Sunday, 14 January 2018

Discerning God's will for us- Epiphany series- 2

Today we are continuing with our sermon series based on questions that have been submitted by the congregation. This morning we are looking at two questions.

The first is- 
“Where are we going in the emerging church of 2018?”

And the second is- 
“What plan does God have for me? I feel like I am spiraling out of control with no end in sight.”

Before we get into dealing with these questions, I just want to speak to the person who wrote the second question. … I think just about everybody in this room feels deeply for you. I know as soon as I read it I felt my heart hurt for you. … I think most of us have felt something similar, so please don’t feel alone or feel like no one cares. That is a very difficult place to be, spiritually and mentally. If you want someone to walk with you through that feeling please let us know, or please reach out to someone you trust. …

The reason I put these questions together is that they are both about discernment. They both have to do with trying to understand where God is leading us. The question essentially becomes, “How do we hear God?”

I’m just going to start with what I would do if I was feeling this kind of discomfort and feeling like I was at a moment when I needed God’s particular direction. ... Assuming that there wasn’t any major sin in my life that I haven’t dealt with, the first thing I would do is give myself a bit of a spiritual check-up.

The question, 
“What plan does God have for me? I feel like I am spiraling out of control with no end in sight”
 might indicate a spiritual hunger. I suspect that feeling of spiritual hunger is actually a way that God is speaking to you. … When you feel hungry or thirsty your body is telling you that you are missing food or water. Or you might be hungry because you are missing a nutrient. … In a similar way, when a question like that arises within us it can be an indication of a spiritual hunger telling us that we are missing something.

To diagnose our spiritual hunger we might want to begin by looking at our overall spiritual health. It is important that we periodically and prayerfully review how we are living our life. Are we living a healthy Christian life? In Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus tells his disciples, 
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
 A healthy spiritual life has to do with Jesus saying, “Obey all I have commanded you”. Christ’s commands are given to us to we can lead a joyful life empowered by God’s Spirit to transform the world around us. One way I find helpful to review my life according to the commands of Christ is to think of 3 directions- 
 Up, In, and Out.

First, we will look at “Up”. “Up” has to do with our relationship with God. We are creatures made for worship. How is our relationship with God? Are we worshiping God well? Are we putting our hearts into a worshipful place when we come to church? When we worship do we see God as present with us? When we sing hymns are we conscious that we are singing them to God? When we say “amen” to a prayer do we realize we are saying “I agree” to something that was said to God in our midst? When we receive the bread and wine are we conscious that Christ is giving himself to us in that moment?

But, our relationship with God is about more than what we do on Sunday. If our relationship with God is only something we deal with on Sunday then we are on a starvation diet. Do we take time to walk outside and inwardly praise the creator of the trees, and the sky, and the sun and the moon? Do we listen to beautiful music that draws out heart to God? Do we praise the One who gave health to our bodies- the heart pumping blood through our veins, the air that fills our lungs? Do we have a daily habit of prayer and Bible study?

“Up” is all about our relationship with God. In Matthew 22:37, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said, 
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”.
 This is what “Up” is about. Are we loving God well? Is that THE main priority in our life?

Second, we will look at “in”. “In” has to do with our relationship to one another. It has to do with community. Jesus said the second most important commandment is, 
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39).
 If you want to know if you have a healthy relationship with this community, ask yourself this question, “Within the Christian community, is there someone you feel you could call at 2 am if you were dealing with a tragedy?” If we don’t have someone here we know that well, then we can develop those relationships. One way to do that is to form a small group that meets weekly.

In the context of that group though we can’t keep people at arm’s length. We need to be willing to be vulnerable and available to those people. We need to share what we are actually thinking and feeling. We need to share our successes and our failures- Our struggles- Our sins- Our virtues and strengths. Are we available to others? Do we make time for them? Do we listen, rather than dominate the conversation? Do we listen for what is the deep core of meaning in the life of the other person? What brings them pain? What brings them joy? What is their relationship with God like? … Do we have relationships that help us mature in our faith? Is there someone in our life we see as a mentor? Is there someone whose relationship with God we respect, who guides us? Is there someone who is less mature in their relationship with God that we actively work to develop a friendship with?

