Archive for January, 2012

December 25th, Christmas Day

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.
Today, I am going to start by telling you a story which I have told before, and which I will probably tell again, simply because it seems to be so appropriate here.
One of the greatest theologians who ever lived, Karl Barth, was asked to be a guest lecturer at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Now, you need to know that Barth does not write easy books. In fact, even books written ABOUT him can be difficult. He was brilliant, and could have done just about anything he wanted to do, as an academic. However, he was a theologian and preacher, and was in great demand as a guest speaker. At the end of the closing lecture at this particular university, the president of the seminary announced that Dr. Barth was not well and was quite tired, and though he thought that Dr. Barth would like to be open for questions, he shouldn’t be expected to handle the strain. Then he said, “Therefore, I will ask just one question on behalf of all of us.”
He turned to the renowned theologian and asked, “Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?
It was the perfect question for a man who had written literally tens of thousands of pages of some of the most sophisticated theology ever put into print. The students held pencils right up against their writing pads, ready to take down verbatim the premier insight of the greatest theologian of their time.
Karl Barth closed his tired eyes, and he thought for a minute, and then he half smiled, opened his eyes, and said to those young seminarians, “The greatest theological insight that I have ever had is this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. And isn’t that the truth? And isn’t that the point of today, of Christmas Day, that Jesus loves us. And that is why I chose to title my sermon today “Love Story”, because Jesus does love us, and will continue to love us. But that is one of the things that many of us don’t think of, in our day-to-day lives. It is for that reason that I am glad that Christmas comes once a year, to remind us of this great love. For many of us, Christmas is the first time that we become aware of God’s love, in the story of the baby born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago.
You know, when you think about love, you have to realize that it is truly a miracle. It is amazing how we just happen to be in the right place at the right time. Paths cross when they need to, in order for us to fall in love with another human being. I would ask you to think about the first time you were in love. What had to happen in order for this to happen? Obviously, you had to meet the other person. For some of us, that initial meeting happened when we were too young to remember it, because our parents were friends. But for more, it happened because of choices both halves of the couple made. Will I go to this university or that one? Will I take a job in this community or a different one?
My parents were from different parts of the world – one from Newfoundland, which was its own country at the time, and the other from Australia. Had it not been for World War II, they would never have met. Now, I’m not saying that the war happened in order to facilitate their meeting, but there were certainly a great many young women from other countries who ended up in North America because they fell in love with a young man from this part of the world. And I don’t believe that this was a coincidence. I believe that this was all part of God’s eternal plan of love. Paths crossing, lives intersecting, and the world changes as a result.
Today, Christmas Day, marks the intersection of our lives with the life of Jesus Christ. This is the commemoration of his first meeting with humanity, the meeting that had been planned from the beginning of time. And it was planned because we are loved.
Someone once commented that true love doesn’t happen because someone is perfect. Rather, true love happens when we know all about the other’s imperfections, and love them anyway. And that is how God loves us. He – better than any human being possibly could – knows exactly what we are. He knows all of our secrets, all of our imperfections, and loves us anyhow. And here, today, in the manger, we have proof of his love for us. The most quoted verse in all of Scripture has to be John 3: 16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but should have everlasting life. But it had to start somewhere. Our paths had to cross at some point, and what better way for them to cross than with the birth of a baby? Not only is a baby a sign of love, but it evokes love in those who see the little one.
But who would have expected the intersection to come in the tiny town of Bethlehem, in a stable, rather than in a metropolis, maybe in a palace? It happened as it did so that we would be able to identify with the baby, and so that the baby would eventually be able to identify with us.
This amazing love, which caused the first Christmas to happen, still growing. In God’s love, we are not expected to be perfect. In God’s love, we are forgiven, unconditionally. In God’s love, we are saved.
As well as a time of love, Christmas is a time of peace – a peace which begins with the knowledge that God loves us. But for some, it is a time of sorrow, as we remember those who are not with us to celebrate. We long for just one more Christmas with our parent, our child, our spouse. And these feelings sometimes threaten to overpower the joy that is Christmas. And, you see, without the joy that is Christmas, these feelings can do just that.
The children’s story was about a nativity pageant, and I would like to tell you a different one, one which the children may also like. Of course, like the first one, this one didn’t go quite as the Sunday School teachers had planned. The youth group at a certain church was performing a manger scene. Joseph and Mary and all the other characters were in place and ready. They did their parts with seriousness and commitment, looking as pious as they possibly could.
And then it came time for the shepherds to enter.
— Dressed in flannel bathrobes and toweled head-gear, the shepherds proceeded to the place in the sanctuary where Mary and Joseph looked earnestly at the straw which contained a single naked light bulb that was playing the part of the glowing newborn Jesus.
With his back to the congregation, one of the shepherds said to the person playing Joseph, in a very loud whisper for all the cast to hear, “Well, Joe, when you gonna pass out cigars?”
The solemn spell of that occasion was not simply broken by his remark, it was exploded. Mary and Joseph’s cover was completely destroyed as it became impossible to hold back the bursts of laughter.
The chief angel, standing on a chair behind them was the worst of all. She shook so hard in laughter that she fell off her chair and took the curtained back drop and all the rest of the props down with her. She just kept rolling around on the floor holding her stomach because she was laughing so hard. The whole set was in shambles.
But do you know what? The only thing that didn’t go to pieces was that light bulb in the manger. … it never stopped shining.
— My dear friends in Christ, that baby in the manger is the light of my world, even when my world is in shambles…For in that baby the Divine and the human cross paths. The infant Jesus is our living, breathing sign of the immeasurable love that God has had for all of us from the very beginning. Christmas is the living promise that we are never ever alone. No matter where we are in life, no matter in what condition we find ourselves, no matter how far we might stray away, or how unfaithful we are, God, the supreme lover, will pursue us in love for eternity!
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. It’s a love that never stops shining. Thanks be to God.


