A guy who loved introducing people to Jesus.

In the church’s calendar we often celebrate special feast days to remember ‘saints’ – people from Bible times or afterwards whose lives have been especially Christlike. We do this not to worship them in any sense, but simply to thank God for their good examples and to learn from their faithful discipleship.

Today, November 30th, is the feast day of one of my all-time favourite biblical ‘saints’ – Andrew. Andrew is known today as the patron saint of Scotland, because of a dubious legend about his bones being taken there in the 8th century. I’m a bit doubtful about the whole idea of ‘patron saints’ myself – I really don’t hold with the idea of a saint giving particular care to one country or group of people – but we won’t get into that here.

However, if Andrew is the patron saint of any group of people, it is surely evangelists. This idea might come as a surprise to some, as he isn’t remembered in the church as a great preacher or as a missionary who pioneered whole new areas for the gospel. In fact, I get the impression from reading the stories of Andrew that he was the sort of guy who was quite happy to play second fiddle and fade into the background without drawing attention to himself. But Andrew had this great characteristic: he loved to introduce people to Jesus.

What do we know about Andrew? Well, he was the brother of Simon Peter who became the leader of the apostles, and the two of them were fishermen. We also know that Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist before he met Jesus; presumably he had heard John’s message about the kingdom of God and had been baptized by him. The first time we meet him he is standing with another disciple of John, a man called Philip. It’s the day after Jesus was baptized, and, as the crowd is milling around at the Jordan River, Jesus walks by. John the Baptist points him out, and he says to Andrew and Philip, ‘“Look, here is the lamb of God”. The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see”. They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day’ (John 1:36-39).

So John the Baptist points Andrew and Philip to Jesus, and they spend the rest of the day with him. What happens next? Well, John the gospel writer tells us that Andrew ‘first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah!” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)’ (vv.41-42).

It’s interesting to me that John the gospel writer tells us that this was the first thing that Andrew did after he left Jesus’ company. Obviously what he had seen and heard in that day he spent with Jesus had really excited him: he had found a faith worth sharing! And he also had someone he loved who he thought was worth sharing that faith with – his dear brother Simon. Two of the most important questions we can ask ourselves as Christians are ‘Do I have a faith worth sharing?’ and ‘Do I have a friend worth sharing it with?’ For Andrew, the answer was obviously a resounding ‘Yes!’

Well, Andrew goes on to become one of the inner circle around Jesus – the twelve who he chose to be his ‘apostles’ – the word means ‘ones who are sent’. They would spend the next three years with Jesus, watching and learning from him, and then he would send them out as his missionaries to spread the Gospel all over the world. But before that happens, there are a couple of other stories of Andrew bringing people to Jesus.

In John chapter six, Jesus is teaching a large crowd of people and they have nothing to eat. Jesus decides to test the disciples, so he says to Philip, Andrew’s friend, “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?” Philip replies, “Six months’ wages would not be enough to buy food for each of them to get a little”. But then Andrew chimes in: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” You know the rest of the story: Andrew brings the boy to Jesus, and Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish and uses them to feed a crowd of five thousand people.

Do you see how Andrew brings Jesus’ ‘raw material’ to him? Andrew’s brother Simon Peter went on to become the great leader of the early church, but it would never have happened if his brother –whose name is not so well-known – had not first brought him to Jesus. And Jesus did a great miracle when he used the five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand people, but Andrew was the one who gave him the materials to make that miracle happen, by introducing the boy to him.

I get the idea that Andrew was the sort of guy who would know who was in a crowd. I get the sense that he enjoyed being with people and was an approachable sort of guy. I remember a few years ago, when I used to lead services once a month at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre, that we had a girl on our team like Andrew. We would wait in the room we were using for services while the staff brought the kids down from the various units, but this girl would always be moving among the kids as they came down, asking them questions and chatting with them. She was really approachable, and afterwards, when the team went out for coffee on our way home, she would always be the one who would tell us that we needed to be praying for so and so, because they were getting out of jail this week, and so on.

