Sunday, December 02, 2018
Full Service Audio
Every now and again there is an incredible story in the daily newspaper. It is often hidden in the midst of all the other stories about: political problems, environmental issues, struggles of the state of war. But, every now and again there is a story you would never expect. In The Toronto Star on Thursday, there was one such story. The moment I read it, although it was Marial who drew my attention to it, I realized this has got to be told again. It originally appeared in The Hamilton Spectator, it is about two men: Andy Clutton and Ghulam Akbar Momand, an Afghan gentleman.
Their story began with a knock at the door and a gift of bottled water. It has become about so much more — a 65 year old Afghan man and a 29 year old Canadian man sharing meals… and now, almost unbelievably, a kidney. On an August day in 2012, Ghulam Akbar Momand and 18 of his family members moved into a Rebecca Street high rise, only to find that their three units were without water or electricity due to a building emergency. It was not an ideal welcome to Canada.
That same day, along with a group of other residents, neighbor, Andy Clutton, made his way through the 16-storey building distributing water bottles to help those who couldn’t make it out of their units. Going door-to-door, Clutton met Momand — who he now calls “Dr. Akbar” — along with the rest of his family living in the building, including his nine children. It was the start of a beautiful friendship between the two men born more than three decades apart in different countries with different skin colours and religion.
The story is that as their relationship developed, it became known that this elderly Afghan man, for he was now elderly, was failing, and needed a new kidney. He had sought out a donor in his family but they couldn’t. They tried various sources looking for a match, and there wasn’t one. Then Clutton said, “Why don’t you do blood tests on me?” and found that he could be a donor. He then donated one of his kidneys to Dr. Momand, saving his life.
It was what was said afterwards that is interesting. When being interviewed about this, Clutton gave his reasons for doing it, and the paper says that his decision to donate stemmed from “a spiritual conviction to live like Jesus”. He said, “It was more than just a physical need, I felt, that would be cool, I could do that. But there was something deeper driving me. With young children and this whole process going forward, I realized I needed to do something more. I felt like God was opening these doors into developing a friendship right from the get-go. Nor did we just visit one another for tea every day or every third day, but as a group of Christians we constantly prayed for Dr. Akbar and his family, and vice versa.” Then, he goes on to say how he was so committed to give life to Dr. Akbar. Clutton belongs to a small movement called MoveIn, in which Christians move into low-income communities to follow the example of Jesus Christ. You can see why I think that is a gem!
Is that not really Christmas in a microcosm? Christmas is not only about following Jesus Christ, but the power of life, and life over death.
I often think our idea of Christmas is nothing more than the wrapping of Christmas. By that I mean all the outward festivities, and the narratives we develop around Christmas that are in essence not much more than wrapping. Oh, it’s lovely wrapping, and can give us joy, great music, beautiful lights, lovely trees, nice stars, fabulous pageants, but it is wrapping unless it goes to the heart, and changes our lives. Our wonderful Minister of Congregational Life is truly a gracious lady and just recently brought in a box of Quality Street chocolates for all the staff to share. Now, they remain only in her office, but they are there, and when you visit she is more than willing to share them with you. She says her reason for doing so is that she is the “Quality” minister amongst the team, and so she wants us to enjoy that. But, as I started to take some of the candy from her, I realized that the wrapping was important. The colour of the wrapping will determine what is in the middle. Of course there is the chocolate you have to eat your way through, BUT the thing in the middle is the thing, right? That is the thing that makes it distinctive, that is what you really look forward to!
When you think of Christmas and our preparation, Advent is time for us to peel away the wrapping and get right to the heart of it. That is why today my text is from the Gospel of John, not the beginning – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…” but near the end, the story of Jesus before Pilate, because it goes right to the heart of Christmas, right to its substance, where its real hope and joy are found. The encounter between Jesus and Pilate reveals a lot about Christmas itself. In the interrogation between Pilate and Jesus near the end of his ministry, Jesus says these incredible words: “My kingdom is not of this world.” All the anticipation of what is the core when you have undone the wrapping is blown apart by these words. All the things that people thought Jesus should do and be, are, in fact, changed by these words – “My kingdom is not of this world” is the heart of Christmas.
Why? Because the kingdom that he is talking about is not one acquired by force. When you think about it, even Israel as a nation often included force. Was that not the case when the walls and they came tumbling down in Jericho? Or when David had to face off against the great Goliath and take on the Philistines? Even this glorious Psalm 132 envisions God dwelling in his Temple and the kingdom being restored, but even so, the enemies are still disgraced and put down. Was there ever a moment when the kingdom of Israel was able to exist without some degree of force? Not really! There was always this need to preserve itself. It is understandable; they were a small group of people chosen and called by God in the midst of a hostile world, but it was force that had often led them to establish a kingdom and protect it. So, when Pontius Pilate, on behalf of Rome, sees this Jesus of Nazareth and asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” what he is really asking him is “Are you another one of those that is going to be a military leader? Are you going to lead an insurrection or an uprising? Is that what you are going to do?
Jesus disavows him of that. He wants to distance himself from Pilate’s thinking. “My kingdom” he said, “is not of this world” because if it was, then I wouldn’t be arrested. My followers would have stood up and stopped it. I wouldn’t be here right now if I was going to use force. “My kingdom is not of this world.”
