Sunday, 29 November 2015

What is Advent?

What is Advent?

The word Advent comes from the Latin word for “coming”. It is a season that marks the beginning of the Church’s year. It starts on the 4th Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. Advent is a time when we emphasize the coming of Jesus Christ- past, present, and future. We remember Jesus who will be born on Christmas in an animal’s feeding trough to a people who were longing for God to rescue them through the expected Messiah. We yearn for God to come to us in our daily lives, especially through the Sacraments, Scripture, the community, and the needy. We also expect Jesus to come again in a unique way at the Second Coming when God comes to renew creation and defeat evil and corruption once and for all. Advent is a time of waiting, expectation, and longing. We remember Mary pregnant and longing to see her child which will bring her such profound joy. We prepare for Christ to come again recollecting that we have been given work to do as Christ’s Church in the world. We prepare our hearts for the day when we will face our Lord and give an account of our lives. Advent is also a time of celebration because we believe that ultimately God is for us and not against us (Rom 8). At the time of his Second Coming he will wipe away every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away (Rev 21)

Will you be ready when he comes?


Today we are starting a new year in the church’s calendar. The Church year always begins with Advent. Advent is a season that brings a certain level of tension. Our culture is ready for Christmas, but in the church we are in Advent.

In Advent we think about Christ coming to us as a baby. We imagine Mary’s pregnant belly and her anticipation. So our Old Testament Reading includes the line, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer 33:14-15). It is a prediction about Jesus’ coming. It is a time when we remember John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way for the one who was foretold.

But, we also imagine Christ coming to us again, this time in power and as judge. This is often called the 2nd coming. In Advent we are not only preparing for the coming of a baby, but the ruler and judge of the world. Our readings calling us to repentance, and preparation for a coming judgement.

Our Gospel reading is probably mainly about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 40 or so years after Jesus was resurrected. The language is very symbolic, and so we shouldn’t necessarily be thinking about actual sun, moon, and stars. Often the skies were viewed as a reflection of what was happening on earth, or that those elements of the sky had some kind of power to control events on earth. The sea was often a symbol of unpredictable chaos. So all of this may have been speaking about the marching of the Roman legions into Jerusalem and destroying the city and the Temple. It would have been a massive blow to Judaism itself because that was where the festivals took place, it was the only place where sacrifices to deal with the sins of the people was allowed. It was, for many people, the house of God. So its destruction would have sent Judaism into an identity crisis. Many of the early Christians saw this destruction as judgement for the rejection of God’s son. Christians also believed that Jesus replaced the Temple. He was now the place to deal with sin, not the temple.

But Christians have also seen readings like this pointing into the future to the time when Christ will come again, which is why we have the reading today as we begin Advent.

Many people have gotten lost in the project trying to identify when precisely Christ will come back. Some of you will remember the scare in 2012 when people were expecting “the end”. Once in a while when I’m in a used bookstore I’ll come across old prediction about the end of the world. Some in the 60’s were obsessed with the reestablishment of Israel as a country and saw this as a sure sign of the end. Others in the 80’s were obsessed with the cold war, and saw the communist atheistic armies as the army of the antichrist. Obviously we should be very wary of these kinds of predictions regardless of the intricacy of the prediction.

However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be expecting Christ to come again. If we believe Christ’s words, then we should expect it. He will come “like a thief in the night” (1 Thes 5:2). So it will come as a surprise, but we should still be looking for it. We should be expecting it and preparing for it.

The end of our Gospel reading is as important for us now as it was for those early Christians back then-“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Lk 21:34-36). Be diligent. Watch yourselves. Do not allow the cares of this life to trap you. Live like he is coming back at any moment. Don’t be seduced by debauchery, or drunkenness. Watch. Stay awake. This doesn’t mean literally stay awake, but rather “be aware”, “watch”. The life of sin is often one we slide into when we aren’t paying attention. Pay attention to your life in light of the fact that Christ is coming again.

What if he came in the middle of the conversation you were having? What if he came on Wednesday at 11:00 at night? What if he came this afternoon? Would you be ready?