“In” is all about our relationship with other Christians, especially in our church. I sometimes hear people say, “I don’t have to be a part of a church to be a Christian”. When someone says that they should realize that, in terms of Christian history, they are part of an incredibly small number of Christians who have thought that way. Even the desert fathers and mothers who went off on their own to lead lives of prayer soon had people coming to them to learn from them. Christianity has always been a communal endeavor. We need each other to grow into the people God wants us to be. We need to learn from each other. We need to know what it is like to love and be loved. We even need to know what it is like to bump into each other so we can learn patience and forgiveness. … When I am all by myself it is easy for me to feel holy, but it is often when I am with others that I see my own impatience. When I am with other faithful people, my own faith is encouraged. A healthy Christian life is a communal life. I love Paul’s summary in Ephesians 4:11-13- 
“The gifts [God] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
A healthy church has a variety of people with a variety of gifts who are all working together to build up the body of Christ so that we can grow more and more into the likeness of Christ. 

Finally, I want to talk about “out”. “Out” is about our service to the world. As Christians, in someway we need to be involved in helping hurting people. We should be involved in making the world better. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says to his disciples- 
“You are the salt of the earth”, 
“You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:13, 14).
 Salt is a preservative. In the ancient world salt was put on food to keep it from spoiling- it fought against decay. Jesus is saying that we are supposed to be the preservative of the world. Similarly, light shows what is hidden in the dark. With the light we can see the path and any dangers in the way. If we are the light and salt of the world, then the world should be better for our being in it. This neighbourhood should miss us if our doors closed. The city of Red Deer should miss us if we shut down. Our neighbours’ lives should be worse if we moved out of the neighbourhood. This can be formal, like serving at the Mustard Seed with our team, but it can be as simple as inviting a lonely neighbour over for tea. “Out” means living a life of service to others. Jesus says that we will meet him as we encounter the stranger in need, 
“as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).

I have found “up”, “in”, and “out” to be helpful for giving me a general check-up in terms of my spiritual health. But, there are times when we are generally spiritually healthy and we still feel a spiritual discomfort that causes us to search out God’s will. This means God might have something more specific to say to us and this is the harder task of discernment. The real challenge of discernment for most of us isn’t deciding between smoking crack or going to Bible study. The real challenge is between choosing between two good things. Should I stay at this job or go to that job. Should I say yes to helping with this ministry, or will that stretch me too thin? That is the hard task of discernment and the Bible doesn’t always have a verse for that. Sometimes God has something very specific to say to us because he has a specific call on all of our lives. When we look at the saints we see very specific callings. St. Francis of Assisi was called to a life of joyful poverty, service to the poor, preaching, and love for creation. St. Thomas Aquinas was called to an academic life, helping the church describe God and the mysteries of theology.

So how can we hear God's specific word to us? Most commonly, and most importantly, God can speak to you directly through your thoughts. If want to plant the idea of an elephant in your mind I have to use my vocal chord to speak the word “elephant”, then your eardrums have to hear the sound and interpret the word, Then you have the idea of an elephant in your mind. … Well God can bypass all that business and just give you the thought. That doesn’t mean all your thoughts are God speaking to you. … You still have to discern which thoughts are from God and which aren’t, which is partly why it is important to know our Bibles well and to have mature Christians that can help us hear. Over time we can learn to recognize that voice better. This is the primary way God speaks to us as individuals, but most of us haven’t been taught to hear that still, small, loving, and authoritative voice. And we can’t force God to speak. Sometimes that silence is important as well. Hearing God’s voice can be challenging.

Sometimes these thoughts take the form of dreams, or strong feelings. Sometimes you might have a friend say something to you that strikes a chord deep inside you. Sometimes you notice strange coincidences. Sometimes a passage of the Bible just keeps jumping into your mind. Sometimes a memory, or a person keeps coming to mind. … When we do hear God saying something to us, it is important to test what we are hearing against the general teaching of Scripture. In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 Paul says, 
“Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” 
Sometimes a mature Christian friend or a good spiritual director can help us with this testing as well.

I haven’t said much about the future of the church, but that is because if we have a church full of people doing exactly what I just described, then the church will be fine. Ultimately it is God’s church and the church will always be fine, but that is no guarantee for us as St. Leonard’s. The Church, as God’s people in the world, will always exist somewhere, but if we want to be a part of what God is doing in the world then it is important that we are constantly seeking out God’s will and trying to live lives directed by that will. AMEN

Suggested reading:

Hearing God by Dallas Willard
The title sort of says it all. Willard was a brilliant spiritual teacher and a philosopher. He speaks about the "still small voice" of God and how it is that we can hear God in our lives.   

Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
This book outlines a number of ancient Christian practices that have helped Christians in their spiritual lives. This is a book I go back to again and again. When discerning God's will we may want to practice solitude and silence for a time to make space to hear God more clearly. I have also found this book to be a good guide to the practices of a healthy Christian life. (You might also want to look at James Bryan Smith's Good and Beautiful... series, which explores these themes further)

Weeds Among the Wheat by Thomas H. Green S.J.
I haven't finished reading this one yet but from what I have read so far it seems like a very good guide to the practice of discernment. Green outlines what the Jesuits are famous for. 

