Monday, 16 January 2017

The Revelation of the Lamb of God

We have entered into the season after Epiphany. It is a time of revelation. The sheet is drawn back and we see something we didn’t see before. It is revealed to John the Baptist that there is something deeper about Jesus. He says, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him”, which was the sign God told John to look for. This man would baptize with the Holy Spirit, which is the baptism John’s Baptism symbolized. John is convinced that this is the Son of God and the Lamb of God. … These are things that were revealed to John. They aren’t things he figured out. They are things God told him.

Unless God reveals Himself to us we are hopeless to really know much of anything about God. But revelation comes with a number of difficulties. One of them is, how can we really grasp God? The way many atheists get God wrong is when they think that God is a being like superman- just a really powerful human being. They often see God as a very powerful creature that exists within the universe. The Christian idea of God is much more vast. The Christian idea of God is that God underlies the fabric of all reality. God is a being beyond matter and beyond time. To ask a question like, “where did God come from? Or who created God?” is to show that the God you are thinking about is too small. This God doesn’t exist in time. This God created time itself and so isn’t subject to being “before” or “after”. Questions having to do with time don’t really apply to God. This God gives rise to the very fabric of existence- matter and time are His creations- He is not subject to them.

Imagine how huge the universe is. Allow your mind to drift above this town and into space. Allow yourself to see the sun and the little blue speck that is the earth. 1.3 million Earths would fit in our sun. And our sun isn’t even all that big when compared to some of the stars out there. For example, you can fit 9.3 billion of our suns into the star VY Canis Majoris. Then allow your mind to drift our of our solar system. Some estimates say that the edge of the universe is 46 billion light years away. Which means if you had a spaceship that could travel at the speed of light it would still take you 46 billion years to get to the edge. And the universe is always expanding, so it would be an edge that would always be retreating. Keep in mind that calculations say that our universe is just under 14 billion years old. So you would be traveling for longer than the universe has existed. … We know a tiny bit about our universe. So if our universe is so unimaginably vast, then what are we to say about the God that created it?

There are people who wonder what it would be like to meet an alien race, if there is one out there. Some people imagine that they might be so much more intellectually advanced that these aliens trying to talk to us might be like us trying to have a conversation with our pet dog. If that is true, then how much more is God beyond our comprehension? How could God communicate with us?

If God doesn’t reveal Himself in a way that we might begin knowing Him, then we are hopeless to know much, if anything, about God. No doubt this revelation will always be somewhat strange and difficult to wrap our minds around.

God gives John the Baptist a revelation, as He gave revelation to prophets before him. But John is just a finger pointing to the moon. The true revelation Is Jesus himself. The unknowable has made Himself known in Jesus. God, the creator, has become a creature.

In solidarity with humanity, Jesus gets baptized. Jesus took on the sin of humanity as his own. I sometimes imagine the sin we have all washed off as then sticking to Jesus as he comes up out of the water. Jesus is truly in the mess with us. God did not stand far off waging his finger at us. He came to be one of us. And to deal with the sin that blinds us to the ultimate reality of God.

St. Paul had a couple of ways of thinking about sin. One is as sins, which are actions that are against how God created us and against His command. Sins are actions that violate our love for God and our neighbour. But Paul also thinks about a power that exists in the world called Sin. It is a state we live in, more than actions we do. Actually the sinful actions we do are mainly because of the state of Sin that oppresses us, as it oppresses all of humanity. Humanity is enslaved to this power and is powerless to free itself. When we think of being free from sin, I think we often think more of being freed from the guilt of our sinful actions, but the healing Jesus want to bring us is bigger. He wants to bring freedom from our slavery to Sin. Which means that we are not only freed from the guilt of our sin, but that we are set on the road to being free from sinning at all.

When John saw Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" What went through their minds when they heard him say this?

The people of the time were expecting a messiah who would bringing God’s salvation. In the Bible the people of Israel are sometimes described, metaphorically, as a flock of sheep that need care and protection (Jeremiah 23:1-4; 50:6-19; Ezekiel 34; Zechariah 10-13). In the book of Enoch (a extra-biblical book), written shortly before the time of Jesus, one of the lambs from this flock rises up and becomes incredibly strong, symbolized by the growing of horns and being given a sword.[1] The enemies of the sheep are destroyed and the flock is protected. We see this symbolism in the book of Revelation as well- a wounded lamb against a great dragon.

So when these men heard John tell them that Jesus was the Lamb of God, this idea that one of their own would arise to defeat evil probably came to mind. But the image of the Lamb is an image with a few layers.

We read in the Book of Hebrews (9:22), that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Dealing with sin is the major goal behind the ritual sacrifice system in Ancient Israel. But it wasn’t just Israel that did this, blood sacrifice has been a part of almost all cultures of the world. For the Hebrews, Sin is something that separates us from relationship with God. And the bloody sacrifice of a particular animal was the way to deal with sin. As Anglicans we have a tradition of Morning and Evening Prayer. In ancient Israel they sacrificed a lamb every morning and every evening, every day of the year. The sacrifice of the lamb would have been basic and common.

The sacrifice of the Lamb also has a connection to the story that defined Israel’s identity, which is the Exodus story. The people are enslaved in Egypt and the Pharaoh is refusing to let the people go. Plagues are being released on the Egyptians, which are increasingly intense. The final plague is a destroyer that will sweep through the land. The only way for the Hebrews to protect themselves is to place the blood of a lamb on their doorways. The blood protects them from the destroyer. This is the final plague before the people are made freed from slavery (Ex 12:21-27). This sacrificed lamb becomes known as the Passover lamb.

