Saturday 13 January - Pastoral Visitors Service - Markus Duenzkofer

We had quite a Christmas celebration this year here at St John’s! It was, if I may say so myself, exciting and truly splendid. People from all over Edinburgh and beyond came to worship and it was really lovely to see our church so full: Over 1,100 people in five service between the 4:30pm Christingle service on Christmas Eve and the 11:15 Service of Lessons and Carols on Christmas Day! The choir sang their hearts out –as did the members of the congregation. Stephen preached some very fine sermons, and the children at the Christingle service created a somewhat chaotic, and yet deeply holy atmosphere.

As I said: it was wonderful and special.

As a religious professional, I delight in these feasts, even though they leave me exhausted and, quite honestly, pooped. I would never not want to be part of our Christmas and Easter services. They are at the heart of my identity as a Christian, because they tell the heart of the story of God’s self-revelation: God wants to come to us, wants to visit us. And the Christmas and Easter services tell in archetypal ways of the heart of the human experience, too: birth, death, and birth beyond death into God’s eternity. No wonder amazing music has been written for the occasions. No wonder preachers up and down the land take the opportunity to remind those who come not only about who we are and whose we are, but also how to be God’s people in a world that is searching for meaning and yearning for healing. No wonder, indeed, our churches are packed. It is indeed magnificent.

However, we have to be careful. Far too often have I heard preachers bemoan the fact that on the many Sundays between Easter and Christmas and Christmas and Easter the churches do not look at all like they do on those feast days: Where are those who flocked to our celebrations of the birth at Bethlehem and the commemoration of the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord? Too often I have heard how sermons on Christmas and Easter turn on those who come, scolding them for doing so only on high holidays.

I find this rather uncharitable, unhelpful, and even un-Christian. And it misses the point.

Our job on these high holidays is not t scold, but to be grateful for those who come and to celebrate their presence among us. And those of us who continue to be in church on other Sundays also need to look at the faces around us and realise that these are the people God has called us to serve, that God has called us to visit with God’s love.

During the season of Epiphany we celebrate how God is made known. In the baptism of Christ Jesus by John in the Jordan River, something rather profound happens. God reveals Christ as his beloved Son, uncreated, one with the Father and the Spirit from before time. The love the Father and the Son share is a bond too deep for words, and it is a force that overflows into the life of John the Baptist and into the lives of all other followers of Jesus, so that they can become children of God, too, adopted into God’s compassion and love. At the Baptism God says: This is my beloved child, and he means each and every one of us, too.

And at the Baptism of Jesus something else happens. It is the continuation of the Christmas story. Not only does God make himself known. He empowers us to get out of the water to do the work he has given us to do: work of compassion and reconciliation, work of healing and making whole, work of peace and love.

Howard Thurman, an African American theologian, Baptist minister, and civil rights organiser, who died in 1981, once wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

[then] the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoners,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the people,

to make music in the heart.

I believe it is very apt for us to meet in the season of Epiphany. It is apt because since its inception the pastoral visitors’ scheme here at St John’s has been doing the work of Christmas: Uncounted visits to members of our congregation have continued in our time the story of the birth of our Saviour. God came to visit us and as we visit those assigned to us, the divine visit extends from a manger into the lives of those around us. And music indeed is made in the heart through what you all have achieved.

We in the church are not really that good in celebrating the ministry of lay people. We have become better at it over the past 50 years or so, but we still have some way to go. And yet, without you, we might as well pack up and close down the church. Yes, you need to be celebrated because in our time, when there is an epidemic of loneliness and disconnectedness you form real, human bonds: bonds that hopefully will feed you too and will allow you to make music in your hearts, too.

Thank you!

Thank you as you continue the work of Christmas throughout the year.

And may the babe of the manger, baptised by John in the Jordan River, continue to guide and protect you in your ministry as a pastoral visitor and in your life, too.