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Sunday, January 19th – Called and Chosen

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer. I don’t know if you noticed it or not, but all of our readings today were somehow connected to the idea of being called. We even carried on this theme in some of our music. And when something like this happens, I figure that there is a reason for it.

So let’s start by looking for a minute at the Isaiah text, which talks about an unknown servant. When I was in seminary, we spent a fair bit of time debating who this servant could be. In our reading, the servant is identified as Israel, but then, just a couple of verses later, God sends the servant TO Israel. And some of the confusion arises from different interpretations by scholars of different faith traditions, with Jewish scholars saying that it is obviously Israel, and Christian scholars – like John Calvin – saying that it just as obviously is a foreshadowing of Jesus. However, I think that we can easily get bogged down in details, and not see the bigger picture, which is directed at us.

For we, as individuals, and as a church, are also called and chosen. But do we listen? If we don’t, we are not alone. It is rare that any one person or any one institution listens the first time God calls us. We look around us, looking for hope, or for something that brings us hope, but we see instead a lack of response to the needs of the world. We see justice issues neglected; we see communities in our own country suffering from a lack of clean drinking water; we see children neglected and abused. And we cry out to God, “Why don’t you do something?” But God turns it back on us and says, “Why don’t YOU do something?”

In this season of Epiphany, we have begun a tipping of the Earth’s axis as the days are beginning to lengthen. This is not a surprise, as it happens every year. But we need to remember that Epiphany is, itself, a season of light which also brings with a sense of mission. We have talked a lot about the light of God, and this is the time when we need to let it shine. There is work to be done, and we are the ones who have to do it. Teresa of Avila said it much better than I can, when she wrote: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Like most of the people called, we resist. We resist for many reasons, but I think that the main reason we resist is that we don’t think we are worthy or capable. But I have often been told – and I believe I have mentioned it before – God doesn’t call the equipped; he equips the called. Each one of us has a mission, and each one of us will be equipped to fulfill that mission. All that God needs from us is willingness, willingness to be participants in his plan, willingness to do our small bit to make a difference. And the most wonderful thing is that, even if we don’t really believe in ourselves, even if we think that we are not able to do this, God believes in us.

In Isaiah, he said, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” And if that doesn’t give us confidence that he will make sure that we are able to do his work, then I don’t know what can do it.

God is calling us, not only to work among those who are here every Sunday, but to reach out to others, people whom we meet in our daily lives. Now, that doesn’t mean that we are to proselytize on street corners, but that we are to live as God’s chosen people every single day, not just for this one hour on Sunday morning.

We have a job to do. And not just the minister or the organist or the members of the Board and Session. Every one of us has been given a job by God, and many of us feel a little unsure about it. We think that we are not the right ones for whatever the job is. We think that God must be speaking to someone else. But I assure you that God knew what he was doing when he called you, just as he knew what he was doing when he called Isaiah, just as Jesus knew what he was doing when he called Andrew and Peter.

If you noticed in today’s Gospel, two of John’s disciples – unnamed at first – heard John say, “Look, the Lamb of God” when Jesus passed by, and they followed after him. When Jesus stopped and asked them what they wanted, they asked him where he was staying. Jesus replied, “Come and see.” And that is what he is saying to us. Come and see what he is all about. Come and see what he wants from us. Come and see what he will give us.

I am not saying that we have to be like John, who, when he saw Jesus, cried out, “Look, the Lamb of God. Nor do we have to be like Andrew who, when he saw Jesus and heard him speak, went to his brother Simon and said, “We have found the Messiah.” We don’t have to be like the people who come knocking on our doors, passing out tracts. We don’t even have to be like the person at work who quietly says grace before eating lunch – although I have to confess that I like that one. It is a quiet, unobtrusive way of living our faith so that others can see it.

But the thing is that we compare ourselves to Isaiah and to John and to Andrew and the other apostles, and we think that we fall short. Of course, we probably DO fall short, if we compare ourselves to these people.

But you know, when we die, God is not going to question why we were not as good as any of those people. He will more likely ask us if we were the best we could be where we were placed. And we are placed where we are because God believes in us. All we need to do is the same thing – to believe in ourselves. Whenever we have difficulty believing in ourselves, consider this. Consider the ones whom Jesus chose to be his disciples in the first place. They weren’t the religious leaders of his time. Most of them were fishermen, uneducated, probably a little rough around the edges. One – Matthew – was a tax collector, surely one of the most hated people of his time. There was a zealot – Judas – who wanted to overthrow Rome, and who thought that this was why the Messiah came. Women followed Jesus – some of them good women, to be sure, but others were not. There was a woman who had had many husbands, and who was living with a man to whom she was not married, and she carried the news of the Messiah to her village. And Jesus trusted them to bring the good news to the world. Obviously, he chose the right people, because we are still sharing that good news today.