December 24th, Christmas Eve

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.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were terrified.
Well, I suppose they were terrified. For the angels of the Lord are nothing like the little cherubs we see on cards at Valentine’s Day, or even like the angels we have in our crèches during the Christmas season, and certainly not like the angels some of us have on the top of our trees right now. In fact, they would certainly have been terrifying creatures. Just listen to what Ezekiel had to say about the physical appearance of angels: In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, and the wings of one touched the wings of another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved. Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. They each had two wings spreading out upward, each wing touching that of the creature on either side; and each had two other wings covering its body. Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning.
Now, if seeing something like that wouldn’t make a person afraid, then I can’t think of anything that would. But the shepherds conquered their fear, and stayed to hear the message the angel brought to them and to all humanity. They may have stayed, at first, because they were afraid for the sheep, but, in the end, they realized that what the angels were saying was true, and they said to one another: Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that had happened, which the Lord told us about. So the shepherds were the first to see and to believe.
However, I have often asked myself, if I had been there that night, with the shepherds on the hills just outside of Bethlehem, what would I have seen? What would I have heard? Would I have seen what Ezekiel described or something totally different? Would I have heard the choirs of angels singing? Or would I just have heard the sounds of the sheep and lambs bleating in the night? And had I gone to the stable, would I have seen the star shining on the birthplace of the Messiah, or would I have two scared young parents, having to cope with things they could never have imagined? Would I have understood the hushed silence of the divine presence, or would I just have felt the chill of a cold east wind? Most importantly, would I have understood the message of Emmanuel, God with us, or would the implications of that amazing evening have simply passed me by?
I believe that, if we were able to speak to the people who were in Bethlehem on that night about what happened, no two of them would give the same account. It’s like witnesses at a crime scene. Rarely will their stories corroborate each other. This is why, when two people give the identical story to the police, they are not believed. In fact, they often end up implicated in the crime, because that just doesn’t happen. And the other thing about that night is that we have to realize that God never reveals himself in such a way that we are forced to believe. We always have an option, because that is the way God does things. This is why one person can say: It’s just a coincidence; while another can say: It is part of God’s plan.
Let us remember that the reason Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem was because of a census. And the reason that there was no room for them in the inn was because the small town was suddenly filled to over-flowing with visitors. The sound of the angelic choir was drowned out by the sounds of haggling in the market. And the bright star in the sky was apparently only seen by pagan astrologers from the east. If anyone, other than the shepherds, DID see the small family on that night, they were probably too preoccupied with their own problems to pay much attention, or to offer any help. And isn’t that just as true today, here? Aren’t most of us so preoccupied with our own problems to pay much attention to the fact that Jesus Christ was born, that he lived among us, and that he died for the salvation of all mankind?
But even many of those people who did know about the baby born over 2000 years ago didn’t know who he was. They knew about a birth, which in itself, is a miracle of sorts, but they didn’t realize who this baby was. Too many people see things, and don’t realize what it is they are seeing. Too many people see the superficial, the appearance, and never bother to look beneath to see what it is that God has hidden there.
On one of the cable channels now, we get old episodes of the TV series All in The Family, and I think that one of them would be appropriate to demonstrate this kind of dual vision, this kind of dual perception. Edith and Archie are attending Edith’s high school class reunion. Edith encounters an old classmate by the name of Buck, who had been a football star in high school, and definitely one of the most attractive boys in the school at the time. However, unlike his earlier days, he had now become excessively obese, and lost his beautiful blond hair. Edith and Buck have a delightful conversation about old times and the things that they did together, but Edith doesn’t seem to notice how much or in what ways Buck had changed. Later, when Edith and Archie and talking, she said, “Archie, ain’t Buck a beautiful person?” Archie looked at her with a disgusted expression – you know the one – and says: “You’re a pip, Edith. You know that. You and I look at the same guy and you see a beautiful person and I see a blimp.” Edith gets a puzzled expression on her face and says something unknowingly profound, “Yeah, ain’t it too bad?”
You see, what we see, what we hear, what we understand in life depends not upon the events which happen, but on our perception of them. A few years ago, it was very popular to say: Perception is reality, but, as we have just seen, this isn’t necessarily so. Perception is A reality, in the sense that it is something we have to deal with. However, perception is NOT reality itself. In fact, perception is often demonstrably false. What is not false is what happened on that night so long ago and so far from Quebec City. What is not false is that Jesus Christ was born on that night, and that the world changed as a result. Thanks be to God.