I get the idea that Andrew was like that. It would be natural for him to be aware of the boy with the loaves and fishes, because he’d been moving through the crowd chatting with people. He loved people, and he loved Jesus, and most of all he loved bringing them together.

There’s one more story about Andrew in John’s Gospel. In John chapter twelve, Jesus and his disciples are going up to Jerusalem for a Jewish religious festival. We read that ‘among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks’ (v.20): we assume that they were what were known as ‘God-fearers’ – Greeks who had accepted the God of Israel and his laws, although they had not gone the whole way and been circumcised.

Anyway, these Greeks have heard of Jesus and they want to meet him, but they are a bit nervous about it so they approach Andrew’s friend Philip first – perhaps because he has a Greek name? They say to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (v.21). So Philip tells Andrew, and then Andrew and Philip together introduce the Greeks to Jesus.

That’s the end of the story – we don’t know how the conversation went – but I’d suggest to you that those words of the Greeks could well be the text of Andrew’s life: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. All that we know of Andrew suggests that he dedicated his life to helping others see – and meet – Jesus. Andrew has not gone down in history as a strong leader or a powerful preacher. Rather, we remember him for his personal witness; he is the one who speaks to people one at a time, the one who introduces a friend to Jesus. And so, as we think about what it means to be one of God’s saints – God’s people, the ones he is using to spread his love in the world – I want to suggest to you that Andrew is a good model for us.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. How is that prayer going to be answered today? How are people who have not met Jesus, and perhaps don’t know anything about him, going to have the opportunity to see him and meet him? I think the answer to that question has two parts to it.

First, people are going to see Jesus when the Christian church, and the individuals like you and me who are its members, look more like Jesus. In other words, when we get really serious about putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our everyday life, then people will see Jesus for themselves. When they see us loving our enemies and praying for those who hate us, caring for the poor and not dedicating our lives to getting richer and richer, seeking first God’s Kingdom and not worrying so much about material things or titles or fame or recognition in the sight of the world – when they see all this, then they’ll be able to see the face of Christ in his people. A tall order? Yes – but it’s always been part of our Christian calling, hasn’t it?

Second, people are going to see Jesus when we, the people of Jesus, introduce them to him, so that they can come to know him for themselves. I am a Christian today because of someone who did that – my Dad. My family went to church every week, of course, but my Dad was the one who lent me Christian books and who, at the crucial point in my life, challenged me to give my life to Jesus. I first met Jesus for myself because of that challenge.

At our Edmonton diocesan synod a couple of years ago Bishop Jane Alexander ended her charge to the synod with this challenge: that before our diocesan centenary in 2013, every Anglican in our diocese would lead one other person to Christ. Doubtless Jane knew that this would be a daunting prospect to many people in the church, and so she continued, ‘And if you don’t know how to do that, will you agree to work together with other people to learn how to do it?”

I’ve had the joy, throughout my life, of helping people who were not Christians come to know Christ for themselves, and I have to tell you that there’s no joy like it. All of us are all called to be witnesses, as Andrew was. We’re not all great preachers or healers or miracle workers or church leaders, but I hope that we all have a faith worth sharing, and that we all have a friend worth sharing it with.

In the 1920s an Anglican priest called Sam Shoemaker wrote a poem about this ministry of introducing people to Jesus, and I want to close with it today:

I stand by the door.

I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world-
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind people,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it …
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for people to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing any person can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the person’s own touch.
People die outside that door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter—
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him …
So I stand by the door.

Go in, great saints, go all the way in–
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics–
It is a vast roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms.
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in,
Sometimes venture in a little farther;
But my place seems closer to the opening …
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them
For God is so very great, and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia,
And want to get out. “Let me out!” they cry,
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled
For the old life, they have seen too much:
Once taste God, and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,
But would like to run away. So for them, too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God,
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there,
But not so far from people as not to hear them,
And remember they are there, too.
Where? Outside the door–
Thousands of them, millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them,
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
“I had rather be a door-keeper …”
So I stand by the door.

