gugulethu. But we shared one thing that night: We praised the Lord. We praised the Lord!
Right now for us, it may appear that we are going on different trains; you at Timothy Eaton are heading into a whole new direction and I am getting off and moving into another direction. Regardless, the words of these women echo in our ears, “Dumisa inkosi” may we all be on the same train and praise the Lord, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.