December 18th, 4th Sunday of Advent

# 1: Genesis 1: 26 – 31, 5: 1b – 2
On this morning, rather than a sermon, there will be a series of reflections, based on some of the Scripture readings. These will be short, and will, I hope, show how the readings may be applied to our lives now, in Quebec City, in the 21st century.
The reading we just heard was one of the Creation stories, and it shows us how God blessed humankind, right from the very beginning. In this particular story, there was no hint that God created man first, and then created woman to be his companion and helper. Rather, God created man in his own image; male and female he created them. Now, the important thing to realize about this, is that it is not scientific or historical. Rather, it is a poetic theological reflection on creation, on the nature of its creatures, and on the God who brought it all into being. It is poetry that expresses joy, wonderment, and awe at what God has created. At the same time, it confesses complete trust and confidence in God’s power and authority.
Other creation myths are not nearly so gentle, building as they do on wars and killings as the source of humankind. In Genesis, there is a God who simply speaks, and everything comes into being. God speaks, and in doing so God simultaneously acts. And at the heart of this speech-act is God’s declaration about the creation, namely that it is “very good” (v. 31). Creation is not an after-thought or by-product; the universe and all things that are in it aren’t slime beneath God’s notice. Instead, God creates and takes pleasure in the creation. God’s creation is judged by the one who made it and it is seen as very good.
Each of the eight creations came about when God said the word “let”. Let there be light; let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water; let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear; and so on until we come to: Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. And everything that God spoke into creation – he saw that it was good.
And his final creation – male and female he created them. He created them together, in his image, which shows that they are equal but distinct reflections of God’s nature. Thus there is a sense that you cannot properly conceive of God without the masculine and the feminine. This is how God created, and it IS very good. Thanks be to God.
# 2: Genesis 9: 8 – 17
In this reading, God established a covenant with Noah and his descendants. The story of Noah’s Ark is one with which most people are very familiar. We all know how Noah built the ark, with very specific instructions from God. We know how he loaded it up with animals, two by two, male and female, so that the earth would be able to be repopulated after the waters subsided. But today, we are concerned with the covenant, with the promise God made to us. One of the things which I noted is that, even though God made a promise to us, Noah was not required to make a similar promise to God. In other words, Noah did not have to promise God – on our behalf – that we would be good forevermore. And I think that this is because God knew that we could NOT be good forevermore. He created us, and gave us free will, and because of that, we are not, and never will be perfect. God knows this, and loves us anyhow.
In this section of Genesis, we see for the first time, the Hebrew word BERIT , which means covenant, appears for the first time. So the covenant with Noah marks the beginning of God’s covenantal journey with us, the journey which culminates at Easter.
Our reading today consists almost entirely of God’s words which outline exactly what the covenant entails, as far as God is concerned. Interestingly, the covenant is not only between God and humanity, but every living creature, including the animals. And the sign of the covenant, of course, is the rainbow. I remember, when I was a child, being told that the rainbow was a sign for me to know that there would never be such a flood. But, if you look more closely at our text, you will read God’s words, which show clearly that the rainbow is a sign for him to remember, and not us. God said: This is the sign of the covenant I am making. To clarify his meaning, he said: Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind.
To be sure, the rainbow is a sign of our covenant with God. It reminds us of God’s promises first and foremost, a sign that reminds us that God remembers us and has not abandoned us. It is a sign that God’s memory is more powerful than our forgetfulness, that God’s desire for resurrection and new life overcomes our appetite for destruction and death. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, God will see it, and will remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth. Whatever we do, God remembers; God is faithful; and God continues to be in covenant, to be faithful to us. Thanks be to God.

# 3 – Isaiah 9: 2, 6 – 7
We all know the importance of light. The Christmas season, and the sister celebration of Hanukkah for our Jewish friends, are festivals of light – from candles in our homes, to massive displays of colour and Christmas scenes around town, even down to the flashing bulb on Rudolf’s nose. It’s our way of snubbing our noses at the darkness, at the cold of Christmas, and for those of faith, it is our way of welcoming the Light of the World, the Light that will never be extinguished.
If you have ever done any real camping, out in the back country, you know how dark it can get, and at the time of Isaiah, without the light pollution we suffer from these days, this kind of real darkness was more common than it is now. I remember going to candle light services, where each light in the church was extinguished until we sat in near-darkness. The organist had a small light to see the music by, and the reader had another to see the pages. It was amazing how much these two small lights helped dispel the darkness of the sanctuary.
These were just small lights, and Isaiah talked about a great light which came upon the people living in darkness. He was referring, of course, to the Messiah, to the one who was to bring the light of God’s redemptive love to his people. The word LIGHT, as Isaiah used it, refers to change, and change is certainly what happened because of that birth in Bethlehem. Light also refers to victory, and, in this case, it is victory over sin. Because Jesus was born, we know that sin will be defeated, and that we will live forever in the eternal kingdom.
Here, in Canada, we know all about darkness. We are just two days away from the shortest day of the year – or two days away from the longest night, depending on how you look at it. In any case, for a good part of the year, we spend more time in darkness than in light. That could have the effect of making us depressed, but we are resilient. We celebrate the daylight hours we do have, and we burn lights to combat the dark. All over Quebec City right now, there are Christmas lights bringing cheer to residents and visitors alike. We know about darkness, but we also know about light, and we make sure that there is light aplenty in this darkest time of the year.
With this message from Isaiah, we learn about light and rejoicing. We learn that the light is coming, and that this will be a light even upon those dwelling in the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus is out there, in the blackness, but sometimes we can’t see him because our own fears crowd him out. Advent prepares us for the coming of the Christ Child. Advent prepares us to accept the light. With Isaiah, let us be ready to accept Jesus Christ, the true light.
# 4 Luke 2: 8 – 16
Today in the town of David, a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. Every year, I receive birth announcements. Sometimes they are just a phone call, but more often, they are printed on fancy paper, much the same kind as is used for wedding invitations. And nowadays, they often come via the Internet. But when God Almighty announced the birth of his son, he did not use any of these methods. He sent angels to make the announcement. And he didn’t announce it to the people you would have thought were his friends – the priests or the rulers of the land.
The angels appeared to the lowest of the low – the shepherds, tending their flocks in the fields that night. I think that the shepherds were chosen because it would be easier for most of us to identify with them than with religious or civil leaders. And, you know, I think that because the shepherds were the first to receive the announcement, this is why Jesus was born in a stable. After all, if he had been born to wealthy people, in a fine home or palace, the shepherds would not have been as likely to come and worship him. And, if they DID go to visit the new baby in a fine home or hotel, would they have been made welcome? They would have felt intimidated, just as most of us would feel intimidated when confronted with the high and mighty.
And yet, who could be higher or more mighty than the Son of God? But, by choosing to be born in a stable, by choosing to come among us as one of the lowliest of people, Jesus allowed us access to him. Luke’s gospel has always been known as the gospel for ordinary people, people like you and me. And Jesus is also for ordinary people, people like you and me.
This is something I would like you to think about during this Advent and Christmas season. How are we presenting Jesus to other people? Are we presenting him as some who is accessible to all? As someone who came to save us all? Or as someone who is confined to those people who worship as we do? And before you answer, remember where he was born; remember who was the first to welcome him. And let us welcome others with the same openness with which the shepherds were welcomed.

