WHERE DO YOU BELONG?
This is the first Sunday of the 2023 so Happy New Year! A new year is always cool but, to be honest, when we woke up this morning, the world hadn’t changed much from the day before in 2022. The sun still rose this morning. Most people are carrying on with their routines this week, whether that be at work, school, home, church or retirement. Life has not changed very much just because the clock ticked over to another year in the middle of the night.
And yet, those tickings of those clocks cause us to look at our lives and think about where we might be going. I know that 2023 will a big year for me. As most of you know, I’m retiring from full-time ministry at the end of May. Five months from today I’ll be retired and we will see where God might take me on the next stage of life. But regardless of whether or not someone retires, there is the realization that mortality is creeping up. When I look at the journey of my life, I realize that there are undoubtedly a whole lot more years in the rearview mirror behind me than there in the headlights before me. That’s not a negative thought. Nor is it pessimistic. It’s just reality.
Regardless of where we find ourselves in life as the clock ticked over to 2023, this is a time to reflect, not just on where we have been but also where we are going. To put it in theological terms, what is God calling you to do in 2023? What are you supposed to achieve? Where are you supposed to go? Or to put it another way, where do you belong? Where do belong in 2023? Are you there? Or are you somewhere else? If you’re there than great. Get on with being the person God created you to be. But if you’re not there, then maybe you need to spend some time in 2023 figuring out how to get there.
One thing that I always found fascinating about Essex County is the number of people who live here who have always lived here. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It’s just very different from my own experience. I grew up in Stoney Creek. As a young adult I moved around a bit but never more than a thirty minute drive from the house where I grew up. But then I turned thirty and found myself in North Bay in 1985 to do my internship for ministry. After ordination in 1987, Ruth and I headed to Manitoba and Saskatchewan with six month old Andrew in tow. John came along in 1988 We spent three years out there and then moved to Espanola in 1990. After fourteen years there, and the arrival of two more children we moved to Cottam in 2004. We had four children who were born in four different places: Hamilton, Brandon, Sudbury and Little Current.
That might seem like a lot but, compared with Ruth, it is nothing. Born in Nelson B.C, she has lived many places before coming here. I’ll probably miss a place or two but I think the order was Nelson BC, Melfort SK, Timmins ON, Port Hope, Cobourg, Amherst NS, Montreal PQ, Toronto, Saskatoon SK, Hamilton, North Bay, back to Hamilton, McAuley MB, Espanola ON and Cottam. If you add them up, that’s fifteen different places where she’s lived. Fourteen of them were in the first thirty years of her life. So you can see why it seems odd to us when someone has always lived in the same place their whole lives. And that’s okay as long as you are where you belong.
Today’s Bible reading from Matthew tells us that Jesus moved around quite a bit in his lifetime. He was born in Bethlehem. We all know that. We also know that the first couple of years of his were spent at Bethlehem. By the time the Magi came to visit Jesus, Matthew 2:11 (NIV) talks about him as a child, not a baby, and that they were living in a house:
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
So it appears that Mary and Joseph did not immediately return to Nazareth after Jesus was born. And that could make some sense. Bethlehem was, after all, Joseph’s hometown and maybe they needed another carpenter. So he stayed on.
But then we pick up the story in Matthew 2:13-15 (NIV). The Magi have left Bethlehem to begin their journey back home:
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Joseph, to protect his family, packs them up and moves them to Egypt. Clearly they cannot stay in Bethlehem because King Herod wants to do harm to Jesus.
Joseph and his family stay in Egypt for about 2 years. But then Joseph has another dream. We hear about it in Matthew 2:19-21 (NIV):
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.
Joseph, once again, obeys the dreams. He packs up his family and moves back to Judea.
But where does Joseph go when he returns to Judea? The obvious place would be to go back to the place they left – Bethlehem. He has family there and friends there. He obviously had a business there as a carpenter. It would be easiest to go back to Bethlehem. But that is not to be because Joseph learns something else on his way back to Judea.
Matthew 2:22-23 (NIV) says this: “But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.”
Rather than going to Bethlehem, which seems to have been his intent. He goes north to Nazareth. Why there? Because he is warned in yet another dream that Herod’s son is the new king and he has no idea what Archelaus will do. Will he be like his father King Herod or will he be something else? It seems that he is not unlike his father and so Joseph decides to go instead to Nazareth where Rome has set up a different head of state.
