Sunday, 30 December 2018

Christmas 1- Jesus increased in wisdom and in years

Image result for jesus as a boy in the temple stained glass

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. After the holiday celebrations have ended Jesus is still in the temple engaging the things of God. He is participating in learning the ways of his people. 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. They will responsibly enter into the worship of God as adults. Jesus would have entered the worship with the men at this point- entering into the inner courts of the temple with Joseph to make the offering of the Paschal Lamb, which would then later be eaten by him and his family. … Before their Bar Mitzvah the sin that boys commit is the responsibility of their parents. After their Bar Mitzvah it is now their responsibility to live according to the Law. 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. They become responsible people.

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 spiritual 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. 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 “apprenticeship”. 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. 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 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.

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 about how to live.

In a way then, the Church is to be a training gym so people can train in the ways of God and become more like Jesus as they grow closer to God. The church is a place we can train to 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, makes 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 were truly were meant to be. It is about entering into freedom. It is the freedom of a bird to fly as she learns to use her wings.

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 intension 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 evangelized us to believe in consumerism. No, we just hear advertising, and engage in a pattern of actions that have an effect on our souls until we become consumers through and through. To relax we shop. We expect to be entertained. We become convinced that the next toy or house or car or whatever will make our lives better. As we participate in the ways of consumerism our soul is shaped and we become consumers. So anything we engage in has an effect on our souls.

In a sense, we have to work even harder than previous generations because we are no longer a society that surrounds us with ritual and expectation that lead to a saintly character. It was expected during Jesus’ day that all children would learn the law and the traditions of the people- how to pray, how to fast. It was in the air as a part of that culture. There was a momentum that pulled children along into maturity. Jesus and his family would make pilgrimages to the temple, probably 3 times per year. They would regularly worship and pray in the home and in the synagogue. The whole village would have had a unified expectation regarding ethics and what it meant to be a good person. … We no longer have that kind of momentum as a part of our society pulling our children along towards holiness. That is why we need to be very intentional about what is causing the shaping of our soul. If we don’t decide, then there are forces in our world that will decide for us and they will begin shaping our souls.

In our Colossians reading, Paul uses the symbol 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.

Earlier in our reading from Colossians (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.

Paul encourages us to take off that old garment and throw it in the trash. Let’s train as Apprentices of Jesus. And 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. As we train and cooperate with the Holy Spirit, the more the character of Jesus will shine through us. AMEN

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Christmas Eve

When I think about this night I often think about a painting. It’s not a very Christmassy painting. It is a painting of Mary weeping over her son after his body was taken down from the cross. It was in the family home of a man named Martin Kober for a long time. It was an old painting that had always been a part of the background of the family.

I remember at my grandma’s house she had a velvet painting of a mountain scene. It was just always there. It was like the wood paneling it hung on. It was just always there- a part of the background.

Martin Kober’s painting was like that. It hung on the wall of the family home, in the background. 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.

I think about this painting at Christmas because I think we do something similar with the Christmas story. It is so familiar. Most of us grew up with the image of the nativity. It was on Christmas cards. We saw nativity scenes set up in people’s yards, or at the church. These kinds of scenes were just always a part of the background at this time of year.

So when it comes to preaching on this story I find it really challenging because we all know the story so well. The shock of God coming to us as a baby is lost and is replaced with a yawn. For most of us the story is a nostalgic and cozy image that is the furthest thing from shocking. We miss the theological drama of it because it is so familiar.

It is like Martin Kober’s Michelangelo. It is familiar, so it is treated as common. It is in a place where tennis balls can knock it off the wall. It is permitted to be hidden behind the couch and gathering dust. It is not treated as valuable. It is not treasured.

I think we realized the true value of the Christmas story we would pick it up from behind the couch and blow the dust off it. My role tonight is to be a bit like the art expert. I hold up the painting and pull out my magnifying lens. I turn the painting over and look at the back. And I ask you to sit down as I tell you that you have an incredible treasure on your hands.

The image that the Gospels paint for us is a high contrast image. The darks are very dark, and the lights are very bright. … The baby is the brightest figure in the scene. He is God with us. In a mysterious way, to encounter this child is to encounter God. He will be for us the clearest image of God. He will teach us the profundity of God’s love in a way that we couldn’t have been imagined before he arrived. It is through him we will be challenged to love our enemies, and those on the margins of society. He will challenge us to not just tolerate, but love those who are different than us. He will show us God’s deep willingness to forgive us, and seek us out when we are lost. He will teach us to be transformed from the inside, out. Jesus will become the way we really know God. As Colossians 1:15 says, “He is the image of the invisible God”.

This bright image is set against a dark background. The backdrop for the image is one of political oppression. The Roman Empire covers a vast area around the Mediterranean ranging from England to Iraq. The empire brought a certain kind of peace, but it was always by threat at the point of a sword. The image painted for us shows us that it is the kind of world where people can be moved about like chess pieces at the whim of the emperor, so if the emperor says go to your hometown to be counted, you go. He doesn’t care if you have a pregnant wife. Later in the story we will meet king Herod who we are told is willing to destroy children to protect his throne. … The baby is not laid to rest at home- He is born away from home, at the command of an emperor, and placed in an animal’s feeding trough. … The scene painted for us by the Gospels is a dark scene.

The theological drama of this scene is symbolized in the book of Revelation ch 12 where we read, 
“a woman … was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns on his heads. … the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God”.
 This baby is born into a battle. The background is painted in very dark colours.

The scene is painted this way because we live in a pretty dark world. Life is a battle. We rest from the battle on occasion, but we don’t usually rest very long before we are faced with a new challenge- a sickness, or a family member’s sickness, the death of someone close to us, addiction, an identity crisis, a lost career, a bankruptcy, a betrayal, or abuse. And those are the battles we face if we are living in a place or relative prosperity, never mind places that are dealing with wars, or earthquakes, or food shortages, or terrorism, or thousands of people living in refugee camps. … The scene is painted dark because life is often dark.