December 11th, 3rd Sunday of Advent

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.
As I mentioned at the opening of worship, this is the day which, in the old church calendar, was known as Gaudete Sunday, from one of the Latin words meaning “rejoice”. And all of the readings for today encourage us to rejoice, to feel joy. In Isaiah 61, we read: I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. Psalm 126 says, in part, we are filled with joy. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, which we did not read, exhorts us to be joyful always. And, this week, we were given the option of reading the Psalm or Mary’s song of joy – the Magnificat, her great song of joy, which she sang when she visited Elizabeth. And all of this ties in perfectly with the joyful season of Christmas, which is fast approaching.
This theme of joy is etched into our Christian existence; it is a response to God’s grace and goodness, it is part of the Christian DNA. So strong is this theme of joy that the word for joy is found over 300 times in the New Testament. Christians are meant to be people filled with joy. But what does joy sound like, what does joy look like, what does it feel like? Is joy found in the pursuit of happiness? Is joy found in the ownership of goods? Is joy found in status and wealth? Or even in a bar of chocolate?
If one were to examine the Western culture in which we live one might think that the answer to these questions is: yes. In fact much of our advertising encourages us to think that if we consume a particular product, wear a particular article of clothing, or buy a particular car, we will be happier. Of course, most of us are not duped by such advertising, and we know that it takes more than THINGS to bring us happiness; more than THINGS to make us rejoice. In fact, if we pay much attention to a certain type of news story, we see that often, people with the most THINGS, people with the most money, are not happy at all. We see celebrities courting happiness with drugs and alcohol, and we see that happiness ever eluding them. In fact, Timothy Radcliffe, in his devotional book Seven Last Words, commented that in his travels around the world it was in the wealthiest countries that he found that people seemed to be the most worried. It appears that we are afflicted by our anxiety despite our wealth or maybe even because of it! We have not found joy, despite our searching. We have not found joy, despite the fact that, as Christians, we are meant to be joyful. We are meant to rejoice. But we aren’t. And we don’t.
So, here we are, in this season of Advent, on this Gaudete Sunday, having lit the pink candle which symbolizes joy, and, as a people, we are not joyful. But we can be. And that is the point of today’s readings, that we can be joyful. We can be joyful, we can rejoice, when we have found that which will make us truly happy. And that, of course, is the anchor which holds us fast to God’s love, the anchor which is Jesus Christ. If we look again at our readings – both those we used, and those we didn’t – we will find this plainly demonstrated. In Isaiah, we read: The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news. We further read: I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. This reading ends with: the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.
To Isaiah, then, the source of joy was God. He believed and trusted that God had acted in human history, that he was continuing to act in human history, and that he would act in the future of humanity. If we have trust like that, then we must also feel joy. The Psalmist also felt this joy, for he wrote: The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. And Paul, in urging his listeners to be joyful always, shows his complete trust in God. It is this trust, this confidence that allows to feel joy, no matter what. It is this trust, this confidence, that gets us through difficult times. People of faith, no matter when in history, find joy in knowing and believing in a God who loves us, a God who acts. And it is God who wants us to rejoice, even though we live in a troubled world.
There used to be a TV show on years ago, which some of you may have seen. More specifically, some of you may admit to having seen it. It was called Hee-Haw, and featured bluegrass and country music. I have to confess that it wasn’t my favourite show, but, at the time, we didn’t have a whole lot of choice in TV, so sometimes I found myself watching it in spite of myself. One of the regular guests on the show was a Baptist preacher named Grady Nutt, who came to be known as the prime minister of humour. He is still quoted in many places today, even though he was killed in an airplane crash in the 1980s. One of the quotes which I always liked is particularly appropriate today, when we are enjoined everywhere and at every time to rejoice, to feel joy. He said: Laughter is the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world. Laughter is the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world. That suits the time of Isaiah, when the Israelites had returned from Babylon to find a world that was changed almost beyond recognition. It suited the time of Paul, when he was bringing the good news to all who would listen – and even to some who wouldn’t. And in this day and age, in a world filled with terrorism and road rage, when we are faced with estrangement and outsourcing, all is NOT calm; all is NOT bright. The writer of Proverbs knew this, and, centuries ago, wrote: A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones (17: 22) There is something about humour that brings us to life. In fact, there has been medical evidence which suggests that laughter is, indeed, as good as or better than, medicine in some cases. Humour and laughter strengthen your immune system, boost your energy, diminish pain, and protect you from the damaging effects of stress. Best of all, this priceless medicine is fun, free, and easy to use. So I guess that the writers of Scripture knew what they were talking about. Whether we call it humour or joy, there is something about it that just causes us to come alive. It is like water bringing a desert to life. Think about that as you rejoice in the season that is Christmas. Think about that as you search for the joy which is only to be found in our God.
The psalmist knew about this. He wrote: He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of Joy, carrying sheaves with him. The point is that joy is not automatic. It starts with sorrow, for, without sorrow, how can we know joy? The psalm which we used today segued into a Gospel song – who does not remember singing loudly: we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves. Talitha Arnold, a minister in Santa Fe, reflects on the mystery of suffering turned to joy: “The natural power of God to turn seeds into grain would be miracle enough. But Psalm 126 makes an even greater statement. The seeds are not ordinary, but seeds of sorrow. The fruit they bear is not grain or wheat, but shouts of joy.” We seek joy in this season, but perhaps we look in the wrong places and in the wrong ways: “This is no jingle-bells joy brought with a swipe of a credit card,” Arnold writes. “The seeds of this joy have been planted in sadness and watered with tears. This is the honest joy that often comes only after weeping has tarried the night.”
Now, let’s turn to John’s Gospel, which I haven’t mentioned yet. You will remember that last week, I preached about John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Jesus. We heard about him again today, but not before the author of this Gospel explained exactly who Jesus was, and when Jesus was, and where Jesus was. He was the Word, and the Word was God, and he was with God in the beginning. This is probably the very first theological statement of the divinity of Jesus. Sure, there are many places where Jesus himself reveals his divinity, but it is here, in John’s Gospel, that we hear one of his followers not only acknowledging it, but starting the Gospel with it. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This is pretty heavy stuff for just a couple of weeks before Christmas. But there is a reason for John’s Gospel starting like this. It is important for us to know that Jesus IS God, because, if he isn’t, then what are we doing here?
So, after the writer has established who Jesus is, he then goes on to explain – somewhat – who John the Baptist is. This seems to be a question that was on everyone’s minds at the time these events happened. The priests and Levites were sent to ask John who he was, but he seemed to be more taken up with saying who he was NOT. He first said: I am not the Christ. So they asked him if he were Elijah. You see, in the Old Testament, it had been written that Elijah would come back before the Messiah appeared. (Mal. 4: 5) But John was not Elijah. Nor was he the prophet. And, actually, it really isn’t clear who this PROPHET is. My research indicated that John is referring to Jesus again, but I find that rather difficult to accept. In any case, whoever the prophet is supposed to be, it isn’t John.
When the religious leaders push him for an answer, he quoted from Isaiah, saying: I am the voice of one calling in the desert. Make straight the way for the Lord. And this is a major difference between this Gospel and the other gospels. In all of the other gospels, it is the writer who says these words ABOUT John. In this Gospel, John says it about himself. When asked who he was John pointed, not to his own life and witness, but to the one who would come after him. John pointed to the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit’s fire. He knew what he wanted was not for him but for those who came after him. Perhaps John could have been a greater prophet and more of his words would be remembered, but he was careful to point people to a bigger, better gift to come. People may have thought that what they wanted was John, but John knew the better gift was coming. It would be a gift that would truly change the world.
Just as John was able to explain who he was, and, more importantly, who he was NOT, we are supposed to be able to explain ourselves when we are asked who we are. But in order to do this, we need to understand who we are. I am reminded of the story about a little boy who was involved in a wedding. It was his task to carry the rings down the aisle on a small cushion. He seemed thrilled with his job, but at the wedding rehearsal all did not go well. In fact, it was dreadful. The child kept hiding in pews, and leading out at people, baring his teeth at them, and chasing the little flower girls all over the sanctuary. Finally, his embarrassed mother took him outside, and demanded to know why he was behaving so badly. But, Mom, he said, I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. I have to act fierce because I am the Ring Bear.
Like so many people, that small boy misunderstood what role he was supposed to play. His was a supporting role in the ceremony, with the focus on the bride and groom. Just so with John the Baptist. The focus was not to be on him. He said it himself: I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.
I wonder how many books and articles have been written on the idea of “finding oneself”? How many people have left spouses, children, and jobs in an effort to find themselves? But here is where you are. Just as John was where John was. We have been placed in a role by God, and it is our duty AND privilege to find that role.
Many people remember taking part in a Christmas Pageant. Maybe you played a shepherd or a wise man. Maybe you were part of the angelic chorus. But whatever role you played, you did as you were told. Just so did John, who was cast as the forerunner, do as he had been told. He knew that he was not to be the focus, but that the focus was to move from him to Jesus, to the Messiah. So often, we, like the little boy in the story I told earlier, forget that we are not the focus. We want it to be all about us, and that’s not the way God means it to be.
We are to be messengers, bearers of the good news. But the news is not about us. Rather, it is about Jesus, the one whose birth we will celebrate in a couple of weeks. So, today, let us rejoice. Because you, like the Baptist, are a precious child of God, a reflection of the light of Christ, shining for all the world to see. Thanks be to God.

