God is with us: Special reflections on the Christmas story and a baptism

Hespeler, 11 December, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 7:1-4, 10-16, Matthew 1:18-25

Sunday, December 11, 2016 was a very special day at St. Andrew’s Hespeler. We celebrated a baptism (that had, as you will see, an interesting back-story) and had our children present to us their version of the Christmas story. This all came together in an unusual message that offered a unique perspective on ancient Biblical passages. As this message was integrated throughout the service, I present more of the service, particularly the Baptism, than I usually would.

Note that the names of the parents and child have been change to preserve their privacy on the internet.

Reflections on Isaiah 7:1-4, 10-16
K
ing Ahaz of Jerusalem was in a bit of a bad spot. Two powerful kingdoms, the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Aram had entered into an alliance against him and they were coming to attack. Things looked bad. The heart of Ahaz and the heart of all his people were shaking like the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
            But that was a long time ago in a very different world. How are we supposed to understand what it was like for them to be frightened of kings and armies that we have never even heard of? Well, think of it this way: what if the presidents of Russia and the United States made an alliance together and decided to invade Canada in order to gain control of our water supply? How would you feel? Are the leaves of your forest shaking in the wind? That what what King Ahaz and his people were feeling.

            And God wanted to help the king and comfort him and so he sent his prophet, Isaiah, to the king while he was out inspecting the defenses of the city. And Isaiah’s message was pretty simple. Don’t worry, don’t shake like a leaf, he said. The enemy nations that you are worried about, they are about to be destroyed.
            But maybe that all sounded too good to be true for King Ahaz and his buddies. And maybe Isaiah could see that he didn’t believe it. So Isaiah said that the king could ask for a sign. It could be anything in the whole world from the deepest depths of the earth (which they called Sheol) to the highest point in the heavens. But Ahaz wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t ask. And so Isaiah said, “Okay, then God will choose the sign.” And guess what the sign was:

Leader: People of God, Robert and Susan have some very good news for us.
People: What’s the good news?
Parents: We have a son!
L: Praise the Lord! There is new life among us. Let all God’s people say, “Amen.”
P: Amen!
L: What is his name?
Parents: He is called Ryan ______ ______.
L: And why do you bring him here?
Parents: That he may take his place among God’s people.
People: Do you know that he needs to pass through the waters of baptism?
Parent: Yes we do, may we proceed?
L: May they?
People: Yes! We rejoice with you in the gift of your child, Ryan, and we promise to provide you with a circle of belonging in which he will have a place. As friends, we will offer a home to worship God and learn the Sacred Story.

Hymn #138 While Shepherds watched

Affirmations:
L: Please join me as we welcome this new life among us using the words printed in the bulletin.
P: Little child, welcome to this world, this amazing and scary world. Welcome to light and dark, hot and cold, good and evil. Welcome to love and hate, truth and lies, good times and bad. Welcome to the long human pilgrimage from birth to death. Anything can happen here; everything is possible. Some things must be chosen; others left behind. Welcome to the real world and this circle of friends. Here we turn to God for help in making the choices that lead to life.
L: Ryan, for you Jesus Christ came into the world; for you he passed through the waters of baptism; for you he broke bread with sinners and outcasts; for you he endured the agony of the cross; for you he triumphed over death. You, little child, know nothing of this. How will you ever know? Who will ever tell you?
Parents: We will!
L: Ryan, this is too big a job for your parents alone. Who is going to help them?
People: We will!
Witnesses: And so will we!

L: Ryan, who will protect and nourish you until that day when you turn to God and say yes to God’s life of compassion, justice and peace?
Parents: We will!
L: Who is going to help them?
P: We will!
Witnesses: And so will we!

Prayer of Approach
God, sometimes we look around at the world where you have placed us and we are dismayed. We see leaders and events that make us shake like the leaves of the forest shake before the wind. We worry for the future. Thank you that you understand our fears and that you meet us with the assurance that you are with us – that you even sent your Son, Jesus Christ, into the world that we might know you in him.
Thank you for the gift of this child, Ryan, who teaches that truth to us again: God is with us. May we all experience the renewing power of that truth here today. Amen.
L: The peace of the Lord be with you always.
P: And also with you.

