What’s Advent All About?

Most of you probably know that traditional Christmas song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. In the calendar of the church year, the twelve days refer to the days of feasting for the Christmas celebration, starting on Christmas Day, December 25th, and running until January 5th, the last day of the Christmas season. January 6th is the feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the coming of the wise men to visit Jesus, and the night before January 6th, the eve of the Epiphany, is traditionally known as ‘Twelfth Night’. In days gone by most people would not put up a Christmas tree or decorate their house for Christmas until Christmas Eve, and the decorations would then stay up for the twelve days of Christmas and come down on Twelfth Night. Some people had a ‘burning of the greens’ on Twelfth Night, when the Christmas tree and the holly and other Christmas greenery would be burned.

I’m a bit naïve, so it took me a few years to realise that the retail industry has completely revised this calendar – and they’ve done a very successful job of it. Many people in Canada now think that the twelve days of Christmas are the twelve shopping days before Christmas. Most people now put up their Christmas trees long before Christmas, and take them down a couple of days afterwards. A few years ago I was at a new year’s eve party organised by a friend. A lot of musicians were there and we were all playing songs together. I played ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and some people were quite surprised that I would do so, since, to them, Christmas was over. But I was only on the eighth night, you see!

This illustrates the fact that at this time of year we in the church are on a calendar that’s significantly different from the world around us. The world around us has been getting ready for Christmas for almost a month now – ever since the Halloween stuff disappeared from the stores, in fact. My copy of the Edmonton Journal has been getting thicker and thicker each day as the sale flyers are multiplying; the Christmas carols are playing in the stores, and the retail industry is ramping up for its busiest time of the year. All of it to do with sales, of course, and very little of it to do with the actual story of the birth of Jesus. The Christmas carols in the stores aren’t meant to get people thinking about the birth of Jesus; they’re meant to get us in the mood for spending lots of cash.

But in the church – at least, in the parts of the church that follow the traditional calendar of the church year – we’re beginning the season of Advent. Advent is all about the coming of the kingdom of God, and the coming of his Messiah who will bring in his kingdom. So in Advent we spend a lot of time in the Old Testament prophets. They looked around at all the sufferings of God’s people, and then they looked ahead to a time to come when God would rescue his people from evil and restore them to his original dream for them.

Some of those prophecies were fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, and so yes, it’s true, Advent includes the note of preparation for Christmas – although the preparation is less about our need for the perfect gift idea and more about our need for a Saviour. But some of the prophecies have yet to be fulfilled, and so in Advent we also look ahead, to the day when Jesus will be revealed as Lord of heaven and earth, the day when the kingdom of God will be established on earth in all its fulness and, as one of the prophets says, the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

Read the rest here.

The First Sunday of Advent

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

Where I’ll be Tuesday night.

Watching Old Big Nose at the Winspear Centre.

8 pm – Winspear Centre Presents: Billy Bragg
Export Event to Desktop Event
Tuesday, November 24, 2009 8:00 PM


Tuesday, November 24th – 8 pm

Enmax Hall, Winspear Centre

Billy Bragg is an artist with a keen sense of political activism as well as a way with a pop hook, all informed with a sense of humanity and humour.

Special Guest: Ron Hawkins

Billy Bragg website

Tickets on sale through the Winspear Centre Box Office and online beginning Friday, July 10th at 10 am.

All Reserved Seats:$37
21 years of age & under: $19.50

all tickets subject to applicable service charges

Click here for the Winspear Centre Seating Map

Click here for Box Office contact & ticket purchase options

Location: Enmax Hall

‘My Kingdom is not from This World’: A Sermon for ‘Reign of Christ’ Sunday

Today in the church year is the festival of the reign of Christ: the Sunday on which we reflect on the biblical teaching that God has made Jesus the Lord of all, and that one day his reign will be acknowledged by every living creature on earth. Today’s gospel reading could hardly present a stronger contrast to this idea. It comes from the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, and in this reading Jesus doesn’t look very king-like. He stands before the representative of the Roman emperor, accused of being a criminal, a rebel against the Roman state. And yet, right in the middle of this passage, there’s a strange discussion about the nature of Jesus’ kingship. In John 18:36 Jesus says to Pontus Pilate, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here’.

