Thursday, 31 December 2015

Spiritual, but not religious

I read an interesting book review today by Anthony Robinson on the book
Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes:Finding Religion in Everyday Life
By Nancy Tatom Ammerman.

The review contains the following:

"So it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear the eminent sociologist of religion Nancy Ammerman conclude in her new study of religion in everyday life that the SBNR [spiritual, but not religious] is a unicorn—a species that does not exist in reality. For most people, Ammer­man found, organized religion and spirituality are not two separate realms but one. Respondents who were “most active in organized religion,” she reports, “were also most committed to spiritual practices and a spiritual view of the world.”... The other side of the coin is that those who invoke the distinction between religion and spirituality (“I’m spiritual but not religious”) turn out to be neither. For the most part, such language is what sociologists call boundary-maintaining discourse. It is a way that people who want nothing to do with religion have found to say to religious people or institutions, 'Don’t bug me.'"

I suppose I would have found myself in that crowd at some point (especially as a very anti-Christian teenager). But, I have to admit the phrase has always kind of bugged me. Bruxy Cavey is one of my favorite preachers and his church the Meeting House has the tag line "the church for people who aren't into church". He also wrote a book called the "End of Religion". His teaching is that Jesus came to end "religion" which is defined as a effort and rule based way of reaching God. Jesus came to dismantle that and in its place gave us a relationship with him that connected us to God which is essentially outside those rule based methods. 

I get what Bruxy is on about. I'm just not all that crazy about forcing the word "religion" into that box. When I was doing my BA in religious studies one of the difficult things to do was define the word "religion". It seemed to be something you knew when you saw it, but no definition really seemed to work for both non-theistic Buddhists, Muslims, Wiccans, Hindus. Couldn't we define "religion" for the Meeting house as "a relationship with Jesus"? 

The word "religion" has become a kind of dirty word. Obviously it is touching a heart string in our culture because videos like the following have spread like wildfire.

Which has produced responses like this:

And this (shot in the church I served in Lethbridge):

I remember being trained as a Hospital Chaplain (CPE) one summer and one of the chaplains have a presentation on "Religion vs Spirituality". She drew a lone down the middle of the whiteboard and on one side she wrote "religion" and on the other she wrote "spirituality". The people in the room helped her populate the empty space below the two words. Under "religion" there were words like "rules" and "institution". Under "spirituality" there were words like "relationship", "connection", and "prayer". It seemed to me that under "religion" were all the things the group (particularly the chaplain) didn't like about religion. Under the word "spirituality" were all the things they liked about religion. 

To me it just doesn't seem like playing semantics like that really helps us move ahead at all. I would much rather us talk about what we like about religion and what we don't like about religion. I would even prefer that we spoke about what religion is at its purest and truest.  

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Colossians and transformation

1st Sunday after Christmas- 
Colossians and transformation

We read in our Gospel lesson that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years”. He sits in the temple among the teachers and is asking questions and giving answers. He is participating in learning the ways of the Law. There was a development in Jesus. He learned. His character developed. Jesus is at about the age when Jewish boys have their Bar Mitzvah. It is a time when they are considered to make a transition from boyhood to manhood. Before their Bar Mitzvah the sin boys commit is the responsibility of their parents. After their Bar Mitzvah it becomes their responsibility. So there is an expectation that not only will people grow older physically, but their character will develop. They will become wiser. They will develop virtue.

We read something similar about Samuel who lived in the Temple with the priest Eli. It says, “the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with the people”. That implies not only a physical growth, but also an emotional and physical development. If you grow in favor with God and with people that means there is a development of the virtues and a cutting off of vice that has taken place as his character has developed. If Jesus was in need of sitting among the teachers and learning then so are we. If Jesus and the prophet Samuel developed and matured, not only in body, but also in character and wisdom. That is the way we have been designed as human beings.

The theological word for this is “sanctification”, which is the process of becoming holy. Sometimes it is called “theosis”, which means becoming like God. Sometimes it is called “transformation” or “spiritual formation”. We might also talk about “discipleship”, which means something like 'apprentice'. They all mean basically the same thing. It means we grow and develop into the people God is hoping we will become.

