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Toshiki Toma

Rejoice, those who sit in the darkness!

13. desember 2015

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. -Amen.
Merry Christmas! Indeed it is a bit too early to say “Merry Christmas”, but since this congregation meets only once a month, we need, and I think we are allowed, to use this opportunity to greet each other saying “Merry Christmas”.

Christmas has become a cultural or even a secular event in many places in the world, and the greeting “Merry Christmas” is being used today as a seasonal greeting very often. In my home country Japan, everyone says “Merry Christmas” though only one person among hundred is Christian. I think Japanese kids are really thinking that Christmas is the day when Santa Claus comes to them.

And the commercialism is dominant in Japan as well as in the other European countries or United States, and the commercialism supplies images of how we should enjoy ourselves at Christmas time, such as: “Hey Mister, you should buy a good gift to your wife, it’s Christmas!” “Ma’am, you should cook good food for your family, you can’t eat cheap meals at Christmas time!”

Here in Iceland, Christmas is still a religious event and the baby Jesus is at the centre of it, not Santa Claus. And culturally, Icelandic people have made certain traditions around Christmas. One of those traditions is that Christmas is the feast when all the family members get together.

But then, what about the people who don’t have any family here? What about people who are not able to buy good food or gifts? How about the people who are seriously sick and have to stay on at the hospital? How about those who have lost a close family member recently? They would feel lonely and miss those who are absent at this time of the year, more than usual.

And how about the asylum-seeking people who are uncertain about their future? Maybe Christmas is not for them?

We celebrate the feast of Christmas every year, but the story of Christmas happened only once on this earth about 2000 years ago. It was a one-time only incident. That is a historical fact.
The reason why our church has put Christmas in the church calendar and celebrates it every year is in order that we experience the story once again in our religious lives as a real, living story in our faith.

We did not exist 2000 years ago, but by celebrating Christmas as a feast, we go back 2000 years in our minds and visit Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. And we will be witnesses to the event of Christmas.

When we can do it, the Christmas story becomes a religious truth for us, not only a historical fact. So the feast of Christmas is not just a custom. It’s more than a custom.
It’s a challenge in our religious life, because we need to look for the original event of Christmas, through today’s Christmas, which might have been covered with very heavy traditions laired up through centuries, and glittering decorations by commercialism.

It is a challenge, but it is worth trying. Let’s try to imagine how things were around the baby Jesus.

Joseph and Mary are travelling from their home at Nazareth to Joseph’s town of birth, Bethlehem. Nazareth is close to Lake Galilee in the North. Bethlehem is south of Jerusalem, 111 kilometres away from Nazareth.
Joseph and Mary travel by walking. They are not rich, and it’s least expensive to walk.

Mary is pregnant. She is excited to have her first baby, but it is not at all easy to continue walking. Joseph is excited, too, but he is embarrassed about some things beyond his understanding. The baby Mary is carrying is not his own. Fortunately, she seems to be an innocent with a part to play in a divine plan, but he cannot see the whole picture at all.

Finally they come to Bethlehem, but cannot get any accommodation except in a stable. The only alternative is to stay on the street and it is cold outside. So they stay in the stable. Then Mary’s labour begins and the baby Jesus is born.

It is clear that the very first Christmas was totally different from what we automatically imagine with the word “Christmas”. Mary and Joseph’s reality was hard. The situation was not at all comfortable.

And the days following the birth of Jesus turned out to be even harder. King Herod sent his men to find Jesus and kill him. So the family had to go on the run. They went to Egypt to seek asylum. They became refugees, literally. A series of hardships.

What was joyful there? What was delightful? Why did angels descend, singing songs of praise? Yes, you know the answer of course. Christmas is delightful, because Jesus was born on Earth: he has brought, and will bring, salvation from our sins for each of us.

“Because of the tender mercy of our God, With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace.”(Lk. 1:78-79)

Jesus has come to bring light to those who sit in darkness, those who have been struggling with their misfortune, injustice, disease or human weakness. And of course if we think of his main mission, to release us from our sins, Jesus has come for all of us: those who live comfortable lives, and those who live more difficult lives.

Nevertheless, Jesus says: “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.” (Lk. 5:31) So the priority is higher for those who are in need.