We see this image again in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. This suffering servant of God takes on the sin of others and goes like a lamb to the slaughter. Of course, as Christians later read this they couldn’t help but think of Jesus.

So the image of the “Lamb of God” would have brought many of these images to mind.

I’m not sure where our society stands with the concept of Sin anymore. Sin might be seen in the act of polluting, buying products produced in a sweat shop, or not recycling enough, or the size of our carbon footprint, or in the atrocities of the past (like the Residential Schools). Surely these are things to still be deal with seriously. But it seems like there is still a belief that we will somehow advance ourselves beyond these sins. ... Others are not so sure. 

Nazi Germany was one of the most “advanced” and progressive nations of its time. And we can hardly think of a more horrifying time. It has become an icon of horror and evil. With the advanced thinking about evolution came thinking about eugenics and the engineering of the human species, which included removing undesired humans from the gene pool.

As soon as we discovered a way to split the atom we made it into a bomb. By many historical accounts Japan was ready to give up in World War 2 when the atomic bomb was dropped by the USA on two cities killing over 200,000 non-military civilians of Japan.

It seems like the more we “advance” the more we find more advanced ways of committing atrocities. We cannot advance ourselves beyond our sin. In fact, our “advances” seem to give us new ways to dig ourselves deeper into Sin. We cannot get ourselves out of this. It’s beyond us. Hebrews 10:4 says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Human ability will not get us out of it. Our sacrifices aren’t enough.

What is being revealed- the epiphany John receives- is that Jesus is the Lamb of God. God will provide the way out. It will be the work of God made man. He will be the conquering Lamb. He will offer his blood to atone for our sin. He will stand between us and the destroyer. As God seeks to build a relationship with us, God uses the symbols and metaphors around us. Filling them with new power. We will never wrap our heads completely around God. He’s too big. We cannot grasp God, but we can begin to abide in God. Just as we cannot grasp the whole universe, but we can live in it, so we can abide in God without fully grasping God. God will open a door and issue an invitation to enter in- to “come and see”. And there God will draw us out from under the power of Sin as we more and more live under His power and in his kingdom. AMEN

[1] Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death, in the chapter entitled “The lamb of God”

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Epiphany- The Christmas Dragon

There's a little known Christmas story that I would like to share with you. It is from Revelation chapter 12.
“A great sign appeared in heaven: 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. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who 'will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.' And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.  The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.”

It is not the sentimental picture we are accustomed to seeing. We are not accustomed to associating so much danger with the birth of Jesus. However, danger is always looming. With the birth of Jesus power will shift. The messiah will bring with him a kingdom and that kingdom will push into enemy territory.

In this little known Christmas story the dragon is threatened by the power of Christ, and attempts to eliminate the child. The powers of this world are not comfortable with Jesus. The Pharisees are bothered by him. The priests, the Sadducees, and eventually the Roman Empire represented by Pontius Pilate are all disturbed by the presence of Jesus. Those who have power in this world do not want to give it up.

Jesus will deal with constant opposition from the powers in this world and we see the beginning of this in our Gospel reading. King Herod was a bit of a puppet king placed in power under the Roman Empire. One of the things rulers like Herod are most paranoid about is loss of their power. Herod even killed three of his own children for treason near the end of his life. We see this same sort of paranoia in Pharaoh in the Exodus story when he commands the killing of the Hebrew children for fear of a future slave revolt if their numbers were too large. In Herod we see a man with great power who is paranoid about the potential loss of it. He realizes how fragile his power actually is. And so, when he hears about the birth of a particular child, he is especially afraid.

Strangers arrive in Herod's kingdom. They are stargazers or magicians, and somehow from a distant land they noticed something that has happened right under Herod's nose. A new king of the Jews has been born. And of course where else would the king of the Jews be born but in the powerful city of Jerusalem, so that is where they go to look for the child. Herod, the present "king of the Jews" hears about the newly born ‘king of the Jews’ from strangers, who arrive from another land, and who are foreign Gentiles. When King Herod hears this news he is frightened. When you are ruled by a tyrant and your tyrant becomes afraid, you become afraid as well because you know what a fearful tyrant is capable of.

Herod gathers his scholars to find out where Scripture says the child would be born- that is where the Messiah was supposed to be born. His scholars report to him that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. Herod then secretly calls the magi to him to pass on the information. The last thing he wants is for the people to flood into Bethlehem and replace him with a mere child. So he secretly calls them to himself and after finding out how old the child would be according to when the star appeared to the magi, he sent them off saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." And when we hear Herod say this we should hear the hiss of the dragon in Revelation. He has no plans to pay homage. He sees the child as a threat and would have the messiah killed to protect his fragile throne. He would use the magi to find the child, but when the magi escape Herod's manipulative tactics he turns to violence, killing the children 2 years old and younger in and around Bethlehem.

And that is the kind of world Jesus is born into. Jesus is born into a world where a powerful king will kill children out of fear. Jesus is born into a world where children are killed to protect the power and control of tyrants. He is born into a world where the powerful get their way- regardless of right and wrong.