In many of us there is a little twinge of fear when we think about Christ’s return. The preacher, Austin Farrer, said, “The God who saves us is the God who judges us. We are not condemned by his severity and redeemed by his compassion; what judges us is what redeems us, the love of God. What is it that will break our hearts on judgment day? Is it not the vision, suddenly unrolled, of how he has loved the friends we have neglected, of how he has loved us and we have not loved him in return; how, when we come before his altar, he gave us himself, and we gave him half-penitences, or resolutions too weak to commit our wills? But while love thus judges us by being what it is, the same love redeems us.” The Christ who judges us is also the one who loves us and died for us. So we should not be overwhelmed by fear, but we should be deadly serious about it.

So this week (or this Advent), maybe keep this question on your mind. What if he came today? Maybe put that on a sticky note on your bathroom mirror so it is placed in your mind as you brush your teeth. Maybe put it on a note in your pocket so you feel it as you reach for your keys. Maybe you place a note in your car. Whatever works best for you, but just keep that question with you. What if he came today? Would you be ready to face him?

May God in His mercy make us ready to face Him.


Sunday, 22 November 2015

Living in the Kingdom- Reign of Christ

Living in the Kingdom

In Revelation, Jesus is described as “The ruler of the kings of the earth”. Revelation was written to a group of persecuted Christians. It’s a bit strange that the followers of the highest king would be enduring such difficulty. In John’s gospel Pilate confronts Jesus about being a king. Jesus admits he is a king, but ironically Jesus is on trial. The ruler of all kings (including Pilate) is in the process of being condemned to crucifixion. Strange thing to happen to the highest king.

In a world where hundreds are being terrorized by attacks like we have seen in Paris and Beirut and in Nigeria, what does it mean to say Christ is King? … A friend of mine died a few days ago. She was a runner and she had a brain tumor that resulted in one side of her body being mostly paralyzed. All she wanted to be was a mom, but she left behind two beautiful young girls in their late teens. The cancer took her. What does it mean to say Christ is King in a world like that?

Jesus gives us a bit of a clue in his response to Pilate- “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Jesus is a king, but there is a separation. The world is in some way separated from the Kingdom of Jesus.

A kingdom is where the will of the king is done. The kingdom of Christ is where his will manifests. His kingdom is where what he wants to have happen actually happens. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come”. Those are the same. The kingdom of God is present where His will is being done.

Each of us has a kind of kingdom. We all have a portion of our life where we can exert our will and our will is done. It might be at work, or at home, or it might even be internally in terms of what thoughts we choose to entertain. The way you have set up your living room might be an expression of your will being done. … Our kingdoms can sometimes bump into each other. I can will for my children to clean up their toys, but sometimes that becomes a battle between two kingdoms.

To be a Christian is to learn to live in the Kingdom of God. It means learning to align your will with God’s will so that God’s kingdom can become a reality in your life. We learn from Jesus as his apprentices. From him we learn how to live life. To be a Christian is to learn to live as he lived, and love as he loved. As the way of Christ becomes a reality on the earth, the kingdom of God manifests on earth. Where His will is done, His kingdom has come.

The Kingdom of God is an invasion into our world. That means we are in a kind of battle. In the letter to the Ephesians we read- “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Eph 6:12-13). We find ourselves in the middle of a battle. There are kingdoms at war. But we aren’t fighting against human beings. Human beings are ensnared and held captive by the true enemy. They are even unwillingly used by that enemy.

When we are baptized we declare ourselves to be citizens and soldiers of the Kingdom of God. When we are baptized we are rescued from the camp of the enemy kingdom and we are made to be soldiers of God’s kingdom. As a part of our baptism we reject the kingdom of evil by rejecting three sources of evil- The world, the flesh, and the devil. These are the enemies of the kingdom of God.