Let’s just think about them for a minute, these people whom Jesus chose. You see, scripture shows them just as they were – warts and all, to quote Oliver Cromwell. We see them misunderstanding Jesus, trying to make him fit their idea of a Messiah. And we ask ourselves how often we do the same thing – try to make God fit our idea of who a God is. The disciples often twisted Jesus’ words to suit themselves. In just the same way has the church used Scripture at different times to justify slavery, to prove that women should not preach. James and John sought their own glory, wanting to be seated at Jesus’ right and left hand when he came into his kingdom. Sadly, we also do that. I will not give you any examples of this, as I am sure that you can think of them yourself. And worst of all, at least two of the disciples – two of his closest followers – betrayed him. And they all, except for one, deserted him in his last hours. We, too, when it is difficult to be a follower, often deny or betray or desert him. And yet, he chose us.

He chose us just as he chose them because he believes in us. He said that we are the light of the world, commissioned to bring the light to others. Remember that the light has overcome the darkness, and that we are charged to be the small light in a world which often seems full of darkness. Remember the Sunday School hymn – This Little Light Of Mine? We ARE that little light, and we can shine wherever we are. We can shine at home, in small ways. We can shine in this church, doing the various jobs that need to be done. We can shine where we work, living the life we are called to do and showing our light by example. We can shine wherever we are because that is why God made us and that is why we were called.

And the question I have is this. Are we going to do this? Are we going to shine? Andrew did, as did Peter, formerly known as Simon. James and John, the sons of thunder, did. Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus did, and the Samaritan woman by the well. Even the former Pharisee who used to be called Saul, shone. If we look through the New Testament, we will see some of the names of the people who shone then, and if we look around this church, we will see people who are shining now.

And the thing they have in common is the thing that we have in common. God called them, and chose them, and God believes in them. God called us and chose us and God believes in us. At some point in your own life, someone spoke to you about God. Maybe you can’t even remember who it was or when it happened. But someone was a light to your path, leading you to Jesus. Someone showed you that God believes in you. God believed in David – the youngest of his family, who became one of Israel’s greatest kings, despite his faults. God believed in Saul, who persecuted him and later became known as the Apostle to the Gentiles. And God believes in each person here. God has a job for each one of us, and all we have to do is to listen to what he is saying.

We can be what God wants us to be, because we have been called and chosen. And that is the most wonderful thing of all. Thanks be to God.

 

Sermons

Sunday, January 5th – Epiphany Sunday – A Different Path

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer. This is one of those Sundays when you really need to know some history in order to appreciate what happened in the Gospel. Of course, we all know the story – how the Magi from the east saw a star, which led them to Bethlehem, where they were seeing the new King of the Jews. They ended up at Herod’s palace, which makes perfect sense, because the current ruler should have known about the one who was to come. In fact, he could even have been the father of this new king. Be that as it may, when they asked Herod where they might find this new king, he called the chief priests and scribes to ascertain where the baby was to be born, and he gave this information to the travelers. He also told them that he wanted them to confirm where they eventually found the baby, saying that he wanted to go and pay homage himself. And the rest of story unfolded as you heard in the Gospel. But you didn’t hear a whole lot about Herod and why he acted as he did. So I thought I would start by filling in some of the gaps.

To begin with, Herod was the King of the Jews, but in actual fact, he wasn’t even a Jew. He was an Idumean. Israel had conquered Iduema about 150 years before the birth of Jesus, and had forced the Idumeans to convert to Judaism. But even though they converted, and for several generations had been raised as Jews, they were treated as second class by the others. Kind of like the Samaritans, who were also Jewish but were looked down on by the REAL Jews.  Herod’s father had been a general, who had served the previous Jewish king. And when this king tried to start an uprising against Rome, the Roman Senate made Herod the king of the Jews. Herod then led the Roman army and took the country by force, making it into a loyal Roman state. Herod controlled everything in Israel, including the religious institutions. My research told me that he even managed to make a profit from selling the position of High Priest – which was supposed to be handed down from father to son – to the highest bidder. And we think that corruption in government is something relatively new! Indeed, it is not. And, of course, in those days, the person who was in charge had to be constantly watching his back, just in case someone was waiting to put a knife in it. Remember the saying – Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

So now, imagine, if you will, how Herod must have felt when the Magi arrived seeking the king of the Jews, who had just been born. Herod knew, you see, that he didn’t have the support of the Jews. He knew that they looked down on him because he was an Idumean. He knew that, if he had been born to the old line of kings, he would have had more political support. He knew that, if he had been born from the line of David, he would have had the support of the religious community. But Herod – an Idumean, a supporter of Rome, a thoroughly corrupt person – he had the support of no one, except those people who were afraid of him. He was the most dangerous kind of powerful person – insecure and afraid; concerned about maintaining his power and his position. And to make it even worse, he was actually a puppet of the Roman Empire, and could have been removed from his position at any time by Rome.