The bad news is that we still live in a world where the powerful get their way. Even killing children who threaten their power, control, and ideals. We look back to Nazi Germany and we see Jewish children being killed for the ideals of Naziism. More recently we can look back to the genocide in Rwanda where children were slaughtered over the ideals of an ethnic group. In China there have been strict and brutal policies set concerning who is allowed to have children and how many. If the child does not fit into the government's ideal of the 'one child policy', or the ideal of having sons rather than daughters, then the child may be sacrificed.

Herod lives inside us as well. We can abuse what power we have, overlooking the vulnerable. Our culture can sometimes place our ideals and sense of control over those that aren't deemed as productive members of society. Sometimes we put our ideals ahead of life, and sometimes people who are innocent suffer because of our desire to maintain a certain vision of our life. The homeless, those with mental illness, the elderly, those who are severely disabled, children, and the unborn are all potential victims when people try to hold onto a particular type of power. These individuals are often powerless to fight back when confronted with oppression or even abandonment. When we place ideals ahead of people that can't defend themselves this exposes the Herod within us. If we were to follow the Christian ideal of love, our ideals would always embrace the person that was created in God's image.

The good news is that there is someone to challenge those who use their power to get their way despite right and wrong. The child Jesus and the movement he starts will challenge the power of tyrants. Jesus is born into a world of violence and manipulation. Jesus is born into a world that needs his salvation. The dragon is very real, and it knows the power the little baby Jesus has. It will do everything it can in order to consume him. But within Jesus is a greater power. The power of Jesus breaks that law we live with that says that the powerful always get their way.

When the magi were searching for truth. God gave them a sign in the sky. King Herod tried to manipulate the magi to help him find the Messiah in order to kill the baby who is his competition. However, God used King Herod and his scholars to point the magi in the right direction using the Scriptures. It is God's will that prevails, not the tyrants. God then uses a dream to protect the wisemen. And then another dream is given to Joseph, the baby's father, which thwarts Herod's plans to kill the messiah. God's will prevails.

Eventually, the child is ready to face the dragon. Jesus chooses to stand before the dragon. The dragon pours on Jesus all the brutality it can muster. The powers of the world torture and kill Jesus on a cross. And when the dragon is tired and relieved that the threat of Jesus is behind him, three days after the battle Jesus comes out of the tomb, dusts himself off and asks, "Is that all you got?". And it is. It is all the dragon has. Jesus took it all on himself. Jesus went right to the limit of the dragon's strength- a humiliating tortured death on a Roman cross. And he came back standing and the dragon had nothing else to throw at him.

The power of tyrants has a limit. But the power of Jesus works differently. Jesus’ power is of a completely different order. His is the power that created the stars and keeps them in existence. Though, he was not born in a place of power like a palace in Jerusalem, it was more humble, in the less important city of Bethlehem, and he was placed in a manger used for feeding animals. He will eventually enter Jerusalem on a donkey, not a war horse. He will rule, but it will not be the rule of a Tyrant. Jesus will rule like a shepherd who loves his sheep. He will choose followers, but they will not be Herods, or Pharoahs, or Roman Emperors, each with an army; The followers he chooses will be fishermen, tax collectors, and ordinary people- like us. The kingdom Jesus sets up is an alternative power- its people work differently, its politics function differently. In the kingdom power is not used to crush the defenseless. Jesus even says that it is in the least that we find him and serve him.

Jesus's kingdom and his people cannot be destroyed because that kingdom is Jesus himself and the people are the Body of Christ, which though they may lay in the tomb briefly, will eventually rise again. We, as the followers of Christ, will stand against Tyrants who use their power to kill toddlers to protect their fragile throne.

Herod is dead. The Roman emperors are dead. The Roman Empire is no more. Jesus is alive. His followers are alive and active in the world. We are still confronted by powers that threaten the defenseless- greed for wealth and power are alive and kicking in this world. But, Jesus is still stronger. The power of his love is stronger. His love can transform the Herod we all have within us. His love knows no limits. His love reaches even to the Gentile star gazing magicians- to draw them to himself.

In a world where the powerful seem to always get their way, we can be assured that there is a power that is stronger. It is a power that identifies with the weak and defenseless rather than crushing them or ignoring them. Tyrants will come and go, but the presence of Christ will remain and his followers will remain. Christ and his people will outlast the dragon. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

the ordinary Christmas

I'm actually someone who really loves everything about this time of year. I love the decorations, even the cheesy ones. I love the lights and the music. I love the snow on the ground and just that general Christmassy feeling. However, in the midst of all the lights and decorations we can miss how ordinary that first Christmas actually was.

There was nothing special about when Jesus was born. Luke's biography of Jesus tells us that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem because of a census that was being done by the Roman government. Nothing special was happening. It was just a bit of politics that I’m sure everyone was grumbling about. Imagine the Canadian government told everyone to return to the place of their birth for a particular day so they could count the citizens and figure out a calculation for taxes. That doesn’t sound like particularly holy timing for the birth of the Messiah.

Now if I was in charge, Jesus would have been born on Yom Kippur, which was the highest holy day in the Jewish year- the Day of Atonement. … Imagine, Joseph and Mary travel to Jerusalem for Yom Kippur. They stay with friends in Bethlehem, and then they can't make it to the temple services because Jesus (the one who will bring atonement- at-one-ment between us and God) is born just as the High priest is conducting the most holy ceremony on the Day of Atonement. But he wasn't, he was born on an ordinary day. The kind of day where you buy your groceries, go to work, clean the house, play with your kids, and have coffee with friends. That's the kind of day Jesus was born on.