“The world” doesn’t mean the actual earth and plants and water of creation. By “the world” we mean the system of human interactions that try to organize themselves apart from God. By “the world” we mean the systemic evil that is in our world- the systems of power that oppress and abuse. It is what causes 7 year olds in other countries to make our clothes in sweat shops and it keeps us from knowing where our clothes are made (or from even wanting to know where our clothes are made) because we want to buy them cheaply more than we want them made justly. That system makes us afraid of refugees and keeps our hearts from reaching out to them as people that need our help. That system increases the divide between the rich and the poor. No one individual is responsible for all that. It is a system of human interactions that ignore God’s direction. That is “the World”.

By “the flesh” we don’t mean our skin and muscle and blood. “The flesh” is the evil that comes from within us. It is our personal sin. It is our selfish choices that lead to us hurting others. It is our pride that makes us feel more important than others. It is our lust that makes us see people as things to be used for our pleasure. It is our greed that drives us for more and more and more, even if it ends up hurting others. It is our wrath that seeks to destroy another person with our anger. That is “the flesh”.

By “the Devil” we mean that there is an evil force that is sneaky and invisible. It seeks to destroy creation and fight against God. It whispers into our ears and tries to manipulate and cause chaos. Supernatural evil is a saboteur. If you got rid of all the sin of individual human beings and all the sin of human social structures, there would still be evil in the universe. That is “the Devil”.

At our baptism we reject the world, the flesh, and the devil, and we grasp onto Jesus as our savior and as the one who teaches us how to live. As followers of Jesus we are in a battle. The kingdom of God is invading the world. And there are forces that are fighting against it.

The way we experience that battle is usually in our choices. It is usually the choice between “Thy will” being done or “my will” being done. When someone cuts me off in traffic am I going to give the person the finger and scream at them, or am I going to choose to respond as a member of God’s kingdom? When someone attacks me with gossip and rumors, will I respond by counter-attacking, or will I choose to turn the other cheek? Am I going to choose to live as a soldier of the kingdom of God with Christ as my king, or as a slave of the world the flesh and the devil. The trouble and brokenness we see in the world is as a result of kingdoms in conflict. The Kingdom of God is here, but it is developing. It isn’t here fully yet. There is a battle as that kingdom spreads. That battle is often raging within each of us. Will I allow Christ to be my king? Will I allow him to guide me so that my kingdom will be his?

If you want to know what this kingdom looks like, then read through the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). As you are reading ask yourself, “what if people really lived this way?” That is a world where the kingdom has come. That is a world where Christ is recognized as King. It is a world where our anger is not allowed to cause destruction. It is a world where lust is not allowed to destroy families and young girls are not left feeling used. It is a world where promises are kept. It is a world without revenge because people have learned to love their enemies. It is a world where the poor are helped- not so the rich can show off, but out of genuine love and compassion. It is a world where we have learned to trust God and our anxieties and fears disappear like smoke. It is a world where we are not constantly judging others. It is a world where we treat others as we would like to be treated. … That is a glimpse of a world where Christ is king.

It will happen with or without us, but we can choose if we want to be a part of that kingdom or not. But we should keep in mind that there are no neutral parties in this. We are either part of the Kingdom of Christ, or we are part of a kingdom that is at war with it.

We should also not think of the Kingdom of God the way we think of other human kingdoms that are often marked by oppression, domination, and slavery. Jesus is a king, but he is not like other kings. Jesus says that he “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). Jesus has come to teach us how to live as God intended. …

We shouldn’t think that the kingdom is all up to us to make happen. In fact, we are called to give up our lives for that kingdom- to die to ourselves (Lk 9:23-25). It is often about getting out of the way and allowing Jesus to heal us and transform us. By doing that we recognize and admit that all other ways of living are slavery. The kingdom is primarily something Jesus is doing, not something we are doing. Or maybe it is better to say, it is often something he is doing in us.

Christ is King, and his kingdom is spreading and he has offered us a chance to be a part of it. In fact, by our baptism we have vowed ourselves to this kingdom. And as soldiers of his kingdom we are in a battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Someday his kingdom will be with us fully, and everyone will recognize that, even the enemies of Christ. Jesus said to Pilate, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice" (18:37). May God bless us as we listen to his voice and seek to live what he says.


