Building for Christ – Part 4

The Centre-One-Piece’, photo by Martin Malina
audio sermon, “Building for Christ – Part 4” by Martin Malina

The story of Mary visiting Elizabeth vibrates with energy. There is this back-and-forth, cause and effect, initiative and response. If Newton’s Third Law of physics – that every action has a reaction—were applied to people, here would be a good, positive example. 

Mary’s visit causes notable reaction. Her cousin Elizabeth is affected by Mary. And not only Elizabeth. Twice in the description of the visit the Gospel notes that “the child leaped in her womb”.[1] The greeting causes a responsive, palpable joy that we can feel in the text. 

The meeting between the yet unborn Jesus and John the Baptist and their mothers is pregnant with meaning – which prompts Mary, then, to sing her famous Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord!” You can’t help but envision this scene which is about relationships between individuals.

Today, I put the final piece in place in the house we have been building for Christ over these past Sundays of Advent. We started with the foundation of love—fences and a frame that made room for everyone including the animals and all creatures great and small. Last week we added the star shining brightly its joyous guidance to those journeying to meet the Lord. Today, we finally see the centrepiece, the Holy Family.

What stands out for me in this particular manger scene is how Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in the manger are not separate pieces. They are one piece. Of course, they are one family. They form one unit, connected in their relationships with each other. The emphasis here is their connection rather than their individualities. And I think this is important when we reflect on all things Christian.

The story of Christmas, indeed the story of the bible, is not about autonomous individuals living out their private lives. The emphasis is not as much about individuals as it is about relationship in community: Their relationship with God, and with one another.

Christmas is about people, a cast of characters. If you’d miss anyone in the story it would be incomplete. Missing from this particular manger scene are the Magi and the Shepherds. Perhaps your manger scene at home has these important characters. You can’t tell the Christmas story without the angels, the shepherds, the wise visitors from the East, the animals, the guiding star, Herod, Joseph, Mary and Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Zechariah and of course—at the centre—baby Jesus.

Christmas is about people, and so is Christianity. Christian faith would mean nothing without the cast of characters that make up God’s grand story of faithfulness to the people of God of all time and in every place. Everyone in this story is important, critical, to its telling. 

You are a part of God’s story. While faith is personal, faith is not individualistic. When you were baptized, you were not alone baptizing yourself. When you eat the holy meal, you are not doing it all on your own—whether online or onsite here. It’s about the relationships between the individual parts—that’s where the meaning is for faith.

Even our advent wreaths. Whether we have it hanging from the ceiling, or whether it sits on a side table, or shelf, or on a stand in the middle of the floor, the advent wreath is not suspended in a vacuum. Here at Faith, the red ribbons stream upward from the circular frame, four of them, where they are tied securely together at the ceiling. The ribbons hold it all together in place. They are the ‘glue’ keeping the wreath from falling down.

So I have to imagine the shepherds and Magi here as well. They connect prominently to the Christmas story. And what do the shepherds and wise men do when they come to the manger? What comes to my mind is that they kneel, bow, stoop low to get close to see the baby Jesus. Their posture strikes me. 

Do your shepherds stand? Do the three Magi remain on their feet or their camels? Or, as they come near to the manger, do they put down their staffs on the ground, and kneel?

Here we probe some depth in the character of God’s relationship with humanity. It’s the posture that’s important, the nature of the relationship. Mary and Elizabeths’ greeting and meeting was one of joy, celebration and praise. What does the manger scene reveal about the nature of our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us—the glue that holds it all together? What words would you use to describe God’s posture towards us?

It’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent – the last stop on our journey to Bethlehem.

It may be tempting these last days to make it about us, and about our abilities to accomplish everything before the special day arrives. It may be tempting to make Christ’s arrival dependent or conditional on us getting it right. Christmas will happen—we may be tempted to think—only if it happens a certain way (when all the decorations are put out, when the meal is prepared, when all the family arrives, when all the gifts are bought and wrapped, when we can pack a church with robust singing of the favourite carols, etc., etc.).

Martin Luther cautioned people of faith not to depend on our righteousness, our ability, even our humility to make things right with God. So, we can kneel or sit, yes, in all humility. Or, we can stand, if that’s how it is for us. God sees it, and God knows.

But time and time again, what is really important, is that the God of the bible, the God in Christ Jesus, stoops to our level. God initiates the relationship. The first Christmas didn’t happen because people had it all right and organized. God stoops to wherever we are—in our thoughts, our feelings, our actions our beliefs. It doesn’t matter, at the start and at the end, what we believe or don’t believe, what we do or don’t do, what we feel or don’t feel. 