Some older translations of the Bible phrased this verse slightly differently: they translated it as ‘my kingdom is not of this world’. It was a fairly small step from there to the understanding that what Jesus actually meant was ‘my kingdom is not in this world’. I would argue that this misunderstanding has had a very bad influence on our beliefs about how we Christians should live our lives in this world.

Let me explain. Should our Christian belief only be about our own private conduct, or should it lead us to try to influence society as well? Does it only have to do with us not smoking or drinking or dancing or swearing, or does it also have to do with how we vote and the sorts of political causes we get involved in? Is being a Christian only about having a good marriage and a strong family life, or is it also about trying to make a difference in the lives of the poor and needy, both close at hand and far away? Should Christians restrict themselves to the alleviation of human suffering, or should we also be working to change political and economic structures that cause human suffering?

Or, to put the question another way, is the Christian movement meant to be in any way a danger to the way of life of society around it? After all, Jesus was obviously perceived to be a danger to the society of his day; the Jewish authorities were so disturbed about him that they wanted to get rid of him by execution, and they didn’t normally get that disturbed about travelling preachers who roamed the countryside exhorting people to be nice to one another! So if Jesus’ message was only to do with us becoming better people individually – if ‘love your neighbour’ only applied to our private relationships and not to our public and political and economic life as well – why was Jesus seen to be such a threat by the authorities of his day? And why is it that totalitarian governments throughout history have almost always tried to either get rid of religion altogether, or to turn it into a state church under the strict control of the governing authorities?

Read the rest here.

Rearranging the Furniture on the Titanic Again

Many Anglican blogs are once again discussing Anglican/Roman Catholic relationships. Rowan Williams went to Rome and delivered a gutsy address there, couched in his usual rather complicated theological language, but undoubtedly standing up for the legitimacy of the Anglican approach and in fact issuing a gentle challenge to Rome. This, of course, has been read against the background of Pope Benedict’s recent decision to make it easier for groups of disaffected Anglicans to leave their national churches and become Roman Catholics.

But what are the issues? Should women be ordained as priests and bishops (note: in many parts of the Anglican Communion, they already are)? Is the Pope supposed to be the authoritative leader of the Church? Should there be a hierarchy telling the faithful exactly what to believe?

Meanwhile, all over Europe and North America, many traditional churches (including Anglican and Roman Catholic churches) are shrinking and dying, and the issues leading to this shrinkage and death have absolutely nothing to do with the things that are consuming so much attention on the international Anglican/Roman Catholic front.

The society around us is finding Christianity increasingly irrelevant and incredible. I know some of my readers don’t think highly of Nicky Gumbel and the Alpha course, but the fact is that in his first presentation on the course, ‘Christianity: Boring, Untrue, and Irrelevant’, he has in fact clearly identified the feelings of hundreds of thousands of secular people about the Faith we love so much. And not only secular people; many thousands of Christians too are finding the institutional church increasingly ‘boring’, and ‘irrelevant’ to their daily lives.

As is so often the case, David Keen’s excellent blog ‘St. Aidan to Abbey Manor‘ takes a different tack. This past week David was attending what sounded like an excellent conference, Mission 21. I hope he won’t mind if I offer an extended quote from his post today:

What struck me most powerfully was that my church may not actually be set up to do the main thing Jesus asked us to do. Matthew 28 ‘make disciples of all nations’ – ok, it’s a big task, and the church has other tasks and responsibilities too, but are our churches set up to make disciples, or set up to do something else? It struck me that church attendance on a Sunday morning isn’t always a very good ‘delivery system’ for growth in discipleship. And let’s face it, Sunday morning is the engine room, so if it’s not going on there….