December 4th, 2nd Sunday of Advent

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.
Like most members of this congregation this week, I have found it to be exceptionally busy. At one point, I commented to someone that there just might not be a sermon today, as I didn’t see where I would find the time. And why was this? It was mostly because of yesterday’s luncheon. Like many of you, I baked until I thought I couldn’t bake any more. And then I did bake more. It seemed as though, every time I turned around, something was ready to go into the oven or to come out of it. I spent the week preparing for Saturday. And, as I thought about how it was interfering with sermon and prayer writing, I realized that, in all of this preparation, all of this getting ready, I was actually living very Scripturally, according to the lectionary readings for today. After all, the theme for Advent – despite everything else – is prepare. Last week, at the very beginning, I told you to prepare the way of the Lord. That is what Isaiah was doing, and what John the Baptist was doing. And it is what we are doing as well. Keep that in mind, while I set the stage.
We have read stories about God’s chosen people being in the wilderness, where Jacob wrestled with the angel, where Moses spoke to God, and where Jesus himself was tempted by Satan. . After Jacob wrestled with the angel, he was renamed Israel, and became one of the fathers of a mighty nation. It was through wandering for 40 years in the wilderness that the Israelites found their way to the Promised Land. But their exodus was not without peril. They often fell away from God, in search of false idols. They turned their backs on God, and they fought among themselves. And Jesus had gone into the desert to fast and pray, so that he could prepare himself for his mission on earth. Being in the desert, in what is often called the wilderness in various translations, is not a desirable thing to do; not a desirable place to be. It is dangerous, full of perils. If you are in the desert, alone, you are at the mercy of the elements and brigands who might assail you.
So what’s the point of talking about deserts? After all, here in Quebec City, there isn’t much of a desert, really. Granted, as winter sets in, it may look like a desert of white outside, but most of the year there are things growing, and the climate is quite temperate. But at this time of year, with Christmas just 21 days away, it is easy to feel as though we are wandering in a wilderness, as though we are living in a desert. We are in a time of preparation, preparing for the commemoration of the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. And yet, and yet, even knowing this, even knowing our destination, it is often easy to feel lost, to feel overwhelmed, to feel as though we have lost sight of our goal. But it is important to remember that, while living in a desert has its perils, it also has its rewards.
And that is the purpose of today’s Scripture readings – to bring us back on track, to show us again where we are going. For it is always just when people feel abandoned, just when people feel most alone, that God sends prophets to show us the way. Today, we read from Isaiah and from Mark’s gospel, and I will be using both of the readings to show how they can do what it is that prophets are supposed to do – how they can open our eyes, and show us the path we need to take.
Let’s look at Isaiah first, part of which was quoted in the Gospel. As I have mentioned before, the book of Isaiah is one which is frequently used during Advent, because this is the one which forecasts what is to happen when the Messiah comes. This particular reading may be applied to John the Baptist. We heard: A voice of one calling: In the desert prepare the way for the Lord. Now, when I was young, I used to think that this was read: A voice of one calling in the desert, and I remember thinking that it was kind of pointless to be in the desert calling out for people to prepare the way for the Lord. It was only later that I realized that the voice was saying that the way was to be prepared in the desert. This makes a huge difference, especially when we consider that this was the place where John was living. And it makes a huge difference to us, as we wander through our own particular deserts.
But back to Isaiah. This was written at a time when the Israelites were still in exile, still cut off from their homes. They were in Babylon, living as foreigners, and not only as foreigners, but as captives in a strange land. They must have felt as though their God had abandoned them, and then he sent Isaiah with words which we still use today, which we used in one of the hymns which we sang last week, and which is often used during this season of Advent. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. This is Isaiah speaking to the people. This is Isaiah telling the people that God has not abandoned them, that they will receive from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. Isaiah says that the glory of God will be revealed. But more than that, the sovereign Lord will tend his flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs in his arms. What a comforting image that must have been for the Israelites. And what a comforting one it is for us.
But now we must move from comfort to something that is odd, to say the least. And not only odd, but it seems to have little to do with the day we are awaiting. Matthew and Luke both tell a version of Jesus’ birth, but Mark leaps right to Jesus as an adult, Jesus prepared to begin his mission. As if that were not odd enough, he begins with John the Baptist, whom people have started to call John the Baptizer, lest he be confused with today’s Baptists. I don’t think that there could be much that was more unusual than John. He lived a solitary life, in the desert, subsisting on locusts and wild honey, and wearing clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. Even in Jesus’ time, that must have been odd enough to occasion some talk. But people flocked to him, seeking to be baptized by him.
The author of our Gospel for this year felt that this was the appropriate place to begin his story, with Jesus’ baptism. Not only that, he started the narrative with a quotation from Isaiah, the very one which we read this morning. In doing this, he was telling us not only that this John was the forerunner, but that the one who was to follow – Jesus – was the Messiah.
The Israelites to whom Isaiah was speaking were in a wilderness, far away from their own land. And at the time of John, even though they were now living in the land which was given them by God centuries ago, Jews were still in a wilderness. They were living under Roman occupation, and ruled by a Roman government. If you remember, it was because the emperor Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken that Jesus happened to be born in Bethlehem. Otherwise, he would likely have been born in Nazareth, where his parents were living at the time.
So today, we heard two voices – Isaiah’s and John’s – separated by centuries, but held together by their message – a message of redemption. But there is more to it than that. You see, while the Israelites were in Babylon, and even before that, while they were traveling through the wilderness on their exodus from Egypt, they seemed to spend a lot of time bemoaning their fate. Now, granted, wandering for 40 years is a long time, and being in captivity for almost sixty years is also a long time. But if all you are going to do while you are wandering or while you are in captivity is complain, then it is going to seem even worse. Forty years, sixty years – that is a lifetime or more than a lifetime for some people, and it seems to me that the Israelites could have done more while they were not in their homeland. Just so, while the Jews were waiting for rescue from the Romans, it seems to me that they could have done more to keep their identity alive. As it was, many of them – particularly the religious leaders and officials – just submitted to the Roman rulers, and forced those under them to submit as well.
The Israelites of Isaiah’s time were waiting for their land to be restored to them; the Jews of Jesus’ time were waiting for the Romans to be removed. And the one thing that they had in common was that they were not prepared. The Jews were not prepared for Jesus’ birth, which is why John had been sent. And what about you? Are you prepared? I don’t mean to ask you if you have your baking done, or your shopping, or your extra cleaning. Are you prepared to accept Jesus into your life? Are you open to whatever might happen when you do?
When I was in seminary, we read many great sermons by some wonderful preachers. One of my personal favourites is Fred Craddock, a well-known preacher and scholar. He told the story about a young pastor who visited an old lady who was very sick in a hospital.
He entered the room and saw a person lying on the bed, gasping for breath. H decided to have a short visit, so as not to tire her. He asked, “Would you like me to pray for you?”
She nodded yes.
“What would you like me to pray?” asked the young preacher?
“I want you to pray that I will be made well, that God will give me health.”, the old lady said.