Trip to Peterborough

Marci and I took the train to Peterborough today to meet our friends Erika and Susan. We also had a nice walk around the cathedral, which is definitely my favourite of all English cathedrals I have seen. We’ve been there several times before, but this is the first time we’ve seen it without scaffolding around the tower! Having said that, I somehow seem to have neglected to take an outside photo of it!

Here’s the view up the nave looking toward the sanctuary. I love the fact that there is no rood screen and you can see all the way from west to east with very little obstruction. I also love the fact that there are only stained glass windows at the four ends; the side windows are all clear, making the cathedral very bright.

This is from the same spot, looking west:

I had to laugh at the Peterborough Cathedral Advent wreath. I’ve heard of purple and blue candles, but not red!!!

Stained glass in the north transept.

The tomb of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife.

This ‘Monks’ Stone’ dates back to the 800s and may have been in commemoration of monks killed in a Viking raid on the monastery.

We went for lunch with Erika and Susan, which was a truly delightful experience. Here they are, sitting across from us in the restaurant:

And here is one of Erika and myself. We had been internet friends for some years, but this is the first time we have had the pleasure of meeting, and a real pleasure it was too.

Faithful Waiting: A Sermon on Mark 13:32-37

I’m on holiday right now and not preaching today, so here is my sermon from three years ago, based on today’s gospel.

Have you noticed how, at this time of the year, businesses really make money out of our impatience? They say, “You want it now but you can’t afford it? No problem! Buy now, pay later! No interest ‘til 2010! This offer is for a short time only, so you’d better buy now and not miss it!” Waiting patiently is something we’re getting less and less practice in.

But waiting patiently was a skill the biblical people had a lot of practice in. In Old Testament times God’s people went through hundreds of years of suffering and persecution and oppression and injustice. What kinds of prayers did they pray during those times? They said things like ‘I wait eagerly for the Lord’s help’ (Psalm 130:5). It’s not that they didn’t get impatient sometimes; every now and again you read prayers like ‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?’ But generally speaking, the biblical people seem to have been more practised than we are in the art of patient waiting.

In our family, for many years, we used an Advent book called Celebrate While We Wait. Wait for what? Wait for Christmas? Well, in fact, waiting for Christmas is not the main theme of Advent. Advent is mainly about Jesus’ promised appearance at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, and to establish the Kingdom of God forever. So in Advent we look forward with hope and expectation to that time when God’s purposes for his creation will finally become the only reality.

When we human beings start thinking about a subject like the return of Jesus, we tend to get excited about it and go off into extreme positions. There are two extremes which you see in the Church when we think about Jesus’ return. The first extreme is overexcitement, to the point of setting dates. ‘Jesus is going to come again on January 1st 2000’ – I remember seeing that headline in the National Inquirer some time late in 1999! But the Inquirer is only one in a long line of people who have made these kind of predictions. In New Testament times many people seem to have thought that Jesus’ return would be almost immediate. In the city of Thessalonica many Christians apparently left their jobs and spent their time idly waiting for Jesus to come, and the apostle Paul had to tell them off and send them back to work! Throughout history many human beings have been confidently identified as the antichrist: people like the Roman emperors Nero, Domition and Julian, the Pope, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Henry Kissinger, and Mikhail Gorbachev. In the eighteenth century the famous preacher John Wesley said that the depravity of his time was so bad that he was sure the return of Christ could only be a few years away at the most. So this is not a new thing. People have always looked at the evil things that happen around them and identified them with the evil things that the Bible says will happen before the Son of Man comes.