For some time I have been reflecting on a statement by a Christian teacher named Dallas Willard. He said that we have somehow come to the idea that we can be Christians without being disciples. That being a Christian is just a kind of label we attach to ourselves. Those who are really serious Christians, well they are the ones who are into discipleship, which involved Bible study, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines that help to shape our character. But, somehow we got the idea that this isn’t for all Christians, only for those Christians who are really very serious. it's for super-Christians. Dallas Willard will point out that the word “Christian” is very rare in the Bible, but the word “disciple” occurs very often. Disciple implies learning. It implies an apprentice learning from a master. So we are expected to grow and develop in our spiritual lives.

The overall goal of God’s mission is to bring human beings back into relationship with Him. Part of the restoration of this relationship is the restoration of the human being to holiness. We read in the Old Testament the command “be holy for I am holy” (Lev 19:2; 20:7) and it is quoted in the New Testament in Peter’s fist letter (1 Pet 1:14-16). In 1 Timothy 4:7 we read “Train yourself in godliness”. It is said in many different ways but it is all over the New Testament. We are to be a holy people.

Sin gets in the way of our relationship with God and so Sin has to be dealt with and a process of holiness has to begin in order to have a healthy and growing relationship with God. Jesus dealt with sin on the cross and so there is a way in which we are considered holy as we accept what was done for us by Jesus. But that’s just the beginning. When we accept what Jesus did we also accept a way of life. We cannot accept Jesus as our master and Lord and then ignore what he and his Apostles taught. Through these teachings, the life of the community, and the presence of the Holy Spirit we are invited to grow in holiness. God is holy and human beings are originally made in the image of God, so the restoration of the image of God in a human being is also a restoring of holiness. The Church was to be a training gym to help people grow in holiness as they develop a closer relationship with God. The closer we are to God the holier we will become- it’s contagious. Being with God will shape you. Your character will be shaped and reflect the character of Jesus. That is the kind of people the Church can produce- people who have the character of Jesus.

The Church was a training gym so people could become like Jesus as they grew closer to God. It was a training gym so people could become the kind of people God originally intended us to be so that we will think as God meant us to think, feel as God intended us to feel, make choices as God would have us make choices, have relationships and behave as God would have us. Not because we are being controlled, but because we become who we truly were meant to be.

The Church can be a lot of things. We can treat it like a club where we meet with other like-minded people who act and look like us. We can treat it like a refuge from the world where we can escape the harshness of the world. We can treat it like many things, but its primary purpose is as a place where we grow in relationship with God and with others, and part of that is learning to grow in holiness. The Church hasn’t always been very good at helping people this way. Sometimes the church has become a club and forgotten about its deeper call. This means that we are often left not really sure about what this training in holiness looks like- That is when we are Christians, but (strangely) not disciples.

This development won’t happen without our planning for it and wanting it. God won’t force this on us. In our reading from the letter to the Colossians, Paul implies that our intention and focus matter. He uses many words that are about our action. Holiness isn’t something happens to us as we passively sit back. Holiness happens as we do what Paul is saying- “clothe yourselves” (3:12); “Bear with one another… forgive” (3:13); “let the word of Christ dwell… teach and admonish… sing” (3:16); “give thanks” (3:17). These are all things Paul is telling us to do. It involves our choices and our actions. Our decisions matter. We will not become holy by accident, or outside of our own decisions. We have to Intend to. We have to plan for it. We have to work at it.

Actually, something we don’t often talk about is that we are always being shaped spiritually. Everything you do, every thought you have, shapes your soul. Sitting in front of the TV. Shopping. Talking to friends. Reading the newspaper. It all shapes us. No one ever handed to a tract to convince us of consumerism. No, we just hear advertising and engage in ritual actions (like shopping, looking at flyers, watching commercials, etc.) that have an effect on our souls until we become consumers through and through. To relax we shop. We become convinced that the next toy or house or car or whatever will make our loves better. As we participate in the life of consumerism our soul is shaped and we become consumers. So anything we engage in has an effect on our souls.

That is why we need to be very intentional about what is causing the shaping. If we don’t decide, then there are forces in our world that will decide for us and they will begin shaping our souls.