Pilate was confused. He had no other grounds, no other point of reference to talk about kingship, other than with force. After all, he knew that the Babylonians had used force under Nebuchadnezzar. The Syrians had used force to establish their empire under Tiglath Pileser. The Greeks had established their kingdom through the rule of Alexander the Great. The Romans had established the empire on the basis of the Roman legions. He knew only empires established by force. So when Jesus says to him, “My kingdom is not of this world” he was confused. So Pilate mocked Jesus. He had no idea who he was messing with. “My kingdom is not of this world.”
It is also the kingdom of truth. Jesus goes on to say, “You say that I am a King” – in fact, here is where Christmas comes in – “the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” By “truth” Jesus is not talking about propositional truth, in other words the difference between a truth and a lie, although it did expose the lies, Jesus is talking here about the truth of the fact that his kingdom is not of this world. It is the truth of God’s reign. Those of you who were here last Sunday will remember that we talked about Psalm 93 and the reign of God. This is what Jesus is saying. In other words, “Pilate, you might not know what the truth is (and indeed, Pilate asks what is true), and indeed the world may not know what truth is, but the truth is the reality of the power of God himself.
In a wonderful book on Luther and the Cross, Professor Dennis Ngien, who is here this morning, wrote these words: “The Jews supposed that Christ will establish a physical empire in which they will become kings and princes and grand lords on earth. Instead, Luther has Christ say ‘If you want to be free to have your own king, to be rid of all tribute, to shake off your yoke and bondage, you must believe in the Son.’”
He goes on to say: “Christ wants to usher them into a kingdom into which truth reigns and is real life. His is a genuine kingdom in which there is real life. It is life that is different from the Temple life. In it, truth will really make you free.”
He continues: “Christ directs their minds away from earthly rule and their ambition to occupy high and mighty positions on earth to the heavenly realm where they become great lords, true kings, and powerful princes, but on account of Christ.”
You see the difference? One is the power of the truth that Pilate was looking for – to believe in a god and a king who ultimately would be that earthly power. As Luther rightly points out, true freedom, the power of truth, is actually found in Christ and on the Cross and not in the truth of this world. Jesus shatters all the images that we have of what Christmas is about. Jesus says, “For this reason I was born: to testify to the truth, the truth of God’s reign, and God’s reign is not like the reign of those who practice it on Earth.”
There is something much more powerful here, and this is what really gets to us: A kingdom that lasts forever. All the other kingdoms, all the other despots come and go. The kingdom of Christ lasts; it is not of this world. It does not mean that it is other worldly or that there is no impact concretely in the day-to-day life of the world. On the contrary, the reign of Christ transforms human life in the here-and-now – just ask Andy Clutton and Dr. Akbar! It is in this world, but not of this world. It is beyond and greater than that, something that lasts forever, and it goes right into the heart.
In six week’s time, I am sure that you will be taking down your trees, disposing of your glitter and paper in an environmentally sensitive way. You will tear it down and put it away, and the wrapping will be gone. But is the kingdom gone? Is the reign of Christ gone? Is the love of God gone? No! Christmas isn’t about the wrapping; it is about Christ. It is about the centre. It is about the truth.
Many years ago, I cut out a story that perhaps reflects its time. It is the story of a man who goes into a flower shop at Christmas because he wants to send flowers to his mother who lives 200 miles away. He makes arrangements for a wire to be sent and the flowers to be delivered to her home. He spends $100 on a magnificent bouquet. As he leaves, he is happy that he has given his mother a beautiful bouquet of flowers. He is very, very pleased with himself. As he is walking outside, he sees a young girl on the steps, crying. Feeling sorry for her, he inquires what is upsetting her.
She said, “I have $5 and I wanted to buy my mother a red rose, but they told me I didn’t have enough money, that I need $8 for that rose, so I can’t get it for my mother.”
The man went inside and did the right thing. He bought a very big red rose for $8 and he brought it out to the girl. He handed it to her and he thought, “Now, this will please her.” He said, “Here is the red rose. You can take it to your mother.” The young girl still looked forlorn. She said, “Thank you. I just don’t know how to get it to my mother.”
The man said, “Can I take you to your mother?” (Now this is something in our day and age we would never advocate this, right?) The young girl got into the car with the man and he said, “Where can I take you?”
She gave him directions, and as they are driving along and getting nearer, the girl said, “It is okay. You can stop here.” She took her red rose, got out of the car, and the man realized they were at a cemetery. She took the flower and placed it on her mother’s grave, then got back into the car. The man took her home to her father, her brother and sister, but he had been changed. He immediately went back to the store where he had bought the flowers for his mother and said, “I don’t want you to send them. I want you to make up the bouquet now, and I am going to take it. I am going to drive 200 miles, and I am going to hand it to her in person. You never know what might happen.”
Something so simple, so loving, can make a huge difference! Christmas is not about the wrapping, as great as it is. It is not about the glitter, as lovely as it is. It is about what it does to our hearts. It is what it does to our lives and our souls. That Jesus was born, not in the midst of glitter; he was born the God’s loving truth and freedom like none other. This is not a love and a power that exists for a moment. This is a love and a power that lasts forever more. As we approach Christmas in here, in our lives, in our souls, let us hear these words: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Our Lord reigns! Amen.