Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Christmas and the Grinch

The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!Now, Please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right.It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.But I think that the most likely reason of allmay have been that his heart was two sizes too small.
But,Whatever the reason,His heart or his shoes,he stood there on Christmas Eve, hating the Whos,
Christmas seems to always include a Grinch. There is always someone who just doesn't get caught up in the season. They are doubters and scoffers. The decorations are offensive to their eyes. The music annoys them. They feel busier than they want to be. There are too many people in the stores. Parking is awful. The streets are slippery. And, they are resentful at the social pressure to conform to the season. In response to "Merry Christmas" inwardly they "Bah Humbug".

Of course some of us have good reasons to not be in the Christmas spirit. For some of us this Christmas brings with it an empty chair where a loved one sat. … That's not really Grinchiness though. Grinchiness is really about the belief that Christmas is a sham.

In the Bible we meet Grinches too. No doubt Mary faced many Grinches as her belly grew and she was not yet married. Grinches are not likely to believe stories about angels and a miraculous pregnancy coming from a teenage girl. The Roman officials, who forced Joseph and his pregnant wife to travel over 150km on foot to complete a census, were definitely Grinches. The Grinchy King Herod learned from the visiting Wise Men that a child had been born who would become the king of the Jews. Not wanting to deal with a threat to his throne, the paranoid King Herod attempted to kill the baby Messiah.

We have our own inner Grinches as well. Our inner Grinch tells us the whole Nativity story is just wishful thinking and fairy tales. Our inner Grinch has a hard time believing that this story (or something like it) happened in history. Our inner Grinch doubts God’sexistence, and believing that God somehow became human is just a step too far. Our inner Grinch wonders how we can possibly be expected to believe this stuff.

In some ways Doubt and skepticism are good because they make us investigate and not believe something too quickly. This is a good thing in a culture where we are dealing with a constant stream of advertising.

Religion is often a target for the doubting and skeptical. In the Bible, at the end of Matthew’s biography of Jesus, Jesus meets with the disciples to tell them to go tell the world about him and we read, “when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matt 28:17). 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).
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. It can be hard to actually live life in a constant state of skepticism and doubt. … The Grinch doesn’t have the secret to living life well.

The Grinch thinks that if all the presents and sparkly decorations were taken away that Christmas would be shown to be a fraud. If the shiny wrapping paper was taken off and the elaborate bow was removed all that would be revealed is an empty box.

In Dr. Seuss' tale, the Grinch tries to steal Christmas, which he thinks is nothing more than presents, food and decorations. He dresses like Santa and sneaks into the Whos houses and steals their presents. He takes away the decorations. He takes away the food for the feast. He even takes away their Christmas trees. "On their walls he left nothing but hooks and some wire. And the one speck of food/ that he left in the house/ was a crumb that was even too small for a mouse." The Grinch expects a wail to arise from Whoville as the Whos wake up and realize the emptiness of their Christmas. He expects that they will feel an emptiness that matches his own inner emptiness.

The Grinch thinks that if all the sparkling lights and decorations were taken away we wouldn't really have anything left to celebrate. ... And that is a challenge to us. If it was all taken away from us, would we have anything left to celebrate? …

When the Grinch had stolen everything he could from the Who's houses he waited outside of town to hear Whoville’s reaction. The Whos are put to the test. Is Christmas all about presents, as the Grinch assumes? ... The Grinch listens in anticipation... and then he hears something, ... 
"But the sound wasn't sad!/ Why, this sound sounded merry!/ It couldn't be so!/ But it WAS merry! Very! ... Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,/ Was singing! Without any presents at all!/ He HADN"T stopped Christmas from coming!/ IT CAME!/ Somehow or other, it came just the same!"

The Grinch believed that the decorations were hollow. ... The wrapping paper and bow, however, were not decorating an empty box. There was something inside. When it was all taken away there was still something to sing about. When all the decorations and food and presents were taken away there was still something to celebrate. The Grinch found the Whos singing. Inside that box that the Grinch thought was empty … was a person.

The previous Pope, Joseph Ratzinger, described what was in that box saying, "This God shows himself to us; he looks out from eternity into time and puts himself into relationship with us”. That is the story of Jesus' birth. …

In some ways he was a very ordinary baby. He dirtied his diapers. He cried. He was fed. He needed protection. He needed the warmth and love of his parents. He was born where there was no crib, so he was laid in a feeding trough for animals. He was not rich. He was not born in a palace. His parents weren't famous. In many ways he was a very normal and very human baby.

In other ways, though, he was also a very extraordinary baby. Accompanying his birth there are stories of angels, and prophecies coming true. No matter who you are and what you believe you cannot deny that this child had a tremendous impact on the world. The very way we measure time points to his birth. We are in the two-thousand-and-seventeenth year of our Lord- A.D.- Ano Dominae (in the Latin). Jesus' teachings and followers have impacted the world and changed it. So, yes, this child is also extraordinary. That is something you have to admit whether you are a follower of his or not.

Jesus was a mixture of the humble and low, and the lofty and sublime. His mother was an ordinary Jewish girl, but she was still a virgin when she became pregnant with him. He was laid in an animal's feeding trough, but had the blood of the ancient King David running through his veins. He was visited by rough shepherds, but his birth was announced by angels. He was both ordinary and extraordinary. And even more paradoxical, in Jesus the human and the divine overlapped in some amazing and mysterious way. To look into the eyes of Jesus is to look into the eyes of God.

There are plenty of stories about human beings reaching towards the divine. They think that if they go up the right mountain they might experience the divine. They think, perhaps if they use the right prayer, or meditation, or drink the right potion, they might be able to experience heavenly reality. If they weave the right spell, or if they are good enough, they might be able to have an experience of heaven.

Christmas, however, isn't about our reaching for God. Christmas is about the exact opposite. Christmas is about God reaching out to us. Christmas is about God coming to us as a baby. And miraculously, and mysteriously, to know this baby is to know God. Christmas is about God writing Himself into the story of humanity. It is about God writing Himself into our story. God did this freely as an act of love. God gave us Himself- that is the ultimate Christmas gift. … That is what is inside the box that the Grinch thought was empty. That is what is worth celebrating even when all the decorations have been taken away. That is what the Whos sing about.

And this amazing gift wasn't just given to kings (though it is for them as well). The angels announce that "a saviour has been born to you." It's not just that Jesus has been born. He has been born "to you" and this is "good news of great joy that will be for all the people". He has been born to you. This gift was given to ordinary shepherds during an ordinary work-night. Jesus is a gift for us ordinary people living our ordinary lives. He is a gift that makes our ordinary lives extra-ordinary. He invites us to become a part of His story which has no beginning and no ending. In His story it is not the Grinches with the most money who are the main actors. It is not the Grinches with the biggest bombs, or nicest cars, or most beautiful faces, or most friends on facebook who play the big parts. The big characters in His story can be played by: a baby in an animal's feeding trough, his poor parents, and rough shepherds. The big characters are ordinary people who were drawn into an extraordinary story. Their lives are infused with eternal meaning. That invitation is his Christmas gift to us.

That is what the Whos were singing about. If all the presents are taken away- If all the decorations are stolen- If our Christmas goodies disappear- we still have a reason to sing. We still have a reason to celebrate. God has come to us.