As disciples, we are apprentices learning from our master, Jesus. He teaches us how to live. We imitate him. We “put on Christ”. We try to have our mind match the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5). We allow the “word of Christ to dwell in us” (Col 3:6). We imitate Christ’s forgiveness. In our passage today we read, “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (3:13). This sounds a lot like forgive us as we have forgiven, from the Lord’s Prayer. So our transformation is into becoming more Christ-like.

Another way of talking about this is “sainthood”. To be Christ-like is to become a saint. We are saints by virtue of our baptism, but that is really just a statement of the road we are on- it also implies a destination. We are saints, but we also “become” saints. There was a man named Léon Bloy who once wrote, “Life holds only one tragedy: not to have been a saint”. Becoming a saint is what happens when we say “yes” to God’s promptings in everything we do. It is when we, as disciples and apprentices, actually follow through on the way our master teaches us to think and live.

In our Colossians reading, Paul uses the symbolism of baptism. In the early days when a person was baptized they would have taken off their old clothes and then gone into the water to be baptized. When the person came out they would have been given a white robe. The robe a priest wears is symbolic of this kind of a garment. A priest puts on the garment of a baptized person. It is white to symbolize being washed and made clean. Paul uses these ritual actions to make a spiritual point.

Before our reading (Col 3:1-11), Paul talks about all the things we take off- the old garment: “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” (3:5) … he goes on- “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk… [lying], seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (3:8-10). Paul is describing all these things as a garment. He tells us to get rid of the old garment, the old self, the non-Christian, non-baptized self. And now he’s going to tell us to put on the new garment- the new self, the Christian, baptized garment. He tells us, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (3:12). He is describing what a baptized, Christian life is supposed to look like. He is describing the clothing of a disciple of Jesus.

Notice how communal these things are. Does compassion make any sense outside of encounters with community? Can you practice compassion without the help of another living creature? How about kindness? Can we practice kindness without someone to be kind to? To be humble is to know who you are before others. It is to see yourself through God’s eyes. But you really only know how humble you are when you encounter other people. What about meekness or gentleness? You can really only practice it with others. Patience can best be learned in the midst of community, especially when someone in the community is annoying you. Can we learn to be forgiving people without others in the community wronging us? The virtues described here are very community centered.

Paul gives particular emphasis on “love” in our reading. That is really the overarching character trait he is speaking about. All those things he described before (compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience) are really what love looks like as it encounters the community (see 1 Cor 13).

Once in a while I bump into people who say “well I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian” and I guess I get what they are saying, but then I wonder how they are learning the things we have just described. When we are forced into community with people different than us- different temperaments, different incomes, different generations, then our training as disciples has a particular edge to it. That would be more difficult to find outside the church.

When all these virtues work together and we have learned to love the way Paul describes, then the result is harmony or Peace in the community. That is when we experience the unity of the Body of Christ. That is when the unnecessary divisions drop away (gentile or Jew, Slave or free, etc). If we hope to be able to be peacemakers in the world, as Jesus commands us, we have to be able to do it first in our own church.

The end response, is the thing that marks the saint as much as love and peace, and that is thankfulness. Gratitude is the air the saint breathes. The saint prays, “you have given me so much, O God- I ask but one thing more, a grateful heart”. The communion meal is called a Eucharist, which means thanksgiving. The meal is sometimes called the great thanksgiving. Everything we experience can be received in thanksgiving- even the trials that eventually teach us patience, humility, and forgiveness. If we can set our hearts right we can see it all as training us for holiness, which is the kindest most loving things God can do- train us for holiness.

Paul encourages us to take off that old garment and throw it in the trash. Let’s train as apprentices of Jesus- and therefore train ourselves in holiness. This doesn’t mean we never mess up. Of course we will, and we will have to be patient with each other, but the overall trajectory of our lives will be towards holiness. We will know our progress particularly in community, and particularly when our character is challenged. But as we train and cooperate with the Holy Spirit the more the character of Jesus will shine through us and even in (especially in) our struggles God will shine through us. AMEN

Christmas and doubt

Doubt and skepticism are powerful in our culture. In some ways this is good because it can make us investigate and not believe something too quickly. For example, I’m glad I was skeptical of some of the products I saw advertised on some late night infomercials.