God still comes to us. God stoops down to where we are. Christ will come into our world and our lives this COVID Christmas.

And as I’ve said just before the start of the Advent journey this year, I’ll say again at the end: 

For, in Jesus Christ, we will meet a God who will not be armed with lightning bolts but will stoop to us with basin and towel. 

We will meet a God who will not spew threats and lies but will stoop to the poor with good news for all. 

We will meet a God who will not ride a warhorse but stoop on a donkey’s back[2].

We will meet a God not part of the Jerusalem religious establishment, but a God who will stoop to live in backwater Nazareth. 

We will meet a God not born in a palace somewhere atop a hill, but a God who will stoop, a helpless, vulnerable baby born to two, poor teenagers in a barn. 

Now that our house is built, we can both contemplate the nature of our connections and relationships and pay attention in our words and our deeds to the witness we make to this God who will always stoop, to come to us.

[1] Luke 1:41,44

[2] See “Who’s Coming to Dinner?”, sermon for the Reign of Christ Sunday, November 21, 2021 at 

Building for Christ – Part 3

Harbour Breton, South coast of Newfoundland 2021, photo by Simon Lieschke
“Building for Christ – Part 3” audio sermon by Martin Malina

They had a vision. But perhaps it wasn’t quite the way they had expected it to turn out. But was it worth the risk? Now that is the question.

They wanted fireworks for the wedding reception. When we arrived a couple days before the wedding at our friends’ home, the father of the groom opened his shirt at the table. And with jaws dropped, we saw a large, purple bruise circling most of his chest area. What happened?

The groom wanted fireworks in the backyard where the wedding was going to take place the next day. In setting it up the night before, the groom, brother-in-law and father were careful to follow the instructions. Except they must have missed something. 

Beause when they tested the fireworks, the riggings exploded and the fireworks shot out in every direction but upwards. The groom and brother-in-law dove for safety to avoid the flaming projectiles. But one hit the father in the chest with force and knocked him over. He was fortunate not to have sustained greater damage to his body!

Was it worth the risk? That is the question.

On some Advent wreaths, the third candle is pink because rose is a liturgical color for joy. This third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday, from the Latin, and is meant to remind us both of the joy that the world experienced at the birth of Jesus, as well as the joy that the faithful have reached the midpoint of the Advent journey.

Today, we place a star over the open frame of the house built on love, for Christ. The star of Bethlehem gives light, a shining beacon in the dark night. And so the candles are lighted, now three of them on the Advent wreath. We begin to notice the light that is given off. After all, an Advent wreath isn’t really doing its job unless the candles are lighted, showing their albeit tiny flames.

It is the Sunday of celebration, not unlike the fourth Sunday in Lent called “Laetare”. In all our preparing, keeping on track, and our work we now anticipate and expect the end of the journey which is near! So, what do we do now that we are almost there? Waiting, after all, is so difficult.

The crowds asked John the Baptist, “What should we do?” now that the Messiah was very near, closer than they thought! With all the upheaval, fear and anxiety about the future, what to do, whom to trust? Is John the Messiah? When the big picture seems uncertain, and society as a whole feels like it’s on the brink, what do we do? “As the people asking John the Baptist were filled with expectation”[1], so are our hearts. What should we do in this short time before Christmas?

Gaudete and Laetare both mean “Rejoice!”. But some suggest a subtle difference.[2]  First, this work happens on the inside of our lives. This is the work of Gaudete. This work is self-reflective. We examine our own expectations. We consider our own desires and acknowedge our own restlessness. What are we waiting for? What are your desires this Advent? How is that you expect Jesus to arrive in your life this Christmas? How are you watching and waiting? These are important Advent questions to ask yourself.

But what is the outside work—Laetare—from which we pause to celebrate? What is it that keeps our noses to the ground, so to speak, and hands in the dirt, to get ready, spiritually?

John the Baptist gives practical advice if not delivered with much fire and brimstone. John tells them: Give what you have to someone who doesn’t have. Share what little we have with others. Be fair and just in your daily transactions. Don’t threaten anyone. And be content with what you have.[3] Small acts of kindness. Paying loving attention to the little things. Sounds like a good prescription for unsettling times, and for good mental health. Just focus, one day at a time, one small act of kindness at a time.