If we listen closely with the shepherds tonight we might hear the angels' song. As that song penetrates into our hearts and we get wrapped up in Jesus' life and story we will find that, no matter how ordinary we feel, our small hearts grow three sizes, and our lives are infused with meaning and power. As our stories gets wrapped up in his we find ourselves invited into an eternal adventure. AMEN.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas:
The Extended Ending

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas…. Perhaps … means a little bit more!”
And what happened then…?
Well… in Who-ville they say
That the Grinch’s small heart
Grew three sizes that day!
And the minute his heart didn’t feel quite so tight,
He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light
And he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast!
And he…
The Grinch carved the roast beast!

You may think that is how the story ends
But there is a bit more my curious friends
At the Who feast, as they ate, the Grinch inquired
how his dark heart was so wondrously rewired
and released from its hate and grump and callous uncaring
And filled instead with love and with sharing
And as the Grinch carved the roast beast,
He turned to the Who who headed the feast,
And asked, “sir, what was it what made my heart grow
As I stood with my sled in the cold cold snow?
And the head Who turned to the Grinch with twinkling eyes
“Your heart grew because of someone who came in disguise
“He filled your heart with love like a balloon
“And warmed it like a sun-filled day in late June
“So it wasn’t a ‘what’ at all but a ‘who’?,
asked the Grinch as he began to chew
“It was a who”, the old Who replied
I shall introduce you, I’ll be your guide
But to know anyone, you must know their story
perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of his glory
There are many places to start, but where I’ll begin
is with a young girl who held God within
“There was a young girl who was often in blue
She helped with the chores, and to pray she withdrew
Once, she was visited by an angel and told of a babe
Who would fill her belly, and the world he would save.
The girl responded confused by the message
Perhaps the angel misheard the date of her marriage
But there was no confusion at all
As a mother, this is how she would answer God’s call
Her betrothed was a descendent of David, a great king
It was he who gave her the promise of marriage, and a ring
He was a gentle, strong man, and a skeptic at first,
But the angel told him it was God’s son she would nurse.
So the two of them stuck through the difficult plight
And journeyed to Bethlehem where he was born in the night.
He was not born in in a hotel for there was no room
The King of Glory arrived in a defenseless costume
He came as a child, vulnerable and weak
He was placed in a manger, a cow at his cheek
The owner of all, he gave it all up
To become one of us and offer his cup
He was not recognized and so was not greeted
Except by a few, the humble, not the conceited
Angels told shepherds of the baby’s arrival
Though, King Herod threatened the child’s survival
Following the wise men, the king would conspire
Hoping to destroy the baby messiah
The wise men arrived, and delivered their treasure
Upon seeing the child they were filled with pleasure
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh, odd gifts for one so small
The little one was still struggling even to crawl
But accurate gifts, for a king who would save
The world from their sins and stand so brave
Against evil and corruption and teach us to love
He would be wise as a serpent and kind as a dove
Away from the evil king, they fled
until they heard that king Herod was dead
The Grinch kept on chewing his delicious roast beast
But was looking puzzled and his forehead was creased
“excuse me, I don’t understand how this child
Is connected to my heart being beguiled
It is a fascinating story you’ve told
But as for the connection, I’m still a bit cold”
The wise Who looked at the Grinch with kind eyes
“Grinchiness plagues this world and it stands unwise
To live with such hate and greed in your heart
What the child offers us is a brand new restart
You see, when he came among us he seemed quite plain
But if we really knew the degree of his domain
We would see that in this child’s face we meet our creator
And in this small child we see that God is no evil dictator
But, rather, kind and willing to bend to meet our eyes
Like a father who is loving and infinitely wise
He came to be with us, and show us his face
In order that we might have a lasting embrace
He entered a world that was broken and fallen
Filled with pain and sorrow and people like Stalin
He came to correct what had gone wrong
Where we were weak, he became strong
Where we were tempted he continued to fight
As a human being he would be our white knight
He would fight for us against every foe
And his victory on us he would bestow
He even fought death, the dark grim reaper
And came out on top, as if in the grave he was merely a sleeper.
And so he looks for cold hearts that have shrunk with hate
And looks for a door, a window, or small gate
So he can enter in and fill them with love
That they might grow large and the hate be disposed of
You see he came to show us who we were meant to be
Lives filled with God’s love, courageous and free
And so, Mr. Grinch, what you felt in your heart,
Was Christ’s presence giving you love to impart
And the Grinch finally got it, His heart and his head
Were knit together with one loving thread
His eyes filled with wonder and his grin grew bigger
His heart grew another size and was renewed with vigor
He finally saw how Christmas still came
How the whos kept on singing, in spite of his game
In his heart he saw the small child in the manger
Love incarnate, risking the danger
To show us God’s care and infinite grace
But above all, to show us his face.

Advent 4- Mary and her song

The mother of Jesus has had a particularly important place in Christianity. Tradition tells us that when Luke was writing his gospel he interviewed Mary, among others. Mary receives high praise in Scripture. The angel Gabriel comes to her saying, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you" (Lk 1:28). At seeing Mary her cousin “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” (Lk 1:41-42). Recognizing her favored status Mary proclaims, “from now on all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:48).

We find Mary’s presence throughout the gospels. She created the context for Jesus’ first miracle in John when he turned water into wine (Jn 2). At the cross Mary is there with John as Jesus declares her his mother, and John her son. She is present with the disciples after the resurrection as well. She is also at the end of the Bible in Revelation chapter 12 where Mary seems to be referred to. It reads “A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth” (Rev 12:1-2). Then a dragon appears to try to destroy her child. … And every week in worship Mary is mentioned in our creed as we proclaim Jesus as “born of the virgin Mary”. Evidence of devotion to Mary goes back to the 3rd and 4th centuries, but based on paintings in Roman catacombs it probably goes back even earlier.

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox churches both hold her with incredibly high honour- they hold her with higher honour than the angels- superior to all other creatures. They believe that she was taken bodily into heaven, and right now she is with Christ in heaven speaking to her son on our behalf. Which is why they believe it is okay to ask her to pray for us (just as we would ask fellow Christians to pray for us). They hold her with such high honour it makes most protestants uncomfortable. They honour her and seek her prayerful intercession, but don’t worship her. Worship is reserved for God alone. As the mother of Jesus, who is God the Son, she is considered the Theotokos- the God-bearer, the mother of God. Mary is so important because her “yes” to God’s plan is seen as undoing Eve’s “no” to God in the garden. Through her “yes” Mary provides a way for the savior to enter into the world.

Both Orthodox and Catholics see Mary as the prototype of the Church and as the ideal Christian. Through her cooperation with God’s plan Christ dwells in her womb. Likewise, as we cooperate with God we receive Christ’s presence in our hearts.

As protestants, our honouring of St. Mary is lower key. We assume we mostly gave these practices up at the time of the Reformation, but even the reformers spoke very highly of Mary.[1] [2] Most modern protestants question the Catholic and Orthodox devotion to Mary as being embellished, superstitious, or as not having much of a biblical basis. However, the fact remans that for major branches of the Christian family, and for the vast majority of Christian history, there has been serious devotion to Mary.