 … So doubt and skepticism can be a good thing, especially in a culture where we are dealing with a constant stream of advertising.

Religion is often a target by the doubting and skeptical. In the Bible, in the letter of Jude we read, “Have mercy on those who doubt” (1:22). The Bible allows room for those who doubt. … But, we can go too far with this. It can become a general attitude we adopt as a way of appearing intelligent. Dallas Willard, who was a philosopher from the University of Southern California once said, “We believe the skeptical person to be more intelligent in our culture. You can be as stupid as a cabbage as long as you doubt” (Hearing God by Dallas Willard, Epilogue). A cheap and easy way of appearing intelligent in our culture is just to be skeptical and doubting of everything. Doubt can be useful when it helps us restrain belief until we have more information, but it can be a hindrance as a general attitude. Imagine being married to someone who is always doubting your faithfulness. 
Imagine trying to work on a scaffolding with someone who is constantly doubting its safety. (could you get anything done?) Imagine trying to teach someone math when they are constantly doubting logic itself. It can be hard to actually live life if we are living in a constant state of skepticism and doubt.

Now I don’t want to get into all that too deeply, but as I was preparing I felt i wanted to speak to those here who doubt. I want to address those of us who deal with doubts about the Christmas Story, and maybe even Christianity in general. 

The Christmas Story is this:
It begins with God- specifically, God’s “Word”. (The Bible often uses poetic language to describe things that are mostly beyond human understanding.) God’s Word caused the universe to spring into existence. His Word results in the Big Bang. And, God’s Word doesn’t stop at creating. God’s word also keeps the universe existing. The Word causes the law of gravity, and regulates the speed of light, and causes the forces that holds atoms together, and causes all the intricacies that govern the universe and hold it together like a living tapestry. God’s Word creates and holds together everything in existence.

We read about God’s Word in John’s biography of Jesus, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1-3).

Christianity makes the shocking claim that we have experienced God’s Word as a human being, which is really the same as saying we have experienced God as a human being. In the letter written to the Hebrews we read, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:1-3).

And in the letter to the Colossians we read, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:15-17, 19).

The Christmas story is ultimately this. That God, in some wonderfully mysterious way that our human minds can't fully grasp, was experienced as a baby born to Jewish parents in occupied Palestine. It is a shocking claim that a God who is so universal as to create the universe itself, would become a particular Jewish man living in a particular place, and would speak a particular language. God and humanity would be united as Jesus Christ of Nazareth, born of Mary.

There is a political message tied up in his birth, as well. Caesar and his Roman Empire ruled most of what they knew of the world. It was a massive empire that encompassed the area around the Mediterranean and beyond- England to Iraq. The Caesar claimed to bring peace, but it was at the point of a sword. Caesar considered himself divine and claimed to bring immeasurable blessings to the world. He claimed to be the greatest savior that ever was, or ever would be.

By contrast, the “Good News” of the angels to the shepherds is “to you is born this day … the Savior” (Luke 2:10-11). They announce the arrival of the true Saviour, not born in a Roman palace, but identifying with the poor and laid in an animal’s feeding trough- a manger. News of his birth came to social outcasts, which is what shepherds were. He was born to a woman under threat of stoning for being an unwed mother. He was born among an oppressed people in a land occupied by a foreign army.

However, he does have royal lineage. He was one of the (many) descendants of King David, but like David he would be an unexpected king. He will be a threat to royalty. King Herod is willing to kill children to eliminate threats to his rule. Caesar is willing to crucify threats to his rule. … Jesus would not rule by the point of a sword, but through love. He would not be king by killing the competition, but by becoming a servant. That is the Christmas Story.

What if you put your doubts aside for a moment? If you can handle it, put the doubts aside just for tonight and ask yourself “what if it’s true?” What if God really did come to us as a human being in some mysterious way that we can’t fully understand? What if his teachings are true? What if he came to show us a way to live that gives our lives eternal value? What if love is more powerful than the violence of Caesar or King Herod? What if God came and showed us that the poor and oppressed are valuable by being born into poverty and oppression? What if Jesus opened a way for us to have a profound and real relationship with the Creator of the universe? What if it’s real? Even if you just live in that reality for tonight. What if?