The young preacher gulped, thinking that it was obvious that this prayer would not be answered. But he prayed, praying something like, “God, if it be thy will, restore this, my sister to health. However, let us accept thy will, so that whether she receives her health or not, she will know that you are still close to her.”
When the prayer ended, the old lady’s eyes flashed open. She sat up. She startled the preacher by throwing her legs over the side of the bed. She stood up. She stretched out her arms. She turned around to the astonished young preacher and said, “I feel better. I feel a great deal better. In fact, I feel like I have been healed.!”
With that she walked out of the room, headed down the hall toward the nurse’s station, shouting, “I am healed!”
The young preacher staggered out, went down the stairs, out the door of the hospital and into the parking lot. As he stood at his car, before opening the door, the young preacher looked up to heaven, and cried out, “Don’t you ever do that to me again!”
I guess that he wasn’t ready, that he wasn’t open. And my guess is that there are a lot of us just like that young preacher. We believe, of course we do. And yet we miss the good news. We know that God is around somewhere, but we miss the fact that he is right here, right now.
One of the hymns we sang today ties in nicely with this idea of him being here, with us, today. I refer, of course to # 110, which was written by Charles Wesley, John’s younger brother. I am just going to read through it to refresh your memory, but this time I want you to listen to the words, instead of the melody.
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all-sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

You see, Charles knew, as does just about any teacher, that most people might not learn or memorize complicated theological doctrines, but he knew that they would learn the words to songs. So he backed his hymns with the theology, the ideas about God, that he wanted to make sure people knew. What does this hymn say? Well, you might notice, for one thing, that it doesn’t talk very much about a baby Jesus. Yes, it talks about why Jesus is born, and that he is born a baby, a child. But mostly, this hymn focuses on why we need Jesus to be born, why we long-expect this Jesus. Jesus is born to set his people free, to deliver us from fears and sins, so that we can find our rest in Jesus. Jesus is born to be our strength, our consolation, the hope of the whole earth, the desire of every nation, and the joy of every heart. Jesus is born to deliver his people, a child yes, but a King, born to reign, born to usher in the Kingdom of God, born to rule in our hearts, born to raise us up to God’s kingdom. For Charles Wesley, for this Advent hymn of longing, this hymn of hope, that’s the important message about what we need to know about Christ’s birth, why we should want Christmas to come so much. And that’s why we need to be prepared, and why, on this second of Sunday of Advent, Scripture is always concerned with John the Baptist, preparing the way. Thanks be to God.