Jesus was also born to an ordinary couple. He wasn't born to a king and queen. Or to a high priest and his wife. Mary was a young woman- a good Jewish girl. Joseph was a carpenter. Sure he has some royal blood, being from the family of King David. But perhaps that was relatively common in people whose families were from Bethlehem, the city of King David. Jesus was born to an ordinary couple. We wouldn't be able to pick them out of a crowd.

Jesus was born in an ordinary way. He wasn't transported down from heaven in a glowing beam of light. He was born… and there was pain, and pushing, and blood, and crying, and then hugging, and feeding, and then tears of joy when they realize he's healthy and that Mary will be okay. Jesus was born the way human babies are born.

Jesus was born in an ordinary kind of place. He wasn't born in a palace. He wasn't born in the temple. He wasn't born on Mt. Sinai where Moses received the law. … There is a long tradition about Jesus being born in a stable, but he was probably born in a one room home. There was no room for them in the guest room so they were welcomed to stay with the family in the one room where they lived. The animals had a space at the back of that room where they would stay at night. The family room would often have either a wooden manger or a dug out bowl in the floor which would be used to feed animals. Jesus was born in a place where people lived their lives- where they cooked, cleaned, ate, slept, and lived everyday life with those they loved. Jesus was born and swaddled and they placed him in an ordinary manger, a kind of feeding trough for the animals. The place of his birth was pretty ordinary.

There is a lot that is ordinary about the birth of Jesus. … But, there are some parts about his birth that are extraordinary. For one, there are angels. Angels are heavenly beings that are often messengers of heaven. Angels appear to tell about the birth of Jesus. … But who do they tell? The angels did not appear to the Roman Emperor. The angels didn't appear to King Herod. The angels didn't appear to the High Priest of the Temple. Who did the Angels appear to? Luke says (Lk 2:8-14),
"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 around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”"

This amazing angelic visitation was to shepherds - ordinary, bottom of the social ladder, run of the mill, shepherds.

We have this strange pairing of the ordinary and the extraordinary. An ordinary girl with an extraordinary pregnancy. Ordinary shepherds are visited by extraordinary angelic beings. This extraordinary child who is called Jesus (which means God Saves), and Immanuel (which means God-with-us), savior, and Lord- this extraordinary child is born, on an ordinary day, in an ordinary home, to an ordinary couple, and placed in an ordinary straw-filled manger used to feed ordinary animals. … Most people in Bethlehem went on with their day unaware that anything special happened.

And, I think that is how God wanted it. That is how God planned it. Because God works through the ordinary. That's what the incarnation is about- God working in the ordinary. "The Incarnation" is really just a big word for what the author C.S. Lewis described as “the author writing himself into the script of the play". Through the ordinary events of life- through the play that is life- God brings it about that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem belonging to the family of King David- just as the prophets foretold about the expected Messiah. God worked in the ordinary to bring about the extraordinary. God wrote himself into the play.

Jesus, the Son of God, (and mysteriously, God Himself,) lived as one of us. An ordinary life. He scraped his knee as a boy. He had friends and played. He learned from his parents. He grew up to be a carpenter like his father. … He didn't start his public preaching ministry until he was 30. Most of Jesus' life was lived in an ordinary way. That is what the incarnation is about- God enters the everyday ordinary-ness of human life as one of us. … That is what God wanted.

The teachings Jesus gave us were for how to live our ordinary lives in an extraordinary way. He didn’t just come to be our savior to bring us to heaven when we die. He came to teach us how to live in a heavenly way right here and now. That is what it means to follow Jesus. That is what it means to be a Christian- to learn to live everyday filled with God’s love. Allowing God to once again take on flesh through us- to act through us- to love through us. Jesus came to save us, yes, but he also came to show what it means to live saved lives. Through our ordinary lives God will bring about the extraordinary.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Advent 4- get uncomfortable if you want to join God

The stores are packed with everything you need to have the perfect Christmas. The variety is staggering- shelves and shelves of evergreen branches, Santa statues, and lights for your house. For those of us with fake Christmas trees they even sell a real Christmas tree smell, so you can feel like you have a real tree. The stores ring with Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby singing Christmas songs. The magazines on the stand boast perfect holiday dishes and decorations. Then there are the toys! Nearly life-size Darth Vader action figures, and dolls of every imaginable variety. Even the pet aisle is celebrating the holidays.

While some are planning the perfect Christmas experience, others are finding it difficult to get in the spirit. Some have experienced a death that the holidays seem to highlight with an empty chair at the table. Some are dealing with family problems that just never seem to get better. Some don’t even really know why they aren’t into it, they just aren’t feeling much cheer. They feel out of step with what is going on around them. Everyone is planning a perfect holiday and their lives feel so far from perfect they don’t even want to try.

The first Christmas was more of the out of step variety. God often seems to move out of step with the usual social expectations. Things would go a lot smoother if it was the High Priest’s wife the angel had come to visit with news about being pregnant with the messiah. She would have already been married and they could avoid that awkward pregnant and not married thing. Joseph wouldn’t have to struggle with what to do with his pregnant fiancé. Of course he knew it wasn’t his. Why should he raise another man’s child? Why should he take on another man’s responsibility? No, better to dismiss her quietly. But, he doesn’t want her to get hurt- he doesn’t want her to get stoned for fornication. But, It’s not fair that he should have to marry her. What would people think? They would think he was the fornicator- messing around before being married. No, best to do this quietly- as best you can in a small town. And this story about an angel, c’mon, really? That’s the story she wants to go with?