For many of us, the story is easy to doubt because it is a familiar story. It is a sentimental image on a Christmas card. It’s like a picture that hangs on the wall in the house you grew up in. You walk past it on the way to the washroom to brush your teeth and you hardly ever give it a glance. It’s always just there as part of the background. It’s familiar.

There was a painting that had been in the family of a man named Martin Kober for a long time. It is a picture of Jesus in the arms of his mother after having been removed from the cross. It was an old painting that had always been a part of the background of the family. It hung on the wall for many years until one day the painting was knocked off the wall when the kids were playing with a tennis ball. The family left the painting behind the couch, perhaps to keep it from being knocked to the ground again. There the painting sat for nearly 30 years, unseen, gathering dust.

One day Martin decided to have the painting appraised to see if it had any value. He blew the dust off and took it to an art expert. To his surprise the expert confirmed the family legend. The expert believed that the painting was the work of the Renaissance painter, Michelangelo, and was painted around 1545. It could be worth as much as 300 million dollars.

What if the Christmas story is like this? For some of us the story about Mary, Joseph, and the baby laying in the manger in Bethlehem can be part of the background of our lives. It is like a painting that hangs on the wall of the family home. It is always there, and because it is always there it rarely draws our eyes. It is familiar. So, we don't really pay much attention to it. It's just part of the background of our lives. Sometimes because it is so familiar we don’t necessarily give it any value. … What if we learned that that painting had more value than we thought it did? What if that story about Mary, and Joseph, and the baby laying in the manger in Bethlehem was more valuable than we could imagine?

When Martin Kober found out that his family's painting was worth 300 million dollars it was no longer part of the background of his life. It was no longer sitting behind the couch gathering dust. And it was certainly placed out of range of flying tennis balls. Suddenly the painting moved closer to the center of his vision. He gave it a place of great importance and protected it. He treated it as if it was precious. The painting that was just part of the family's background became the family's treasure.

What if we found out that the familiar Christmas story had incredible value? I suspect it would move into the center of our vision. We would treat it like a treasure. We would contemplate it more. We would learn more about it. It would no longer gather dust. It would no longer be a part of the background of our family homes. It would be front and center. If we discovered that that story had unfathomable value, our lives would be centered on that story, and on that person at the center of it.

What if it’s true? Then mysteriously that ancient Creator is present to us as Jesus. He is the force that keeps our hearts beating, and keeps the stars shining in the sky. He is behind the force that keeps the planets in their orbits and causes atoms to bind to other atoms to make molecules. That ancient creative Force is present as we encounter Jesus. He brought everything into being, and he offers new fresh life every minute to the universe.

John’s biography of Jesus tells us that the tragedy of Christmas is that "He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him" (Jn 1:10-11). He came and was rejected. He was given no value. Ironically, he was rejected by the world he made and the people he loved.

The joy of Christmas, John says, is that "to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God" (Jn 1:12). To those who recognized his mysterious and incredible value he invited them to become his family.

Tonight he invites you to receive his life from the manger- His body given for you. To those who take his story from the background and place it in the center of their lives he invites them to become, mysteriously, children of God. He invites us into his story and it is there we find who we were created to be.

Doubting is easy. And if that’s where you are at, then I am commanded by my Bible to be merciful to you. But, what if you pushed those doubts aside for one night and asked yourself “what if it’s true?” … I invite us all to consider where His story is in our life. Is it in the background- Always there but never really considered? Or, is his story on a stand in front of the sofa in the middle of the living room? Or maybe it is folded up and placed in your shirt pocket next to your heart and you take it out throughout the day? If it is true that "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" then Jesus' story is the most important story you have ever heard and it has the power to change your life. AMEN.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Make a U-turn- John the Baptist

John the Baptist sure puts you in the Christmas spirit, doesn’t he?