And the wise men – the Magi – who could have been women – they were more than we realize as well. Let’s explore their political role for a minute. These strangers represent long-standing resistance to Roman imperialism, and they have traveled for a long time to pay homage to this new king of the Jews. In fact, it took them almost two years to make the journey, which is why I never put them in the Nativity scene until Epiphany. But in doing this, they are poking their finger in the eye of Rome and all of her puppets, including Herod. Herod would have known this, and so would the members of his court. John Pilch tells us that the Magi would likely have been very high-ranking political advisors to the rulers of empires in areas that we today call Iran and Iraq. Think about Moses in the court of the Pharaoh.

So these wise men – who could have been women – dropped everything and set out to follow the star, which would eventually guide them to the place where the child was. Of course, since the star was likely not as accurate as they would have hoped, when they arrived, they had to figure out where they needed to go, and they did the logical thing. They went to Jerusalem, to the palace. After all, that is where one would expect to find a king, don’t you think? And there is Herod. Already nervous, already afraid, being told that the NEW king of the Jews has recently been born. Then Herod calls in the chief priests and scribes, and asks them where this baby would have been born. They consult their Holy Writings and determine that this king would come the most unexpected of places, a place that we would describe as being way out in the boonies – the little village of Bethlehem. It was only nine miles away, but those nine miles made a huge difference. Because of those nine miles, fear was struck into Herod’s heart, as he could see that his own reign was threatened. Last week, if we had done the lectionary reading, we would have found out what he did with this knowledge, out of this fear. He ordered his soldiers to go to Bethlehem, to kill all boy babies under the age of two. This was done out of fear and insecurity, arrogance, and hunger for power.

And now dreams enter the picture yet again. For the Magi, who had been asked to tell Herod where he could find this king, were warned in a dream not to go to Jerusalem, so they traveled by another way, so that they could avoid Herod. If they had returned to Jerusalem, it is doubtful if they would ever have gotten home. Then Joseph had another dream. You remember the first one he had, in which an angel of the Lord told him to marry Mary. This one told him to get up, to take the child and his mother, and escape to Egypt. He was told to stay there until he was advised that it was safe to return, because Herod was going to search for the child and kill him. Thus, according to Matthew, chapter 2, verse 15, the Scripture was fulfilled in which it said, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

So we see two groups of people seeking Jesus – one to worship him and bring him gifts, and the other to kill him. One group followed a star, and the other sought the answer in Scripture. One group found him, and he escaped from the other. We, too, are seekers, even today. We live in a world which many of us do not understand – a world of death and violence, of hatred and tension, a world of sin. And because we do, we celebrate Christmas. We celebrate Christmas because we do live in a world of death, and Jesus came to bring us new life. We celebrate Christmas because of the Good News which it brings, in a world where good news seems to be scarce. We celebrate Christmas because in a world filled with hatred, Jesus came out of love for us. We celebrate Christmas because in a sinful world, Jesus came to bring forgiveness.

None of this is to say that we ignore the harsh realities surrounding us. All over the world innocents are still slaughtered. All over the world refugees are still fleeing for their lives.  And, really, the most we can do here in Canada is to pray for them.

At the beginning of a new year, maybe we can do a little more. Many of us, I imagine, have made resolutions again this year. Many of us kind of chuckle about them, knowing that by now – less than a week in – we have already broken them. But many people keep them. I know people who have managed to quit smoking because of a New Year’s resolution. I know people go from being couch potatoes to running half-marathons because of a New Year’s resolution. I know people who have finished a degree because of a New Year’s resolution. And the important thing was not really the resolution itself, but the first steps that were taken as a result. The first cigarette not smoked; the first 15-minute walk; the first registration for a course. Not one of these was an end, but rather a new beginning. And we can make a new beginning now.

We can push beyond the old rules beyond the expectations of what should be and of what should not be. We can move beyond our fears and live in the light of the star, that star which shone so brightly so long ago. While we may not be able to do anything for victims of oppression in other countries, we can reach out to people in our own community who are suffering, so that they will also know the light of that star. We can become inclusive, welcoming people who may not have felt welcome in other places. We can work with the broken and the brokenhearted so that the light of the star will show them the path back home. And this is the point of Epiphany – to remind us that we can live our lives in a new way. As we worship in a strange location, let us remember this. We – in a sense – have started on a different path. And because we are following the star, because we are living with Jesus’ promise, we know that we are on the right one. Thanks be to God.

 

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Sunday, December 8th – Peace

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer.