The whole thing is absolutely scandalous. Better to just distance himself from the whole thing. It’s not decent. It’s not the life he had planned for himself. I would imagine that is how things would have looked for Joseph.

Of course that’s how God seems to work. God interrupts our comfortable lives, and turns our expectations upside down. When the angel comes to Mary and tells her she will Have God’s son she sings a song that includes the lines, 
“he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Lk 1:51-53).
 The normal order of things is upset. God disturbs our comfortable social expectations. If we expect God to move in our lives, then we should expect to be made uncomfortable. We should expect our usual ways of being to be disturbed. We should perhaps even expect scandal.

Joseph could have dismissed Mary and gone on with his life- a life in keeping with the social norms of his community- a life that didn’t rock the boat. He could have went on to have a family and apply his trade to support them. Instead Joseph is thrown into scandal. Shortly after the child is born he even has to become a refugee and flee to Egypt. This is not the plan he made for himself.

I think we can be a lot like Joseph, when he wants to dismiss Mary. We want to go about our business. We want to accomplish our modest goals and not cause too much trouble. We want to be good people. We want to avoid having too much drama in our lives if at all possible. We want to be comfortable. Most of us don’t feel the need to be famous, or to strive to be billionaires. We just want enough that we don’t have to worry about it and can have a few nice things. We want family and friends that are healthy, and work that keeps our interest without being overwhelming. That’s what most of us want. I think we can understand Joseph wanting to dismiss Mary quietly, can’t we?

But imagine what he would have missed? Joseph would have missed his calling. He would have missed his call to be a father to the Messiah. He would have missed out on the heroic task of keeping him and his mother safe. He would have missed teaching Jesus how to be a man. He would have missed playing an incredible part of God’s story in our world. Joseph could have missed out.

Is it possible that we miss out when we decide to keep our lives normal, according to plan, according to social expectation? When we choose to not have our comfortable lives disturbed is it possible that we are missing out on what God is doing right in front of us? Is it possible that we are missing our calling because we have chosen comfort instead? That part of our life that we want to just go away, is it possible that that is exactly where God is trying to speak to us?

Joseph found that sometimes being faithful meant being at odds with society. It was in those unusual circumstances that Joseph saw God working in his life. Joseph stayed faithful to Mary even though society made him feel that he should walk away from her. It was in violating convention that Joseph found himself in God’s will. God often seems to work in the unexpected. He works in the interruption.

Joseph took a chance. He had a dream where an angel spoke to him and told him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife (1:20). It was fear that was holding him back- fear of what people might say- fear of his life being disturbed- fear of his life not going according to his plan- fear that Mary was lying about the angel and her pregnancy. Joseph decided not to allow that fear to lead him. Instead he chose to follow the dream that strangely spoke about a baby that would save people- with no clue about how that was supposed to happen. He wasn’t given a map of where they were going. He was just asked to walk through a door with only a vague idea of what would happen after that. He was off his map, but he walked onto God’s map.

Many of us live our lives wondering where God is and what God is doing. Maybe… just maybe… God has been trying to interrupt our lives. Maybe he has come to us as the irritating interruption, or the inconvenient neighbour. Maybe he comes to us, but answering Him means deviating from the plan we have drawn up for ourselves. What if we are left wondering where God is and what God is doing because we have been expecting God to work with our plans and in the convenience of our lives? Maybe we miss out on what God is doing when we aren’t willing to be interrupted, and maybe that leaves us with a sense of distance from God.

The poet David Whyte has a poem called The True Love where he says, the call “will not come so grandly, so Biblically, but more subtly and intimately, in the face of the one you know you have to love.”[1] Perhaps as we prepare for the perfect Christmas we can make ourselves ready to be interrupted- confronted- by “the face of the one [we] know [we] have to love”. Perhaps as we rush from one thing to the next we can notice God trying to speak to us in some unusual way- some inconvenient way- calling us off our own map and onto His. Perhaps we can allow ourselves to not allow the fear to decide for us. Maybe we can become willing to be made uncomfortable and find God there.

[1] David Whyte, “The True Love,” from The House of Belonging

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Advent 3- Patience

James 5:7-10
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

James advises us to wait patiently as we wait for the coming of Christ. He mentions patience four times in these three verses we just read.

It has been said that patience is something we admire in the driver behind us, but not in the driver in front of us.

Patience is self-restraint in the face of aggravation. It is the opposite of anger when faced with difficulty. It is not losing your temper.

Patience is an essential part of mature Christian character. Patience is mentioned as one of the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22- “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Patience is also mentioned as a characteristic of love in 1 Cor 13- “Love is patient; love is kind…” Over and over again when the Bible describes the character of someone who is living a faithful life we read that patience is a part of their character.

God has been trying to teach his people patience for a very long time. Abraham and Sarah were told they would have a child in their old age. In their impatience, however, they try to make this vision come true with Sarah’s servant, Hagar, which causes conflict after Sarah has the child God promised. Abraham was given a promise that his family would bring blessing to the whole world, but this plan moved slowly. It would take thousands of years, in fact.