But some people will ask, “What’s wrong with looking for the signs of the times? Didn’t Jesus tell us about the things that would happen before he returned”? This gets confusing, because in fact a lot of Bible prophecies that people think are about the return of Jesus aren’t about that at all. In the thirteenth chapter of Mark, from which our Gospel reading for today is taken, many of the details are referring to the time when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. You can see this connection right at the beginning of the chapter, which wasn’t part of our reading. In verse 1 Jesus’ disciples point out the beautiful temple buildings to him, and he responds by saying “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (v.2). They were of course shocked by this, just as you would be if someone told you that St. Margaret’s was going to be levelled to the ground, so they came back to him and asked “Tell us, when will this happen, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (v.4). Jesus goes on to give the teaching in the rest of the chapter, and most of it is related to the specific question they asked: the time when the Romans destroyed the Temple and the city of Jerusalem in AD 70.

For instance, in verse 14 Jesus tells them that when they see the ‘desolating sacrilege’ standing where it should not be, they must run away to the hills. And in AD 70, when the Christians saw the Roman general Titus standing in the Holy of Holies in the Temple where he was not allowed to be, they did in fact leave Jerusalem and run to the hills just as Jesus had told them. In that way they escaped with their lives, and the mission of the Church was not ended with the Fall of Jerusalem.

But in the places in the New Testament where Jesus’ return is genuinely predicted, it is always its unexpectedness that is stressed. In Matthew 24:44 Jesus says “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”. And when the apostle Paul was telling those Thessalonians off for wasting their time standing around waiting for the second coming, he said ‘For you yourselves know very well that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them…’ (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3). When the New Testament is really talking to us about Jesus’ return, its message is consistent: be prepared, because you never know when it might happen.

Well, if the one extreme in the church has been excitement to the point of predicting dates, the opposite extreme has been apathy and pessimism: ‘We’re just fooling ourselves! He’s never coming again!’ This is not just a modern thing; in fact, even in the New Testament people had begun to feel this way. After the first excitement and expectation had died away, people started to say things like “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” (2 Peter 3:4). Many people today feel the same way; “We’ve been waiting for two thousand years; surely it’s time to stop deluding ourselves and accept the fact that it’s all been a big mistake!”

And so some biblical scholars have rejected the idea of the return of Jesus and say things like “Well, he does return to us when we welcome him into our lives” or “when the Holy Spirit comes to us”. And many, many more Christians who believe in the return of Christ in theory don’t actually let it affect the way they live their lives very much. They go about building their personal empires with no thought for the fact that the day is going to come when it will all end. They’re like kids building sandcastles on the beach when all the time the tide is coming in.

Now the true Christian way is in between these two extremes of date-setting and apathy. The true Christian way is all about faithful waiting. Yes, we continue to wait for Jesus to return, putting our hope in his promises. But we don’t let that keep us from being busy doing his work. While we’re waiting, we’re faithful as well. And in this context faithfulness means two things:

First, we’re told to watch. In our Gospel Jesus says “Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come…And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!” (Mark 13:33, 37). The Greek words used in this passage mean things like ‘Beware! Be alert! Be awake! Keep watch!’

What is it that we’re keeping watch for? For the return of the Lord, yes, but also we’re to keep watch over the condition of our own lives. Peter says ‘Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of the God…Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish’ (2 Peter 3:11-12, 14). In other words, we’re to make sure that we’re living the way Christians ought to be living as we wait for the Lord to return. This is not something that we can wait around for, as if the Lord will make it happen by waving a magic wand over our lives. We have to put some effort into it too! Peter says, ‘strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish’ (2 Peter 3:14).

In today’s gospel, the opposite of watching is sleeping; Jesus says in verse 36 “…he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly”. The metaphor is being used to warn us against getting careless and lethargic about our lives. I remember a few years ago I was having a talk with an older member of a little country church about their cemetery. She was trying to keep track of who was buried where, but she said – and I’ll never forget the phrase she used – she said, “I just think I’ve got it figured out, and then people keep sneaking in!” I laughed and said, “Dead people, you mean?” “Yes!” she replied, and I said, “Sneaky old dead people!”

