Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

This is written on the occasion of the consecration of sanctuary furniture.

Text: Psalm 100:1-3
Sing to the Lord, all the world! Worship the Lord with joy; come before him with happy songs! Acknowledge that the Lord is God. He made us, and we belong to him; we are his people, we are his flock.

Consecration of sanctuary furniture

Two young newlyweds were preparing to enjoy their first roast dinner in their new home. After unwrapping the meat and setting it on the cutting board, the wife chopped off both ends of the lamb roast with a knife and tossed the two ends in the garbage can.

"Wait a minute," said the mystified husband. "Why did you do that? Why did you just cut off the ends of the meat and throw them away?"

"I donít know. My mother always did," answered the wife. "Maybe it helps bring out the flavour."

Unsatisfied with this answer, the husband called his mother-in-law. "Can you tell me why you cut the two ends off a lamb roast before you cook it?"

"Well," said the mother, "Iím not really sure why. Thatís just the way my mother did her lamb, and it was always delicious."

As soon as he hung up he called his wifeís grandmother. "Grandma, we have an important question for you. Can you tell us why do you cut the ends off a lamb roast before you cook it?"

"Oh my, yes dear," answered Grandma in her quiet, thin voice. "I cut off the ends of the lamb so it would fit in my pan."

I wonder how much of what happens in the church and in a worship service is much like this. Are there certain things that happen in worship or items that we use that you donít really understand what the point is ? Itís easy for those of us who have been in the church a long time to assume that everyone knows all about worship and the things of worship.

Today we are consecrating a new altar, baptismal font and lectern for use in worship at St Paulís. Iím sure that to some people these are just pieces of furniture; others know they are important but canít really say why, and others will rejoice that these items have been renewed.

Iím sure others will say, "We don't really need these things to worship God" and thatís true. I have conducted worship where the altar was a fold up table, the baptismal font was a salad bowl and the lectern was a music stand. Yes the furniture that we have in the sanctuary today are pieces of wood and pieces of fabric put together very nicely to form an altar, font and lectern but they have a very special significance and help us understand what worship is all about and certainly reflect what we believe. They help us focus on what is important as we come into the presence of God. Of course, the cross and the stained glass windows catch our attention immediately we enter. They tell us a message of what is the focus of what is taught and what happens in this church.

Letís focus on the 3 items of furniture we are about to consecrate.

Firstly we note that the altar stands beneath the cross.
From the very first chapters of the Bible altars were made in obedience to the command of God as symbols of God's presence and throughout the Old Testament the altar was the place where God and his people met together. People came to the altar to seek forgiveness of their sin from God and also to bring their prayers of thanksgiving for safety and good crops.

The altar was the place where God made a covenant, a promise of commitment, to his people. When Noah built an altar to thank God for the safety he and his family had received from God during the flood, there God appeared and made a promise never to put a curse on the earth again and destroy all living things. It was at the altar that God made a covenant with Abraham that, even though his descendants would suffer much in the course of history, he will be their God and will give them this land on which the altar was standing and all surrounding lands.

In the Bible the altar is the meeting place between God and humanity. It was a place of sacrifice where people came to God with their offerings and dedicated their lives to serving the Lord. It was a place of sacrament where God passed on the assurance of his love and forgiveness, his promises of commitment to his people, his pledge of protection and well-being.

The altar is no longer a place where burnt offerings are made but it is still the place where God and his people meet. It is a symbol of his presence amongst us as we worship. It is a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice that God has made for us. Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his only son on an altar but was stopped by the hand of God. Our heavenly Father sacrificed his own Son on the altar of the cross. This altar is a reminder of that sacrifice.

In a moment when this altar is consecrated I will make the sign of the cross over it 5 times Ė in each corner and in the centre Ė a reminder of the 5 wounds that Jesus endured on the cross for us and remain in eternity. Just as the altar in the Old Testament was a sign of God's presence and covenant with his people, so also this altar is a sign of God's presence among us and his covenant with us sealed with the blood of Jesus.