And sometimes doing these small things for God is a bit of a risk. Whenever we move out of our comfort zones, consider another point of view, whenever we refrain from reacting out of anger, fear or anxiety—we know the risk because things are changing. Yes. But we do so primarily responding to something moving in our hearts. Something powerful and good drawing us forward.

The season of waiting expectantly gives permission for us to acknowledge our restlessness and our desires despite the tensions and suffering those desires and expectations can create for us. This is part of our humanity, a humanity not denied by the journey of faith, especially the journey to Bethlehem. 

The Magi and the Shepherds took great risks to pursue their longings—dealing with Herod, for example.[4] Despite this adversity, they nevertheless responded to the movement of their restless and adventurous hearts to follow the light in the sky.

Christian hope is not really the belief that tomorrow is necessarily going to be better, or that the future will turn out the way we expect it to or even desire it to. Christian hope is not the belief that as Christians we won’t ever meet with adversity.

All that Jesus seems to be saying is that even if one mustard seed is sprouting, or one coin found, or one sheep recovered[5] that is reason enough for a big party. “Even a small indicator of God is still an indicator of God—and therefore an indicator of final reason, meaning, and joy. A little bit of God goes a long way.”[6] A tiny flame on a simple candle.

At the outdoor wedding feast when we danced the night away, what joy it was to see those firecrackers going off at midnight, once they got it right. I thanked God for the risks my friends took to have firecrackers at this wedding. Those risks gave us the gifts of light and joy in the night. It was worth the risk.

Unless we let go of the familiar, the safe, the secure—and this is what the pandemic has forced upon us to an extent; unless we take the risk of becoming vulnerable, we cannot grow. 

So much of the bible, and from other writings that stand the test of time, underscore this important theme. From the story of Abraham in Genesis, to the great epic stories of the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Lord of the Rings.[7] They all require leaving everything and going on a journey that will lead to a new life, a new identity, and newfound joy.

They all took risks. And they all experienced joy. Let it be for us as well. Amen.

[1] Luke 3:10,15


[3] Luke 3:10-14

[4] Matthew 2:1-12

[5] See Luke 15

[6] Richard Rohr, “The Gift of Confidence” Mystical Hope (Daily Meditation,, 6 December 2021)

[7] Br. Geoffrey Tristam, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Risk” in Brother Give Us A Word (, 10 December 2021)

Building for Christ – Part 2

Lake of Bays, Dwight Beach, Ontario, photo by Martin Malina
“Building for Christ – Part 2” audio sermon by Martin Malina

“… and all flesh shall see the salvation of the Lord” concludes the Gospel for this Second Sunday of Advent.[1]

All flesh.

We continue today to construct the home for the coming of Jesus. Last week we started with the foundation of love, which defines all that we do to build for Christ.

This week, our house takes form by creating space. This space is not just on a one- or two-dimemsional plane, but in three dimensions. The house grows upward from the ground. Our building creates space in height, depth and breadth. Our building leaves a footprint on the earth. It claims a part of the ground upon which we live, breathe and have our being.

As soon as we place candles on the circular, evergreen form, the Advent wreath takes shape. The candles give it height and form. You have to make space for it wherever you place it. Because when those candles burn, there needs to be enough room above the wreath as well.

And the candles are what really give your wreath character. Because there are thin, tapered candles, there are round, bulb-shaped candles, there are stalwart, pillar candles of varying height and thickness. Some wreaths have purple candles, others have red candles, more are now blue candles. And with any of the above options, some will have one pink candle thrown in, and even others, add a white one in the centre. There are no two advent wreaths alike. And every one has an important meaning to convey, an important truth to demonstrate, a part of the story of Advent to share.

As we build for Christ coming, then, who will occupy this space? Only those who are alike? Only those who will express their faith in the same way?

When I look at the frame of this house we are building, I notice that it is not just for people. It is a barn. A stable, where animals feed and find shelter. It is their home. Some of my favourite children’s Christmas books are told from the perspective of the animals in whose barn Jesus was born.[2] Those who witness the holy birth are not just people. But all creatures great and small. 

Who will occupy this space? All flesh shall see the salvation of the Lord.

Which means, different perspectives. Different life experiences from which to receive the good news of Christ coming. Different needs, different takes, a multitude of ways of appreciating the glory of God in simple, ordinary lives.

And not just for one. Not just for the elite, and the privileged. The house we build for Christ includes all flesh, all creation is welcome to witness the glory of God.

Because animals are an important part of the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem—the sheep, the camel, the cows and other barnyard creatures, I’d like to tell you now about a duck who can teach us something about living in stormy times—not unlike the treacherous times under “Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee”[3]

Here’s a poem called “The Little Duck”, written by poet and professor at the University of New Hampshire, Donald C. Babcock:

“Now we are ready to look at something pretty special. 