Their decedents, the Hebrews, would have to be patient as they awaited release from slavery in Egypt. Then when they were released, they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land. They eventually were taken by the Babylonians into exile and learned patience as they longed to return. The people of Israel learned patience as they longed for the Messiah to come and save them. James mentions the prophets, who stood and spoke God’s words to a community that didn’t want to hear them and sometimes endured terrible persecution. The disciples of Jesus had to be patient as they awaited the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus’ disciples continued to be hopeful and patient as they awaited the day when Jesus would come again. We read James say today, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord”. The early Christian community would endure numerous hardships and persecutions. It is patience that allowed the martyrs to endure to the end.

Over and over again in the stories of the Bible, and in descriptions of Christian character we see patience mentioned or implied. It is a characteristic that we are to develop as followers of Jesus. God wants to help us develop patience.

We learn patience in numerous ways. We might learn patience as a part of our job. If you are a carpenter, or a farmer, or a lab tech, you will probably be better at it if you know how to apply patience. James says, 

“The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (James 5:7-8).
 I once read a story about a little girl who was part of a farming family. She was very excited to see the seeds the just planted start to grow. She would go out into the fields every day looking for green shoots. Day after day she would ask her father when the seeds would grow and her father just told her to be patient. One days she did see little shoots spring up out of the soil all over the field. She was very excited, but she grew impatient again as she watched the young plants. They didn’t seem to grow at all. So one night she snuck out of bed and went through the field and pulled each plant up just a little to help it grow a bit quicker. Well, we know how that story ends. If you don’t have patience, you won’t be a very good farmer.

We need patience to learn certain skills. To learn a musical instrument you need to spend a long time practicing. Without patience you’ll give up. To learn a language you need to spend time memorizing vocabulary and repeating grammatical structures. It takes patience.

We are also taught patience as we endure circumstances that are beyond our control. The weather is out of our control. It requires patience to endure the cold day after day, week after week.

We can use ordinary circumstances to help us learn patience. Waiting in line at the grocery store or the coffee shop can be an opportunity to learn patience. James says, 
“Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” (James 5:9).
 Rather than grumble and complain and get snarky with the cashier (something we will be judged for), instead, use it as an opportunity to learn patience. Difficult people will also teach us patience. I often think that God gives us at least one difficult person in our lives to help us learn patience and kindness. Instead of grumbling against this person and casting judgement on them, learn patience. Use these circumstances as a gift from God to train your character in patience. We grow spiritually not only as we do religious stuff like reading our Bible, going to church, and spending time in prayer. These everyday circumstances are important opportunities for spiritual growth.

We can use difficult circumstances to teach us patience as well. Illness can be a powerful teacher of patience. I don’t believe God causes suffering, but I do believe that God can bring good out of suffering. Patience can be a good fruit God brings out of difficult circumstances. Enduring suffering can teach us patience if we let it.

It is important that we develop patience because it is a part of being like Christ. Jesus was able to love those that were beating and torturing him on the cross partly because of his profound patience. God is very patient. He works slowly and incrementally throughout history. Even in my own life I’m amazed at God’s patience to watch me take two steps forward and then three back. God’s goal is transformation over a lifetime, not a moment. If we are to become more like Christ, then it is essential that we learn patience. If we learn patience then we will be able to stand against injustice and oppression. If we learn to be patient in the grocery store, and in learning an instrument, and with difficult people, then we will become stronger when it comes to dealing with the big things. We will be ready when God needs us to stand against some evil. If we are not patient in these small things, then we will not have the character to stand in these big things.

God is not finished with this world. He is working in history to bring about his promises. But we will have to be patient because this is on his time-line not ours. We might want all the jerks in our lives to be made into nice people, but God works over time. Small changes over a long period of time. God is patient, but a time will come when God’s world will become what He always wanted it to be.

Monday, 5 December 2016

John the Baptist- repent

John the Baptist is someone who would probably make most of us uncomfortable. He comes calling people to repent. To repent is to change- to change your mind- to change your purpose- to reorient yourself towards God. Change is often uncomfortable. If we want to lose weight we need to change how we eat and our exercise habits. If we want to learn to play guitar it means changing our schedule to make time to practice, which can be hard on the fingers until we build up callouses. If we want to stop a habit like smoking or drinking we will have to change how we react to stress, and change our patterns. … Change is often uncomfortable.

Of course staying the same can be uncomfortable too. Usually we will only change if the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing (I think Tony Robbins said something like that). Sometimes we won’t change our diet until we start having health problems. John made the pain of staying the same greater for those listening to him. He said that the Kingdom of heaven is just around the corner, and if they weren’t careful they were going to miss out. He was like a doctor telling them that if they don’t change their eating habits and start getting regular exercise they are going to have a heart attack.

Those in control tend to want things to stay the same. John says to the religious leaders, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matt 3:9-10). Being a child of Abraham was a way of presuming their relationship with God because of the group they are a part of. John tells them to not rely on that. It’s a bit like saying you belong to a church and were baptized as a child. Those are good things, but don’t think you are safe from judgement just because you are part of that group. John called the most respected religious leaders of his day a “brood of vipers”. He told them that if they really were coming to repent that they should produce good fruit- evidence of their repentance and changed life.

What was John’s problem with these religious people? The Sadducees took care of the Temple, which was the only place Jewish people could sacrifice. They cared for the main institution of their faith- they kept the sacrifices and worship services going. In Jesus’ day it was an institution many people felt was corrupt and too aligned with the interests of the Roman Empire. The Sadducees did not want to rock the boat. They were in power as long as the Romans wanted them to be, so it was in their interests to keep the Romans happy.