This may well be one of my favourite Sundays in the church year – not because it is the second Sunday of Advent, but because of the lectionary readings. The reading from Isaiah is one which was used at my ordination, over 10 years ago now, and I would just like to share some of the thoughts from that day with you. You may or may not know that my father’s name was Jesse, and the minister who preached at my ordination – the Reverend John Duff – used that reading and my father’s name as part of the sermon. You see, the Presbyterian Church we worshiped in in Wabush had closed some time before, and ended up being pretty much non-existent. Most of the members transferred their membership to other churches in the area, but there were two families – the Burgess and the Melange families – who transferred our membership to the Kirk – St Andrew’s in St. John’s. This meant that we received mailings from that church fairly regularly, and that they were aware of us. So when I realized, some years later, that I was being called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, it was logical that I would contact the Reverend David Sutherland at the Kirk to find out what my next steps would be. John referred to Wabush as a tree which had been cut down – a stump – and told the people how amazed they were when someone from that part of the province suddenly felt called to ministry. He called me the shoot coming out of the stump, and the fact that my father’s name was Jesse made it even more meaningful – to him and to me.

And the whole rest of the reading from Isaiah speaks of a time which we all anticipate, a time of peace, a time when we will all delight in the fear of the Lord. But we need to read it in context. If we were to look back at chapter 10, we would learn that this was not just a random stump. Rather, according to Isaiah, “. . .the Lord Almighty will lop off the boughs with great power. The lofty trees will be felled, the tall ones will be brought low. He will cut down the forests with an axe. . .” This sounds to me like the clear-cutting which often happens to make room for towns, or just to cut down the wood for other uses, and I picture a barren landscape. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes that one little shoot from one seemingly dead stump.

We need to remember that, at the time this section of Isaiah was written, Israel itself was pretty bleak, politically speaking. They were under attack – either from the Assyrians or the Babylonians – and things didn’t look good for them. But along comes Isaiah, with this incredible promise – the God will send a king, a king from Jesse’s line, who will rule with wisdom and justice, and, most importantly, with mercy. At this time, the wolf will live with the lamb; the leopard will lie down with the goat; the calf and the lion and the yearling will be together, and a little child will lead them. All of this is against everything we know to be true about predators and prey, which shows us that the natural order of things will be changed forever and that peace will reign.

But this peace is not just an absence of war. This peace would better be described as SHALOM, which Walter Bruggemann defines as “creation time, when all God’s creation eases up on hostility and destruction and finds another way of relating.” It seems to me that this time of peace will take us back to the way things were in the Garden of Eden, before the fall. We – and the world – will be detoxified, so that everything and everyone will be safe. Everything and everyone will be loved. Everything and everyone will be the way God intended right from the beginning. Every night – or morning – when I listen to the news, I wonder about such a world. I hear about pollution that is so bad in India that schools must be closed because it is too dangerous to allow the children outside to breathe the air. I hear about permafrost melting, causing pieces of land to disappear; I hear about random acts of violence. And I wonder how on earth a perfect world can come out of this mess we have made. And then, of course, I know how it can happen – through the power of God almighty.

Isaiah promises the Israelites – and us – a new ruler. This ruler will be so amazing that even the animal kingdom will be transformed. The ruler – the root of Jesse – will stand as a signal for the peoples. And yet, he will be humble. Who could Isaiah be talking about if not Jesus? Jesus, who gave no time to the legions of the Roman Empire, but who focused on the marginalized, and used his power on them. Some people are a little uncomfortable with this. We don’t really want a Jesus who will change things. We have domesticated him so much that we really aren’t sure if we want him as a ruler, as one who will bring about change, whether or not we want it.

And today, we have not yet seen Jesus, for this is still Advent. But we have met – at last John the Baptist. John, the voice crying in the wilderness; John, the one who is preparing the way of the Lord. In the rock opera – GodSpell – the verse “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” becomes a haunting song, one which is preceded by the shofar sounding. A shofar is a ram’s horn, which was blown to call people to worship, but in GodSpell, it was used to announce that John the Baptist had arrived, and that people should be getting ready for a great change.

When John appeared on the scene, many people thought he was the Messiah, but John quickly disabused them of that idea. He had a message, but that message was for the people to prepare, to repent, to be baptized, and to be made ready to welcome the Messiah. Now, looking at the picture I have of John in my head, I don’t know that I would have thought of him as the Messiah. He wore clothing made of camel hair, and it was definitely not a nice camel hair coat such as the well-dressed gentleman of today would wear. It was held in place by a leather belt, but that was more like a leather rope than a belt such as people wear today. He lived on locusts and wild honey, which doesn’t sound at all appetizing to me. John was a Nazarite, which meant – among other things – that he never cut his hair. You may remember another Nazarite – Samson – whose strength was in his hair. So picture, if you will, a wild-haired, wild-eyed man, whose body was doubtless sinewy and brown from living in the wilderness, and you may understand why I would have a little difficulty seeing him as the Messiah. Then add to that the way he preached – calling the people who came to see him a brood of vipers, and warning them that their heritage didn’t guarantee them salvation. And yet, people flocked to him in droves.