Sunday, 15 November 2015

in times of destruction... wars and rumors of wars... Mark 13

When we look at what is happening in the world it can feel like we are on the verge of the end of time. Almost 130 people have been killed in the Paris attacks that we assume are connected to the Islamic State (ISIS). Recently, in Beirut (Lebanon) there was an attack that claimed the lives of 43. There have been massacres in the hundreds in Nigeria by the fanatical Islamic group Boko Haram. We see a constant stream of attacks all over the world in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Somalia, and the Philippines. In 2014 there were just over 30,000 deaths due to terrorist attacks. … On top of this, the news is frequently telling us about the increased frequency of natural disasters due to climate change and showing us the deadly results. This is often reported alongside the threats of Western economic collapse. .. Jesus said that there would be wars and rumors of wars. He said nation would rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. He said there would be earthquakes and famines. It all can make us wonder what’s happening to the world.

It was devastating to watch the attacks on September 11th, when the World Trade Towers were destroyed and nearly 3000 people were murdered. It was hard to watch because of the horrendous loss of life, but it was also hard to watch because the devastation we see on TV is usually so far away. Suddenly it was happening on our side of the ocean. Suddenly the violent reality many people in our world experience became more real. … But the trade towers were also an icon of the New York sky line. They were a symbol of architectural skill and of the economic status of the United States. The incredible military technology and intelligence of America wasn’t able to stop it. If the twin towers were vulnerable, then everyone was vulnerable.

The importance of the twin towers are miniscule when compared to the importance of the Temple in Judaism at the time of Jesus. It was believed to be protected by God as His house. It was a symbol of the Jewish nation, but also Jewish history and identity. The Temple in Jerusalem was the heart of the Jewish religion. It was the only Temple allowed. You could have multiple places of prayer and teaching like synagogues, but you could only have one Temple. The Temple was the only place where sacrifices for the atonement of sins were allowed. The Temple was the continuity of the Tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant in the wilderness, which was also where God spoke to Moses as he led the people. The Temple was where heaven and earth touched. It could be argued that the Temple was as important as Scripture to them.

The Temple was tremendously important for the Jewish people for spiritual reasons, but it was also a very impressive building. Some described it as a mountain of white marble and gold. The gleaming white marble and the huge gold plates made it nearly impossible to look at when the sun reflected off it. Everyone who saw the Temple was impressed by its beauty.

During the time Jesus was teaching, the destruction of the Temple would have been hard for people to imagine. Partly because it was such an imposing structure, but more so they wouldn’t have thought God would allow it to happen. The Temple was a powerful and vital institution in Jewish life. It was a holy place as it was the house of God and His people, but it was also a political place. If you controlled the Temple you had tremendous power. To tamper with the Temple was to tamper with the very heart of Judaism and the nation of Israel. For that reason the Temple and how it was run was often a point of criticism among various groups.

Jesus was also critical of the way the Temple was being run. Once when he entered the Temple he 
“began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons” (Mark 11:15). 
Some have seen this event as Jesus cleansing the Temple and restoring it to a place of prayer rather than commerce. Some have seen it as a symbolic destruction and judgement of the Temple.

The Temple puts on a good show. In our Gospel reading one of the disciples points out the grandeur of the Temple 
“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" (Mk 13:1). 
 Though the temple is beautiful and loaded with people and services and sacrifices, it is not giving the fruit of true worship. It is corrupt and will receive judgement. In our Gospel reading Jesus declares, 
"Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." (13:2). 
This happened when Rome destroyed the city of Jerusalem and dismantled the temple in 70 AD, less than 40 years after Jesus was resurrected.

The destruction of the temple would have been horrifying for the Jewish people. This destruction by a foreign pagan army would have led them to question everything. Where was God? Had God abandoned His people? Have the Roman gods proven to be more powerful? Had his people done something to cause God to turn His back on them? Was this judgement? Their world would have seemed like it was falling apart. This isn’t just the destruction of a building. This is the destruction of their identity. This would have shaken them to their core.