In the midst of that darkness is born a bright light. The Gospel of John says it this way, 
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:4-5).
 He came to shine in the midst of our darkness. So, appropriately, he was born not in a palace to a king and queen, but he was born in a strange place and laid in a manger to a poor couple. His birth was announced, not to the emperor, but to shepherds who, in their poverty, worked the night shift. … He came as God-with-us to be in our darkness with us and to shine in the midst of it. He comes and gives us strength and hope in the midst of the battles we face. He didn’t shy away from the dangers and sufferings of life, he embraced them. He took them on as he died on the cross and gave the struggle of life meaning through his resurrection. He gives all of our struggles meaning if we allow him to shine his light into our darkness.

The picture that is painted for us by the Gospels is a high contrast image. It is a dark image with a bright image of a child. It is a familiar image that hangs in the background of our lives. For most of us we almost don’t see it because it is so familiar. However, if we realized the true value of the image painted for us by the Gospels we would learn to treasure it. Through this image we are invited into a profound relationship with God who loves us more than we can imagine. Through this image we are invited into a life of meaning and substance. Through this image we are called to be transformed people that overcome the darkness that surrounds us. Through this image we are called to believe that God’s love is more powerful than the violence of the empires of this world. This evening may God grant us a renewed sense of the value of this image. AMEN

Lessons and Carols

Lessons and Carols 

Is 9:2, 6-7
Luke 1:26-38
Lk 2:1-7
Lk 2:8-16
Matt 2:1-11
Jn 1:1-14

If we had to pick one hymn for the season of Advent one would quickly rise to our minds- “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. It is an old hymn. The words have their roots at least as far back at the year 800, but probably go back further. They have been used and modified in the season of Advent ever since. 

The first verse goes-
O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.

That really sums up what Advent is all about. “O Come” is a yearning. … When thinking about Advent, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer uses the image of miners who have become trapped in a collapsed mine. They have no ability to save themselves. They sit in the darkness and wait. They have no power over when of if they will be saved. They sit in the darkness and yearn, “O Come, O Come”. They wait to hear the pick axes against the stone and the voices of their saviors. Advent is a yearning in the darkness for the one who can save us.

“Emmanuel” means “God with us”. It is another name for Jesus. The name “Jesus” means to deliver, save, or rescue. Jesus is God with us to rescue us.

The next line calls on Emmanuel to “ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here”. These are historical realities. The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt and needed to be rescued. Later they were taken into exile in Babylon. The Hebrews cried out for political rescue from oppression, but their cry became a symbol for all God’s people because we all have something we need to be rescued from.

We all struggle with some kind of addiction. That’s really what sin is. An addiction is a destructive habit, but we participate in the sin because there is a short-term reward. A drug addict seeks the short term high, but the overall effect on their life is destruction. This is what sin does to us. We can be captured by lust, or pride, or greed, or jealousy, or apathy. We can become trapped in our own hearts. We can also become trapped in our own sense of meaninglessness, our own hurt, our loneliness. Sometimes what we need to be rescued from most is a false image of God. A false image of God is like an idol that enslaves us and twists our very souls to serving it.

The enslavement and exile of Israel has become highly symbolic for God’s people. All of us have some part of our life where we feel trapped, or not really at home. All of us need to be rescued in some way.

The hymn continues, “Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.” The hope for we who are trapped is Emmanuel- The “Son of God”, and also “God with us”.

This opening verse sets the stage for Advent. We yearn to be saved, and we have some Idea who we yearn for. In a sense, the whole Old Testament is encapsulated in this verse. The Old Testament, taken as a whole, can be seen as a yearning to be rescued, and a yearning for God’s presence- for “God with us”.

We see this yearning in Isaiah 9- 
“The people who walked in darkness / have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— / on them light has shined. … For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; / and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, / Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Quite literally, our days have been getting darker and darker until we reached the winter solstice. Now there has been a shift and things begin getting lighter again. It is a beautiful symbol in the physical world that just as we emerge from the darkness of Advent into Christmas, so we begin receiving more light in our day. We are trapped in the cave, we are trapped in the darkness, but light has arrived, the rescuer is coming.

I want to skip ahead to our last reading, which is our reading from the Gospel of John. It might not seem all that Christmassy. We don't see Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem, or the angels appearing to the shepherds. But what is happening is that John is taking us behind the scenes of the Christmas story. John gives us a glimpse into what is happening in the eternal heavenly realm while Joseph and Mary are traveling to Bethlehem, while the angels are appearing to the shepherds, and while the child Jesus is sleeping in the manger. Behind all this is God at work. John gives us a glimpse behind the Christmas scene.

John goes back to the beginning. Before anything was. Before time- (if you can wrap your mind around that one). We are back in Genesis 
"In the beginning [...] was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning".
 John gives us a glimpse at the Trinity before creation, and you get the sense that words are reaching their limit as to how much power they have to describe such things.

The Word- the Son- was with God, and was God. And through God, the Word, all things were made. And just to reinforce the point, John tells us that "without him [without the Word] nothing was made that has been made". The Word, The Son, was completely a part of the creation at the very beginning. Behind the baby that lies in the manger is the one that created the universe. If that doesn't make your mind melt, then you haven't understood it at all. It is beautiful and amazing, but we can hardly begin to fathom it. This baby in the manger, in some mysterious way, is God, the Word, who (John says) "was life [itself], and that life was the light of all [hu]mankind." The Word- the Son- the Light- the Life. John can hardly find the words to describe it. His language has to become poetic if it is to be of any help.