But then I realized that maybe I was focusing too much on the externals, which, sadly, is what we often do. We look at people and make assumptions based on the way they look, instead of digging a little deeper to find God’s beloved child beneath. We listen to people and make assumptions based on what they say, instead of listening for the meaning behind it. John was offering the people baptism with water – water for repentance. I think that it is because of this that so many people look at baptism as a cleansing of original sin – or, in the case of adult baptism, a cleansing of sin, period. In seminary, I learned that a sacrament was an outward sign of an inward grace – so, the water for baptism is the outward sign of the cleansing grace given us by God, and the bread and wine used for Communion are also outward signs of the redeeming grace which we receive each time we celebrate.

John did more than insult people. He proclaimed God’s love for his people; he taught about God’s forgiveness of his people; and he announced the coming of God to his people. So, far from being all doom and gloom, he was giving them good news. He was giving them hope. But he was also telling them that they had to change. He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance”, thus showing people what they had to do. The Greek work that we translate as “repentance” is μετάνοια (metanoia), which means to turn around, and that is what we are being enjoined to do – to turn our lives around, always remembering that God will welcome us, and will help us to change, to turn around.

So now, on this Advent Sunday, I invite you to open your hearts to God, to confess to God, and to promise to live each day as he has told us to. We all have some idea of what God has done for us, of what God is doing for us, and of what he will do for us in the future. Now, we need to confess how much we need him. Then we need to accept the forgiveness he so freely offers us, and the new life which is waiting for us.

Keith and I are doing the daily devotional from Walter Bruggemann’s book Celebrating Abundance, and we often take a little quiet time during the reading, to imagine something from the reading, or to think a little more deeply about what we have read. Now I ask you to do just that – to think for just a minute of John the Baptist, standing by the river, and calling you to prepare the way of the Lord. He is calling us to be ready to welcome Jesus, whose sandals he is not worthy to carry. Listen to John, his voice roughened from years of living in the desert. On this Sunday of Peace, let us remember that peace in our lives is possible, as long as we make the first move. In order to achieve this peace, we need to let go of the past so that we can move into the peace that is waiting for us. We can find peace in forgiveness, in repentance, in a new life, in change. We need to know that, no matter what we have done, God can and will forgive us, as long as we truly repent. This will lead us to a renewed relationship with him, and a new beginning of our relationships with others. And the best thing is that this can happen over and over again – whenever we find ourselves slipping, we can repent again and again find the peace that passes all understanding. So let us heed John’s words, and turn around again to Jesus Christ, Thanks be to God.

 

Sermons

Sermon for Sunday, December 1st – Waiting

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer. You will have noticed that we have new candles for our Advent wreath, and that they are a little different from the ones we have used in the past. Each Advent, we have five candles, one pink, one white, and three which may be purple or blue. In this church, we have traditionally used purple candles, but I have been uncomfortable with that for a while now. Purple, you see, is the colour for penitence, and I have never thought of Advent as a particularly penitential season. Rather, it is a season of waiting, of anticipation, of hope. And blue is the colour which symbolizes waiting in the church year. So now we have blue candles, and they should last for a long, long time, since they are not lit very often.

And today, we start our waiting period, our time of preparation. Of course, in the secular world, preparation for Christmas probably began weeks – if not months – ago. My grandmother used to start her fruitcake in late August. She would begin by marinating the fruit in brandy. There was quite a lot of brandy in my grandmother’s fruitcake by the time it was cut on Christmas Day! Crafters often start their Christmas preparations as soon as the decorations are taken down from the current year. Choirs and musicians have already been choosing music and rehearsing for some weeks – or at least, they used to when I was involved in those things.

But in the church, today is meant to be the first day of preparation. Today, we begin waiting. And, appropriately, since the first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of Hope, we wait in hope for what is to come.

Just so were the Israelites waiting in the time of Isaiah – waiting with hope. Walter Brueggeman, the great Biblical scholar whom some people will get to know a lot better this Advent, compared our reading from Isaiah to the well-known “I have a dream” speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, in that both Isaiah and Dr. King are imagining an almost-perfect world, one in which there will be no need for weapons because there will be no more wars. Alas, in Isaiah’s time, that remained an elusive dream, just as it is in our time. We live in what we call peace, but there are many places where war seems to be a constant fact of life. And even our so-called peace is often conspicuous by its absence. Just this past week, there was another act of terrorism in London, which has resulted in a more noticeable presence of police officers. Not only that, but they are armed, where a few years ago, London police officers were only armed with a night stick. Now they carry guns. In Canada, we have not been immune to violence. We have had our own mass shootings; we have had random killings; we feel that we no longer live in a safe world.

But, like the Israelites, we live in hope. We still make plans for tomorrow, even in the face of changes which we had never expected. We, like the Israelites, have a vision filled with hope. We know that, eventually, a new age will come – one filled with promise and possibility. And so we prepare for it.