I think this is such a strong tradition that it should challenge those of us with protestant leanings. At the very least we should have the utmost respect for Mary, and take the time to meditate on her as a model disciple who was willing to risk her own comfort and safety to follow God’s lead into an unknown future. Mary is a powerful symbol of the way God brings the Kingdom of God to earth. God works through the powerless. … Think of Moses with a speech impediment asked to confront Pharaoh and lead the people out of slavery. Think of the little shepherd boy David going to battle against Goliath. … When God announces this most important moment in history, God brings the message to the world through a woman. According to the early Jewish historian Josephus, women at this time and in this culture were not even considered reliable witnesses in a court of law. In the eyes of the world, Mary is a very ordinary woman. However, God’s message of the coming kingdom is given to this young woman. … God doesn’t give the news to the Roman Emperor. God doesn’t give the news to a king, or to one of the temple’s high priests. God doesn’t put up billborads, or go on CNN. The first to really grasp God’s Good News is a pregnant woman. Mary would have vanished into the mists of time except for being drawn into an extraordinary story. It is a very strange way for God to make an announcement that will change the world forever.

God’s plan is to turn the world upside-down. In Mary’s song we hear about the lifting up of the marginalized and the lowering of the powerful.
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

Mary sings about the God who saved a group of slaves from the powerful Egyptian nation and chose those slaves to bear His name. Mary sings of God who scatters the proud, who lowers powerful rulers, who raises up the lowly, who feeds the hungry, and turns away those who allow their fellow human beings to go hungry when they have plenty. This is a message that turns the world upside down. The high are brought low and the low are brought high, the first will be last and the last will be first. …

Mary, in her weakness and emptiness, is made a conduit of power. Mary, who has no ability to produce a child on her own since she is a virgin, is given a child by God. … When we recognize our own emptiness, it is then that we are able to be used powerfully by God. God works through us not in our strength, but in our weakness. God doesn’t work so much by leading an army, but by carrying a cross.

Mary’s song is known as the Magnificat. Its power and implications were realized by the Guatemalan Government during the 1980’s when they banned speaking it in public. It was banned because it was seen as encouraging rebellion and a danger to the powerful and oppressive state. Isn’t that fascinating? The song of a young pregnant woman is a danger to the state? (…). I think the Guatemalan Government of the 1980’s actually has a grasp of Mary’s song that we sometimes miss in the church. Guatemala is not the only place that this has become banned- It was banned in Argentina when mothers rose up to cry for justice for their missing family members in the 1970’s. During the British rule of India in the 19th century, the Magnificat was banned from being sung in churches.

The Magnificat is a threat to tyranny because tyrants want to feel powerful and in control, and they often treat the people like cattle who exist only for the benefit of the tyrant. … Mary’s song say’s otherwise. Her song says that the oppression of the poor is not the will of God and that when God’s kingdom arrives fully the tyrants will have no power. The power of the Magnificat is the revealing of the truth that God picks sides and if you are a tyrant you will find yourself standing against God … and you will not win that fight.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who faced the Nazis and was executed by them, said the following about the Magnificat:
“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.” (A sermon in Advent 1933)

This song is a call for justice and resistance that trusts in God and the inevitable arrival of His kingdom through Jesus, even in the face of oppressive and unjust governments. Mary’s song is the song of a young pregnant woman living among a people oppressed by an occupying force. The hope that grows in Mary’s womb shows her a world where God gives dignity and worth to the humble, food to the hungry. It is a world where God removes dictators from their thrones.

Obviously, it is a project that is not finished yet. There is more to do. We are still waiting for the time when the kingdom of Christ will fully envelop us. The theologian David Bentley Hart says, “If the teachings of Christianity were genuinely to take root in human hearts- if indeed we all believed that God is love and that we ought to love our neighbours as ourselves- we should have no desire for war, should hate injustice worse than death, and should find indifference to the sufferings of others impossible”.

The vision Mary received turns the world upside down- it looks like a feast of fools where a homeless beggar sits on the king’s throne, and the master of all is the servant of all. It is strange to the world. The first will be last and the last will be first. The low will be made high, and the high will be made low. God announces the arrival of his kingdom through a pregnant woman, not the emperor, or the chief priest. It looks backwards and upside-down. But, perhaps it is the world that has really been upside down all along and God has arrived to put it right side up. Amen.

[1] 1 Martin Luther, Weimar edition of Martin Luther's Works, English translation edited by J. Pelikan [Concordia: St. Louis], volume 24, 107.
Martin Luther, op. cit., Volume 11, 319-320.
Martin Luther, Weimar edition of Martin Luther's Works, English translation edited by J. Pelikan [Concordia: St. Louis], Volume 4, 694.
[Martin Luther, Weimar edition of Martin Luther's Works (Translation by William J. Cole) 10, p. 268.
[Martin Luther, Weimar edition of Martin Luther's Works (Translation by William J. Cole) 10, III, p.313.
Martin Luther, Weimar edition of Martin Luther's Works, English translation edited by J. Pelikan [Concordia: St. Louis], Volume 51, 128-129.
[2] John Calvin, Calvini Opera [Braunshweig-Berlin, 1863-1900], Volume 45, 35.
Bernard Leeming, "Protestants and Our Lady", Marian Library Studies, January 1967, p.9.
John Calvin, Calvini Opera [Braunshweig-Berlin, 1863-1900], Volume 45, 348.
John Calvin, A Harmony of Matthew, Mark and Luke (St. Andrew's Press, Edinburgh, 1972), p.32.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Advent 3- John the Voice

In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe four children arrive in a mystical land called “Narnia”. It is a land ruled by a witch who has caused the whole land to become enchanted- her magic makes it always winter, but never Christmas. The land is still good, and there are still good creatures there, but it is an oppressed land. The potential of the land is locked away. The potential of the good beings there is repressed. The green grass is frozen under the snow. The trees are locked in a stasis. The good people are not free to do good, but have to avoid the eye of the minions of the witch. The potential for joy, for love, for laughter, for goodness is frozen.

The four children are at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver when they hear that someone is coming to help. … “’They say Aslan is on the move- perhaps has already landed.’ And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it has some enormous meaning- either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”

Aslan, the great lion, was coming to bring spring to the land. He was coming to unleash the potential locked up by the frost. He was coming so that the trees could bring forth their leaves, and the streams could flow, and the fish could jump, and the grass could grow, and each creature could be free to do the good they were born to do. Aslan was coming to free the land from the enchantment that enslaved it.

John the Baptist is like the one spreading the message, “Aslan is on the move- get ready. Your heart has been enchanted. It has been frozen by fear and sadness. This frost has kept you from being who God has created you to be. Get ready- Spring is coming. The land has been kept frozen- Justice has not been able to blossom- love has been kept frozen. But, Spring is coming. Aslan is on the move.”

He is quick to say what he is not- he is not the light; he is not the Christ; he is not Elijah; he is not the prophet like Moses they were waiting for.

What is he then? John saw himself as nothing more than a pointing finger. He pointed to Jesus- the lion of Judah. He is a voice. He is a witness. He’s a nudge. He’s a fragrance that lets us know something is upwind. He is a candle in the dark announcing the coming of the sun that will dispel the night. He is announcing the arrival of spring that will banish winter.

When John is asked to explain himself he uses the words of the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’”.

How would we feel if we were from ancient Israel and heard John? We live in a country that is oppressed under the enchantment of the Roman Empire. … John’s words would have filled us with tremendous hope- God is coming to help his people! Justice is finally going to come to the land.