This means, that if we think that “those who are facing difficult times” are “not in the mood to enjoy Christmas”, and “cannot experience its joy”, we misunderstand Christmas completely.

On the contrary, Christmas is for those people first of all. So if you feel as if you are excluded from the joy of Christmas because of your troubles, sadness or sickness, please don’t take it in that way. You are the first one that Jesus visits at Christmas.

Remember, no one is excluded from the joy of Christmas. This is one thing that we should reflect upon. And then there is one more thing that we need to consider.

If we understand that Christmas is for all of us, no matter the circumstances of our lives; we should understand also that this understanding is only part of the story. This is a view focusing on us, how we are now and how we feel. We also need to contemplate the other side of Christmas, the side of Jesus and God the Father.

We are usually very happy when a baby is born to our family or to our relatives or friends; or even to total strangers. We like to see pictures of newborn babies on Facebook. If we see them, we put “Like” almost automatically.

Is this the case when it comes to the birth of the baby Jesus? I have a complicated feeling about it. Jesus was born to give us salvation from our sins. That is happy news for us. But how about for Jesus himself? Or for God the Father?

To put it bluntly, Jesus was born in order to die, young, on the cross, in front of his mother. And not for his own sake, but because of us, in order to release us from our sins. Jesus was doomed to it.

You know about three wise men from East who visited baby Jesus. They came, praised God and worshiped Jesus. And they presented expensive gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Those gifts were things used when somebody was buried, gifts having to do with a funeral.

Maybe we can say this. Jesus was only person in the history of mankind, whom God the Father didn’t give the liberty to pursue his own happiness. Jesus was not born to live a happy life.

God decided to send his only Son to us and sacrifice him in order to save us. What could we have seen if we had been there? We could have seen the pain of a father, the pain of God the Father and his love for us, that had to be expressed in that particular way.

When Jesus accepted his mission in life, to be executed on the cross for us sinners, what could we have seen there if we had been with Jesus? We could have seen the pain of our Savior, and his love for us.

So when we celebrate Christmas and rejoice in it, we are at the same time celebrating the death of Jesus and rejoicing his pain. This must sound ridiculous, but we do exactly that in Holy Communion, receiving the body and blood of Jesus. Our joy and salvation comes from the pain of God, the pain of Jesus. But Jesus allows it to be so.

And we can learn that no difficulty exists independently, no joy exists independently. They are always mixed together and related to each other: but if we hold on to Jesus, the joy conquers the difficulty. Christmas is its clear example and symbol.

God knows pain, as well as Jesus does. And that is the reason why those who have pain in their lives now are in the very middle of the grace of Christmas. Nobody is excluded from this grace.

A pastor’s preaching has a basically private nature. Because a pastor is a shepherd, and you are sheep! Sorry! And a shepherd is supposed to understand his sheep, and give them the care they need. It is a personal relationship. And now I want to close my preaching in a personal style.

I know that some of you have been in a very difficult situation, and maybe it’s difficult to celebrate Christmas as most do at this time. But since it is such a time, I think it is appropriate to say this: I thank you. Your presence here, in spite of your hardship, means a lot to our church including me myself.

Our friendship and fellowship, for example, are leading me to a clearer consciousness of my duty, and give me inspiration about faith and love. Now I have learned to take each day and each opportunity as precious gift from the Father, and never want to spoil it. Today’s mass is unique, once only, and never comes again as the same gathering. So I thank God and you for this opportunity.

You are helping me to stand as a pastor, and you are helping our church to become a true church of Christ. I appreciate it. So with my feeling of thanks, I would like to say this, in its deep and true meaning: “Merry Christmas! Jesus the savior is born, for you.”

Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. -Amen

Text : Luke 1:67-79

Zacharias’s Prophecy

And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit,
and prophesied, saying:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
For He has visited us and accomplished redemption
for His people,
And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of David His servant—
As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets
from of old—
Salvation from our enemies,
And from the hand of all who hate us;
To show mercy toward our fathers,
And to remember His holy covenant,
The oath which He swore to Abraham our father,
To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand
of our enemies,
Might serve Him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;
To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins,
Because of the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,
To shine upon those who sit in darkness a
nd the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And the child continued to grow and to become strong
in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his
public appearance to Israel.

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