And then John describes Christmas from a heavenly perspective- from behind the scenes. The Word, The Son, the baby in the manger, "9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”

Through Jesus, God would show Himself to the world. To meet Jesus, is in a profound way to meet God. When we want to know what God is like, we look to Jesus. He is the Author writing Himself into the book. In Jesus we see love for the poor and rejected. He is a healer or the blind. He is a liberator of those oppressed by evil powers. He is a challenger to the self-righteous. In Jesus we see insight into the human heart. We see compassion for the sinner he refuses to stone. In Jesus we see the Father run to meet the long-lost son who had rejected him. In Jesus we see forgiveness for those who crucified him. In Jesus we see God.

God became one of us, to save us. God will not abandon us. And to prove it, God took humanity onto Himself. So much so that after the first Christmas, after the incarnation, there is no way to encounter God the Son, the Word, without also encountering the human person Jesus. He didn't do this for any reason other than love.

In perhaps the most important and packed sentence in all of the Bible, John says, 
"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."

That is what is behind the Christmas story. Behind Joseph and Mary, and the shepherds and angels, and Bethlehem- Behind all this is God reaching out to us in love as one of us. God entering the mess with us. God becoming a fragile baby in Mary's arms. The Word became flesh and lived among us. For our sake, so that we would know God, so that we would know God's love for us.


Advent 3-

John the Baptist 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 what is right.

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. They were there to call people back to God and warned them about the natural consequences of 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 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.

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. 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 seriously.

When the London Times Newspaper invited a number of authors to write articles answering the question “What’s wrong with the world?” G.K. Chesterton replied. “Dear Sirs: I am. Sincerely Yours, G.K. Chesterton”.

John the Baptist wants us to come out from behind the images we hold up to pretend we are just fine. 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 that those who teach will be judged more strictly.

Ultimately, God cares about the state of our hearts, not our role, 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. John says you know a tree by its fruit. It doesn’t matter how the tree defines itself. What matters is what kind of fruit it has.

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….” John says that God wants to see that repentance has really hit us. He wants to know it is a reality and not just empty words.

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. John is suggesting that his listeners have a heart problem. Their hearts have become hard.

What does he think they 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. They were good at attending worship. It was that their hearts weren’t right.

Like Isaiah, 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 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.

Advent 2-

The Rev. Bud Sargent came to speak to us on behalf of the Mustard Seed at our 10am service. They are doing wonderful work in Red Deer. Please consider supporting the work they are doing. Click on the picture below to learn more. 
Image result for mustard seed red deer

The following was the sermon preached at the 8:00 service

Our Gospel reading opens with a list of names, mostly obscure and hard to pronounce. It is completely reasonable to ask why those names are included as a part of the story of Jesus.

What Luke is trying to do is to place this story in history. Ancient historians would often describe time by pointing to the year of an important political or religious person. So, what all this means is that 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 65th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the second, and the 3rd year of the leadership of Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister of Canada.”

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- He encountered real people in real places.

Luke is pointing us to a real point in human history- particularly, the history of God`s people, Israel. 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 to re-enter 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. So, 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 for a ticket to “not Vancouver” (I heard Dallas Willard make this point). 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.

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.

As Christians, we live lives of repentance. We are constantly turning towards God. We are called to continuously seek to know more of God and to have our lives adjusted according to His beauty and holiness.

John the Baptist told the people to get ready for God’s coming. Prepare the way. Make it straight, make it easy for God to get to you. Maybe you have valleys to fill in- prayer and study that need to be a part of your life. Maybe you have hills that need to be brought low- sins, or distractions that need to be removed from your life. John’s voice calls us to be attentive to God’s coming. Stop what you’re doing. You’re not too busy for this. There is nothing more important than this. Stop. Re-evaluate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. God is reaching out to you! What are you going to do about that? The road to be made straight for the Lord leads right through our hearts. If God is going to rule the world, he has to rule our hearts first. AMEN

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Advent 1

Luke 21:25-36

Today we are starting a new year in the church’s calendar. The Church year always begins with Advent. Advent is a season that brings a certain level of tension. Our culture is ready for Christmas, but the church is in Advent and instead of hearing heart-warming stories about the baby Jesus or pregnant Mary on her way to Bethlehem, we hear readings calling us to repentance, and warning us to prepare for a coming judgement.

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

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

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

But, we also imagine Christ coming to us again, this time in power and as judge. This is often called the 2nd coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Worship

Today we are completing our series on the Spiritual Disciplines. And this morning we are dealing with the discipline of worship.

It is appropriate that today is also the feast of the Reign of Christ. This is the end of the church’s year. At the height of the church year, after we move through all the seasons, after we retell the story of Christ and his disciples, we reach this Sunday. This Sunday declares that Christ is King. As we read in Revelation 1:5, Jesus is the “ruler of the kings of the earth”. And all through our Gospel reading Jesus declares that he is a king and he has a kingdom. He is our king and we are his people. It is only appropriate that we are a worshiping people.

Worship is expressing the greatness, beauty, and goodness of God through words, music, rituals, and adoration. Through worship we enter into an encounter with God. Worship can be done individually and as a group. As Christians we should practice both.

We worship individually as we express our love and thanks to God. We can do that before we even take the covers of when we get up in the morning. We can worship as we drive our car. We can open ourselves up to God’s presence as we walk our dog. God might give us a gentle nudge to say something or do something as we maintain ongoing worship throughout our day. In pretty much any situation we can lift our hearts to God as we express our love and devotion. Our individual practice of worship will lead us into corporate worship.