I think we, too, can sometimes feel like we live under an enchantment. We live in a frozen land where justice is not really able to blossom, where love between neighbours is stifled, where fear paralyses, and sadness isolates us. … To imagine a world not under that enchantment is a beautiful thing. Children will no longer be abused in their homes. We will no longer have family members die because of cancer and heart disease. We will no longer feel lonely. We will no longer be controlled by fear and anxiety. People are free from addictions. People will no longer be condemned to a life on the streets because of a mental illness, or because of the economy that helps the rich get richer and leaves to poor to become poorer. We will finally see justice done. Victims will be healed and restored. The famines and wars will end. Children will no longer die because of a lack of clean water or basic nutrition. When we see this future- a future where God is fully present with His people- we rejoice. We are excited for that world. We are excited for justice. We are hungry for things to be put right. We thirst for God to be fully with us.

But, there is another part of me that worries, if I’m honest. I worry because I know that sometimes I am a cause of that injustice. I help the world to be what it is for good or bad through my words, actions, and attitudes. I help to make this place worse than it could be- willingly or unwillingly- through things I have done or left undone- sometimes because of just plain carelessness. In some ways I am one of the reasons this word is not a better place than it is. This means that when God comes to deal with the world- when God comes to make this world a better place- God is going to have to deal with me.

Just when we might become depressed as we reflect on our sins. Just when we realize that we are a part of the problem God has to deal with, we hear a voice crying out from the wilderness. We hear a voice saying that we can be changed. We can be made ready for God’s coming. The road to be made straight for the Lord leads right through our hearts. As we are confronted with God’s coming presence we can’t help but look at ourselves in His light. We can’t help but realize that if God is going to rule the world, he has to rule our hearts first. We need to wipe the slate. We need to be given another chance to change our ways- to align our hearts and minds with God’s heart and mind. We need to change from how we view the world and start seeing the world as God sees it. John’s baptism is about that new start. It is about washing away the old sins and taking on a new way of life. But John’s baptism was of water. If we are to be truly changed it needs to be more than water.

John’s baptism is only a shadow of the baptism that is to come. He helps you prepare. He helps you recognize how you need to be changed. John points away from himself to one who was greater than himself. John points to the one who will come to baptize the repentant with the Holy Spirit. The one who will come will fill you with God’s power. He will fill you with God. He will give you the strength to live as people of God’s kingdom. He will bathe the people in God Himself. He will not only wipe the slate clean. He will not only forgive and wipe away your sins. He will empower you to change the world. He will make it so that God will live in you and change the world through you. That is what it means. … My fear that God will have to deal with me was misleading. It doesn’t mean that God is coming to destroy me for the wrong I do. God will deal with me by transforming me. God will resurrect me as a new person.

Ultimately though, it isn’t about me, or us. John wasn’t pointing to us. He said to make the way straight because someone is coming. Jesus is the future John is talking about. Jesus is the future for those all around us. Jesus is the future for the whole of creation. It is Jesus that John the Baptist points to, and it is Jesus who we will all be confronted by. We will all stand before “The Word of God”, “God with us”, the fully-human and fully-God Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Jesus doesn’t just come and fix things. Things are transformed because Jesus is present- because in Jesus God and creation exist in the same place and time and are brought into full harmony.

John calls with the voices of humanity through the ages who have longed for the world to be put right. John calls with the voice of the Scriptures and points to Jesus Christ, in whom the Scriptures are fulfilled. And we are in the middle of this story. We live in a mess of a world, and we are part of that mess, but we are being transformed, and the world with us. God is present. And God is continuously coming. And we stand with John as voices in the wilderness announcing his arrival. Come soon Lord, Jesus. AMEN

Monday, 11 December 2017

Advent 2- Being at home in God's presence

There is an interesting TV show Crystal and I saw recently. It’s called “The Good Place”. The premise of the show is that a woman named Eleanor has died and has arrived in the “Good Place” (as opposed to the “Bad Place”). The Good Place is for those who have done an incredible amount of good in their life and very little bad. So a kind of paradise has been created for them by an “architect” named Michael, who seems to be a kind of angel.

Eleanor soon realizes that she doesn’t actually deserve to be there. Someone with her same name died at the exact time she did and there was a mix up. The other Eleanor was a human rights activist and a lawyer who got people off death row who were wrongly convicted. … This Eleanor actually deserved to be in the “Bad Place”. She actually worked selling fake drugs to seniors over the phone, and was just generally not a great person. … Eleanor then goes about both trying to hide the fact that she doesn’t deserve to be there, and also trying to learn to be a better person so that she will deserve to be in the Good Place. … But Eleanor can’t help but do bad things. It’s a part of her character. Her sins start to have an effect on the Good Place and the resulting chaos starts to threaten its existence- A sinkhole appears, there are giant flying shrimp, it rains garbage, and lots of other craziness.

I wouldn’t get my theology from the show, but it is interesting on a number of levels. In most movies and tv shows “heaven” is where most people go when they die, usually as a reward for not being an evil person. It is just sort of assumed that if you aren’t Hitler, then you go to heaven. It is a pretty low bar. However, there is never any comment on the need to be a good person once you get to heaven. … In the “Good Place” it is both very exclusive (in that very few people actually get to go there), and the goodness of the people in heaven is also partly why it is so heavenly. … Eleanor is in the place where good people go, but her own badness starts to make the Good Place less good. The sort of person Eleanor is has an effect on how heavenly heaven is for her and those around her. The question the show hinges on is, "what if someone got into heaven who didn't deserve to be there?"

Peter’s letter calls attention to our character. What kind of a person are we? Eleanor didn’t fit the Good Place. We are called to be the kind of people that feel at home in the new creation. The letter asks the question, 

what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness” (3:11)? “In accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (3:13). “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish” (3:14).
We are called to lead lives of holiness and godliness so that we will feel at home in the new creation that is to come. … In the present world we live in there are times when righteousness is told that it is unrealistic and impractical. People say, “it’s just business” as a way of distancing themselves from questions of righteousness. Righteousness is not always at home in our world. I was told the other day that some idealists who become police officers have a very hard time with that job because justice doesn’t often seem to prevail. … But, imagine a world where righteousness is truly at home. Imagine a world where holiness and godliness are the defining features of that world. That is the kind of world that we are being prepared to live in.

The New Heaven and the New Earth are paradise primarily because of the pervading presence of God. God is the source of all goodness, all beauty, all joy, all peace, all love. To be in God’s presence is to be in the presence of all that makes life beautiful and enjoyable. … Imagine the character of a person who feels at home in God’s presence. … Would an arrogant and selfish person feel at home in God’s presence? Would a greedy person? Would an angry, violent person feel at home in God’s presence? … I suspect they would be left incredibly convicted and uncomfortable. … On the other hand, would a loving and peaceful person feel at home in God’s presence? A person with that kind of character is in tune with the character of God. Peter is calling us to be the kind of people who feel at home in God’s presence.

We are being prepared to live in a world where righteousness feels at home. This isn’t necessarily a matter of salvation. Jesus is the one who saves us. But being “saved” means also being on a path of sanctification. To be sanctified means being made holy. We are being shaped more and more into the image of Jesus. The question Peter asks is a question about sanctification- 
“what sort of persons ought you to be…” (3:11)?

This kind of talk makes some people feel uncomfortable. They think we are talking about our “works” making us holy and acceptable to God. We prefer to think about God accepting us just as we are, which is true. God accepts us just as we are, but God loves us too much to leave us the way we are. God calls us to transformation.

This calling to sanctification is found all throughout Scripture. We could look at the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), which are about having a character that is at home in the Kingdom of God. In Paul’s letter to Timothy he teaches 
“…train yourself for godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7).
 In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he says, 
“And we all, … beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).
 In the letter to the Ephesians we read, 
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…” (Eph 4:1-3).
 And in the letter to the Romans we read, 
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2).
 … These are a few examples, but there are many other places in Scripture that talk about our sanctification. Sanctification is God preparing us to be at home in God’s presence.