Jesus didn’t want his followers to be shaken by this. He knew that the destruction of the Temple would be a fragile time. The disciples asked him for details about the Temple’s destruction, but he seems to ignore their question drawing their attention away from the Temple. He lists off the horrible things his followers will face saying, 
“See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. ‘But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (13:6-13). 
That doesn’t sound like a list of things any of us wants to endure.

So why is Jesus saying all this? … I think the key is in his statement, “do not be alarmed” (13:7). He assures his followers that things are not out of control. The world is still broken and evil is still active in it, but evil will not have the last word. What Jesus wants is for his people to calmly endure and faithfully persevere. He doesn’t want them to get caught up in the excitement of these dramatic events that people so often exploit claiming to be prophets, messiahs, and saviors. Jesus wants his people to be wise, maybe even skeptical, and to not be surprised by the evil they encounter. In fact he is telling them to expect it. He says that the world will look like it is falling apart, but it’s not the end of the world (13:7). In fact he says it’s a kind of beginning, like birth pains (13:8). 

Right now, we might be tempted to panic. We might be tempted to turn away from God and towards some false promise of salvation. Maybe bigger guns. Maybe bigger bombs, smarter bombs, more drones. Maybe more security cameras. Maybe more invasive internet screening. Maybe a ban on refugees. Maybe we turn racist to protect ourselves from people we think might be terrorists. … But if we do that we are turning towards a false prophet promising a false salvation. … Has violence, hatred, and prejudice ever made a peaceful world? If we choose hate we reject the Lord of love. If we choose violence we reject the Prince of peace. If we reject and hate our neighbour, then we reject the one who taught us to love our neighbour … and even our enemy. … We will not make a peaceful world by adding more violence to it. We will not make a more loving world by adding more hate to it.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the act of following Christ in the middle of violence and hatred. He once said, 
“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘we shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. … We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non co-operation with evil is … a moral obligation. … Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

As followers of Jesus we choose to be vulnerable rather than fight hate with hate and violence with violence. We have a savior that endured the worst the world could throw at him. He showed us that death could not hold him, and he promised that if we follow him death will not hold us either. In a few hundred years Christianity won the heart of the Roman Empire, not through terrorist attacks, but through love. The world is convinced hating their enemies is the way to a better world, but where has that gotten them? We pray for God to help us show Christ in the midst of suffering and violence … to show the world a different way. In John 16:33 Jesus says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” 

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Psalm 127

Psalm 127

A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon.

1 Unless the Lord builds the house,
     those who build it labour in vain.
   Unless the Lord guards the city,
     the guard keeps watch in vain.

2 It is in vain that you rise up early
   and go late to rest,
   eating the bread of anxious toil;
   for he gives sleep to his beloved.

3 Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
   the fruit of the womb a reward.

4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
   are the sons of one’s youth.
5 Happy is the man who has
   his quiver full of them.
   He shall not be put to shame
   when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

Today I want to look at Psalm 127. It is a short Psalm, but it holds a profound truth. Psalm 127 is one of only two Psalms that are connected to the name “Solomon”. Solomon, you might remember, was the Son of King David. When David died and Solomon took his father’s throne He asked God for wisdom (1 Kings 3:9). Solomon’s name is also connected to the Book of Proverbs, which are short teachings about living life well. They are generalized wisdom about life. So this Psalm should be read as a kind of wisdom Psalm. It contains a profound truth about life.

The first half of the Psalm speaks about building a house, guarding a city, and daily work. It is the daily life of human beings. … We build houses, but we also build many other things. We make plans for something we want to happen and we put those plans into action. We build businesses. We build churches. We build families. We build charities. We build governments, and empires.

We build them, but then we maintain them. We protect what we build from what might want to destroy them. We guard them from damage and threats. We make sure our homes are protected against the weather. … We had our home broken into once, and I was very on guard after that- wanting to protect the safety of my family. … We protect our businesses through policies and procedures, and making sure the right staff are in the right place and that toxic staff are removed from doing harm. We do a lot to protect the things we build.