As a part of our individual worship we can prepare for Corporate worship. We pray Saturday evening that we will be ready to worship. We pray for those leading worship. We pray for the congregation that will gather. We come a bit early and we pray for those who come through the doors, that any barriers to true worship would be removed and that they would feel God’s grace rest on them. We thank God for noisy children- for the abundant life God has put in them. As people speak and laugh around us we thank God for friendship, and joy in the Body of Christ. When someone coughs we have an opportunity to pray for their health. In our mind we see God present with the congregation.

As a group, we worship using a liturgy, which is a pattern of worship. “Liturgy” comes from the Greek word “leitourgĂ­a
”, which means “work of the people”. It is something we do together. Worship isn’t something done by the priest, or the musician alone, which is then observed by everyone. The job of the priest, the musician, those who do the Prayers of the People, all of it is to lead the congregation in worship of God. We sing, we give our attention to the prayers and the readings, so that we can participate in the worship of God. 

In corporate worship the audience isn’t the congregation. The audience is God. The Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard speaks about this. The priest, in a sense, is the director, and the congregation are actors in a great drama. We are all performing for God. Each of us has a part to play in this. Kierkegaard says, 
“In the theater, the play is staged before an audience who are called theatergoers; but at the devotional address, God himself is present. In the most earnest sense God is the critical theatergoer, who looks on to see how the lines are spoken and how they are listened to.”
 God is the audience. We are a part of the divine play through our words, through our “Amen!”, through our singing, through our attention to the readings, etc.

It’s not that our desires regarding worship don’t matter, but they aren’t primary. What we want to do is worship in a way that is worthy of God. We want to offer our best. We want to worship in a way that is consistent with God’s people, but which is also meaningful for who we are. However, our tastes are not the primary factor when we consider how we worship. And in our consumer culture we shouldn’t underestimate how powerfully we feel the need to be a consumer who has choices. It is quite counter-cultural, or even offensive, to suggest that our desires aren’t primary. I know an Orthodox priest who had someone come up to him after the service and say, “I didn’t enjoy that service”. He responded by saying, “That’s okay. It wasn’t for you”. That’s what Kierkegaard was trying to say. Worship is not about us. It is us “performing” for an audience of one, the holy Trinity.

Now we should find some connection to God in worship, but if we don’t experience that we should first ask ourselves how we prepared for worship. Did we offer ourselves to God in worship? Did we contemplate God’s greatness and love? Do we have a sense of serving God in worship? … Or, are we only seeking personal inspiration? …

Again we should have some personal response to worship, but that isn’t primary. I love the story about how Russia became Christian. Prince Vladmir wanted a religion to unify his empire so he sent out a group to investigate the different religions. One group, went to attend a service at the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople, they reported:
“And we went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards; so we cannot remain any more in paganism.” (Russian Ambassadors (987), in a report to Prince Vladimir of Kiev).
 It was the profound worship in Constantinople that seemed to convert those investigators. So, worship should still move us and inspire us. It’s just not primary.

Each discipline has a grace that we hope to receive. In worship we open ourselves to God as a member of God’s people. We join with the countless saints who have worshipped God throughout the ages. In worship we join a heavenly worship service that is constantly taking place where angels are declaring God’s holiness- not because God needs it, but because that is the response when faced with God’s reality. When we are faced with profound beauty we want to say “beautiful!”. Likewise when we, or angels, are faced with God’s reality, we want to cry out “Holy! Holy! Holy!”. Worship is a calling that will never end. I love that line in Amazing grace, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years bright shining as the sun. We’ve no less days to sing God’s Praise than when we first begun”. Don’t think of it as a never ending church service- because we can’t do that heavenly worship justice. But in heavenly worship our greatest joy will be to respond to God’s goodness and beauty. Just as it is not a chore to watch a sunset and declare it beautiful, so we will constantly be in awe at the beauty and goodness of God. And we will constantly want to respond with worship. … When we participate in worship fully, the grace we hope to receive is a renewed desire to obey Christ, a renewed love for God’s people, and a renewed desire to serve God’s world.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Meditation

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We continue this week with our sermon series on the Spiritual Disciplines. This week we are looking at the discipline of Meditation. We usually have an image that comes to mind when we think about meditation and it usually involves eastern religions and sitting in a certain position. But, meditation has always been a part of Christianity. Meditation is an umbrella word that houses a huge variety of mental activities. When Christians use the word “meditation” it is usually meant as a prayerful contemplation of God, Scripture, and the world God created.

We see meditation mentioned in our reading from the book of Joshua. Moses has died and Joshua is taking over as the leader of the Israelites. What we are reading are the instructions Joshua is receiving as he takes on this new role. That instruction includes this verse, 
“This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful” (Joshua 1:8).
 To become the person Joshua needs to become, he needs to not only read the Scriptures, but they have to sink into his bones. They have to become a part of him.

This kind of meditation is a way of internalizing Scripture. It becomes more than a set of rules and stories. In meditation, we start to see the deep wisdom of the Scriptures. For example, we read Jesus’ words, “love your enemy”, but it is in meditation that we see the face of our enemy. It is in meditation that we contemplate how it goes for those who hate their enemies, and we consider if we want their lives. In meditation the words of Scripture go from being external to us to being internal to us.