November 27th, First Sunday of Advent

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.
Many people use a calendar to keep track of special days. We have agendas and daybooks, iPods and palm pilots. Some of us have large wall calendars on which we write appointments. A friend of mine used to write everything on a calendar which hung on the wall in her kitchen. And, on New Year’s Eve, one of the family ceremonies involved taking the old calendar down, and reliving the previous year before hanging the new one and starting all over again. We, in the church, like to be a bit ahead of the rest of the world, so we start our year today, some 5 weeks ahead of the secular world. Nora Gallagher, in her book Things Seen and Unseen, talks about living the church year. “The church calendar,” she writes, “calls into consciousness the existence of a world uninhabited by efficiency, a world filled with the excessiveness of saints, ashes, smoke and fire; it fills my heart with both dread and hope.”
Now there is a paradox for you – a heart filled with both dread and hope. And, in the life of the church, this day is also a paradox. It marks the beginning of the church year, and yet our readings talk about end times, about the apocalypse. While this may seem contradictory, to be planning to welcome a baby while talking about the time he will come at the end of the world, it actually makes sense when you think about it.
Let’s start by looking at the reading from Isaiah. This is one of the books which we read during Advent, partly this is the part of the Old Testament which foreshadows the Messiah more than any other part. In a lectionary of daily Scripture readings, at this time of year, you will find more from Isaiah than any other book. We read about the shoot coming from the stump of Jesse, about the virgin who will bear a child, about the baby who will be born in Bethlehem, about the one who will save Israel. And we are able to apply all of this to Jesus, the Messiah, and to see reasons to rejoice. But in today’s reading, we don’t see too much to rejoice about. The Old Testament text is from that part of the Book of Isaiah (Third Isaiah, Chapters 56 to 66) that reflects the dark days in Jerusalem, around 500 B.C., after the return from exile in Babylon. The bright hopes of the new creation and the new exodus that make Second Isaiah (Chapters 40 to 55) the high point of the Hebrew Bible had not turned out so well. The prophet expresses frustration at the poor state of the Jewish community in its worship, morale, basic morality and religious observance. And a lot of what Isaiah wrote then can apply today, to our Christian community, and to the world as a whole. But Isaiah lives in hope, and so should we. In his hope, Isaiah cries: Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down. As Christians, we believe that this hope was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, whose birth we are awaiting.
But it is not only his birth we are awaiting. Nor is it the end of the world, as our readings could be interpreted. In actual fact, the readings – from both Isaiah and Mark – herald the anticipated reign of God. As Christians, we believe that this reign started with the birth of Christ, and each year, we celebrate this momentous event in our history.
When I look at our history, and at the way the church has divided the year, so that we celebrate and commemorate the events in the life of Israel and in the life of Jesus, I see us as exemplifying different types of Christians. I consider myself to be an Advent Christian, which I will explain in a few minutes. You see, the church year may be roughly divided into five seasons – Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. Likewise, Christians may be roughly classified according the season. Of course, there are many shades of grey, and, at any given time, we may slot ourselves into any or all of the seasons. Of course, we are – all of us – Easter Christians, because we know that, without the resurrection, none of the rest would matter at all. Without the resurrection, Jesus would just have been a good guy, who had special gifts which he used to help others. It is because of the resurrection that we know with certainty that we, like him, will rise again. Many people are Christmas Christians – the most important thing about their faith is that Jesus was born, that the Messiah came. Then we have Lenten Christians. For them the point of faith is the fact that Jesus died for us. Such people are big on hellfire and brimstone in sermons, and they focus on sin, guilt, and forgiveness. And let’s not forget the Pentecostal Christians. They are on fire with the Spirit, and use his gifts in spreading the Good News. And the Advent Christians, where I see myself – what defines us? We believe that Christ came, but we will still sing: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. We believe that, because Jesus was born, the kingdom of God has dawned, but we still pray: Thy kingdom come. We still long for the new heaven and the new earth which we have been promised. With the Israelites, we are still in exile. With the psalmist, we still long for something we do not yet have. And, as Jesus has exhorted us, we are still watchful, while we wait. C.S. Lewis wrote: If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. And, centuries earlier, St. Augustine wrote: My heart is restless, O God, until it rests in thee. Both of these quotes resonate with Advent Christians. We are not unhappy with what we have now, but we know that there is something more to come. And Advent is the season which reminds us of it, every week.
Our hymn for the lighting of the Advent candle is the same each week, with the exception of one word, and the word this week is HOPE. Most dictionary definitions of this word include something like: Hope is the desire for something with the possibility of, or belief in, its realization. Hope must have an object or goal; we need to hope for something. Hope must have a basis; otherwise, our hopes are daydreams or fantasies. And hope involves the belief that what we hope for can be accomplished. The readings for the First Sunday of Advent can help to place our Christian hopes in the larger context of hope for the fullness of God’s kingdom.