We can spend a lot of energy on the things we build. We can put an incredible amount of effort and anxiety into our jobs- working at all hours of the day and never taking a day off. We can put a lot of work into our families- We can be up at 5:00am to bring kids to hockey practice, and help them with homework late into the night. We can put an incredible amount of time into our churches. We can pour a lot of resources into government programs, and spend hours and hours planning.

I once heard a story told by Steven Covey (who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). He imagines building a road through a dense forest. Building the road is a lot of work. You need a number of people cutting down trees, … but you also need someone looking towards the destination at the top of the trees to guide those who are doing the cutting. You can be very busy cutting trees, but if you aren’t being directed by the one at the top, you are cutting trees for nothing. All your efforts are in vain if you are cutting trees in the wrong direction. I think that is an important image for understanding this Psalm.

In Psalm 127 we read, 
“Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil”. 
The original context might have referred to the building of the Temple and the protection of the city of Jerusalem. But, the principle in the Psalm is broader than that. The Psalm doesn’t mention the Temple or Jerusalem, which implies a broader reading. This is daily life. The Psalmist is speaking about everyday efforts- building, preserving, and working- which are done by everyday people. The Psalmist is also implying God’s involvement in all those things. The Psalmist is also saying all these things are empty without God.

The Psalmist is telling us that God is present and has a desire to guide His people. It is important for us to acknowledge God and to take time to align ourselves with God’s will. We shouldn’t ignore God’s desires in our daily life as if God only cares about presidents and prime ministers, or wars, and cancer research. God has a desire to guide us here and now in whatever we are doing.

We can do many things while ignoring God. We can even do churchy things while ignoring God. The Pharisees tried very hard to do all the right things, but at their center they were filled with their own self-importance. Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 when speaking about the Pharisees (Mk 7:6-7)- 
“these people draw near with their mouths and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…”. 
We can act the part, but if we are not seeking God at the center of it all, then it is in vain. If we are not seeking God’s direction, then we are cutting trees in the wrong direction. … I suspect we have all met very religious people who are actually quite mean. They might act the part, but it soon becomes obvious that the Fruit of the Spirit is not present- 
“joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).

I fear there will be those who enter into eternity and realize they wasted their lives. Their lives were lived in vain. They spent their life struggling and toiling and full of anxiety, ultimately for nothing. I fear this especially in our culture where relationships constantly take a back seat to the pursuit of success and wealth.

Jesus says that everyone who acts according to his directions 
“will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matt 7:24-27).

We can have great plans, we can put in an incredible amount of effort and anxiety, but if God isn’t directing us then is it empty- it’s vain- we are cutting trees in the wrong direction.

The good news is that the opposite is also true. If God is with our building, nothing can stop us. If God is guarding what we are doing, nothing can destroy it. If God is with our working, it will be fruitful beyond the effort we put in.

In the Book of Acts the Church is just getting started after Jesus has been resurrected. In Acts 5 the Jewish Council is trying to decide what to do with this group of Jesus followers who won’t shut up about Jesus. A very wise man speaks. His name is Gamaliel and he says this to the council, 
“Fellow-Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’ (Acts 5:34-39).
 Gamaliel is speaking about exactly this principle we are reading about in Psalm 127. If God is not with it- like the false messiahs- then it will come to nothing. But if God is with it, then you will not be able to stop it. As Paul says, 
“If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31).

This is not necessarily a guarantee against bad things happening. Jesus was acting completely according to the will of God, but he was killed. |Though, God used that death to bring about resurrection and salvation. Stephen was stoned to death. Peter was crucified upside down. There is a long line of martyrs through the centuries, right up to today, who listened to God’s direction but still had to deal with disaster and death, but that does not mean that their efforts were in vain. Quite the contrary. If we are being directed by God, what we do will have an eternal value. We will be a part of what God is building, and nothing can stop it- nothing can destroy it. If we align ourselves with God’s plan for the world then we will be part of an eternal project. The Psalm says that rather than anxious toil and endless hours, 
“he gives to his beloved sleep”. 
We will be a part of something bigger than ourselves. It will continue even while we sleep (Mk 4:27). It will be a project that will have fruit that vastly outweighs the effort we put in. And it will be a life marked by relationships more than things, which is what the second half of our Psalm is about (127:3-5).