Becoming the kind of people that feel at home in the presence of God sounds great, but we might very well ask how we get there from here. … It reminds me of the joke where someone stops on a gravel road to ask a farmer for directions and the farmer responds, “I can tell you how to get there, but I wouldn’t start from here”. … Sanctification is an intimidating prospect. … It starts with repentance. Peter says the Lord delays his coming is to give time for repentance. The letter says, 
“The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (3:9).
 … Repentance is a constant call in the Scriptures. Mark tells us, 
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4).
 And when Jesus begins his ministry he says, 
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15).

‘Repentance’ is what we do when we confess our sin and receive God’s forgiveness. We do it continuously because it is essential to sanctification. … Repentance has all kinds of negative connotations in our culture, but repentance actually should be a positive word. It means to change your mind. …. If I’m driving in the wrong direction and I realize it, then I repent and turn my car around and head in the right direction. … We often think of repentance in a negative light because we think about what we are turning away from. What is more important, however, is what you are turning towards. … If you go to the Calgary airport it won’t do you much good to say to the attendant, “I want to leave Calgary”. It is more important to know where you are heading. … In repentance we should focus more on what we are turning towards, rather than what we are turning away from. In repentance we ultimately turn towards the Source of all beauty, joy, peace, and love. We are only asked to turn away from what will enslave and destroy us. Like a parent calling their child to get off the dangerous road, God calls us away from what will ultimately do us harm. God calls us towards Himself to live the beautiful, joyful, and loving life we were created to live.

We are called to a life of repentance because we are called to a life that is continuously turning towards God. As we do that we are more and more transformed into people who are at home in God’s presence. … In John’s gospel he describes the arrival of Jesus in the world saying, 
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (Jn 1:9-11).
 The world was not welcoming of Jesus when he came. The promise is that when Jesus comes again he will remake the world into a place “where righteousness is at home” (2 Pt 3:13). Jesus will remake the world into a place where he is at home. We are called to be transformed so we are at home in that new world. 

Monday, 4 December 2017

The Spirituality of Apocalypse

Advent throws a lot of us off. For most of us Advent is about preparing for Christmas. We are putting up Christmas lights on our houses, and our Christmas trees in the living room. We are starting to hear Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby echo in the stores. We settle into the fact that winter isn’t going anywhere, and we even hope for a white Christmas.

Then we come to church and it is doom and gloom- 
“in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken”.
 … It’s a far cry from “baby, it’s cold outside” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. It seems like every year we are caught off guard. We want to jump into Christmas carols and there is some liturgical Grinch holding it all back and telling us we have to think about this thing called Advent.

Advent means “coming” or “arrival”. It is the season when we think about Jesus “coming” to us. We think of both his first coming, which is the first Christmas, but we also think about his second coming. We are fine with the first Christmas. That is what we primarily think about this time of year. … It is usually the Second Coming of Jesus that doesn’t sit very well with us. The Second Coming brings with it judgement against evil, and descriptions of dramatic events like the sun and moon going dark and the stars falling. It all sounds very apocalyptic. “Apocalypse” is a word we associate more with “zombie” than with “Christmas”.

So what do we do with these more apocalyptic aspects of Advent? First, I think it is important that we don’t get carried away with obsessing over predicting when the Second Coming will happen. There are people who seem to spend their lives trying to determine when this will happen. They put together detailed charts and orders of events. They comb through the news trying to find any events that might connect to a scriptural prophecy. … I remember seeing this guy on TV when I was a kid. During the Cold War he was sure that the Soviets were a part of the anti-Christ’s efforts to take over the world. I remember my Opa telling me about similar predictions during World War 2. Whoever the ‘bad guys’ seemed to be at the moment, these people seem to find a way to connect them to biblical prophecy. …

I really don’t think that’s what Jesus meant when he told us to watch and wait. … All those who have made predictions about Jesus’ second coming have one thing in common… they’ve all been wrong. According to Jesus’ own words, the first thing that says you’re wrong is that you make a prediction at all. Jesus says it will be a surprise. He will come like a thief in the night. In our Gospel Jesus says, 
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come”.
 I take from this that it is a waste of time to try to make predictions about when it will happen.

Those who work hard to connect prophecy to the daily news often also misunderstand the highly symbolic nature of what is written. Jesus says, 
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24-25).
 … In the ancient world the sun and moon and stars were seen as divine powers that controlled empires and human lives. We still see a remnant in this in the horoscopes published in the papers. It is the idea that what the stars are doing in the sky determines your future, they control the empires that crush you, but when Jesus comes the sun, moon, and stars will lose their power. It is a symbolic statement that when the greatest power in the universe shows up even the greatest powers in the sky are no match for him. They are darkened and they fall. Then we will see 
“'the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” He will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven”.
 Jesus comes in God’s power and God’s glory and he is in command of God’s angels and does the kinds of things the Old Testament says God will do. It is a highly symbolic language that relies on knowing the symbolism of the Old Testament and the ancient world. 

I’m less interested in predicting the timing of the Second Coming. I’m much more interested in the spirituality of apocalypse. By that I mean, in the context of all this talk of the ‘end time’, what attitude do we carry with us? What ‘big picture’ do we see? What gives life meaning? What is our place in the universe? How do our actions matter?

I think the concept of apocalypse touches a deep and powerful place in the human heart. The themes of apocalypse are interwoven in an incredible number of our stories. This is especially true of fantasy and superhero movies. In these movies earth is confronted with an incredible evil. It is an overwhelming evil that threatens to destroy humanity. It is too much for human beings. All we can do is place our hope in someone to save us. Think about Darth Vader and the Empire in Star Wars. Or, think about the robot Ultron in the Avengers movie who wants to make a peaceful planet by destroying all humans, or think about an advanced alien species attacking earth. … Then someone arrives and beats back the impossibly strong enemy and saves the day. Often this is a superhero like superman, or the Avengers, or Luke Skywalker, but some of the best stories tell about unlikely heroes- like little powerless Hobbits who defeat Sauron and his armies in the Lord of the Rings. … I believe this story keeps getting retold because it is placed deep in the human soul. Apocalypse is about the world seeming very bleak and hopeless, but just when things look like they can’t get any darker God saves His people and is proven to be more powerful than any adversary. It is a story we find woven throughout Scripture and throughout humanity.

A spirituality of apocalypse will recognize that there are problems in the world that we are unable to solve. We need to call on God to save creation. The moment we really internalize that reality we are able to relax as we realize that we don’t have to be the messiah. It’s not up to us to solve everyone’s problems. As we watch the news and we see wars and environmental disaster it is pretty easy to be overcome by fear and anxiety. The problems we face are too big for us. Obviously, this doesn’t mean we do nothing, but it is healthy for us to recognize we can’t solve all the world’s problems. So we recognize that we can’t do it and call on Christ to save the world.