There is a book called The Empty Mirror. In it there is a man who goes to a monastery and he sits before the head of the monastery and asks him questions about the meaning of life. He says, 
“The master shook his head. ‘I could answer your question but I won’t try because you wouldn’t understand the answer. Now listen. Imagine that I am holding a pot of tea, and you are thirsty. You want me to give you tea. I can pour tea but you’ll have to produce a cup. I can’t pour the tea on your hands or you’ll get burnt. If I pour it on the floor I shall spoil the floormats. You have to have a cup. That cup you will form in yourself by the training you will receive here” (Janwillem van de Wetering, p10-11).
 Within a monastery, meditation arises almost naturally as a consequence of the context. Studying Scripture can be done as an intellectual exercise, but that emphasis is relatively recent. To truly unlock the wisdom of Scripture if must be done in the context of meditation. Scripture can pour the wisdom, but you have to have a cup. Meditation is the cup. … And this is useful in receiving more than Scripture.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 come at the very end of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. We read, 
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. …Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock” (Matt 7:21, 24, 25).
 To meditate on the words of Christ is to internalize them. It is to see the wisdom in them. To meditate on the words of Christ is more than to see his words as laws to follow, it is to see his words as the wisest way to live, the true reality on which to build a life. When we understand his direction as the wisest way to live it is not a struggle to live that way, in fact, we become baffled by why people would want to do otherwise.

In Colossians 3 we see another kind of meditation. It is similar to meditation on Scripture, but this is meditation on the person of Christ. We read, 
“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory … And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col 3:1-4, 15-16).
 … We meditate on Christ as a real person, a divine person. Someone who connects us to God and transforms us. And as we meditate, Christ moves from being a person in a history book, or a character in a story, to being real and present to us. His eyes are present to our mind. We see him gazing at us- smiling as us. Not as a painting, but as a real person. And to live in that gaze is to be drawn into transformation and holiness. It is to reorient our lives. To meditate on his presence puts the problems of our life into a new light. Our petty annoyances are suddenly lifted. Things we felt too busy for, like our friends, suddenly come to mind with a new weight and love.

There are many ways of meditating, more than we have time to talk about. But I would like to mention a few others. An ancient way to meditate on Scripture is called Lectio Divina, which means “sacred reading”. To do this, find a place to be quite and alone. Then open to a text of Scripture. You don’t want a long piece of Scripture. First, you want to read the text and understand what the words are saying- don’t read into it at this point. Don’t look for hidden meanings. Look for the surface meaning of the words. Then, second, you allow some part of the reading to highlight itself to you. It might be a word, or a phrase, but allow your mind to be drawn to some part of the reading. Allow your curiosity and imagination to start drawing you into that word or phrase. Then, third, consider what God might be trying to say to you through that part of Scripture. Where does it connect to your life? What memories or emotions are triggered by this part of the Scripture? And, forth, consider how you might apply this to your life- is there something you should do? Is there some way you should change your thinking? This is a quite ancient way of meditating on Scripture- something like this was probably practiced by people like Origen in the 2nd century and by St. Benedict and his followers in the 6th century. It has been an important part of many monastic traditions ever since.

There are other ways of meditating on Scripture. For example, St. Ignatius emphasized allowing the Holy Spirit to use your imagination. See yourself in the story. Take the time to imagine yourself in the place. See yourself in ancient Israel. Smell the air. Feel the dust under your feet. See the crowds. Consider the story where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. What is it like to be Mary in the story? What are the smells? What do you hear? Feel the emotions of having your brother having recently died. Consider what your life looks like without him- what does it look like to be a single woman in the Middle East? See Jesus’ tears. What does it feel like to see Jesus give your brother back to you? What is it like to embrace your brother again, after thinking he is gone forever? … Maybe go back to the story and go through it again, but this time imagine yourself as Lazarus- feel Jesus resurrect you- feel him breathe new life into you.

You can also meditate on a current event or issue. Pick something that has been hitting the news and invite God to help you consider it and help you to know God’s wisdom regarding it. Consider a modern conflict, like that between Israel and Palestine, and try to see it through God’s eyes. Or, pick a topic like euthanasia and meditate on it. Allow God to shape your perspective. Take your time and allow your mind to drift into the various aspects of the topic. Don’t hurry and allow yourself to go into uncomfortable places.

Some forms of meditation are about digesting some topic. It is a bit like being a dog and chewing on a bone. … There are other forms of meditation that are more about embracing the presence of God in the midst of stillness. Centering Prayer might be considered a type of meditation. In Centering Prayer you sit silently and repeat a word or phrase you yourself to keep your mind from drifting. Your mind will drift, that is a given, but the word or phrase will draw you back to focus. Sometimes we drift to all kinds of places in our minds that we are rarely here and now with God as God made us. The experience of just sitting with God silently can be surprisingly transformative. We learn a lot about ourselves. We learn about our patience. We become more aware of our body. We become more aware of what is going on in the back of our minds that we are usually too distracted to pay attention to.

Those are a few that you might want to try, but don’t get lost in techniques. If you will just quiet yourself down and remove yourself from distractions, you will almost begin meditating automatically. It is part of the way God made you. We are made to contemplate God, and what it means to live as God’s creation. May you seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, that the word of Christ might dwell in you richly (Col 3:1, 16). AMEN.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Confession (Remembrance Day)

Today we are continuing with our sermon series on the Spiritual Disciplines and it is also Remembrance Day. This is also a significant Remembrance Day in that it has been 100 years since the end of World War 1.

Confession is the practice of sharing our deepest weaknesses and failures with God and with others we trust. We do this to seek God’s forgiveness, and healing. We confess as individuals, but it is also appropriate for us to practice confession as a group.

I think communal confession is important for us to do on Remembrance Day. War is always a complicated thing to deal with as Christians. The plain understanding of the words of Jesus seem to speak against any act of violence on the part a Christian. For example, in Matthew ch 5 we read, 
“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).
 Understandably, many Christians feel called to pacifism on the basis of these words. Pacifism is not to do nothing. It is a call to engage violence, but not with violence.

However, as Early Christianity went from a politically powerless group to being in control of the Roman Empire they felt the need to rethink how they would respond to violence. Some Christians who held power and were responsible for cities or countries suddenly had to figure out how to respond when a foreign army invaded and did violence to their people. Was it right to allow that army to have its way with their vulnerable people? This gave rise to the development of the Just War Theory which spelled out when violence can be used in response to aggression and injury. The theory teaches that when war is entered into, it is as a last possible course of action. The theory also outlines how a war is to be conducted. A military force can’t target non-combatants, for example.