This might leave us asking how we know we are aligned with God’s will. If we immerse our lives in the Bible we will see general principles that act as direction for our life. As we read Genesis we learn to see other people as created in the image of God and we treat them accordingly (Gen 1:27). We will compare our lives to the Ten Commandments (Ex 20). We will take seriously the call to love God and our neighbour (Mk 12:29-31). We will hear the teaching of Jesus to take seriously the state of our heart and name the anger within it as the seed of murder and deal with it seriously (Mt 5:21-22).  
But there will also be moments in life when we have to make decisions and there isn’t a clear principle in the Bible to draw from. Should you apply for a new job, or go back to school? There isn’t necessarily a biblical principle that will help you with that question. Both might be equally valid choices. This is where we need to have a solid prayer life where we can ask for God’s guidance and learn to hear God speaking to us. (sometimes he wants us to be the ones to decide). That is a bigger topic than we have time for, but it is a biblical belief that God will communicate with His people (see Hearing God by Dallas Willard). He has spoken to his people through a burning bush, through dreams and visions, using other human beings, but primarily God will speak to us through the still small voice, which we hear in our inner thoughts. This direction will never contradict the general principles of the Bible.

If we align ourselves and our work with God we will be a part of building God’s plans and our efforts will have an eternal value. Rather than toiling and having very little to show for it, our efforts will have results that seem to drastically outweigh the efforts we put in. We will be cutting trees in the right direction for an eternal road. AMEN.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Halloween and Christianity

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
Isaiah 25:6-9Revelation 21:1-6aJohn 11:32-44

In our readings this morning we hear a lot about the dead. First, our reading from the book of Wisdom speaks about those who seem to have died in the eyes of the foolish. It implies there is a hidden reality where the dead are alive in some way. Our reading from Isaiah mentions God’s destruction of death itself. The book of Revelation mentions a time when death will be no more. And in our Gospel reading Jesus calls his friend Lazarus out of the grave and back from death.

You have probably noticed a lot of images of death around lately. Tombstones and skeletons have been decorating shops and people’s houses. You probably had some representatives of death on your doorstep last night. Ghosts, maybe a Lazaurus-esque mummy, and a band of other ghoulish beings probably knocked at your door and demanded candy. It is a time when we are confronted with the mystery of death. But, it is usually a playful confrontation. The skeletons wear bowties and top hats. The coffins are full of candy, and the tombstones have funny sayings like “Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake; Stepped on the gas instead of the brake”, or “He was so brave, he was so cute, too bad he forgot his parachute”. It is not a coincidence that our readings and last night both are marked by the theme of death.

Our modern celebration of Halloween probably has its roots in an old Celtic celebration called Samhain (pronounced ‘Sowin’) that probably existed before Christianity had made its way to the British Isles. As winter came, so did death and darkness. It was a time when they thought spirits, strange creatures, and the dead, could more easily cross over into our world. Some think the costumes might have something to do with hiding from these creatures, and some think the candy and treats had something to do with offerings to appease these visitors so they wouldn’t cause mischief. Samhain may have been some kind of a festival for the dead.

The connection between that ancient celebration and our festival today might seem a bit mysterious. Today we celebrate the feast of “All Saints”. It is a day we set aside to remember all the saints, known and unknown. The word “saint” is related to the word “sanctus”, which is Latin for “holy”. So a saint is a “holy one”. To be “holy” is to be dedicated to God and His work. …The saints are those who have been “hallowed”, or “made holy”. In the words of the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”, which means something like “may your name be holy”. … “Halloween” comes from the phrase “All Hallows Eve” which is the night before “All Hallows Day”- the day we call “All Saints”.