The First Spiritual Exercises adapted by Michael Hansen S.J. 
St. Ignatius of Loyola is well known as being the founder of the Jesuits and for leading people through a retreat he called the Spiritual Exercises. For those who are unable to go on a 30 day Spiritual Exercises retreat at a place like Loyola House, this book is a way to experience the Exercises at your own pace and at home.  
The Living Church by John Stott
In this book Stott attempts to consider the basics of the Church. Just as C.S. Lewis tried to explain the common core of Christianity in Mere Christianity, so Stott attempts to write a kind of Mere Church book that focuses more on what the church has had in common while still expressing his own convictions. This is a helpful book at a time when there is so much change within our culture, which the church must engage.     

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Did the wise men going to the bad place? (Epiphany sermon series)

Today we are starting our Epiphany sermon series, which is based on questions that have been submitted by members of our congregation. I once heard The scholar and bishop N.T. Wright say that 25% of what he says is wrong, but he's not sure which bits those are. I feel that same as we enter into this series. It's likely we are going to disagree at points and I might very well be wrong in some of the things I'm going to say, but this is the best I can come up with right now. You are allowed to disagree with me. I will probably offend everyone at some point during this series, so I ask for your grace and patience especially during these sermons.  Please know you can disagree with me. 

Did the wise men going to the bad place?

 The first thing I want to do is explain that question a bit. … These wise men come to see and give homage to the child born in Bethlehem. They saw a star that foretold his arrival and they brought three gifts for the child. The wise men don’t seem to be Jewish, which means they were probably gentiles. The Greek word Matthew uses for them is Magi. Magos can be translated as “wise”, but it is also translated as “sorcerer”, or “wizard”. It is from this Greek word that we get the word “magician”. It refers to someone who claims to have magical powers, or someone who practices witchcraft.[1] The Magician might examine the stars as they look for omens in the sky- we usually call that astrology. … 

We see other Magi in the New Testament as well. For example, there was a man who practiced magic in Acts chapter 8. He is called Simon Magus, or Simon the magician. … Generally, the Bible is quite negative regarding those who practice magic. Deuteronomy 18:10 says 
“There shall not be found among you anyone who … practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer”.
 So not only are they not Jewish, but their beliefs also seem to be against the Jewish law.

These magicians come to honour Jesus as a baby, but they don’t seem to stick around to hear the teachings of Jesus when he is grown. They don’t learn about the cross or the resurrection. These wizards from a (probably) polytheistic religion died not knowing much of anything about Jesus, except that he was born. 

What happened to them when they died? Did they go to the good place, or the bad place?

We’re using this as a bit of a case study to consider all religions. What about people of the many different religions out there in the world?

We are dealing with two of the questions submitted by members of the congregation. The first question is, 
“Is everyone not a believer going to hell?”
 And the second question is, 
“’In my Father’s house there are many mansions’ could this be translated to mean that there is a place in heaven for people of different faiths? If that is so and we acknowledge that other faiths worship the one God how can we justify Jesus’ saying that no one comes to the Father but by me?”

I would like to look at our understanding of other religions briefly, then we will look at how we understand hell. We are dealing with a lot so we won’t really be able to go into a lot of depth.

First, what are we to make of other religions? I spent 4 years of university studying world religions. My first degree was in religious studies.  Mainly, I studied Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. 
I was in classes with believers of a variety of religions. I can honestly say there are beautiful things in the world’s religions and there are also things that I disagree with in those belief systems. 

We find a similar kind of reaction in the Bible. For example, in Acts 17 Paul says this to a group of Pagan polytheists, 
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (22-23).
 He seems to be saying that their instinct to worship is good. Paul even quotes from some of their own respected authors. He says God 
“is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; [Probably from Epimenides of Crete] as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” [From Aratus' poem “Phainomena”] (Acts 17:27-28). 
Paul finds a common point in their own beliefs in order to talk about Jesus. He doesn’t seem to wholly reject their religious instinct and even quotes from their own writings.

At other times though, Paul has sharp disagreement with those other religions. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul is speaking about their pagan neighbours and says, 
“I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Cor 10:20).
 That sounds incredibly harsh until we look at what the city of Corinth was like. The theologian Peter Kreeft has said that 2/3rds of the citizens of Corinth were slaves and that much of what was bought and sold in the city was human flesh in the form of slavery and prostitution. There were many places of pagan worship in the city of Corinth, but the major center of worship was the temple of Aphrodite. It is said that her temple had 1000 prostitutes.[2] To say that a belief system that can enslave and abuse and destroy human beings like that is demonically influenced isn’t as harsh as it sounds at first.

