Texts: Isaiah 7: 10-16 (God's sign); Matthew 1 18-25 (Joseph's dream)
Love conquers all, we're told; and on this final Sunday in Advent, we hear a love story involving Jospeph and Mary, a dream, and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
Joseph loves Mary, and he stays engaged to her even when she tells him that she is expecting a child. He trusts a dream in which an angel tells him that Mary's child is of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus is born, Joseph and Mary love and care for the baby in difficult circumstances.
Just as it was for Joseph and Mary long ago, love is the final ingredient of our Advent preparation for Christmas. But does love truly conquer all, even when it leads to the birth of a child called Emmanuel?
2700 years ago, the Prophet Isaiah tells the King of Judah that a son is about to born who will be called God With Us, or Emmanuel. His birth will be a sign that his people are saved. 700 years later, an angel tells Joseph in a dream that Mary's son will also be called Emmanuel, and his birth will also mean salvation.
And yet today, violence and pain still plague us. Joseph trusted his dream. But can we continue to trust in God's dream of salvation as shown by the birth of Jesus?
The birth of a child fills us with hope. Each one bears the image of God and so we could call any child Emmanuel. Each one is filled with the promise of an unknown future.
When we despair about social problems, sometimes we say, "today's young people are idealistic and filled with energy. They will fix things that we can't."
But young people are rarely found in church anymore (despite today's baptisms in Fife Lake). Last week, we had another "Children's Church" worship. I enjoyed the services and appreciated the sharing. But only five children attended.
This past Monday, Carla and I led a "pastoral oversight visit" to the United Church in Mossbank, and the story we heard there is familiar -- few children and youth, and no people below the age of 55 who are willing to take over from the elders who have been leading the church for years now.
Last Sunday night, some of us sang in the third and largest of the community Christmas concerts. Several hundred people filled the Roman Catholic Church in Willow Bunch, and I loved the experience. But few in attendance were under 55. The same thing is found in churches all across Canada.
Children and youth give us hope. But without young people, how do we maintain hope in church?
The decline and aging of our churches can make us feel sad or distressed. But church is just an earthly vessel in which we remember and try to live out our sacred values. It is those values of faith, hope, and love that are sacred and not the vessel itself.
Today is the final Sunday at which I will preside at worship in Coronach, Rockglen, and Fife Lake. We will celebrate Christmas Eve together on Tuesday, and I will preach at the Release from Covenant service next Saturday in Rockglen before I leave for Edmonton. But after that, the future of Borderlands is in play.
The Board has decided to suspend worship in January. Discussions continue with the United churches in Assiniboia, Mossbank, Limerick and Lafleche. Arrangements might be made that would help us have worship, mission, and pastoral care in Borderlands. The next Central Board meeting at the end of January will discuss these ideas further.
But this week marks a change into an uncertain future for us. We don't know if the United Church will survive in Borderlands. We don't know if the Christian church will continue to decline. We don't know if religion of any sort will survive into the 22nd century.
I hardly have all the answers, but I see many reasons for the decline of religion in our time. Since the beginning of civilization, religion has been abused by kings to prop up oppressive regimes. Although that role hardly describes the United Church of Canada in the 21st Century, it might be that we cannot survive the sorry legacy of hundreds of years of church-supported war, racism, and sexism.
In my not so humble opinion, a lot of nonsense still gets preached in churches. When a church turns its back on science, when it preaches intolerance, or when it uses fear to motivate members, I think it deserves to disappear.
Once again, this is not our experience with the United Church of Canada. And I continue to be greatly encouraged by Pope Francis, who is a breath of fresh air for the largest church in the world. But when other religious leaders spread nonsense, intolerance and fear, it makes it difficult for all of us.
Religious-inspired violence continues to be prominent in news reports. The ancient Christian communities of Iraq, Syria, and Egypt are disappearing in the face of terrorist attacks. People who are lucky enough to flee from there to find refuge in a country like Canada will likely become more secular in succeeding generations
When religion breeds violence and hatred, people are wise to abandon it. Perhaps God's Holy Spirit is directing us to find new ways to reflect on our sacred values and to live into them that don't involve church, mosque, or temple.
Jesus was born into a religious context marked by violence, fear and disagreement. The Way of the Cross on which he led his friends to Jerusalem shattered the certainties of their religious past and exposed their old traditions. The Way of Jesus is one in which love is found in sacrifice and new life is found in death.
Our churches seem to be dying, which may mean that something new is afoot in the world. Like Mary and Joseph, our celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas signals the birth of love in our lives. But is also involves change and dislocation. As we will hear on Saturday, a post-Christmas dream of Joseph warns him that King Herod is searching for Jesus in order to kill him. So Joseph flees to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. Herod's murderous campaign casts a shadow across the first Christmas.
Love does conquer all. Of that, I am sure. But it does not always give us what we want. Instead, it gives us what we need, which is the cross, our painful guarantee of God's love reborn again and again.
Regardless of the future of church, new babies will be born into the world reminding us of the presence of the God who is Love and giving us hope for the future. Young people will continue to fight for social change in a world of injustice and war. And families of all sorts will continue to struggle to live in peace and joy despite the difficulties of life together.
Love will continue be our most sacred value and the source of our deepest joy regardless of the success of our churches, or families, or our careers. While love does not solve all of life problems, it makes life worthwhile.
This Advent, we have reminded ourselves of hope in dark times, of peace in a world with too much violence, of joy in lives of pain, and of love which comes to us as a baby bearing the image of God.
Death hovered over the first Christmas. But the way that Jesus confronts and overcomes death as an adult also reveals the sure promise of new life. The good news is that the God who is Love freely offers this new life to us all.
Advent is almost over. Christmas is almost here. And so, with a sure hope for new life in Christ, we say again . . .
Come, Lord Jesus, Come.