Trying to decide if a war is “just” is incredibly difficult. 
How do you know when you have enough information? 
How do you know if you can trust your information? 
How do you know if you are being manipulated into a war for the benefit of someone else? 
How do you know if you are twisting things to make it easier to justify going to war? 
What if you are uncertain, but the weak and vulnerable are threatened?

St. Ambrose (339-397 AD) once said, 
“Whoever does not ward off a blow to a fellow man, when he can, is as much at fault as the striker”.
 But, that doesn’t mean a war can be entered into lightly. Martin Luther said that even just wars that we feel are necessary to participate in should be waged “with repentance”.   

Throughout Christian history we have been in an uncomfortable position. We cannot do nothing when innocent people are being threatened with violence, but our Lord calls us to be people of peace who love our enemies. Christians have often participated in war as a “necessary evil”, because to not engage in war seemed to allow a greater evil into the world.

If war is a necessary evil, then Martin Luther is right in saying that it should be engaged with repentance. We also need to confess that, though we go to war for the sake of peace, that peace often continues to elude us. Throughout human history we have engaged in war for the sake of peace, and yet wars continue. The ethicist Robert Brimlow suggests that we often find ourselves participating in “necessary” wars, but there may have been things we could have done to prevent the war if we acted sooner and with more faith. For example, perhaps we wouldn’t have found ourselves in such a difficult position facing the Holocaust if we had responded to World War 1 differently, and had acted differently even before that. Brimlow says, 
“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, What about Hitler?).

As a society it is important to remember our past. It is important to remember those who suffered because of war. In particular, we remember those who are willing to put their lives on the line who believed that to do nothing in the face of violence is a greater evil. But, we don’t glory in war. We confess that the lives that were lost were often is as a result of our failure to find another way that would have saved those lives. And so, I think that confession is an appropriate discipline to consider today.

We are going to switch gears because I want to consider confession as an individual spiritual discipline, as well, but I do think confession is important as a communal discipline and I think it is an important element of Remembrance Day that we don’t want to lose.

Redemption is at the very heart of God’s relationship with us. God does not want to leave us in our brokenness. God wants to heal and restore us. Love is behind the work of the cross to forgive sins. God, in Christ, desires to absorb the power of sin and the evil of the world. The cross looked backward through history into all the nooks and crannies and dark places in the heart of humanity right back to the beginning. And the cross looks forward into the future to all the horrors that would manifest in the world. And over it all we hear the words of Jesus, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). The cross of Christ frees us from the darkness that we have participated in- that has sometimes enslaved us. The cross of Christ shows us the lengths God is willing to go to to win us back- to show His self sacrificial love for us. That same love is constantly drawing us deeper into God.

Confession is one of the ways we press deeper into God. It is the way we expose the darker parts of ourselves to the light of the cross to be healed and forgiven. It is a way of removing barriers to spiritual maturity.

Our ordinary mode of confession is between us and God in the quietness of our hearts. There are times, however, when our quiet confession between us and God is a way of hiding. It can be a place where we are trapped by shame. We think that if people really knew the things I’ve done, the things I’ve said, the things I think- they would reject me. We can hardly imagine speaking these things to another human being. And yet, we yearn to be known deeply. … We are stuck- wanting to be known, but prevented because of our shame. There are times when it is important to bring our sin to someone we trust who can hear our darkness- who can be the body of Christ to us in that moment. The letter of James urges us, 
“confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16).
 The letter of John promises, 
“If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9).

Jesus grants us the authority to declare forgiveness in John 20, 
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (Jn 20:23).
 To prepare for confession you may want to sit before God in prayer and ask if there is anything that you need to confess, and write down anything that comes to mind. Look through your life and examine yourself using the teachings of Christ- to the Ten Commandments, to the 7 Deadly Sins and Virtues. Where in your heart do you need healing. It may be helpful to go to a priest, or your spiritual director for this, but you might also want to go to a mature Christian sister or brother who you know you can trust. A mature Christian is so aware of the depth of their own sin that they will not be shocked by yours. 
(St. Paul talks about being the chief among sinners (1 Tim 1:15). He can say that because he sees his sin from the inside. All mature Christians will see themselves this way because everyone else's sin is seen from the outside. When we see out sin from the inside, it is always darker than when it is seen from the outside.)
 When confessing You don’t have to go into great detail, but you should be specific enough that you aren’t hiding your sin in generalities. If you confess that you have been "not nice" to your spouse- I don't know if that means you ate the last piece of pizza or if you hit them. So be specific enough that the sin is clear without going into gory detail. Confess with the desire to not sin anymore.

Sometimes people think the church is a place for perfected saints. We sometimes even hear people say that they will come to church once they get themselves sorted out. … The church is not a place for the perfected. The church is a hospital- it is a place where we seek healing. As we consider confession we should remember the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son (who ran to the son and embraced him without really allowing him to get his full confession out), or the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in search of the one that was lost. God is always more eager to forgive us than we are to seek forgiveness. 

Spiritual Disciplines- Submission

The spiritual discipline we are looking at this week is submission. That is not necessarily one that would be on the top of the list for most of us. It is not one we are particularly drawn to. There is nothing trendy about it. We might even think it is a bad thing. We all know that authority can be abused, so when we think about submission we might think about cult leaders who demand complete submission on the part of their followers. … In a society suspicious of authority, we are taught to not submit. The idea of practicing submission, as if it is good for us, seems strange.