However, in a very real sense, this Advent preparation is very different from any other preparation. For this season covers the past, the present, and the future. What happened in the past? A birth – surely the most ordinary of things. We are not sure exactly when it happened, only that it happened. December 25thwas arbitrarily chosen as the date, and I believe that this was because every culture has some kind of celebration near this time of year, near the winter solstice. So this made it easy for new Christians to adapt some of their celebrations to this new one. So we look to the past, as we remember this birth. We tell the story over again, even though we have heard it all before. And every time we hear it, we hear something different. We see something special, maybe something we haven’t thought of before.

This birth, which happened long ago, has – I hope – a huge significance in our present. We prepare for it in many ways. There is the shopping, the baking, the decorating. And there are the memories. We remember Christmases of our childhood. For me, I remember going to Midnight Mass, and coming home to the first of the Christmas feasts. We would go to bed, leaving the tree undecorated, with no gifts under it. And when we got up in the morning, all would have magically appeared. But I also remember the Advents of my childhood. The empty stable would be set in place on the first Sunday of Advent. Mary and Joseph, with the donkey, would be set on their trip, but wouldn’t reach the stable until Christmas Eve. The angels would also arrive on Christmas Eve, but the baby and the shepherds wouldn’t be there until Christmas morning, when a light, strategically placed, would shine on the manger. The Magi didn’t get there until January 6th, but we would be able to see them traveling as well, throughout the season. And the Christmas season itself was filled with family and friends, special food, cards with notes in them. In our case, there was the annual telephone call to Australia, which had to be booked weeks in advance. And there were the smells of Christmas – who can forget them? The Christmas tree itself brought a special smell into the house, and there was baking which was only done at Christmas time – mince pies and cherry cakes. Of course, we can’t forget the ham and turkey, for what would Christmas be without those?

While we remember the past and live the present, it is the future which is most important. For we are waiting for the reign of God which is not yet fully realized. When I was in seminary, we used an expression – now, but not yet – to describe this. We are actually living in the reign of God, but not fully. We will not be fully in the reign of God until the second coming, and this is a time when many things will happen, some of which are mentioned in our readings today. Just imagine a time when swords will become ploughshares, and spears become pruning hooks. London police officers will not need to carry guns – indeed, there will be no need of police officers or armies anywhere, for we will finally be living in peace, and walking in the light of the Lord.

Jesus spoke of what would happen at the second coming, warning us that we need to be prepared all the time, for no one, only the Father, knows when that will happen. But when it does, the whole world will be part of God’s kingdom, and there will no longer be sin or suffering or pain or death. What a glorious time that will be! And we have to prepare for it; we have to be ready.

Isaiah said: Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. Paul enjoined us to wake from our sleep and put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus said: Keep awake . . . you must also be ready. But while we are getting ready for that second coming, we can also get ready to welcome Jesus into our hearts and lives, right now, and not at some future time. We want his light not only to shine around us, but also to shone out FROM us. We need to have his spirit in our minds and hearts beginning right now. We desire to sense his presence today and tomorrow and all the tomorrows after that.

We have just finished one church year, and we have come out of ordinary time into a special season – the season of Advent, which will be followed by the season of Christmas, and then the season of Epiphany. And this season – the season of Advent – is the time of the church year during which we prepare, with hope, for what is to come. We tend to think that not much happens during ordinary times, but that is when we live most of our lives. That is when we marry; when children are born; when we go to work or to school or shopping. It is in ordinary times that we go to war; that we fall in love. And in ordinary times, we often forget the extraordinary. So Advent reminds us of it.

The church has been decorated. Some of you have probably already decorated your homes. Or if you haven’t, you likely will be doing that shortly. And I invite you to prepare yourself for Christmas, for the birth of a baby. Think of yourself as a house, and think about how you can make it ready to receive him. Remember the centurion who said, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you”? How do we make the house within us worthy? For we all have dark places, places we would rather not share. Maybe it is time to get rid of those places; time to let go of things that are holding us back. Maybe, instead of worrying about what is happening outside of us, we need to focus more on what is happening – or what can happen – inside. You see, if we just look outside, it is easy to become discouraged or frustrated. And of course, that discouragement, that frustration, will spill over into our lives, affecting all of our relationships.

Let’s look back at the dreams I mentioned earlier – the dreams of Isaiah and Dr. King. They could dream of peace, and they certainly didn’t live in peaceful times. But if they could dream of peace, despite the violence surrounding them, then we, too can dream of peace. We can change our lives and the life of our communities to be communities of generosity, justice, and joy. And we can do this by welcoming Jesus into our hearts, because, if you will remember, Paul said in his letter to the Ephesians that God “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

This is what often encourages me, when I am feeling particularly bleak – the knowledge that I am not alone, that I don’t need to do it all alone. In the coming weeks, as we walk through Advent, looking forward and backward for inspiration and hope, let us consider what it is that we really long for in our lives, as well as what we are willing to pay for it. As we write our Christmas cards, and sing carols, let us be open to God’s call to seek peace in our lives and in the world around us. During this season, for the sake of peace, we can take steps ourselves to heal division, to mend broken relationships in our family, in our community, and in our world. It only takes one step to begin.