Twenty-five or so years later, Jesus begins his ministry. He starts in Galilee, near Nazareth where he grew up. And look at where he goes as an adult. He goes north to Caesarea Philippi and back to Capernaum. Then he goes north west to the Mediterranean coast and back down the east side of the Sea of Galilee. Then he heads south through Samaria toward Jerusalem where he moves around the local area not far from where he was born in Bethlehem.
Eventually Jesus ends up in Jerusalem where he spends the last week of his life. Things have come full circle. He has moved around a lot during his lifetime, certainly more than most people would in those days but he finally dies in Jerusalem just 5 kilometers from where he was born in Bethlehem.
A FULL LIFE
That brings us right back to where we started. Where do you belong? Are you where you are supposed to be in 2023? All of us may be in different places but of one thing we can be sure. God calls each of us somewhere. I’m not just talking about geographical location although that probably has something to do with it. Being where you belong is so much bigger than that. God gives everyone unique gifts and talents do what he put us on the earth to do. None of us is here by accident. None of us is a mistake. Each of us was put here on purpose for a purpose big or small. Fulfilling that purpose is where you belong.
Are you where you belong? Are you living the life God calls you to live or is 2023 the year when you begin to make changes?
How do you know when you are where you belong? That’s actually not a difficult question to answer. You are where you belong when you believe you are living a full life. That is what Jesus says to us. In John 10:10 (NIV) he says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Do you think you’re living a full life? If you are, then maybe you are where you belong. If you’re not, if you feel that something is missing, then maybe you need to take some time to re-evaluate a few things.
It’s not always easy to do that because it means that you might have to make some changes and changes come with risks and can be scary. I remember each of our moves as a family over the past thirty-eight years. None of them was easy. Each took us to a place very different from the last but there was also a sense with each of them that we were doing what God wanted us to do. The hardest move of all was the one to Cottam. I’ve told you before that it is not where we wanted to go. We were quite content to stay in the north. In fact, I’d sworn that I would never again live in Southern Ontario. But God has a sense of humour and called us here anyway. We did not want to come but we came trusting that God would make things work. Over the past eighteen years, I think God did exactly that. The journey has not always been easy but it’s been God’s journey for us and it has worked out far better than we could ever have planned.
One thing to consider, however, is that the place where we belong sometimes changes. Jesus experienced that. He went from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth, around Galilee and finally to Jerusalem. Along the way he went from being a boy to a youth to a man. He learned to be a carpenter and in the end he became the Saviour of the world. Sometimes the place where we belong changes and we have to be ready for that too. Just because you once belonged somewhere does not mean that you belong there forever. The world changes and what God wants us to do changes along with it.
WHERE DOES THE CHURCH BELONG?
All of those thing are true for us as individuals. They are equally true for the church. The same questions need to be asked of our family of faith. Are we, as Cottam United Church, where we belong? Are we doing what God has called us to do or do we need to adjust, to make some changes? Are we where we belong?
I want to tell you something. I have been very pleased as your pastor to see that you, as a congregation, have been able to change and adapt to the different needs of ministry as they have presented themselves. That is not an easy thing for churches to do. In fact, the failure of many churches is predicated on their inability to effectively adjust to the changing dynamics of ministry.
We are a very different church than we were eighteen years ago. We have to be because the world has changed around us and Cottam itself has changed. When you look at the faces of the people who worship here, they are very different than they were eighteen years ago. We’ve lost a lot of people through death, moving away or just moving on. But God also has blessed us with a lot of new people. Like Cottam itself, our demographics are younger and that has strained our resources. But that’s a good problem to have and we are working on solving it. In the last eighteen years, we have totally renovated and updated the sanctuary, put in new furnaces and air conditioning, added storage space, put on a new roof, added an addition for office space, and done a significant amount of cement repair. We created a beautiful prayer garden for the community. Along the way, we had to deal with Covid-19. And we are currently building the Kyiv House where we will provide transitional housing to new people to Canada. Six years ago we instituted a new constitution. Over the years our order of worship has changed. We have weekly presiders and a fabulous new piano. We have a growing presence on social media and a sanctuary that is fairly up to date when it comes to technology. On top of that we are in a shared ministry agreement with Wheatley United Church that has been a benefit to both churches. The list goes on.