The Pharisees were similar in their outlook in some ways. They too shared a sense that they had special status before God as the children of Abraham, but they tended to emphasize the keeping of the Law. So much so that they created new laws to keep themselves from breaking biblical laws. When Jesus criticized them it wasn’t so much for following the Bible’s laws, but for these other laws they made up- sometimes called ‘the traditions of the elders’- or for placing too much emphasis on personal purity and not enough on care for their neighbours.

John’s problem with these religious people was that they put on a good show, but they lost the heart of who they were supposed to be. God had called Israel to be the light to the nations. They were supposed to follow God in such a way that the whole world would be drawn in by the beauty of a life following God. It was supposed to be a community marked by love and care for those on the fringes of their society, and complete dedication to God. 

The parable of the Good Samaritan is about this. The religious people walk past the man robbed, beaten, and left for dead in a ditch. The religious people probably walk past the man because of fear of the impurity that comes from touching a dead body. Their over-concern for purity rules kept them from helping a person in need, which denies the very heart of who they were supposed to be as God's people.  

That is what John was doing. He was calling people to repent and be the people God has called them to be. He called them back to the Jordan River that their ancestors crossed when they came to the Promised Land so they could re-enter it as the people they were supposed to be.

So what might John say to us? He would challenge us to be who we are called to be. What is the mission of the church as the body of Christ? Being a Christian is not a hobby. A church is not a social club. Being a Christian is not about being a good Canadian. Being a Christian isn’t just about believing in God, or going to church, or being a ‘good person’. … Being a Christian is about being a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is about learning to live life the way he taught us to live it. It is about allowing the way of Jesus to determine our actions in family, and business, and in everything we do. Being a disciple is to be an apprentice- to learn to live and be as the Master is. It is the life Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). … In all the ways that we are not acting and thinking as disciples of Jesus, John would call us to repent. … John would challenge us to be who we are called to be. We call ourselves Christians, he would want to hold us to that. But being a Christian is more than believing in the existence of God. As James says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe [that]—and shudder!” (James 2:19). … I’ve sometimes found it interesting to try to meditate on my life imagining what it would look like if I took church away- would there be evidence that I am a disciple of Jesus in the ways I treat others? In the way I spend my free time? In my prayer life? In my generosity to the suffering? In my reaction to enemies?  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer hinted towards this).

Being confronted with the idea that we might have to change is uncomfortable. We always expect Advent to be warm and comforting as we prepare for Christmas. Then we are confronted by prophets like John the Baptist calling us to repent and telling us to prepare for a coming judgment. It doesn’t exactly leave us with an egg nog and Christmas cookies kind of feeling.

But for those who were ready to hear it, they went to John in droves to be baptized. They wanted change. They saw a man in the wilderness crying out. They saw their path was crooked and they wanted to make it straight. The Pharisees and Sadducees were offended by John. But there were crowds of ordinary people that welcomed his words into their lives. They saw a prophet like Elijah, and the words of the prophets were on his lips. And prophets were often killed for being in tension with their society and the ruling authorities- as John would be. Prophets offend those who don’t want to change. But for those who know that the world is a mess, and that they are a mess, they are more likely to embrace change.

People were flocking out to see John the Baptist because in repentance they saw hope and life. Our problem is that often when we think of repentance we think of it from one side and we leave it there- We tend to see repentance as thinking “I’m a bad person” and we stop there. In the Bible we read, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone… so turn and live” (Ez 18:32); “Turn to me, says the Lord of Hosts, and I will turn to you” (Is 45:22; Jer 15:19); “I am the Lord who does not remember wickedness, provided one turn from his evil ways and all his iniquities so that he may live” (Ez 18:21-22). God desires our repentance the way a doctor desires that we will eat better and get some exercise. We define Repentance as recalling the awful things we have done and then feeling bad about those things. The people went to John not because they wanted to focus on their sin, but because they wanted to turn towards God. Really that is what repentance is about- turning to God. This comes with an honest look at our lives to see where we might have turned away from Him.

Christian Spirituality includes repentance. Not as a way of living in guilt and bad self-esteem, but as a life that is constantly turning towards God. The verse from Isaiah that is attached to John the Baptist is 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’. We repent to prepare the way of the Lord as he enters our lives.

The goal of human life is to love and serve God and to enjoy him forever. When we understand this and live this way we will find our deep happiness. That is the teaching of the Church and the experience of the saints. Loving and serving God leads to lives of meaning and joy. This is not a simple joy, as if we will never deal with pain or suffering, but it is a joy that will underlay our lives. Repentance is the process of turning towards God in all parts of our lives. Repentance is turning to the One who loves us, and created us, and wants the best for us. Sometimes we have gotten stuck on repentance as being a locked stare on our mistakes and short comings. We need to refocus on repentance as a ‘turning toward’ God. If we do not take repentance seriously, then we will not grow in our spiritual lives because the spiritual life is the process of turning towards God.

I believe that John was so hard because of his great care for others. He believed there were consequences for living a life that was turned away from God. John talks about a tree that is cut down and thrown into the fire, and a chaff that is burned. Just as water is a symbol of washing, so Fire is a symbol of purification. Christ who is coming will baptize with Spirit and with Fire. John wants to see fruit of repentance. He wants to see that we have the humility to recognize that there are parts of our lives that need changing. Maybe we can interpret what he is saying like this- within us all we have branches that need trimming and chaff that needs to be burned. We are living trees with dead branches. We are wheat with the chaff still attached. Repentance is putting forward our dead branches and chaff to be burned by the fire Christ brings. This isn’t about God wanting to cause us pain, rather the branches God wants to remove are infected. He wants them thrown into the fire so that the rest of the tree will not be infected.