Well, you know, there are things that sneak into our lives as well. They sneak in when we’re not paying attention. Sins that everyone else around us is committing, and so we think to ourselves “It doesn’t matter; everyone is doing it”. Years ago C.S. Lewis wrote a wonderful book called The Screwtape Letters. In this book, a senior demon gives advice to a junior demon about tempting people. In one of his letters, Screwtape says this:

“All that matters is to take his soul off at a tangent away from God. You don’t need a big sin. Adultery is pointless if cards will do it. Indeed, a big sin is less effective, because he’ll notice it, whereas a small one can creep in unnoticed and gradually take him out of his orbit around God”.

I’d go further and say that it’s the sins of omission that sneak into my life more persistently than the sins of commission. It’s the things I leave undone – the active caring for the poor and the needy, the watching out for opportunities to be a blessing to others – those are the things that take me out of my orbit around God without me even noticing it. That’s what I need to keep watch for. And this leads to the other thing we’re told to do while we wait for the Lord’s return: work. Look at our Gospel again:

“Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch’ (Mark 13:33-34).

Each one of the servants in the story has been given his work to do by his master, and his job is to do the work until the master returns. It’s the same for us; we each have our job to do for the Lord. Mine is not the same as yours; yours is not the same as mine.

One of my favourite stories is told of a state legislature in Colonial New England. The members were being thrown into a panic by a solar eclipse, because they didn’t know what it was. People were running around here and there, and several members of the legislature moved to adjourn the session because the second coming of the Lord was at hand. But one of the speakers stood up and said this: “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move, sir, that candles be brought in”. This, I believe, is the true Christian way. Whatever it is that Jesus is asking you to do, make sure you’re busy doing it when he comes back.

So these are the things we need to give special attention to during Advent as we think about the Lord’s return. We’re to keep watch over our lives and do our best to be holy for the Lord. And we’re to be busy doing the work he’s given us to do. So I invite you to make a special effort this Advent to take your mind off the tinsel and the Christmas preparations, and instead, to think about the deeper, more important preparation that we all have to do, while we wait patiently, watchfully, prayerfully, hopefully, for the Kingdom of God to come in all its fulness.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

No – not what you’re thinking. Not Christmas: Advent. It starts this coming Sunday, November 27th, and lasts until Christmas Eve.

Ever since my children were little I’ve loved the season of Advent with a passion. Advent tells us that there’s a better future ahead; it reminds us of the Old Testament promises of the coming of the Messiah, and the New Testament hope that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom of justice and peace will never end. The Advent hymns and scriptures (mainly from the Old Testament prophets) reinforce these themes for us.

The oldest ‘layer’ of Advent, in my experience, is the traditional hymns. I was brought up in a churchgoing family and sang as a chorister when I was a boy, so these hymns are indelibly fixed in my memory. ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’, ‘On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry’, ‘Hark the Glad Sound – the Saviour Comes’ – these are just some of the best known examples of hymns that celebrate the Advent message. I love the music of Christmas, too, but I really don’t like it when stores start playing it right after Remembrance Day (all in an effort to enhance Christmas sales, of course). I don’t want to get to Christmas too soon; I want to wait, and savour the sense of anticipation that Advent gives. Singing the Advent hymns helps me to do that.

Speaking of waiting, when my kids were very little (back in our Arborfield days), Marci and I found a book about family Advent customs called ‘Celebrate While We Wait’, by the Schroeder family. It was this book that first introduced us to the Advent wreath; the wreath had never been a part of my childhood Advent experience, and until I read about it in the Schroeders’ book, I had never heard of it either. But we quickly made it a part of our family Advent practice.