Christian submission is always a submission to Christ. And it usually happens in the context of community. Submission is not having to have things our own way. It is giving up our right for the benefit of someone else. … For example, say you like Christian heavy metal music, but you recognize that most people can’t relate to that on Sunday morning. You refrain from sending the priest a note after worship every Sunday requesting the inclusion of more Christian heavy metal music. So, you submit to the will of the community because you know Christ desires unity.

It is also important for leaders to submit themselves to the community when appropriate. So, for example, a leader might not worship exactly according to their particular tastes for the benefit of the community. If a priest leans towards high church worship, using “smells and bells”, they might practice submission to the community and practice more of a 'low church' worship if it would be more beneficial for the community to worship that way.

As we read in the letter of James, 
“[we] covet something and cannot obtain it; so [we] engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4:2).
 How many church communities have split because they didn’t practice the spiritual discipline of submission with one another. How many wars and murders have taken place because people feel they have to get their own way. What would politics look like if parties were willing to submit to each other where they felt they could do so with integrity?

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 8) he discusses the issue of food dedicated to idols. Some of the people in the church were okay with eating food dedicated to idols because they knew that the idols had no power. Others, however, were very bothered by the idea of food being dedicated to idols and would completely avoid it. To eat that food would be like participating in idol worship. Paul recognized that those who were not bothered by eating the food had the right to do so, but he urged them to give up their right so that they wouldn’t cause offence to those who were bothered by it. They practiced submission for the sake of unity- to not cause a problem for their sisters and brothers whose consciences might be bothered.

Or, perhaps you submit yourself to someone who is a spiritual director for you. I once heard the pastor Eugene Peterson talk about a woman who began attending his church. She was a new Christian, and she was truly absorbing the way of being a Christian. But, after a couple years at his church she seemed to always be living with a man. She jumped from one boyfriend to another even after she had been attending for a couple years. Peterson didn’t shy away from preaching on sexual morality, but she never really seemed to grab hold of the Christian teaching about sexuality belonging within marriage. After knowing her a while, and after he knew she trusted him, Peterson asked her if she would be celibate for six months. He didn’t offer her any explanation. He just asked her to do it for him. She trusted him, so she submitted to him without really understanding. He received an angry call from her boyfriend shortly after she agreed, but after a couple months she realized that she had found a profound freedom in her celibacy. He saw she had a problem with her identity- she didn’t know who she was outside of a sexual relationship. Peterson knew the practice of celibacy would show her that in a way that his words wouldn’t.

A wise spiritual director can call us into practices that we might not understand to be good for us until after we practice them. They can help us work towards becoming Christlike by helping us stop doing things we shouldn’t do, and start doing things we should.

Richard Foster says, 
“Self-denial is simply a way of coming to understand that we do not have to have our own way. Our happiness is not dependent upon getting what we want” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 113).
 Submission teaches us humility by diminishing our ego that is offended at not getting what it wants. This teaching is central to the way of Christ. Jesus says, 
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). 
“He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt 10:39).
 Jesus calls us to have an other-centered life, as opposed to a self-centered life.

Jesus didn’t just preach this, he practiced this as well. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays, 
“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt 26:39).
 It is an ancient Christian teaching that Jesus had two natures- Divine and human. Jesus had to bring his human will into alignment with his Divine will. In his human nature, Jesus did not want to suffer and die, but within the Divine will there was a greater good to be obtained through his sacrifice. Jesus submitted his human will to the Divine will. … This is something we are all called to do- submit our human will to the Divine will, trusting that God is good and wants what is best.

This is not about letting people walk all over you. As we read the gospels we don’t get the sense that Jesus is a pushover. Jesus was very purposeful about when he practiced submission. There were many times that Jesus did not meet the expectations of people around him. He was constantly disappointing people by not conforming to their ideas about who the messiah was supposed to be. Jesus carefully discerned the right times to practice submission. It is also important to notice that there are many times when he did not submit to people’s expectations.

We sometimes worry that in submission we will lose ourselves, but Richard Foster reminds us, 
“self denial does not mean the loss of our identity as some suppose. … Did Jesus lose his identity when he set his face toward Golgotha? Did Peter lose his identity when he responded to Jesus’ cross-bearing command, ‘Follow me’ (John 21:19)? Did Paul lose his identity when he committed himself to the One who had said, ‘I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name’ (Acts 9:16)? Of course not. We know that the opposite was true. They found their identity in the act of self-denial.” (p.114).

There are ways that submission can go wrong. If we just submit to everyone all the time without discerning when it is appropriate it can degenerate into self-hatred. That is not the way of Christ. If we go to the other extreme, always needing to get our own way and never submitting to any other will, then we might end up in self-glorification. That is a self-centered and prideful life. … The spiritual discipline of submission avoids both of those extremes.

There are many ways we can practice Submission. First of all, we submit ourselves to the will of God. We do not accept any submission that is in contradiction to the will of God. To this end we submit ourselves to Scripture as we can best interpret it according to the Spirit of Christ.

We can also practice submission in the context of our families. Practice not getting your own way with those you live with, maybe your husband or wife, or maybe with extended family especially when it comes to how you organize family holidays. Commit to truly listening to each other’s desires. We could also practice submission with neighbours- maybe try it on the road or in the parking lot- especially when someone takes your parking spot.

Every spiritual discipline leads to a corresponding freedom. They are means to an end. They are to guide us into a deeper life with God. In submission we learn to de-center ourselves from the universe. We get off the throne and accept that things don’t have to go our way. The way of Christ is a cross-carrying life. We will not be able to carry our cross unless we practice submission and learn to love in a way that we are not the center. And in that we will be open to God being on the throne of our lives. 