I think if we are honest this is how we all really feel. Some of us might want to say that all religions are equal so long as you are sincere because that’s the nice thing to say. But, I’m sure the men that flew planes into the World Trade Centre were very sincere in their belief that this was their service to God. (Please don't think I'm saying anything about Islam by mentioning that.) I’m sure none of us want to recognize that as a valid way of serving God. Not all religious actions and beliefs are equal. We need some way of discerning the good from the bad.

(I’m not saying that we Christians are innocent either- we have followed negative instincts as well.)

I think we have to recognize that we have points of agreement and points of disagreement with other religions. Often these disagreements are about how the world works. They are philosophical differences. 
Is reincarnation true or not? Christians would generally disagree with Hindus on this. 
Is it important for human beings to serve God? Christians would disagree with Buddhists on this. 
Is God triune- Father, Son, Holy Spirit? 
Is Jesus Christ the most accurate image of the invisible God (Col 1:15)? 
Is Jesus God come to us in the flesh, or is he just a prophet, or what? 
We are going to disagree about these things.

There are plenty of things we can agree on. We agree on a lot in terms of morality. If someone is about to get hit by a bus we will all hopefully pull the person out of the way. We also have a lot of similarity when we compare mystical experiences. There is a lot of overlap when it comes to human beings trying to be good and trying to reach out to “the ground of being”, or that “something more”. We have to just recognize that we have similarities and differences and we don’t do anyone any favors by pretending that’s not the case.

As Christians we have to be true to who we are and how we function within our worldview. That means we have to take Jesus’ words seriously when he says in John 14:6, 
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”.
If someone is saved, it is because of Jesus. Being saved- being a part of the kingdom- being in a healthy relationship with the Father- means more than just the afterlife, but today we are going to look at what that means for the afterlife. Since the question had to do with hell, I’ll focus on that aspect of the afterlife.

 When we say “hell” most of us have an image pop into our minds. I found it helpful to know that the word in the New Testament that Jesus used was “Gehenna” which was a garbage dump outside Jerusalem. 

(Present day Gehenna- the Valley of Hinnom)

It had fires that burned the garbage and animals picking through and fighting over scraps. It was also a dumping ground for executed criminals, whose bodies weren't claimed. So the language Jesus uses is very metaphorical, but he does say there are spiritual consequences after this life. There will be judgement against evil.

What is hell like? Some theologians think hell is a place of everlasting pain. Others think it is a kind of emptiness where you are at a distance from God. So if God is the source of all joy and peace and you are separated from God in hell you would be left with sadness and anxiety. … Some think people experience that pain for all eternity, and others think it is a place of destruction where a person is destroyed and then no longer exists.

There are 3 basic views about hell-

The first is called the Exclusive view (Exclusivism). In this view humanity has so walked away from the Holy God that we all deserve hell. Only those who call on Jesus to save them and have their character renewed by him are saved. Everyone else is lost to hell. This means that people of other religions are lost. Atheists are lost. Even Christians who say all the right things, but don’t really mean it might be lost. This view takes Jesus’ words seriously when he says, that the way to eternal life is narrow and the way to destruction is wide (Matt 7:13). St. Augustine (354-430 AD) leans this direction.

The second view is called the Universalist view (Universalism). In this view everyone is saved and hell is empty. God’s love overcomes everyone and, whether they want it or not, they are forced into God’s presence. No one can ultimately resist God’s goodness and everyone is eventually won over by God’s goodness and love. God is merciful and gracious and can’t stand for any aspect of what He has created to be lost. Origen (184/185- 253/254 AD) taught this, but the early church condemned that particular teaching. The modern theologian Karl Barth has been said to lean this direction as well.

The third view is called the Inclusive view (Inclusivism), which is the view I find most convincing. The idea here is that, yes, it is through Jesus that people are rescued from going to hell, but he rescues more than those who explicitly call on his name. He might rescue those whose characters are in line with who he is. So in addition to saving faithful disciples of Jesus, Jesus might in his grace and mercy save a Buddhist who focuses on loving-compassion. This person might, in some ways, be in line with who Jesus is. That person has responded to truth that is in accord with the character of Jesus. They might never have heard the name of Jesus, but they sense that a deep love for other beings is a very important thing, and they might focus a substantial part of their life on developing that.  Is the character of the person pointed toward or away from Christ- his character, and the ways of his kingdom? This view gives Jesus the freedom to decide without us placing theological constraints on him saying who's "in" or "out".