I made our first wreath from a piece of circular styrofoam, but later I made a more permanent base from the top of an old wooden stool into which I drilled five holes for the candles. The candles are traditionally purple (some people now use blue, but I myself prefer the traditional colours), perhaps with one pink one, and a white one in the centre for Christmas. Marci and I still light our wreath at suppertime every evening, and after supper we use a book of Advent devotions to help us meditate on the themes of the season and to lead us into prayer together. There is a wealth of resources available for this; simply googling ‘Advent devotions’ brings up 304,000 hits in a quarter of a second, and searching for ‘Advent devotional’ on amazon.ca produced 570 results! We sometimes add our own prayers, and conclude with the Lord’s Prayer together. I know we should be praying together every day, but often in the busyness of our lives, we forget. Through Advent, though, we rarely miss; somehow the little ceremony with the Advent wreath just makes it easier for us to remember to worship together each day.

Advent, of course, is about God’s kingdom of justice and peace breaking in to transform the world, and so Advent is a good time to think about what we’re doing to forward the work of God’s kingdom. What am I doing at this (often rather selfish) time of year to care for the poor and needy and to transform the structures of our society so that our world becomes a more just and peaceful place? A few weeks ago, in our church (St. Margaret’s, Edmonton), we were visited by representatives of four Edmonton outreach agencies – the Mustard Seed, Hope Mission, Habitat for Humanity, and the Food Bank – each of which depends heavily on volunteers and financial support from people like us. Listening to them speak about the work their organisations do reminded me again that there are things that each of us can do to help translate the Advent hope into reality in the world for which Jesus gave his life. What might God be calling me to do this Advent, in a practical way, to live out the message of his Kingdom? (Here’s a good perspective on this.)

Christmas celebrates the central mystery of the Christian faith – God coming to live among us as one of us in the person of Jesus. Advent helps me enter more meaningfully into that celebration. It reminds me that as the light of the candles shines in the darkness, so the words of the prophets shine in the darkness of despair and hopelessness and point us to a time when we will study war no more, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

Let me close with my favourite Advent prayer, composed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the original 1549 Book of Common Prayer and used in Anglican churches worldwide, with little variations, down to the present day:

‘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 Ghost, now and for ever, Amen’.

A few holiday pics so far

Here are a few pictures so far from our holiday in the UK:


River Thames at Hampton Court

Marci outside the front gate at Hampton Court Palace


The great hall in the Tudor portion of Hampton Court Palace


The Hanoverian part of Hampton Court palace. It is really like two palaces (a Tudor one and a Hanoverian one) joined into one.



The ‘Bridge of Sighs’ in Oxford (often seen in episodes of ‘Morse’ or ‘Lewis’


Me outside the ‘Eagle and Child’ (or ‘The Bird and Baby’) pub in Oxford, where the Inklings met to drink beer and discuss their writings.


‘New Buildings’ (built in the early 1700s) at Magdalen College. C.S. Lewis lived and gave tutorials in his rooms in this building for 29 years.


Looking east along the High in Oxford, taken from the tower of St. Mary the Virgin church. The tower in the centre is Magdalen College.


Stay tuned… the adventures continue…


Sermon for November 20th: Matthew 25:31-46

Be a Neighbour to Those in Need

Today at our 10.30 service we are baptising two young children, Sophia and Maria. I must admit that when I was thinking about today’s gospel reading in relation to our baptism service I was more than a little nervous. ‘How am I going to connect the baptisms of Sophia and Maria with the parable of the sheep and the goats?’ On the one hand we have this joyful family occasion, with parents bringing their beloved children to Christ to receive a new birth by water and the Spirit into the family of God. On the other hand, we have Jesus dividing the entire human race into two groups and sending one group to heaven and the other group to hell. One theme is all about God’s love and joy coming into our lives by grace; the other theme seems to be all about the threat of judgement. How are we going to bring these two themes together?

Well, let’s see what we can do, shall we?