There are a few people at the moment who are exploring Christian faith, or have recently made first-time commitments. And to be honest I’m not sure that simply encouraging them to regularly ‘come to church’, or even to be part of a small group in the church, will be enough. There’s a lot to learn, questions to ask, changes to make, struggles to overcome, things to be prayed through, never mind getting stared with the Bible, prayer, working through lifestyle issues etc. etc. Jesus did this on a personal level, with only 12 people. The secular world knows that apprenticeship, coaching, mentoring, accountability etc. are all part of effective teaching and learning, and are the best ways to bring about change and development. The church is starting to catch up, having forgotten that this is just what Jesus did.

The two things I’m involved with in Yeovil which are bringing about the strongest growth in discipleship – Street Pastors and the Growing Leaders course – are not churches. They both involve a process of learning and action, practice and reflection. Our standard models of discipleship normally involve sending people on a nurture course and then slotting them into a small group: both of these are primarily intellectual rather than practical, but spiritual growth actually happens most powerfully when people have to give out, go beyond their comfort zones, and engage in learning experiences. Jesus discipled his followers by a combination of teaching, hanging out together, and getting them to do what they’d seen him doing. We do plenty of the first, but I’m not that sure about the rest…..

1. Am I being too hard on ‘normal’ churches, just because I’ve been on a conference?
2. If you’re part of a church, are people there growing as Christians and if so, what’s the compost?
3. Do the mature Christians in our churches have time to disciple newer Christians, at a personal level, or are they too busy? Ditto church leaders? And if they did have time, would they know what to do?

It strikes me that the church faces a very new challenge: we’ve relied for most church growth in recent generations on people returning to the church after being brought up with the Christian faith. They therefore have some background in the Bible, prayer, worship, lifestyle, values etc., and it’s primarily a question of reintegrating them. But that pool is drying up, and folk who’ve got no Christian background present a different challenge. When people have no Bible of their own and have never read it, but want to become Christians where do you start? And how? – it’s not just the content, but the method too.

We need 2 things that we currently don’t have: a more relational way of being the church, so that relationships of discipleship are natural to the community, and time. The only way of achieving the latter, is to find less labour-intensive ways of doing what we currently do – either that, or stopping some of them altogether.

Now it seems to me that these are precisely the issues that we need to be addressing in the church today. This stuff actually has something to do with what Jesus sent us out to do – further the Kingdom by making disciples. Rowan talked about ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ issues, accusing the Pope of concentrating on ‘Second Order issues’ and ignoring the huge agreement between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches on ‘First Order issues’. But one of those first order issues was precisely not ‘making disciples and furthering the kingdom’. When it comes to the question of how you reach out to completely secular people in such a way as to motivate them to want to become followers of Jesus – or how you equip those new Christians (many of whom don’t even know the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament and who think that ‘Christ’ is Jesus’ surname) to be effective disciples and to further the Kingdom in their daily lives – well, when it comes to these issues, it seems to me that the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches are equally at sea.

The iceberg is approaching. If the Anglican Church of Canada continues to shed members at its current rate we’ll be extinct in about twenty five years. Many other Anglican provinces are in the same position. Time to stop re-arranging the deckchairs, I think.

War and Peace (1973)

We’re about a third of the way through the 1973 BBC miniseries of War and Peace. I’ve never seen it before (can’t think how I’ve missed it), and it’s a while since I’ve read the book, but the miniseries is reminding me of how much I love this story. Tolstoy’s characters are so real and so believable, and he paints them in all their human frailty and perversity as well as their goodness and nobility. I’m particularly enjoying Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Pierre, one of Tolstoy’s best and most complicated characters.

Up until now I’ve said that Anna Karenina is my favourite (not just of Tolstoy, but of all the great Russian novelists), but I think I may be coming around to the orthodox view that War and Peace is the best. Except for the fifty page philosophical reflection at the end; don’t even try to read that part!