An example of this view is found in C.S. Lewis’ book The Last Battle.  It is generally a very interesting metaphorical exploration of heaven and hell and the book of Revelation. There is a young warrior who was born in another country and served a god called “Tash” rather than the lion Aslan (who is the Christ character). He dies and finds out that Aslan was the true God and Tash was a false god. The warrior says, 

“the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, ‘Son, thou art welcome’. But I said, ‘Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash’. He answered, ‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me’. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, ‘Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?’ The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, ‘It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?’ I said, 'Lord, though knowest how much I understand.’ But I said also (for the truth constrained me), 'Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days'. 'Beloved', said the Glorious One, 'unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek'.”
It is an interesting possibility Lewis imagines. ... Jesus is a free person, and he has complete freedom to save whoever he likes, even if they don’t fit the formula we usually use to say when someone is “saved”. We are told in the Gospels that the grace of God will be so generous it will be shocking and scandalous. So in this view the wise men have a chance of being saved even though they might not know about the cross and resurrection. In this view God wants to save everyone who can be saved. He doesn’t want any good to be lost that can be saved.

Personally, I lean towards the Inclusivist position because I think it makes the most sense of the character of Jesus we see in the Gospels. It recognizes the freedom of a human being to reject God, but it also recognized Jesus’ freedom to save whoever he wants. Though I still think we should not make assumptions as if we can presume on his grace. 

So, are the wise men in the bad place? I hope not. Ultimately it is all up to God and I trust in God’s goodness, justice, and mercy. I think that although the wise men don’t fit the model of what we usually call “saved” that they responded to Christ and showed him honour in the way they thought best. They endured danger and incredible person cost to show Christ honour, and I think Jesus honours that. Amen.

If you want to explore this topic more I recommend the following:

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
This is sort of like theology done through story. What might hell be like? What kinds of people might be there? what might heaven be like? what kinds of people might be there? How are those two realities related? Lewis imagines that those in Hell don't necessarily want to be in heaven, in fact they prefer hell over heaven because of the kinds of people they've become. They refuse to enjoy heaven.  

Love Wins by Rob Bell
In this Book Bell explores the issue of hell and heaven and what scriptures says about the matter. Bell has received a lot of heat for this book. It has led many conservative and fundamentalist folks to reject him as a Universalist (a claim he rejects). It is a very accessible book. 

The Last Word and the Word After That by Brian McLaren
McLaren writes a fictional account of a pastor wrestling with the issue of hell and salvation and arrives in a very similar place as Bell.  McLaren has been rejected by the same folks as Rob Bell. In my opinion their views would mostly fix well within Anglican circles.

Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle
This book is a response to Rob Bell's book Love Wins. They think Bell has gone too far and no longer represents a historically Orthodox position. While Bell and McLaren represent an Inclusivism that leans towards Universalism, Chan and Sprinkle lean towards Exclusivism. 

The First & the Last by George Sumner
This is a more academic book about how Christians can have meaningful dialogue with those of other religions without resorting to a secular pluralistic "everybody's right" kind of view. Sumner wants to retain the exclusive truth claims of Jesus (I am the way, the truth and the life), but he also wants to consider how God may work graciously even within those other religious systems.

[1] Magos in W.E Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words
[2][2] “You Can Understand the Bible” by Peter Kreeft

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Christmas and the Grinch

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

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

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

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

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

Religion is often a target for the doubting and skeptical. In the Bible, at the end of Matthew’s biography of Jesus, Jesus meets with the disciples to tell them to go tell the world about him and we read, “when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matt 28:17). In the letter of Jude we read, “Have mercy on those who doubt” (1:22). The Bible allows room for those who doubt. …

But, we can go too far with this. It can become a general attitude we adopt as a way of appearing intelligent. Dallas Willard, who was a philosopher from the University of Southern California once said, 
“We believe the skeptical person to be more intelligent in our culture. You can be as stupid as a cabbage as long as you doubt” (Hearing God by Dallas Willard, Epilogue).
Doubt can be useful when it helps us restrain belief until we have more information, but it can be a hindrance as a general attitude. Imagine being married to someone who is always doubting your faithfulness. It can be hard to actually live life in a constant state of skepticism and doubt. … The Grinch doesn’t have the secret to living life well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the Grinch Stole Christmas:
The Extended Ending

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

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

Advent 4- Mary and her song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 18 December 2017

Advent 3- John the Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 11 December 2017

Advent 2- Being at home in God's presence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow @RevChrisRoth