When you and I were baptised, God did something for us that we can’t do for ourselves. The Bible uses many different images to describe the miracle that God accomplishes in baptism. It’s like having our sins washed away and walking clean into a new life. It’s like being born again. It’s like being adopted into the family of God as a son or daughter of God. It’s like dying with Jesus on the cross and rising to a whole new life. It’s a sign of the Holy Spirit coming into us and giving us new life and new strength to follow Jesus. None of these things are things we do for ourselves; they are all acts of God. So baptism is all about grace – God’s love that we don’t have to earn, it comes to us as a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ.

So much for God’s side of the baptismal covenant. Now – what about our side? We must remember that pretty well everyone who was baptised in the New Testament was baptised as an adult convert. They had heard the gospel message about Jesus; they had been persuaded by it; they had decided they wanted to be part of it, and so they had come forward and asked ‘What must I do to be saved?’ The usual answer was some variation on ‘Turn away from your sins, put your trust in Jesus, and be baptised so that you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and be able to follow Jesus as your Lord’.

We see these things reflected in the questions that I will ask the parents of our baptismal candidates in a few minutes. I’m going to ask them three questions about the life that Christians leave behind: will they renounce Satan, the evil powers of this world, and the sinful desires in themselves that draw them away from God’s love? I will then ask them three questions about the life that Christians embrace: will they turn to Jesus Christ as Saviour, trust in his grace and love, and obey him as their Lord?

That last question is the crux of the matter. Baptism, on the human side, is a free will decision to put ourselves under the authority of a new Lord. Jesus is going to start from this theme at the end of Matthew’s gospel when he gives his apostles instructions about baptism:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).

So to make a decision to be baptized, or to bring a child for baptism, is something we do, first and foremost, because we recognise that Jesus is not just an incredibly smart human being or a wise religious leader: he is the one to whom God the Father has committed all authority in heaven and on earth. To say ‘Jesus is Lord’ is not just to say something about how I feel in my heart; it is to acknowledge something that is a cosmic reality: it’s true here in Edmonton, it’s true in Beijing and in Djakarta, it’s true on Mars and on Alpha Centauri and in the middle of the Crab Nebula.

And this is where our gospel reading starts:

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory’ (v.31).

‘Son of Man’, of course, is a title that Jesus has been using for himself all through his ministry. By itself it’s just an Aramaic phrase that means ‘human one’ or ‘human being’, but when Jesus calls himself, not ‘a’ son of man, but ‘the Son of Man’, he is making a specific reference to the Bible. He’s making a reference to the book of Daniel, one of the weirdest books of the Old Testament and as mysterious as the Book of Revelation in many ways.

In the seventh chapter of Daniel we read about four weird beasts who represent four empires that will bring suffering to the whole earth. But then the scene changes. An awesome and majestic throne is set up, and the Ancient of Days – that is, God – takes his place on it; books are opened, judgement is pronounced, and the beasts are killed and their bodies are burned with fire. And then follows this passage:

‘As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man (NRSV: ‘like a human being’) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days’ (NRSV: ‘the Ancient One’) and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed’ (Daniel 7:13-14).

Biblical scholars are divided about just who exactly Daniel thought he was writing about when he mentions this ‘one like a son of man’. But everyone knows that when Jesus called himself ‘the Son of Man’, this was the biblical passage he had in mind. And so, in a twist of irony, a phrase which sounds really humble actually becomes a claim to have great authority: Jesus was saying, “I am the one to whom God the Father has given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples and nations and languages should serve me. My dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and my kingship is one that shall never be destroyed”.

It’s a breathtaking claim, but this is who Jesus thought he was. And to be a baptised Christian is to be a person who has accepted that claim. We have to be quite clear about this. Sometimes evangelical Christians talk about ‘making Jesus the Lord of your life’. That’s rather pretentious, I think. Poor little Jesus has no authority, but then I make him the Lord of my life and now he has authority because I’ve given it to him! No – Jesus is Lord of my life whether I choose to make him Lord or not; his Lordship does not come from me, it comes from his Father, who has given him all authority in heaven and on earth. In baptism, I choose to accept that authority over myself, and over my family as I bring my children for baptism.