It is a duck riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf,

And he cuddles in the swells.

There is a big heaving in the Atlantic.

And he is part of it.

He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.

Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is.

And neither do you.

But he realises it.

And what does he do, I ask you.

He sits down in it.

He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity – which it is.

That is religion, and the duck has it.

I like the little duck.

He doesn’t know much.

But he has religion.”[4]

The duck’s way of being way out there beyond the surf reveals to us how to live faithfully in a time of watching and waiting, in a time of disruption and upheaval, amidst the storms and waves that threaten to upturn and drown us.

The little duck must be dwarfed in the face of the vastness rising and falling around it. But not only does the duck seem unconcerned; the duck “cuddles in the swells”. It is as if the duck embraces where it is, tender in the midst of it all, a part of it. The duck belongs and can rest while the Atlantic heaves. Here we witness the “wondrous juxtaposition”[5] of the restlessness of the ocean and the peace that remains possible for the duck.

In the scriptural imagination of Jewish and Christian traditions, the ocean signifies chaos—the forces of disorder that threaten to overwhelm the bounds within which our lives are secured.[6] The ocean can also signify the vastness of God’s being which we cannot know nor see the limits of.

In the face of this oceanic, boundless bigness of both God and chaos, what is our puny existence? Like the duck’s, our lives are towered over by forces we have no capacity to contain, by storms we cannot master. What is our response?

Our inclination, when we realize our situation, is to panic or struggle. Yet, the duck does neither of these things. For there it is, far out from shore, cuddling in the swells, and at rest. The duck is not fighting it, the duck is in communion, at one, with the whole.

Knowing is not the point. Our strength to fight it is not the point. Trusting is, and being in the present moment with all that is, is.

Because all of it belongs. We are all—all creation—held in God. Every perspective. Every experience we and others have. Every place and time. The ocean is vast and all flesh belongs. And the Psalmist reaches time and time again for this truth, to comfort us, to deepen trust as “deep calls to deep”: There is no place on earth, nowhere I can go, no one removed, “no where to flee from your presence”, O God.[7]

“If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast.”

When I travelled through the Judean wilderness on the road from Jericho up to Jerusalem years ago, we stopped along the way as groups of nomads made their way across the desert. And the interesting thing was the way their tents were constructed. 

These tents had walls like any tent. But every wall was also a doorway—you could roll up the canvas to make it look like an open patio canopy. Among other reasons, I learned that semitic people consider eating together as a sign of reconciliation and forgiveness.

The more you could have in your tent at mealtime, the better it was for the whole community wandering through the desert: A house with no walls, and many ways in.As we build a house for Christ to come this Christmas, we build by creating space for everyone. The space we occupy, therefore, has room—room for all who find their way here. This is also room that beckons us not to circle the wagons but to widen the circle. And we do so trusting that God is in it all, even in the waves, that God is present in love for all.

[1] Luke 3:1-6

[2] Eve Bunting, We Were There: A Nativity Story (New York: Clarion Books, 2001); Jean Little, Listen, Said the Donkey (Toronto: North Winds Press, 2006); Jean Little, Pippin the Christmas Pig (Toronto: North Winds Press, 2003); Martin Waddell, Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale (Toronto: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2004); Karma Wilson, Mortimer’s Christmas Manger (Toronto: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2005)

[3] Luke 3:1

[4] Donald C. Babcock cited in Sarah Bachelard, Poetica Divina: Poems to Redeem a Prose World (Singapore: Meditatio, 2021), p.57

[5] Sarah Bachelard, ibid., p.60-61

[6] Ibid.

[7] Psalm 42:7; 139:7-10

Building for Christ

Building for Christ – audio sermon by Martin Malina

I hold in my hands two pieces of fencing to begin building a home for Christ to come this Christmas. Many of you might know what this project will eventually look like, come the Fourth Sunday of Advent. For those who are not sure, I encourage you to check in every Sunday right here to witness the building emerge before your very eyes, piece by piece.

These fences suggest both something necessary, and something of the downside in human behaviour. It is in our nature to build fences after all—whether in our neighbourhoods between homes, between nations and tribes, between individuals and families.

Boundaries are good and important. They define who we are as individuals and people. They clarify and bring focus to relationships, roles and functions. Boundaries are especially important for young people as they discover who they are and explore the limits of possibility for their lives.