If we believe that God is for us and not against us- if we believe that God loves us- then we will not fear repentance. He desires our repentance the way a doctor desires their patient will start eating better. Repentance is ultimately about hope because it implies that there is a better future to turn towards. It implies that our future selves can be more like Jesus and God wants to make that possible.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Three Spirits of Advent- 1

Today is the church’s New Year. The Church year always begins with Advent. Advent is a season that brings a certain level of tension. Our culture wants to sing Christmas Carols, but the spirits of Advent says “wait”. Our culture wants to celebrate by eating cookies and decorating Christmas trees, but the spirits of Advent say “wait”. On the way to church we hear Frank Sentara’s voice on the radio singing “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas”, and our heads are filled with cozy images of sleigh rides and fire places and hot chocolate. When we get to church we hear readings that prepare us for God’s coming to us as the Christ-child (which we expect and hope for), but unexpectedly our readings also call us to repentance, and warn us to prepare for a coming judgement as we wait for Jesus to come again. It can feel a bit like Lent invading our Christmas celebrations.

Advent is a season that many of us want to “bah-humbug”. “Give us Christmas”, we say. But, the three Spirits of Advent stand in between us and Christmas.

The first spirit that will visit us is the Spirit of Advent Past. A man with a scroll comes to us- an old prophet. His scroll is filled with prophesies and longings. This Spirit reminds us of the cries of humanity throughout history. A history that is filled with war, violence, disease, and suffering. This Spirit reminds us to not be naïve about the world we live in. This Spirit stands between us and our cozy images of warm fireplaces and eggnog and reminds us of the suffering of humanity. From the suffering masses there are voices that cry out with hope. The Spirit of Advent Past points to prophets that foresee a future that is better because of a saving God and a coming hero.

The Prophet Isaiah yearns for a time when the countries of the world will look to God for guidance

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.” (Is 2:3-4)

The Prophets yearn to be saved, but they also point to why things are so bad. They call humanity to look at itself. To us, who always want to find the problem somewhere outside ourselves, the prophets point to us and make us view the reality that we don’t even live up to our own standards, let alone God’s standards. The prophet’s call for justice is spoken in the midst of a human race that selfishly fights and claws to get their own way- even at the expense of others.

But this Spirit gives us hope by reminding us of the ways God has saved His people in the past, and that God will not allow injustice to persist. The Spirit of Advent Past points to hope, but it is hope to be saved from a mess humanity created.

As the Spirit of Advent Past recedes we see another figure come forward- The Spirit of Advent Future. This Spirit is mysterious and comes carrying a box. We don’t know what is inside. We don’t know if we should be excited or fearful. When we are sending Christmas cards with pictures of a glowing baby in a cozy looking manger she reminds us that this baby will grow to be the king of kings, the lord of lords, and the judge of all. She points to a coming time of judgement- when what is wrong with the world will be made right. … Surely part of what needs to be put right is us. We don’t know how we will stand at the time of judgement. We trust in Jesus, but we can only hope. He owes us nothing.

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

The Spirit of Advent Future points us to a time when the one who we waited for- Jesus Christ- will come again. Christ himself says,

36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matt 24:36-44)

This Spirit claims that anyone who predicts a date for Christ’s coming is a liar. Christ himself, like the church, does not know the day or time. The angels don’t know. The first sign that someone is wrong is that they claim to know. We know it is in the future and so the Spirit of Advent Future points, but we don’t know if she points to tomorrow or a thousand years into the future. .. She might also be pointing to the end of our life, when we will stand before Jesus and with him look at our lives. She stands before every generation and points to the future reminding us to be vigilant and prepared.

Another Spirit comes forward- the Spirit of Advent Present. This spirit carries a bell. She rings it constantly to remind us to be alert, awake, and ready. She reminds us that if we live in the present moment, full of the Gospel, full of Christ, then we have nothing to worry about, and don’t have to be concerned about when that end might come. The Spirit of Advent Present calls us to be ready at every moment. St. Paul says in Romans,

11 ”the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Rom 13:11-14)

Paul reminds us to live now as if he will come today. We might pat ourselves on the back for not being involved in an orgy, but we should remind ourselves that the works of darkness include quarrelling, which is harder for most of us to exclude ourselves from.

The Spirit of Advent Present also reminds us that not only has Christ come in the past, and not only is he coming again, but that Christ is in our midst now. We are the body of Christ and he promises to be in our midst, especially when we gather (Matt 18:20). He says he is present in those who are in need and to offer them help and kindness is to do the same for him. To reject them is to reject him (Matt 25). Christ will eventually come, bursting into the world in an obvious way no one can deny, but he comes to us now, disguised.

As we go through this season there will still be those who ‘bah-humbug’, wanting to rush past the self-reflection we are called to in Advent. But I encourage you to remember the three Spirits of Advent. Remember the longing of humanity for a future filled with justice and the presence of God. Be diligent, knowing that there is a coming time of judgement. And more than anything, be present now- be awake and alert to who we are called to be in the Gospel, present to Christ now. If we pay attention to the Spirits of Advent, then we will be prepared for Christmas.

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