In a spirituality of apocalypse it would also be important for us to live in a way that recognizes that Christ will come again soon. He could come an hour from now, or 1000 years from now, or 10,000 years from now. … I like what C.S. Lewis says in his book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Aslan the lion is the Christ character in the books, and Aslan says to Lucy, 
“’Do not look sad. We shall meet soon again.’ 
‘Please, Aslan’, said Lucy, ‘what do you call soon?’ 
‘I call all times soon’ said Aslan…”.
… Christ wants us to consider his coming to be “soon”. Even if it is in 10,000 years, Christ still wants us to live as if he is coming tomorrow. To live in that reality means to ask ourselves, what would we be found doing if he came tomorrow? How can we make today count? Would he find us doing something that matches his mission to save the world? Would he find us loving people- children, our families, strangers, our church? Would he find us spreading hope? Would he find us peacemaking? Would he find us helping hurting people? Would he find us doing something that shapes us into people that love God more? Would he find us loving our neighbour? Would he find us making the world a more caring and kind place? If we believe Christ is coming to save the world then are we acting in a way that are in line with the Christ we believe in? Are we acting in a way that matches that saving action? Are we agents of the goodness of Christ, rather than agents of destruction and selfishness? … A spirituality of apocalypse recognizes that everyday counts because it might be our last day to do something beautiful for God.

This is what I think Jesus means by telling us to watch and wait. It isn’t passive. It is an active waiting. In our Gospel reading Jesus says, 
“It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
 The waiting he is speaking about is an expectant waiting. Servants who are waiting for their master to return are actively performing the tasks that were given to them so that when the master returns they are found at their work. That is what waiting means for the servants whose master is gone.

A spirituality of apocalypse might also be called an Advent spirituality. It is an attitude of the soul that is grounded in the reality that we are unable to solve all the world’s problems. Christ is the one who will save the world, not us. But that doesn’t mean we do nothing. We act and think in ways that are consistent with Christ’s saving action. We might not be able to solve everyone’s problems, but we can show love and care to one. This Advent may God bless you with a heart ready to meet our Lord who is coming soon.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Christ in disguise

This is a challenging passage of Scripture. I think everyone who cares about being a disciple of Jesus hears these words and feels a little twinge of fear wondering if we are doing all we can.

Jesus is going to judge all of humanity, and what is the basis on which he going to judge humanity? He is going to judge humanity on the basis of how they treated him when he came to them in a kind of disguise. He is disguised as the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.

There are a couple of ways we can interpret this passage. To the original hearers they would have probably heard Jesus speaking about his disciples going out to the nations. Jesus speaks about the “least of these my brothers and sisters”, which would most likely refer to his disciples. You might remember that when Jesus sends out his disciples in Luke chapter 10 he gives them directions saying, 
“Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, … Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ … And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide” (Luke 10:4, 5, 7). 
The disciples were very much reliant on the hospitality of those they met. What this passage is saying is that how his disciples were received or not received is experienced by Jesus very personally. It’s as if Jesus was in the clothes of his disciple experiencing being accepted or rejected.

Think about Paul before his conversion while he was still persecuting Christians and then Jesus appears to him on the road to Damascus. Paul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” And Jesus says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). Jesus says that what Paul was doing to his followers, he was actually doing to him. Jesus didn’t say “you are persecuting my people” he says that Paul was persecuting him.

As his disciples go out to the peoples of the world to share the gospel they will be treated hospitably or not. So at the end of the age all the peoples of the world will be gathered together and they will be judged on the basis of how they received the followers of Christ. … if you are a follower of Christ and someone has mistreated you because you are his follower it is taken personally by Jesus. He takes it so personally that what has been done to you he considers it done to him personally.

This is both good news and quite challenging for us. It is good news in that it means that Jesus has our back. As we try to follow him and minister to those around us- as we try to be Christians in the world for the sake of others- Jesus sees himself as right there with us. For those who receive us, Jesus sees them as receiving him. For those who reject us, Jesus sees them as rejecting him. … Jesus is with you in a powerfully intimate way. It shows the deep identification Jesus has with us.

This is also challenging for us though. It means that how we treat our fellow Christians is how Jesus sees us treating him. If we gossip against a fellow Christian we are gossiping against him. If we quarrel with a fellow Christian, we are quarreling with Christ. If we ignore a Christian teenager, or get upset that a child in church is a bit noisy- Jesus sees us as doing that to him. This goes across denominational lines as well. How do we feel about Roman Catholics, or Baptists, or Pentecostals? If we look down on other kinds of Christians because of their style of worship, for example, Jesus sees us as looking down on him. If Christians in other parts of the world are being persecuted, as they have been under ISIS, and we ignore their cry, then we have ignored the cry of Christ.

On the other hand, when we serve fellow Christians across the world, especially when they are in trouble, Jesus sees us as serving him. When we bless and love our Christian brothers and sisters in other denominations, then Jesus receives that love as being directed to him. When we treat our brothers and sisters in our own church with honour, love, and respect, then Jesus sees that as being directed to him. … So in this interpretation of the “least of these” as the disciples of Jesus we can feel both the good news and the strong challenge.

The second way we can interpret this passage is to see the “least of these my brothers and sisters” as the suffering of humanity. This is the way Mother Teresa has interpreted this passage. She often called poverty the “distressing disguise” of Jesus. The Rule of St. Benedict directs the monks to welcome every stranger as if they are welcoming Christ (Chapter 53). While the first reading would be a more accurate reading historically, reading “the least” as being the poor in general is also in line with the call of Jesus, and in line with the thrust of the Scriptures in general.

Often throughout the Old Testament the prophets call judgement on the people for the way they have treated the vulnerable. In Isaiah 58 we read, 
“Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, … if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday” (Is 58:5-7,10).
 Psalm 68 says that God is the “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” (Ps 68:5). Exodus explicitly commands, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child” (Ex 22:22). Deuteronomy 10 says, God “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deut 10:18). God rescues a group of slaves and makes them the people of God. We could go on, but I think we can see from a few examples that God has a particular care for the vulnerable. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t care for the rich and powerful, but there is particular attention given to the poor and vulnerable that live on the margins of society.

Jesus too was particularly concerned with those on the margins who fell through the cracks- those who had been rejected or written off. Women were often not treated well in the ancient world, but Jesus’ treatment of women was incredibly generous in comparison to the societal norm of his day. Children were often ignored and treated as a nuisance. When Jesus finds out that his disciples are trying to keep the children from bothering their master he tells them to let them come to him. In Matthew 18 Jesus, 
“calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, 'Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:2-6).
 Jesus often directs people to help the poor and even commands us to do good even to our enemies. So clearly a second way of interpreting the “least of these my brothers and sisters” as being the vulnerable and needy of humanity is not out of line with Jesus and his teachings. It has actually been an ancient way for Christians to interpret this passage.

What is Jesus saying with this teaching? He is saying that he comes to us in need but somehow disguised and we help him or we don’t and we will be judged on that basis. It is about how we treat Jesus in the other person. I suspect Jesus is concerned with our character and how willing we are to love the other. If we didn’t know Jesus how would we receive Jesus on the basis of our character. Have we developed into the kind of people who would receive Jesus and help him if he came to us and we didn’t know him? If we lived in ancient Palestine when Jesus was roaming around the countryside preaching, how would we receive him. Would we bring food out to him and his disciples, or would we see him as a nuisance and a distraction from our work? Paul doesn’t seem to have ever met Jesus, but he definitely persecuted the disciples of Jesus, and in that action Paul exposes himself as the kind of person who would have also persecuted Jesus.

We could interpret this passage to say Jesus has a mystical connection with his followers or the poor and vulnerable, but I suspect what Jesus is really getting at is what kind of a person is being exposed when we encounter those in need. Is a loving, hospitable heart exposed? Is it the kind of heart that would receive and serve Christ if he were to come to us? His words to those who gather will be “come… inherit the kingdom” or “depart from me”. Those who welcomed the presence of Christ will receive more intimacy with Christ in his kingdom. And those who rejected the presence of Christ will get more of what they wanted- they will depart from the presence of Christ who is the source of all good things.