John represents the school of the prophets. He is dressed like Elijah. They both wore Camel’s hair garments with a leather belt around the waist (2 Kings 1:8 and Matt 3:4). Elijah was the prophet’s prophet. He was supposed to come before the messiah would arrive (Mal 4:5). John also had the words of the prophets on his lips (Mal 3:1; Is 40:3-5). The stereotypical cry of the prophet is “repent”, which means to turn. You repent when you head down the wrong road and when you realize it you make a U-turn. It involves both turning away from what is wrong and turning towards God and His ways. The prophets usually arose to call people back to the Law and Covenant. The people would stop following God’s direction in their life. They would become attracted to the cultures around them. They would start participating in the worship of other gods, and forget the moral and religious direction God set out for them. So the prophets were those who stood up to call the people back when they had wandered too far off the path. The prophet stood up to tell them they are racing towards a dead end. Prophets primarily spoke God’s words to His people. They weren’t primarily about predicting the future. They were there to call people back to God and warn about natural consequences for being reckless- like travelling too fast and careless on a narrow mountain road with no guardrails. John the Baptist represents the prophets and in a way represents the Old Testament, both in calling people to repent, and in pointing to the coming Messiah. John stands in the gap between the Old Testament and the New.

John has a hard message for the crowds. That means he has a hard message for us. It’s like going to the doctor and he tells you that you are overweight, or that your blood pressure is way too high, or you drink too much, or you need to stop smoking, or stop eating salty foods. It’s not always a comfortable message to hear, but it is ultimately for our good. If we are willing to hear it we can make a change that might save our lives.

Have you ever watched a movie where some disaster is happening and someone is panicking? Then someone grabs them by the collar and slaps them to get their attention? John is that person that grabs us by the collar, slaps us across the face. John’s slap is “you brood of vipers!” If you are coming to John to be baptized then you are admitting you are a part of the problem. The world is in a mess and unless you are willing to admit that you are a part of that mess you have no business seeking baptism from John. His baptism is for repentance. That means we see ourselves running from God and then we stop and turn back. Yes, it is shocking and offensive, but if we are in need of repentance, then vipers we are. If we are not a “brood of vipers” then we don’t need to repent and why are we out in the wilderness seeking out John the Baptist? Are we just voyeurs? If we are going to take John seriously, then we have to take our sin seriously and not sugar coat it by saying things like “well, I’m only human”, or “everyone does it”. John wants us to look at our lives intensely and seriously.

He wants us to come out from behind the images we hold up to pretend we are okay with God. The Jewish people in John’s day would sometimes hide behind the fact that Abraham was their ancestor. John says your family lineage doesn’t count for squat. God only has children- he doesn’t have any grandchildren. We can’t speak about the faithfulness of our parent, or say “my grandfather helped build this church” and think that gives us some special favor with God. God has no grandchildren. Likewise, we can’t say I’ve attended church all my life as if church attendance is automatically an “in” with God. Neither can I say, “I’m a priest” and hope God goes easy on me. On the contrary we are told we will be judged more strictly. God cares about the state of our hearts, not our role in the community, not who our parents are, or how long we’ve been Christians.

John uses the image of a tree. He says that when we say that we are God’s children it’s like a tree declaring itself to be an apple tree. But, John says you know a tree by its fruit. What good is an apple tree that never produces apples? John says it’s firewood. John wants us to “bear fruits worthy of repentance”. He doesn’t want us to just say “we repent”. Neither does he want us to thoughtlessly say, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” John says that God wants to see that repentance has really hit us. He wants to know it is a reality and not just words. Have we shed tears over our sin? Have we felt pain because of the hurt we have caused someone? Not embarrassment, or the pain of getting caught, but pain because of the wrong we have done? Have we shed tears because of the offense we have caused God? Those tears are fruit of repentance. But, tears can be short-lived. Emotions like that can be fickle.

The people ask John what kind of fruit he is talking about. What does he say? Interestingly, this prophet doesn’t give a bunch of religious suggestions. We might think that a religious guy like John might suggest that we pray more, or read our Bible more. Our problem is not often that we aren’t religious enough, it’s usually that our hearts have become hard. What does he think we need to do to show that repentance has taken root in our hearts? Another prophet, Isaiah, quotes God as saying this, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Is 29:13). “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. … Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. … Your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. … Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause” (1:11-17). For Isaiah, they would meet in the Temple and sing psalms about God being just and holy, but then they would leave worship and act cruelly and oppressively. Their primarily problem wasn’t that they weren’t religious enough. It was that their hearts weren’t right.