Act of Baptism:
Minister: Ryan, the God who created you has made this promise; Don’t be afraid; I have rescued you. I have called you by name; now you belong to me. When you cross deep rivers, I will be with you; the waters will not overwhelm you... I am your God, the One who saves you. (Isaiah 43:1,2)
Ryan ______ ______, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of all.
Ryan, know that you are now in the care of all who surround you. Know that you belong to God and to this household.
As I cup my hand around your head little one, may God hold you and keep you.
As I rock you in my arms little one, may Christ shield you and encompass you.
As I bend to kiss your cheek little one, may the Spirit bless you and encourage you.

Welcome:
L: Friends, this is Ryan, a son of God!
P: Welcome, Ryan!

Y
ou see, that was the sign that Isaiah offered to King Ahaz as he trembled like a leaf. He turned around and pointed to a woman just like Susan – a woman who was pregnant (or who maybe soon would become pregnant – the Hebrew is not quite clear) and he said that when she had her baby, Ahaz would have his sign. The sign would be the child himself. For the child would be called Immanuel and Immanuel means “God Is With Us.”
            And he explained that, by the time that child had grown up enough to know the difference between right and wrong (maybe by the age of thirteen), the world would have changed and the kingdoms that were threatening King Ahaz would have been destroyed. Isaiah was absolutely right. Within a few years, the world did change. Aram and Israel where destroyed and there was a whole new political landscape.
            But you know what? That wasn’t just a prophecy for that particular time and place. This was a Word from the Lord and the Word of the Lord has this way of remaining alive and active long after it is first spoken. That was why centuries later a man named Matthew would pull out the ancient words of the Prophet Isaiah – words spoken to King Ahaz when he and all his people were shaking like leaves in the wind – and speak them to people in this own time who were shaking like leaves in the wind.

Video Presentation of Matthew 1:18-25

            When Matthew told the story of how Jesus was born, the ancient words of the prophet would suddenly mean a whole lot more than they had ever meant before. In particular, that name, “Immanuel,” was important to Matthew because he knew that he (and all Christians like him) had experienced something special in the person they knew as Jesus. Somehow, in Jesus, they had experienced God like they had never experienced God before. Somehow, in this flesh and blood man, God had been present. For Matthew and the people of his church, Matthew’s story of how Jesus came to be conceived and born explained that: it was a new fulfillment of an ancient sign given by the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz.

At the end of the service, Robert, Susan and Ryan return to the front and take Ryan to the manger.

Final reflections on Ryan
I
 am going to tell you the amazing story of how Ryan came to be here today. Seven months ago, Robert and Susan were living in a city in Alberta that you may have heard of: a place called Fort McMurray. They had gone there after school here because there was lots of work there and the pay was good. Many others from across Canada had done the same as Alberta had one of the few booming economies in the country.
            But, seven months ago, things were maybe not so bright. The petro-powers of the world (especially Saudi Arabia) had made an alliance together against Alberta. The price of oil had dropped like a stone taking much of Alberta’s economy with it. The future of Fort McMurray was not looking so bright as it once had. And that was before seven months ago when a massive, nearly unprecidented fire came sweeping through the city.
            We can’t blame one fire on global climate change, of course. Climate doesn’t create individual events, but it is true that that fire is part of an overall trend towards bigger and more destructive fires around the world. A dangerous sign for the future!
            We all saw the pictures and the video footage. It was positively apocalyptic. It was like the end of the world. And people were shaking like the leaves of a forest shake before the hot, burning wind. And, of course, people were asking where God was in the midst of that crisis.
            And I believe that God has sent us an answer: The young woman conceived and bore a son and called him Ryan. And, no, Susan didn’t conceive Ryan at that very moment when Fort McMurray looked like hell on earth. Ryan had actually been conceived about four months earlier. But does that matter? No, because the message is still the same. The world may change but this child, like the one born in Isaiah’s time and even like Jesus, is a sign to us from God – a sign that means that God is with us.
            How do I know that? I know it because that is how God works. I know it because, by the time this child grows up and is old enough to know the difference between good and evil, the world will have changed. I don’t even know how. Trump will not be president of the United States. Trudeau will likely not be our Prime Minister. The economy will have changed and I wouldn’t mind if oil isn’t such a big part of it. We don’t know. But the key thing is that the things we are worried about now, the things we are afraid of, may not matter by then. Yes, maybe we’ll have new things to worry about, but even that may not matter because of one key truth that God has sent Ryan to remind us of: God is with us.

            And so it is Ryan who will lead us out into the world today. As you follow this child into the world, May God make safe for you each step; may Christ make open to you each pass; may the Spirit make clear to you each road; And may you travel hand in hand with your God.

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