So may we recognize Christ in each other. May we recognize him in the stranger. In the refugee. May we see Jesus in the teenager at church who is always there but we have never had a conversation with. May we serve Christ in the shut in. May we love Christ in the poor and rejected. May we receive the stranger as if it is Christ himself walking through our doors because it just might be him- in his distressing disguise.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

What do you do with what God has given you?

We find our parable today surrounded by teachings having to do with Jesus’ second coming and how we are to live in the meantime.

The parable before today’s reading is about the ten bridesmaids. Five were wise and were prepared with enough oil to last through the night, but five were not wise and their oil ran out. While they were out buying more oil the groom arrived and the wedding began without them. The lesson is to be prepared for his arrival. The second coming of Jesus is the groom’s arrival.

Next week our Gospel lesson is about Jesus separating the sheep and the goats depending on what they have done for Jesus in the guise of those who were in need- the hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, those in need of clothing, or a stranger. The lesson here is that Jesus has so identified with those in need that whatever we do for those in need it is as if we have done it for Jesus himself. And, as much as we haven’t served those in need we haven’t served Jesus either.

The parable about the talents finds itself tucked between these two lessons about being prepared for Jesus’ coming and serving those in need.

Our present parable is about a man who goes on a journey and entrusts his wealth to three of his servants. He doesn’t distribute the wealth equally, one receives 5 talents, the next 2, and the third gets 1 talent. The master probably had a sense of what his servants could handle and he distributes his wealth accordingly. The master didn’t owe them this money. It was entrusted to them while their master was away.

This was not pocket change either. A talent was worth 15-20 years wages for a day laborer. In modern money it would be almost a million dollars. So, they are entrusted with a lot of money. Even the servant who was only given 1 talent was still given a lot of money.

 The talents have been seen not only as wealth, but also as particular abilities like artistic abilities, or construction, or organization, or numbers, or teaching. 
One commentator said that our English word “talent”, which refers to a gift or ability, actually came from this parable.The early Church Father Chrysostom says these talents could represent something as simple as our senses, or our ability to speak, our hands and feet, the strength of our body, the understanding of our mind, or our listening ears. … If your back was broken and you couldn’t walk how much would you be willing to pay if someone could make you walk again? We often take these things for granted until we lose them. So each of these abilities is an incredible gift to us.

We do have different abilities, and we deal with different life circumstances, and perhaps that tells us something about the 5 talents, the 2 talents and the one talent. Some are given incredible abilities. I went to seminary with a guy who could pick up any instrument and start playing it. He couldn’t read music, but he could play anything. He was given great talent in the area of music. Someone like Bill Gates was given great intelligence which has also led to him being granted great wealth. We might think of people like them as being given 5 talents.

Sometimes we are given what we have the ability to handle. We might not all have the ability to be responsible with vast amounts of wealth. That takes a very strong character. We might not have the 5 talents. We might have 2. Two is still absolutely significant and valuable. Even one is significant and valuable. 

The significance of the talents is to say that we have been entrusted with great wealth- our own lives, material wealth, and spiritual wealth (The Gospel, The kingdom of God, The gifts of the Spirit, forgiveness of sin). It has all been entrusted to us to be used for God’s purposes in the world.

The master leaves to go on a trip. (If we see Jesus as being the master then his leaving is probably his Ascension to the Father after he is resurrected.) The servants are given complete freedom regarding how to deal with their master’s money. The master doesn’t micromanage. Eventually the master returns and he calls his servants before him (That is Jesus’ return at the second coming).

The one who has 5 talents invested it and turned it into 10. The master replies, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (That’s what we hope to hear when we meet Jesus, isn’t it?- “well done”).

The servant who was given 2 talents also invested it and turned it into 4. The master says the exact same thing to that servant- “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” More power and responsibility are offered to the first two servants and they are invited into the “joy” of their master. The word for “joy” can also be translated as “feast”. What is probably being referred to is the heavenly banquet. Even though they were given different amounts, the master rewards them both the same way. What matters isn’t so much how much you are given, but how faithful you are in putting to work the grace you are given.

The master comes to the third servant who was given one talent and it is revealed that the servant didn’t make the talent fruitful at all. He actually buried it, which was considered a good way to keep valuables safe at the time. Not only did he not make the talent fruitful, but he also attacks his master’s character saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” The servant didn’t lose the money. He didn’t waste the money selfishly. He was safe. He was careful. … What he wasted was the opportunity. He was driven by fear and he was not willing to take a risk. His sin is the sin of omission. In the confession we say, “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.” The sin of the third servant is in what was left undone.

The sin of omission could also be called the sin of sloth. Sloth isn’t just laziness. Sloth is not using what God has entrusted into your care. It is to not use your abilities, or resources, or time for God’s purposes.  Sloth is refusing to use what God has given you. 
Sometimes we are most slothful when we make ourselves so busy that we are distracted from what God wants us to do. Sloth is putting your lamp under a bushel basket (Matt 5:15). We sometimes bury too much kindness, time, treasure, and talent. The third servant was punished for his inactivity, not because he did something wrong, but because he didn’t really do anything. 

I read an interesting article on tithing once. They give some American statistics that mention that 10-25 percent of a normal congregation tithes. They state that at the time the article was written Christians were only giving 2.5% per capita, while during the Great Depression they gave at a 3.3% percent rate. Then in the article they imagine the impact on the world if American Christians tithed 10%. They estimate there would be an additional $165 billion for churches to use and distribute. Assuming the churches were good stewards with those funds they imagine the global impact: $25 billion could relieve global hunger, starvation and deaths from preventable diseases in five years. $12 billion could eliminate illiteracy in five years. $15 billion could solve the world’s water and sanitation issues, specifically at places in the world where 1 billion people live on less than $1 per day. $1 billion could fully fund all overseas mission work. $100 – $110 billion would still be left over for additional ministry expansion.[1] Could this be the overall effect of what happens when we bury our talent? … I don’t think the world’s problems are all solved by throwing money at them. And I don’t think Jesus is wagging his finger at Christians as much as he is seeing the wasted opportunity.

What this parable teaches us is that there is no such thing as sitting on the sidelines. We are all in the game. There are no bleachers, and there are no fans, we are all in the game. There are consequences to our actions, even if our action is choicing to do nothing. To follow Jesus means to invest in his way of life deeply. That comes with certain risk. …. But… not investing and not playing has risk as well. We might think that we don’t have a lot to offer. We don’t have the wealth of Bill Gates. We might not have artistic talent. We might not have organizational ability…. But, we all have been given some grace- a talent. And every talent is like a million dollars. Every one of us have been given something valuable. I think it was Mother Theresa who said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”. God isn’t looking for quantity. God is looking for what you have done with what you have given. … We have been given a tremendous opportunity. God has entrusted us with grace. We are invited to put that grace to work in the world and by doing so we are invited to cooperate with the kingdom Of God and in the end to hear the words of our master- “well done good and faithful servant”.

[1]

Monday, 13 November 2017

Remembrance Sunday

Before I begin, I just want to say that not everyone is going to agree with what I'm about to say, but I hope that leads us to deeper conversation and thought.