Likewise for us as Christians, the Eucharist is celebrated extremely faithfully throughout the world. Jesus’ command “do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19) is quite obediently followed on Sundays across the planet. The Eucharist is celebrated in churches, in jails, in hospitals, on mountaintops, even in countries where it is illegal to do so. Our problem is not in performing the ritual, rather, the problem is usually the state of our hearts when coming to the bread and wine. The Corinthians were obedient in gathering for the Eucharist, but their hearts weren’t right. Paul says in his 1st letter to the Corinthians, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:27-29). So the way we live our lives can effectively nullify what we do when we worship.

Like Isaiah and Paul, John is drawing our attention to our hearts. He wants us to act in a way that shows our hearts have been changed. In general, we are to do good and refrain from doing evil. The crowds ask John what they should do to show that repentance has really taken root in their hearts. To the crowd he says "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise" (3:11). Tax collectors come to him asking what they should do. Tax collectors were among the most hated. They were Jewish people who worked for Rome and they would ask for more money than was required and pocket the extra. Many became rich doing this. They were notoriously corrupt not only for their greed but also for their cooperation with the oppressive Roman Empire that occupied the land. John the Baptist tells them to “Collect no more than the amount prescribed” (3:13). He tells them to deal honestly regardless of what was commonly practiced among tax collectors. Soldiers also came to him, and it seems like they sometimes abused their power, so when they ask what they should do John tells them to “not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and [to] be satisfied with [their] wages" (3:14). This is very real and practical day to day advice. If we are going to live lives preparing for the coming of God, then we need to live examined lives. We need to know our weaknesses and take the time to fix our gaze on Christ and imitate him.

John wants to see fruit of repentance. He wants to see that we have the humility to recognize that there are parts of our lives that need changing- that need turning. If we believe that God is for us and not against us- if we believe that God loves us- then we will not fear repentance. He desires our repentance the way a doctor desires their patient to take their medication. Repentance is ultimately about hope because it implies that a better future is possible. It implies that our future selves can be more like Jesus.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Repent! John the Baptist

Our Gospel reading opens with a list of names, mostly obscure and hard to pronounce. We also know about these names outside of the Bible through ancient historians and archaeology. What Luke is trying to do is to place this story in history. We have a system where we give a number for every year (2015). That wasn’t really used until the 9th century AD. Before that historians would often say the year of an important ruler. Luke says this part of his story takes place in the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius. We know Tiberius was officially in power from 14 to 37AD.

We know Pontius Pilate was a governor of Judea from 26-36 AD. 
Archaeologists have found his name engraved in the city of Caesarea on a plaque stating that Pontius Pilate built a pagan temple to the honour of Tiberius. 

 Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee from 4BC to 39AD. He was the son of Herod the Great. Another son of Herod the Great was Philip who ruled northeast of the Sea of Galilee. 

And Lysanias ruled an area just northwest of Damascus. 
Caiaphas succeeded as High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple in 18AD after his Father-in-law, Annas, was deposed by the Romans, but he still had substantial influence on his son-in-law. Archeologists actually think they found Caiaphas’ ossuary in 1990.

 So what all this means is we can place the ministry of John the Baptist sometime around 26 to 28 AD, by our way of measuring time.

It would be a bit like saying, “in the 63rd year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the second, and the first year of the leadership of Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister of Canada.” In the ancient world this is how historians would indicate time.

I know these names and dates don’t mean a lot to us, but Luke wants us to know that the story he is telling has a place in history, with real people and real places. We do this every week when we say the creed. We mention the name “Pontius Pilate”. Why do we mention that name? He was a pagan. The ancient historian Josephus described him as ruthless and greedy. So this ruthless, greedy, pagan, and relatively obscure Roman governor who was responsible for having Jesus crucified is mentioned in the middle of the holy liturgy. Doesn’t that seem strange? I think it would be incredibly strange to Pontius Pilate that Christians all over the world in numerous languages for nearly two thousand years have been mentioning his name as they worship. We do that because we believe that Jesus was a part of human history, with real people in real places. That wasn’t the case with many ancient religions.

But, none of those rulers mentioned ultimately matter in terms of what God was about to do. To Luke they give us a time in history. But, they aren’t the ones the Word of God comes to. At this point it had been 400 years since they heard God’s word from a prophet and now Luke tells us “the Word of God came to John”. The silence has been broken.

