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.

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