And so the altar is the place we gather around to receive from God himself the body and blood of our Saviour. As we kneel at the foot of the cross and at the base of the altar God reassures us of his promise that through the body and blood of Jesus our sins are forgiven, we are reconciled with God, and that God will go with us as we leave the altar to face whatever life may throw in our direction. This is the sacramental aspect of the altar where God gives purely out of grace.

There is also the sacrificial side. As we kneel at the altar we are also renewing our commitment to God, to turning away from evil and to following his ways. As we place on the altar our money offering, we are also placing our lives on the altar in complete dedication to the God who loves us so dearly. The apostle Paul says, "Because of God's great mercy to us I appeal to you: Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him. This is the true worship that you should offer" (Romans 12:1).

Artwork is still being created to apply to the front of the altar - a grapevine with grapes and ears of wheat Ė a reminder of the way God provides for us so generously by giving us what we need every day;
a reminder of the beautiful world he has given to us with all of its abundance;
as well as a reminder of the gift of bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus, that we receive so generously from our loving God.

We turn our attention to the baptismal font. Just as the altar is a symbol of the ways God shows his love toward us, in Lutheran terms, a means of grace, so also the baptismal font is first and foremost a reminder of God's commitment to us through the water of baptism. St Paul says, "When we were baptized into union with Christ Jesus, we were baptized into union with his death. By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from death by the glorious power of the Father, so also we might live a new life" (Romans 6:3,4).

Young and old alike on whom the water of baptism is poured are connected with the death and resurrection of Jesus and assured of God's total commitment toward them. Even though we may not remember our baptism because we were baptised as infants that in no way negates God's commitment toward us. Even if we wander away from God, his commitment to us remains and is always ready to welcome us back, like the father in Jesusí story of the lost son.

When life is getting us down, when sickness and old age cause us stress and worry, when fear grips our hearts and we wonder how we will deal with all thatís happening, the water of baptism and the font remind us of the commitment that God made toward us on the day of our baptism.

The font also reminds us that through the water of baptism we were given new life, we are adopted into God's family and given a whole new set of values. Through the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives, we also make a commitment to God that we want love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control to influence every relationship and activity in our lives. And so on the front of the font we will see a dove hovering over three streams of water. Baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit God is committed to us, we belong to God, we become members of the Kingdom of God, we are born anew and the Holy Spirit hovers over us leading and guiding us through life.

The third item consecrated this morning is the lectern which here also doubles as a pulpit. Here the Bible rests and from here the Word of God is read and preached. From here we will hear God's law accuse the sinner of failing to live up to God's ways and we will hear the wonderful news of salvation through Jesus Christ.

On the front of the lectern will be a double-edged sword Ė a sword that cuts us as it strikes at our sinfulness but also defends us against condemnation and protects us with the good news of Jesusí sacrifice for us on the cross and his resurrection.

From here the Word of God will soothe us in our time of sorrow,
lift us up when we are depressed and disillusioned,
encourage us in our commitment to God and to one another as members of his church, and to the community in which we live.
From here we will be challenged, stirred up, and urged to reconsider where we stand in our relationship with God. From here God will speak directly to us his word of grace and forgiveness.

So there you have it. Three pieces of furniture reminding us of the Means of Grace Ė the ways God shows us his love and commitment;
the altar Ė the place where God and humanity meet; the place where Jesus gives us his body and blood in Holy Communion;
the baptism font Ė the place where God commits himself to us and promises us the Holy Spirit who will guide us in our journey through life;
the lectern Ė the place from where God will speak to us through the words of the Bible read and spoken to us.

As such they are more than items of furniture, they are set aside for a holy purpose in this part of the church we call the sanctuary Ė this sacred space where the altar, baptismal font and lectern will stand before us as reminders and symbols that when we come here in worship we are coming into the presence of God. They help us to focus our attention on the ways God comes to us in worship Ė through Holy Communion, baptism and his Word Ė the Means of Grace. They remind us that we are God's people called to faith, to offering ourselves as living sacrifices, dedicated to serving God and pleasing him under the power of the Holy Spirit.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
29th November 2009
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, revised Australian edition 1994.
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