Boundaries are not meant to be divisive. Yet, division is often a consequence of drawing a line in the sand. Fences can divide and keep people apart, at war, in acrimonious conflict. Fences can entrench people in opposition to each other. Building fences can hurt and damage relationships for the long term.

Despite the ambiguous image of a fence, we start anyway. We begin to build something from scratch. And maybe that is a grace. I wonder if that isn’t a recurring theme of the pandemic: rebuilding and restarting from the ground up considering everything we may have taken for granted before the pandemic. Whether in our friendships, our hobbies, our leisure acitivity, our work and even our church. We seem to be pressing the reset button: From our practice of Communion, to the way we do meetings, to our outreach activities, music and mission in the community—everthing requires all the assumptions to be laid out on the table again, to be re-examined and re-purposed.

And that can be unsettling–to start over, to start from scratch.

Not only do we begin Advent today, today is the start of a new church year, a new cycle, a new round: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost with Ordinary Times mixed in throughout the cycle of the church year. And then it all begins again, next year. We symbolize today the start of a new cycle by lighting candles, progressively—four of them for the four weeks leading to Christmas—on an Advent wreath.

As we build for Christ-coming each week with a new part of his home, I’d like to look carefully at different parts of the Advent wreath to describe something important about how we begin again.

And the first thing we notice with most Advent wreaths is the foundational part—the circular form of the Advent wreath. Fences tend to be square, or rectangular, coming together at right angles. But the wreath is round. And around the circular form of the Advent wreath we place boughs of spruce or pine from trees that we will notice outside especially during the cold and grey winter months when nothing else appears to be alive.

In the Psalm today, the refrain is a prayer to God: “Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting.”[1] And, in the Gospel today, Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”[2] [emphasis mine]

The good news–gospel– that threads throughout both of these scriptures appointed for the First Sunday of Advent is the lasting and indestructible nature of God’s compassion and love. Nothing in all of history, all of creation nor anything in the future can shuck the love of God. Nothing. No division, no enmity, no strife, no walls that divide. The loving presence of God is eternal, timeless, unending—just like evergreens wrapped in a circle on a wreath. A circle has no beginning and no end. It goes on, forever.

Perhaps you remember when you were a child and an adult said something like, ‘OK, kids, gather around, it’s circle time’. Circles are natural to us. And sacred.

When we gather in a circle, the praying has already begun. When we gather in a circle, we communicate with each other and with God, even without a word being spoken. That’s what I love most about this building in which some of gather in person this morning: The building here at Faith Lutheran is round, circular.

The circle has no beginning and no end, so one can enter at any place or stage. The circle can explain stages of life, cycles of maturity, values, and different groups of people. The symbolism of the circle is one of the oldest in Canada, having been found in various parts of the country in ancient petroglyphs. It is included in various Indigenous traditions. Many of the ceremonies and dances are fashioned intentionally in a circle. 

Circles are found in nature. Circles can explain the seasons, how they all continue on to create harmony and balance. In observing the outdoors, the circle is a common and natural shape. Trees, rocks, whirlpools, tornadoes, and flowers all bear a common resemblance to circular objects more than triangles, rectangles or squares do.[3]

We may need to establish those fences. We may need to enforce personal boundaries and sometimes even assert where the line must be drawn. Sometimes we do have to close a door. We are human, after all.

But God is beyond any boundary, even one drawn by the circle. God is not bound by any material or mental boundary we may devise for God. What we construct may or may not be helpful. But these boundaries are not ultimate. Thirteenth century Italian theologian, Saint Bonaventure, spoke of God as one “whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”[4]

What is ultimately important is to know that it was out of great love that God chose to take on human form and flesh[5]—take on the boundaries defined by our humanity, good and bad. Here we make a house for Christ to dwell, for this word is true and will not pass away: “The home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them, and they will be God’s people.”[6] Because of compassion, a love that is everlasting.[7]

This is the first and necessary part, the foundation, for building a home for Christ. When we press the re-start button on anything we do, this is where to begin.

[1] Psalm 25:6 NRSV

[2] Luke 21:33 NRSV

[3] The last few paragraphs starting with “Perhaps you remember …” are adapted from Richard Rohr, “Sacred Circles” in Daily Meditations (, 13 October 2021).

[4] Bonaventure, Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey to God, 1,14, trans. Ewert Cousins (Paulist Press, 1975) p.5,8,100

[5] Philippians 2:5-8

[6] Revelation 21:3

[7] See also Psalm 103:8-14