I mentioned that this is a season of waiting. As Christians, we are always waiting, and not only during Advent. For some people, waiting is difficult – for some it is almost impossible. We need to learn to wait with grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer – whom I have often quoted – once said, “Not everyone can wait: neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait. The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them.” “Carry restlessness around with them” – that is something that is new to me, and I think that it is a great image for use during Advent. St. Augustine once said that our hearts would be restless until they rest in God, which is what we are now hoping for.

Isaiah invited us to go up to the mountain of the Lord, to hear God’s promises, and to trust in God. And what is trust but hope by another name?  On this Sunday of hope, let us place our hope where it rightly belongs – in the one who created us, the one who redeemed us, the one who guides us. Let us keep awake and walk in the light, wearing the armour of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

Sermons

Sunday, November 24th – Recognition

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer. Have you ever accidentally put your foot in your mouth because there was some information you didn’t have? For instance, have you said something negative about a person, only to discover that the one you were speaking to was related to said person? During my research this week, I found a couple of stories which illustrate this really well, and I thought I would share one of them with you.

There is – or used to be – a television show called “Reasonable Doubts”.One particular episode told about a female defense lawyer who represented a man convictedof two brutal killings before a parole board.  He was seeking release from prison after serving 14 years and she succeeded in getting him released.

A police man who was present at the original crime scene gives the lawyer a rough time after the hearing, telling her that she should not be representing such people, that the man she was defending was nothing but scum. Later that day the police officer discovers that the lawyer’s mother had died the night before and so, the next time he sees the lawyer he says, “I’m sorry, if I had known your mother had died I would have gone easier on you.”

Another character in the story – the deaf prosecutor who was the main star, also gives the lady lawyer a hard time for representing the killer before the parole board – and she too, later hears about the mother’s death.

The next time the prosecutor sees the defense lawyer she also says to her -“Sorry, If I had known I would have gone easier on you.”

This reminds me of what Paul wrote in his letter to the Hebrews, when he said: Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. It is easy, you see, for us to neglect strangers. It is sometimes difficult to speak with people we don’t know, even during fellowship after church, when we can at least be sure that we share some things in common. We are busy, after all. How can we find the time to spend getting to know people when we already have enough friends, enough acquaintances? But we need to remember Paul’s words; we need to know that these strangers may, indeed, be angels; may, indeed have been sent by God for a specific purpose. But because we do not bother to talk to them, we will never discover that.

Today is the end of our church year. Year C is finishing, and we will be starting Year A next week, on the first Sunday of Advent. This last Sunday of the church year is known as “Christ the King Sunday”, and there may be some people who have problems with that name. In Canada, although we have a constitutional monarchy, we live in a democracy, and the idea of a person being a king – a king with power – is something we can’t quite grasp. We have studied it in history classes, and have seen that the whole idea of a monarchy often ends up causing problems – for the monarch as well as the people! And there are many people who don’t like us referring to Jesus as a King, preferring the image of a shepherd or maybe a suffering servant. But if we look into the history of it, I think that we will see that it makes perfect sense for us to have a “Christ the King” Sunday.

You see, the title for this Sunday is less than 100 years old, having been decided upon by Pope Pius XI in 1925. It only arrived in Protestant churches during the 1960s, as more and more of them began to use the lectionary. We are one of those churches, but I often think that maybe I should explain what the lectionary is. I mentioned that we are finishing Year C, and about to start Year A. Then, we will move into Year B, and then back to C again. The lectionary assigns readings for each Sunday of the year, and they are centered around the Gospels. Year A uses the Gospel of Matthew as its basis; Year B focuses on Mark’s Gospel, and Year C – which you may well have noticed – uses mostly Luke. This is because each one of these Gospels tells the story of Jesus’ ministry on earth, and while the basic story is the same, they are very similar. These three are known as the synoptic Gospels, which means that they describe the events from a similar point of view. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, is different from the others in many ways, and we use bits of it during all three of the church years.

Of course, none of this helps you to understand why we have a specific Sunday known as “Christ the King Sunday”. When Pius made this decision, the world was still recovering from World War I. Mussolini had already been the leader of Italy for three years, and a certain charismatic person named Hitler had been released from jail just a year before. His Nazi Party was growing in popularity, and the whole world was in the throes of the Great Depression, which would continue to get worse until the outbreak of the Second World War. In such a time as this, Pius reasoned, with these new dictators and false values proliferating, people needed to be reminded that Christ is the King of the whole universe.