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Solitude and Silence

The spiritual discipline we are looking at this week is Solitude, but we might also call this Silence. For the most part they go together. We go to them for a similar reason. They offer us the opportunity to receive a similar grace. The practice of solitude “calls us to pull away from life in the company of others for the purpose of giving our full and undivided attention to God” (Ruth Haley Barton in the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality). Silence is a way to cease using our voice to manipulate our environment. It is also a way to still the voices that try to manipulate us.

Through both solitude and silence we quiet the noise outside us so that we can still the noise within us. … We are constantly being bombarded by stimulation- radio, Tv, podcasts, books, advertisements, magazines, smart phones, facebook, instagarm, email … not to mention face to face conversations, and the excitement of community and driving. … In our society we are dealing with all kinds of pressures, all kinds of strivings. Depending on what part of our life we are living we strive for education, career, friendship, romance, wealth, success, health, retirement, travel, etc.. Our life is full of things to strive for, either because we think that will make us happy, or because we are pressured to seek after these things because that is “just what you do”. We strive with others for various things and this leads to incredibly complex relationships.

Many of us are addicted to noise. To be in the silence and to be alone can be almost painful for some people. For many of us, it’s like we don’t know who we are if we aren’t doing something. Our identity is tied up in the pressures, the strivings, the activity, and the noise. We use words and actions to manipulate our image. We speak to control the agenda. All of this noise distracts us from our inner reality.

Modern society has a heightened level of noise, but societies have always had pressure and there have been many who have sought solitude. In Thomas Merton’s book, The Wisdom of the Desert, he says that according to the Desert Fathers and Mothers 

“Society… was regarded as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life … These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.”
 To this Henri Nouwen ads the comment, 
“this observation leads us straight to the core of the problem. Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul” (The Way of the Heart, p. 11).

The Desert Fathers and Mothers sought the death of the false self that was imposed on them by society, so that they could seek the true self that was found only in their relationship with God. In the solitude and silence of the desert the Fathers and Mothers wanted to give God full access to their souls, so they could be free from the bondage of human expectations. They wanted to re-center their lives completely on God, and to do that they had to respond from an inner reality with God, rather than external pressures.

There's a kind of parable about a man who is out in a little row boat. It's twilight and starting to get dark. There is a bit of mist on the water. The man in the boat stops rowing and just drifts. He relaxes and enjoys the gentle rocking of the waves. After a while he sees a sail off in the distance. However, the man's appreciation for the beautiful scenery begins to be disturbed because the small sail boat begins heading in his direction. He starts to wonder, "does the person in the boat see me?" The relaxed evening becomes tense as the sail boat gets closer. Eventually the man yells out. "Hey! change course!" The boat gets closer and closer, and the man is yelling at the top of his lungs, "You idiot! What are you doing?! Move! move! Change course! open your eyes! you're going to hit me!" The sail boat is headed straight for the man in the boat who is now standing and screaming at the top of his lungs. The two boats nearly collide, but the sailboat just misses the man and his rowboat. As the sailboat passes by the red faced screaming man sees that the sailboat is empty. The sail boat is at the mercy of the wind. No one is controlling it.

This parable is used to say that our peace is not determined by our outward circumstances. Sometimes we can be like the man in the row boat. We can scream our lungs out and stamp our feet as hard as we want, but even if we succeed in changing our outward circumstances we will not find peace. All that will happen is that our faces will turn red, our blood pressure will rise and our peace will be destroyed. The parable teaches us that our peace doesn’t come from outward circumstances. Rather, our peace comes from an inward reality. When we remove ourselves from the outward circumstances we normally deal with by entering into solitude and silence we will discover the peace, or lack of it, within ourselves.

The 17th century mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal once said, 
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone” (PensĂ©es).
 We often think that we will find happiness and peace by changing our outward circumstances. What the desert father and mothers found by going into the wilderness was that the issues they had with society didn’t completely vanish. They had inner pressures they had to deal with, which they could only confront in solitude. In dealing with their inner turmoil, with God’s grace, they could find peace.

We see examples of people seeking solitude all through the Bible. Jacob sends his family ahead of him and in solitude he wrestles the angel and receives his blessing along with a new name, Israel. Moses encounters God through the burning bush in the wilderness while tending sheep. We read today about Elijah encountering God in the sound of silence rather than in the powerful wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Jesus often went off by himself to solitary places to pray and be alone with God.

There are a variety of ways to practice solitude and silence. It is often helpful to go away somewhere. For an extended time of solitude go to a retreat center. Kingsfold in Cochrane has cabins where you can go to be alone with God. Or, you can find solitude closer to home by going for a walk in nature. You probably want to consider not listening to music and not bringing a book with you, and turning off your cell phone. In the silence we come face to face with our desire to be entertained and distracted. We confront our memories, and our sense of self worth. Fantasies, sins, old conversations, regrets, all bubble up in our soul in solitude and silence. Then we stay in that long enough that the initial surge of inner noise surge calms down. The goal is to turn off the outward noise enough that you become aware of your inner noise. In solitude we become aware of our inward compulsions, our desire to control, our attempts to manage our image, our agenda. In the solitude we are confronted with the thought about what gives us worth.

There are a number of practices we can do in the silence. There are forms of silent listening prayer that don’t disturb the stillness and seek to give control to God. We should be careful about filling the silence with our words, even if you are alone. Listen, even when you are alone. If you read Scripture during this time, read small amounts. Spend more time reflecting on smaller portions of Scripture. … Consider spending time in self-examination. Reflect on your life and your future. You may want to journal to make yourself more aware of your inner reality.

The grace we seek in solitude and silence is an awareness of the inner stories that exert pressure on us. What gives us worth? What were we told as children that define us even now? Do we only know who we are if we are busy and active? … In the silence and solitude we might just discover that we are loved by God just as we are, and that God has things under control. … Amen
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