So much has been accomplished. We are a very different church than we were eighteen years ago. None of it got done because we were content to stay where we were. Rather we chose to risk going on a journey to finding out where we belong. As the people of God we are still on that journey.
One of the Church Board’s main tasks is to dream about the future and discern where God is calling us to go. We’ve been at work doing that. We’re not quite done yet with our goals for 2023 but we’ll get it done and we will talk about that at the Annual Congregational Meeting which is tentatively scheduled for March 5. God has a purpose for us. God has things for us to accomplish. God wants us to go where we belong and, by the grace of God, we will go there and do what God calls us to do.
The new year is upon us. 2023 starts today. We need to find out where we belong, both as individuals and as a community of faith. What does God want us to accomplish in 2023 and beyond? Where are we called to go? What are we called to do? Where do we belong? Like Jesus, we are on a journey of ministry. Like Jesus, let us follow God’s path for us so that we can end up exactly where he wants us to be
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Holy God, your Spirit moves over the greying landscape. It hovers over the bare fields and shines through the stars of the clear winter’s night. The touch of your hand is on all things: the beauty of a snowflake, the frosted designs on the inside of a window pane, houses coloured in bright Christmas lights. We offer our thanks for your blessings and praise you for the wonders of Creation.
Thank you for the most precious of all gifts that you have given to us, your Spirit who lives within those who put their faith and their trust in you. Strengthen us and enable us to live our lives in a way that brings joy and glory to you. Enable us to follow the wisdom and leadership of your Spirit in every aspect of life.
We come to the end of another year and we look forward to a new page being turned on the calendar. We give you thanks for the year which is past with all of its ups an downs. And we thank you for the year which is almost upon us and we say, “Yes,” to all that it will bring our way knowing that you are in every moment.
We pray for those who are sick at home or in hospital especially John, Mark, Carol, Ron and Rachel. We think of those who have spent the first Christmas without a loved one around the dinner table. Help us to be thankful for good memories and to cherish always those who cannot be with us this side of heaven.
We also remember the families of Jim Merritt, Nancy Wales and Ken Sturdevant who are grieving in this season due to the death of a loved one. Bring them healing and peace we pray.
Lord of Life, we need to be single minded and focused on what you have called us to do. Keep us wary of distractions that would attempt to delay the accomplishment of your great goals. As you provide us with the strength that we need, we look straight ahead with diligence and determination to the tasks that you have set before us. In all things, we trust in you to direct our paths, enabling us to make the best decisions as we pray and seek you in all areas of endeavour and praise. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
January 1, 2023 / Christmas 1
Psalm 148; Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23; Hebrews 2:10-18
CALL TO WORSHIP
Arise and shine for our light has come.
God’s glory has risen in our midst.
The darkness which covered the earth has been driven away.
Come, let us worship the light that brings true life.
God of Love, we come to you to acknowledge your power, grace, and glory. We come with the belief that your promises are certain and your Word is secure. May your praise be on our lips during every moment of life, at night or day, whether awake or asleep. You are in all circumstances, in the successes and the failures, the defeats and the victories. Thank you for your great faithfulness and for loving us unconditionally with a love that knows no bounds or borders. Gracious God, hear our prayers. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Most Merciful Heavenly Father, despite your faithfulness, we sometimes do not put our best foot forward. Enable us, by your grace, to better comprehend and understand the power of your words. Teach us to be more responsible for the things that come from our mouths. Help us always, through our words and actions, to bring healing out of hurt, life out of death, restoration out of destruction. Forgive our sins, O God, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
As we meditate on God’s Word, we realize that his love is greater than our deepest and darkness sin. Nothing in all Creation can rob us of the salvation that is ours when we place our faith and hope in Jesus Christ. God’s hears our honest confessions and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
Our greatest praise is for you, O God, for you provide for our every need in all situation. Keep us watchful that we may notice your blessings when they come our way. For all things great and small, we offer our thanks asking for your wisdom and grace so that all that we have may be used for your holy purpose. Amen.
May God’s praise be always on our lips and Holy Spirit always in our hearts. As we leave, may we go with the grace of Christ to love and serve our God and Saviour.