While the Israelites were hoping for the Messiah, we know that he has come, and we are now hoping for the coming Kingdom of God. But while we hope, we must wait.
I don’t know about you, but I seem to spend a lot of my time waiting. As a child, I waited for birthdays, for summer vacation, and even for school to start again in September. As an adult, I wait for appointments, I wait for trains or airplanes, I wait in the doctor’s office or at government agencies. I spend an unconscionable amount of time waiting in line at check-outs, especially at this time of the year. I sit with people, waiting for them to die. I think that our waiting may be divided into two distinct types. We wait for things to happen, and we also wait for them to stop happening. But while we wait, we do things.
In the church year, and in the secular world, we are waiting for Christmas. Last week, we had the Toy Parade in Quebec City, which announces that the time has come to start preparing. In Montreal and Toronto there were similar – and much larger – parades. Many of us have started our Christmas baking, and for those of us who need to mail gifts – well, that has likely already been done. If not, then panic mode is setting in. But Advent is more than that. Advent is more than doing things. Advent is a time of waiting, a time of anticipation.
As most of you know, I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and attended a parochial school. In those days, we still had denominational education in Newfoundland, and the nuns of my childhood made sure that we knew what Advent was all about. We spent the four weeks getting ready for Christmas, but not the big, showy Christmas we are led to expect from the parades and the store windows and the catalogues and the TV commercials. We were led, gently, towards the birth of a baby – a baby who would save the world from itself. And it is this journey through Advent that I remember best about the month of December – and sometimes, as this year, late November. I remember the hope and the wonder and the waiting. I remember the unknown and the mysterious, the sense of promise, and mostly the feeling that something beautiful and good was coming – soon.
Of course, I have grown up since then, and my life has taken many turns, some quite unexpected. I have learned that the world is not always beautiful, that there is pain, injustice, and violence out there. I’ve been hurt a few times myself, and I have felt helpless when I have seen those I love being hurt. My wonder itself has changed, as I wonder sometimes how things can possibly be made better. But always, always, at this time of year, I am filled with the same sense of promise, with the expectation that – not only will things be better, but it has already started, and it can continue, through you and through me.
Let’s turn now to the reading from Mark’s Gospel. This comes at the very end of Jesus’ eschatological discussion. At the beginning of this chapter, the apostles Peter, James, John, and Andrew, came to him privately and asked him to tell them what would be the signs that the end was coming. Don’t you just love these men? They are always wanting to know something that other people don’t. And usually, Jesus doesn’t buy into this whole Inner Circle idea. Usually, he gently puts his followers in his place, but on this day – he gives them what they asked for, and probably a lot more. He warns of the tribulations to come, which we know actually happened. He tells them how awful it will be when the end arrives, and throughout the discourse, he constantly tells them to watch. Verse 5 reads: Watch out that no one deceives you. You know, whenever I read this verse, I think about all of those doomsday prophets who insist that the world is going to end of a specific date, and I wonder how it is that some Christians can fall under the spell of these false prophets.
In the reading for today, Jesus warns Peter, James, John, Andrew, and us to be on guard. He tells us to keep watch not once, but three times. We are to remain always watchful, always on guard, always vigilant, because only the Father knows the time when these things will happen. The short parable about the master returning from a trip illustrates the behaviour that is expected of us as Christians. Just as the servants do not know when their master will return, we do not know when the Son of Man will return. And, like the servants, we should be expecting him always, and make sure that we are living the lives we are meant to be living.
More than living these lives, we are to be watchful. Jesus tells us to learn a lesson from watching the fig tree. He says: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. But you cannot know this unless you watch. You cannot see the faint haze of green on trees unless you watch for it. Otherwise, the leaves will take you by surprise. Just so can we be taken by surprise by unexpected glimpses of God’s kingdom being in our midst. Last summer, we hosted three groups of young people here at the Manse and the Kirk Hall. One was a group from Ontario, traveling to do mission work in New Brunswick. Another was a group from the Maritimes, traveling to a national youth conference in Toronto. And the third was a group of singers who had spent six months traveling the eastern seaboard and the Maritimes, sharing God’s word with elementary and high school students. Each of these groups asked to visit the church, and expressed disappointment that they would not be here on a Sunday to share worship with us. This is a sign of God’s coming kingdom, and, even more, a sign that he is already with us. Through people like these, and people like the ones in our church, I see that the work which was begun in Jesus continues now, in Quebec City, in our midst. We are faithful disciples not when we focus on the future and obsess about the end of the world, as were the disciples. It is when we commit our lives, here and now, to the great work of God, repairing this world, shaping a new creation of beauty, grace, justice, and joy, that we live in the reign of God. Thanks be to God.

January 2012
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