John is speaking God’s word in the wilderness. It is a place of testing and purifying, which is exactly what John is about. Many years before, after the Hebrews were rescued from slavery in Egypt they spent 40 years in the wilderness. It was a time of testing and purification. Then they entered the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan River. It was to that same river that John called the people. He called them to come back to the Jordan River and reenter the Promised Land. They had failed as God’s people and John was calling them back to the Jordan River to cleanse themselves of their sin and prepare for what God was about to do. John called the people to repentance.

We tend to think of repentance in a very negative way. When we hear the word “repentance” our modern minds think of bad self-esteem or medieval monks whipping themselves, but that wasn’t necessarily what was in the minds of the crowd who heard John. Repentance means to change your mind or change your heart. It is a change of direction. If you are walking into the street and a bus is about to hit you and someone yells at you and you step back onto the curb, you have made an act of repentance. It is about turning away from something bad. ... But, repentance can also be positive. Maybe you have been in the mall and you have suddenly smelled popcorn and if you’re hungry you will change your direction towards the popcorn- that too is repentance. Repentance is turning away from what is bad, but it is also turning towards what is good.

The turning towards is more important. You can’t live a holy life by just turning away from bad continuously. That is a bit like going to the airport and asking to "not go to Vancouver”. Well there are all kinds of places you can go and still not go to Vancouver. It is important to have a direction and a goal. Or, perhaps think of it this way. You won’t have a garden by just pulling weeds all the time. All you will have is dirt. You have to plant flowers and nurture them. Yes, we want to repent and turn away from the bad, but more importantly we want to turn towards what is good.

And God doesn’t want us to repent to ruin our fun. We can sometimes think sin would be a whole lot of fun if God didn’t have such a thing about it.[1] No, God wants us to repent for our own good. When we turn towards God we are turning towards the source of all beauty, joy, and truth. When we turn away from God we are turning away from the source of all beauty, joy, and truth. That path eventually leads to ugliness, sorrow, and deception. When we turn towards God, we align with the very purpose we were created, which is to love God and enjoy Him forever.

The more clearly we see God for who God actually is, the more we will feel the desire to adjust our lives accordingly. Once in a while I meet people who are looking for a god who “matches them”. It’s like they are shopping for a pair of pants. They keep looking for a god that fits them. But, that is a consumerist fantasy. If the God we are seeking is the true God we will always be called to transformation because we will always be adjusting our lives to His tremendous truth, beauty, and joy. Our repentance is insufficient if we just want to “not be bad”. We need a repentance towards the beauty of God and the goodness and joy he is calling us into.

So one way we often go wrong about repentance is that we think of it in such a negative way. Another way we go wrong is that we tend to think that it is a one-time thing. As Christians, we live lives of repentance. Which is really just another way of saying we live a life of learning. We are continuously seeking to know more of God and to have our lives adjusted according to his beauty and holiness. … But, it is also true that God is continuously on the move. God is on the move in our lives calling us to work on certain friendships, to reach out to those in need in particular ways, and to deal with issues and hurt in our past, among other things. Our God is on a mission and that means He is on the move, and that means we will have to continuously have to adjust our course to follow Him. This means we are going to be living a life of continuous turning, or repentance, if we are going to try to be a part of what he is doing in the world and in our lives.

John was out in the wilderness calling the people to repent. God was about to do something new. That is what John was announcing. John wanted them to turn and face God so they were ready. He was “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth”. Imagine traveling from Calgary to Edmonton when the settlers were arriving in Alberta. Compare that to now on Highway 2, where bridges cross over the valleys and creeks, and the road cuts through the hills, and we drive on paved roads rather than dirt cart trails. If you are expecting an important visitor you want to make it easy to get to you. That is what repentance does. It makes it easy for God to get through to us because we are making ourselves ready for Him.

Advent is a time when we remember that God came to us as a little child, but it is also a time to remember that He is coming again. Advent is a time to remind ourselves to repent and make ourselves ready to meet God. It is a time to remind ourselves to live in continuous openness to God as we look for him to lead us into greater and greater joy, beauty, and truth.


[1] Dallas Willard
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