I find Remembrance Day to be a difficult day, which is probably how it should be. I would like to share a bit of that struggle with you this morning. I think it is important to remember the suffering endured in times of war. It is important to remember how fragile peace can be. It is important to remember the sacrifices of those who tried to do something to bring peace because to sit back and do nothing was a worse evil. It is also a day to remember Jesus' words to us about violence and enemies.

When I think of Remembrance Day I primarily think of my grandparents telling me about their time in Holland. My Opa spoke about being dragged out of bed at gunpoint in the middle of the night and being robbed by Nazi soldiers. My Oma tells me about her brothers playing in the wreckage of an aircraft that had crashed into their fields, and how she would sleep with her pillow over her head to muffle the sounds of bombs exploding near their house. I think of my wife’s grandfather who was a rifleman that helped liberate a concentration camp and would only speak about the war late at night until tears filled his eyes and he would suddenly go to bed. … My last name is “Roth”, which is German. My ancestors had immigrated to Canada, but I wonder about any Roths that remained in Germany and what they endured in the war. I also think about my Jewish great grandmother whose maiden name was “Goldstein” and had slipped through the Nazi’s nets probably because of a peculiar Dutch spelling of her last name.

On Remembrance Day I also consider what it means to be a Christian when faced with war. What was happening in Germany was horrible and something had to be done about it. A decision had to be made to help those who were suffering. And the action that was decided on was not the easy option. Those who went to fight risked their lives trying to do something about what was going on.

War has always been a difficult thing for Christians to participate in. For the early Church killing was not something Christians were permitted to participate in, which made being a Christian in the Roman Army a controversial thing.

The question of Christians participating in war became more difficult after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity in 380. Before this Christians lived in the empire, but they really didn't have any power. An empire uses violence for things like maintaining order, defending its borders, and defending its citizens. Suddenly, there was a need for an understanding as to how a Christian empire can use violence.

Here is where St. Augustine put his mind to work. He came to the conclusion that we could separate outward actions from inward motivations. In defense of an innocent person I may actually use violence against an attacker, even kill them, but I did not sin if inwardly my motivation was to protect the innocent person being attacked. I did not want to kill the attacker. It was a kind of accident that occurred as I was defending the person. For St. Augustine, we can participate in a “just” war. What makes it “just” is that our internal motivations are correct. I won’t spell out all the details of Just War Theory, but basically if I am motivated by a desire to protect the innocent rather than out of violent anger and revenge, then I am justified in participating in violence against an enemy.

On top of this, St. Augustine believed that the social order we exist in is part of the natural order ordained by God to give us stable and peaceful lives. God meant society to be organized under rulers. God meant for there to be empires and kingdoms. Jesus’ words to us as individual Christians about how we treat our enemies are perhaps not applicable to the ruler of a country when considering defending their people against an aggressive military force (see Romans 13:1,4; and 1 Peter 2:14).

This does not mean that St. Augustine was bloodthirsty. Augustine clearly saw it as a last resort to be used only when all other means have failed and when the other nation compels a defensive response. War is always seen as the lesser of two evils. The suffering and evil of allowing the enemy to destroy at will with no opposition is seen as too great an evil to endure. Entering into war amounts to less evil overall.

The Just War Theory is a compelling argument that Augustine put together. It should be said that to go against this theory is to go against the vast majority of Christians throughout history (as CS Lewis’ essay Why I Am Not a Pacifist explains). But, there are problems with it. I will give two examples. First, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas once said, "I just want to know when the Just War theory has led Christians to say 'no' to a war?" Just War theory often provides a way of justifying wars, but doesn't really ever seem to have the power to prevent a nation from entering into war. In fact, the ethicist Robert Brimlow, in his book What about Hitler? shows how Hitler might have even used the Just War Theory to justify the actions of the Nazis.

A second problem with the theory is that it separates our motivations from our actions. Jesus taught that our actions flow from our inward dispositions. The act of adultery begins through the lust in our heart. Murder begins through the anger in our heart. If we love our enemy our actions will flow from that disposition. Our actions will not contradict our inward disposition. Loving our enemy is turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate us. It seems strange to see an act of inward love expressed through a balled fist swung at an enemy's nose.

Jesus' words about our enemies are pretty plain. Jesus says in Matthew ch 5, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." (Matt 5:38-44).

We have to ask, "did Jesus really mean what he said?" Is there any way that we can follow Jesus’ teachings to love our enemy and then punch our enemy in the nose?

For most of us, asking the question about what we would do if war was at our doorstep is fairly hypothetical. But, we should remember that there were many events that led up to the Second World War. The ethicist Robert Brimlow says, "If the question is asking how a pacifist church should have responded to the horrors of the Holocaust, the answer surely lies in being a peacemaking church long before the holocaust ever began. The church should have preached and lived a love of the Jews for many centuries before the twentieth; the church should have formed Christians into the kind of people who do not kill Jews, or homosexuals, or gypsies, or communists, or other Christians, or Nazis, or whoever else was victimized by the war. The church should have lived and taught in such a way that the First World War would have been incomprehensible in a largely Christian Europe and, failing that, should have railed against the Versailles Treaty and the vengeance it embodied in favour of forgiveness and reconciliation. The failure of the church and of Christians to be peacemakers in 1942 is horrible precisely because it is a result and culmination of centuries of failure."

Brimlow is telling us that the next World War might be prevented by our serious and intense discipleship to Christ right now. The sacrifice we expect of our soldiers, we have to be willing to make for the Gospel. The seriousness and vigor with which we try to live as people of the kingdom right now is precisely what the world needs to prevent future wars.

We don't know what lies in the future, but if human history is any indication of the future we can expect that war will continue to be a part of human reality. … But we have choices to make now. We are called to live Jesus' way right now and to deal with the seeds of war that sit inside us. And we have to deal with those seeds with the same diligence and sacrifice a soldier gives to participating in war. If we don’t ferociously deal with those seeds of war within us, we make war inevitable for our children and grandchildren and all those that come after us.

The seeds of war sit in each of us. We see them when we hold grudges against others. We see them when we are unwilling to deal with our anger and contempt towards others. We deal with these seeds when someone offends us and we use the opportunity to practice peace and reconciliation by not shooting hurtful words back. We deal with them when we see someone being hurt by someone else and we use the opportunity to be a peacemaker. We deal with the seeds of war when we are tempted to push others around to get our own way and we use the opportunity to practice self-sacrificial love. We deal with those seeds when we are cut off in traffic and we learn to deal with our anger and bless the other driver, rather than curse them. We are called to deal with the seeds of war within us, and instead to plant the seeds of peace.

We are not to look down on the decisions of those who have gone before us. They had hard decisions to make. We have no clue how difficult those decisions were. They should be remembered for not taking the easy way out, and for being willing to die to do something about the suffering they saw. …. However, as Christians, we also need to notice the contradiction of the belief that war leads to peace.

The peaceful world the prophet Micah speaks of, where the people of the world "will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; [and] Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they train for war" - That world will come about as God works through us. When the Sin that infects us and causes war is fully healed by the blood of Jesus and we are transformed into people who see each other as bearers of the image of God, then war will truly end.

I find some comfort in reminding myself that Jesus is not surprised by war or the complexity of the world. Jesus has given us his teaching precisely in order to live in this world, not some imagined utopia. Jesus said, "These things I have spoken to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (Jn 16:33). May we remember the effort of those who have fallen by making a courageous effort towards peace. And may those who come after us know effort, and love, and courage, but not war. Amen.
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