Now – how does that work itself out in our daily life? What are the things that we do because we acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Our baptismal service in a few minutes is going to name some of them. We continue to participate in the worship of the Church week by week, listening to the biblical teachings, sharing the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and joining in the prayers. We do our best to resist evil and to repent of our sins.  We share the good news of Christ with others, both by our words and by our example. We work for justice and peace and we respect the dignity of every human being.

These are some of the things we do – this is a partial description of the way of life that we followers of Jesus are learning. But I want to focus for a moment on the one promise that I haven’t mentioned so far. In a few moments I will ask the parents and godparents, and all of you who want to renew your baptismal commitment, this question:

‘Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?’

And you will reply,

‘I will, with God’s help’.

It’s a strange phrase, isn’t it? ‘Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?’ It’s as if we’re on a search for Jesus. Where can we find him? Can we find him today as we break the bread and pour out the wine and share the meal he gave us? Definitely. Can we find him as we listen to his Word? Certainly. Can we find him each day as we pray, by ourselves or with others? Of course.

But there’s another, one hundred percent reliable way of finding Jesus in our daily lives today. The place he spends his working week, apparently, is among the poor and needy. If you want to experience the presence of Jesus in your life, one of the most reliable ways of doing that is to go and find someone who is suffering and to help them, because Jesus graciously accepts all such service as if it was done to him. Listen again to what he says in today’s gospel:

‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’” (vv.34-36).

The ones who Jesus refers to as ‘the righteous’ express some surprise over this; they don’t remember doing any of this for Jesus:

‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”’ (vv.37-40).

Here are our instructions. Do you want to know what you should be doing as baptised Christians, as followers of Jesus in the world? Well, this is a big part of the answer. Those of you who have brought children for baptism, today and at other times, do you want to know how to teach your children to follow Jesus? Don’t leave this part out, because Jesus says it’s crucial: teach them that when they see the face of a suffering person, they are seeing the face of Jesus. The poor and needy are not an embarrassment or a nuisance; they are an opportunity to serve Christ.

This statement confers an incredible dignity on the poor and the suffering! The wicked people in Jesus’ parable don’t recognise that dignity. “When, Lord?” they ask; “When was it that we saw you in trouble and refused to help you?” No doubt their plea is, “If we had known it was you, we would have helped immediately, but we didn’t think it was anyone important!” Jesus, however, sees everyone as important, even ‘the least of these who are members of my family’; each of them has the dignity of representing him to us, his followers. To serve them is to serve him.

Where do we start? Well, the opportunities are endless. Every three seconds, somewhere in the world, a child dies of hunger-related causes. One third of the world’s population lives on less than three dollars a day. 29% of the world’s population has 80% of its wealth. There are over 50 million refugees in the world. There are at least two thousand homeless people in the city of Edmonton. And even here, on the prosperous south side of the city, there are senior citizens on fixed incomes who need to ask the Food Bank for help every month because they are having difficulty making ends meet.

And of course there are other kinds of needs too. What about those who are addicted to alcohol, drugs, or gambling? What about those with mental illnesses? What about those who are chronically ill? What about those who are at the end of their rope because of the stress of modern life?

So this is part of our job description as baptised followers of Jesus. God has poured his love into our hearts, freely and without reserve. Our sins have been forgiven, we have been adopted into his family and given the gift of the Holy Spirit, all by God’s grace. Every one of us here today is a beneficiary of the generosity of God our Saviour and our Father. His compassion for us has no limits.

Well, we are called to imitate the limitless compassion of our heavenly Father. Jesus our Lord calls us to follow him by serving all who are in need. Day by day, as we move through our daily lives, we are to keep our eyes open to the needs of those around us. Jesus won’t ask us to do what we can’t; he’ll ask us to do what is within our power to do. And all that we do for those in need, we will be doing for our Lord himself. This is our way of life as followers of Jesus, so when we leave this place today, let’s get busy about it.