This day came into being because the world was broken. I believe that it is even more broken now, and we need to be reminded who rules our lives. We need to know who it is who exercises dominion over us, who exercises dominion over our culture. If we look around the world, we can see many places in which evil dominates, and even in Canada, we are not immune from that. I read just the other day that, according to a McLean’s survey, Labrador City – where I taught for 30 years – has now made it onto a list. It has been titled the 36thmost dangerous place to live in Canada, out of a total of 100. I have to confess that this shocked me, as I had never thought of Labrador City as being particularly dangerous. But then I thought, if Labrador City is so dangerous, what does that say about the rest of Canada? Not much, I fear!

And if you listen to the news, it seems that the world is in just as much trouble now as it was in 1925. Again, the forces of evil hold sway, and we, as Christians, need to be ever-vigilant.

Greed dominates much of the world, with countries competing for territory, displacing people from lands where they have lived for generation. Pride has its place, as well, with people refusing to admit to the possibility that they could be wrong, that they could have made a mistake – any mistake. And if we look at our economy and our government, it seems that it doesn’t matter if you are right. Rather, it matters if you support the winning party. Even worse, if we were to look into the hearts of many people, we would see that they think only of themselves and maybe those they love. They never worry about doing something that will benefit people they don’t know – or, even worse – people they don’t like.

Think, for a minute, about today’s Gospel reading. At first, when I read it last week, I thought, “This is rather odd to have right before Advent – part of the story of the crucifixion.” But then, I read what the two men being crucified with Jesus said, and it all made sense to me. One said, “Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!” He was only concerned with what was in it for him. And when he couldn’t see any help from Jesus, he mocked him. The other criminal, however, was different. He recognized Jesus, and he berated the other man, saying, Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same him. We deserve this, but not him – he did nothing to deserve this.” Then, he turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me, when you enter your kingdom.” Listen again, “Jesus, remember me, when you enter your kingdom.” This prayer became the basis of a Taizé chant, which is sung all over the world today, and which recognizes Jesus as King.

And we need to recognize Jesus as King. We need him to rule us and our culture, and it seems that, more and more, he isn’t. Even though we are Canadians, many of us have been raised according to the American idea that we are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness – at any cost; the pursuit of success – no matter whom we trample over on the way; these are the things which interfere with our relationship with Christ the King. And we are quite happy to have it be like this. For if we admit that he IS the King, then we will also have to admit that we need to make some changes so that we can follow him. On this day, we loudly proclaim that he is King, through our hymns and our prayers. And after this day, we can proclaim it through our actions. And he is king, not only of the universe, but of our lives and of our hearts.

We read from The Message this morning, but if we had read from the NIV, this is what we would have heard from Jeremiah: “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.  In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness”.

For many of us, when we hear the word “righteous”, we think of people like the Pharisees, people who follow the laws of God strictly, and that is part of the meaning. The other part – when it refers to God – talks about his saving activity. God is righteous because he delivers us from our enemies; because he forgives us; because he keeps his promises to us. And Jesus is, of course, the righteous branch of David. In our second reading, Paul describes Jesus as the image of the invisible God; the one through whom and by whom all things were created; the one who is the head of the church; the one who is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead.

I have another story to share with you – one which someone posted this past week. You may have already seen it, but if so, bear with me, as it really does illustrate Christ’s righteousness.

It is the story of a little boy who wanted to do something good.  A fellow like most of us. Six-year old Brandon decided one Saturday morning to fix his parents pancakes.  He found a big bowl and spoon, pulled a chair to the counter, opened the cupboard and pulled out the heavy flour canister, spilling it on the floor. He scooped some of the flour into the bowl with  his hands, mixed in most of a cup of milk and added some sugar and an egg, leaving a floury trail on the floor, which by now had a few tracks left by his kitten.

Brandon was covered with flour and getting frustrated.  He wanted this to be something very good for Mom and Dad, but it was getting very bad.  He didn’t know what to do next, whether to put it all into the oven or on the stove, (and he didn’t know how the stove worked!). Suddenly he saw his kitten licking the bowl of mix and reached to push her away, knocking the egg carton to the floor. Frantically he tried to clean up this monumental mess but slipped on the eggs and landed on the floor – getting his pajamas white and sticky. Just then he saw Dad standing at the door.  Big tears welled up in Brandon’s eyes.  All he wanted to do was something good, but he’d made a terrible mess.  He was sure a scolding was coming, maybe even a spanking. But his father just watched him. Walking through the mess, he picked up his crying son, and hugged him –  getting his own pajamas white and sticky in the process of loving him.

And that is how our Lord and King will deal with us and the mess we have created. He wades right into the mess we have created, and loves us and forgives us. In fact, he shows us unconditional love and abundant life. He invites us into that kingdom over which he rules, into the kingdom which he serves. And it is us to us to become citizens of that kingdom, which we can do by focusing on Jesus, and by living according to his direction right here, right now. When we do this, when we recognize Jesus as our King, we will find within us that deep peace he has promised – that peace which passes all understanding. Thanks be to God.