There are a couple ways to think about the saints. In one way, the saints are those who have shown amazing holiness. They have done good and amazing things. They have shown incredible character and courage when confronted by intimidating circumstances. When people meet Saints, they seem to encounter the Spirit of God. They have a very close relationship with Jesus. There are saints in the Bible, and there have been saints throughout the centuries since its writing as well. They are also an amazingly diverse group of people who followed God’s call on their lives in a variety of ways. Some lived like monks in the desert devoting their lives to prayer. Some, like Thomas Aquinas, dedicated their lives to scholarship and learning. Others, like Mother Theresa, dedicated their lives to serving the poor. The saints are an amazing diversity of characters and callings. They are people God used in astonishing ways. Sometimes God used them to bring healing and to show miracles. Sometimes they showed superhuman character in the way they loved.

The saints are those who show us what is possible in a life lived with God. The writer and pastor Frederick Beuchner says, “Their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them”. God works through these people to give us a glimpse of Himself and His kingdom. In them we see a love and peace and a courage that is beyond our understanding. The saints show us mystical experiences of God through prayer. They show the courage God can give us to stand up against impossible odds, even when faced with death. The saints show us self-sacrifice as they pick up their cross and follow Jesus. They show us examples of ways God can use us to transform the world. … One writer has called them spiritual scientists because they apply the methods of spirituality that the church has historically taught and as a result they experience God’s powerful presence in their lives. It is a repeatable experience if we will dedicate ourselves to the methods. The author G.K. Chesterton once wrote "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." The saints are examples to us of what happens when we do try. They are those who have had their souls healed in the hospital of the church. In the saints we see God’s grace manifested and blessing the world.

I said there were two ways we use the word “saint”. One way is what I have been describing. The other way we use the word “saint” is the way the Bible uses it. In the Bible the word “saint” is equivalent to the word “Christian”. When Paul writes to the Ephesians he begins the letter by saying “… To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph 1:1). If Paul wrote a letter to us at St. Mark’s he would likely say something like, “To the saints who are in the parish of St. Mark’s”. We are saints because through Jesus we are God’s people. We are also becoming saints because God’s Spirit is transforming us. Paul will also use the word “saint” in this way. Sometimes in Paul’s letters he says something like this, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” (Rom 1:7). So a “saint” is both what we are and what we are becoming by God’s mercy and grace.

So what is the connection between the saints and people hanging up skeletons in their windows? How I understand Halloween is this. In the ancient Celtic past this was a bit of a fearful time when there were all kinds of creatures and spirits entering into our world and if they weren’t appeased they could do all kinds of nasty things to you. So it was a bit of a fearful time even thought there were elements of harvest celebration. It was a time that focused on death and the frightening mystery of what was waiting us beyond the veil of this life.

As Christians we believe that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has defeated death. Jesus defeated all the creepy crawlies that our European ancestors believed crossed over into our world when winter brought death to the fields and forests. The victory of Christ ultimately gives us reason to laugh at death. Christ's victory over the powers and principalities of this world gives us reason to laugh at all the ghouls and goblins.

Jesus said, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father who gave them to me is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand." The saints are those who heard the voice of God in this life and have followed that voice. They might face opposition. They might even be killed, but Jesus has made it so that death will not be able to keep its grip on his saints. These saints have faced the powers of the world, and in the world’s eyes they seem to have lost. As the book of Wisdom says, "In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die; and their departure is taken for misery, and their going from us to be utter destruction; but they are in peace." They have fallen by sickness, by starvation, thirst, and by the various weapons of this world. But, these saints have not lost. They are the ones who have the true victory. Christ has now given them life that cannot be taken away by hunger, thirst, or any weapon. If anyone can make light of death- if anyone can smile at a skeleton- it is the saints of God, which includes you, by God’s grace. And at Halloween we laugh at the plastic monster, we laugh with the saints at the powers and principalities of this world, and ultimately we can laugh even at death itself. Thanks be to God.
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