‘What’s Advent All About?’ (a sermon for Advent Sunday)

Most of us are probably familiar with the 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 so the night of January 5th is traditionally known as ‘Twelfth Night’.

A hundred years ago, 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. But of course, the retail industry has now 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 – certainly no later than New Year’s.

So at this time of year, we in the church are following a calendar that’s significantly different from the world around us – the world as dominated by the retail industry. They’ve been getting ready for Christmas for almost a month now – ever since the Halloween stuff disappeared from the stores. 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 money.

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 and the story of the birth of Jesus. 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 come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ and, as the Nicene Creed says, ‘He will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will never end’.

And so we get out the Advent wreath, which has the four purple candles, one for each of the Sundays of Advent. I hope you will make an Advent wreath for yourselves at home and light it each day, perhaps at suppertime, and perhaps adding a brief Bible reading or prayer on the themes of Advent. It doesn’t need to be a fancy one like the one here at the church; at home, I made ours using the top of an old stool, with holes drilled in it for the candles! And once you’ve made it, there are all sorts of resources on the Internet to help us celebrate Advent each day by using the wreath. And for those of us who like music, in the church we have a special collection of traditional hymns about Advent and the coming of the kingdom of God: ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’, ‘he Advent of our King’, and so on. Some of you perhaps want to start singing the Christmas hymns right away, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the vital themes of the Advent season.

What are some of those themes? Let me suggest three of them, and point you toward some scriptures that explain them.

The first theme is hope. When we’re going through dark times, either as a community or a nation, or as individuals, we all know how important it is for us to have hope. In our gospel reading for today Jesus says “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding about what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:25-26).

This is what biblical scholars call ‘apocalyptic’ language. ‘Apocalyptic’ literature isn’t necessarily about huge catastrophes, though it sometimes is. But one of its characteristics is that it uses symbolic language to describe political events in the world. So historians looking back on 1989 say that the fall of the Berlin Wall was ‘an earth-shaking event’, even though we know that the earth itself was not literally shaken. What was shaken was the political system symbolized by the Berlin Wall.

In the modern world a lot can happen in a short time, and certainly in the last few years we’ve experienced earth-shaking events of our own. So when Jesus talks about people ‘fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world’, we can certainly understand what that feels like! If you’ve lost your job, or lost your life savings, or lost your pension plan, or if the future that looked safe and secure suddenly looks anything but – well, then, ‘fear and foreboding’ may be exactly what you’re feeling.

And that’s when we need hope. The sense that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that somewhere there’s a plan, that someone is in charge and is wise enough and strong enough to lead us out of this mess – if we have that sense, then we can continue the struggle, no matter how hard it seems to be, because we know that it won’t last forever. And that’s the hope we find in some of the writings of the Old Testament prophets.

So today we heard the words of Jeremiah foretelling s time when God would send a king to put things right:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness’ (Jeremiah 33:14-16).

Or listen to these words from the prophet Micah:

In the days to come
     the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
     and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
     and many nations shall come and say:
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 forth instruction,
     and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
     and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
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;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
     and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. (Micah 4:1-4).

Micah wrote these words when the cloud of war was hanging over his people, just as it is in much of the world today, and he points us toward a time when humanity’s obsession with war will come to an end, and when the people of the world will live in safety with no one to make them afraid. But this isn’t just a romantic peacenik hippy sort of vision; it comes as a result of a general desire to turn to God’s ways and to accept God’s law as our path of life.

The early church saw this scripture as having been partially fulfilled with the coming of Jesus and his sending out of his church to spread the gospel to the whole earth: the ‘word of the Lord’ had ‘gone forth from Jerusalem’ to the ends of the earth. Of course, the fulfilment was not yet complete; today we still look to the future for its completion. But because it is a promise of God, we can look ahead into God’s future with certainty, and we can work for peace and justice now, knowing that our labours are not in vain, because God will confirm them and establish them when the Day of the Lord comes.

So during the Advent season we meditate on this hope, and we draw encouragement from it. We can find those Old Testament prophecies and read them again; one good way to find them is by listening to a recording of the first half of Handel’s ‘Messiah’! As we read them or hear them, we’ll experience what Paul talks about in Romans 15, where he says, ‘For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope’ (Romans 15:4).

So hope is one of the main themes of Advent. But there’s a second theme, closely related to it: the theme of judgement. Many people don’t like this word; it’s associated in their minds with hellfire and brimstone preachers trying to literally ‘scare the hell’ out of people. Many Christians today will repeat the old saw that ‘the Old Testament God is a God of judgement and the New Testament God is a God of love’.

But in fact there can be no hope for the world without judgement. If God is not going to judge evil and remove it from his world, how can things ever be different here? If God is going to allow rapists and child molesters to continue to inflict suffering on the weak and helpless – if he’s going to allow greedy countries to continue to gobble up ten times their fair share of the natural resources of the world – if he’s going to allow murderous dictators to continue to oppress the weak and the helpless – if all of that is going to continue because ‘God is a God of love’, then how can there be hope? No: hope is absolutely meaningless without change, and the sort of change we need has to include judgement.

The New Testament writers are in full agreement with this idea, and so the old saw about the note of judgement being absent from the New Testament turns out to be completely false. In fact, some of the strongest language about judgement in the whole Bible comes from Jesus himself! Jesus is the one who tells the parable of the sheep and the goats, in which those who have refused to care for the needy are excluded from God’s future kingdom. Jesus is the one who talks about the servant who knew his master’s will and didn’t do it, and so received a greater beating. And Jesus is the one who tells us that if we want to enter God’s kingdom it isn’t enough just to call him ‘Lord, Lord’; we have to put his teaching into practice and do the will of his Father in heaven.

So in Advent, as we meditate on the theme of judgement, it’s a good idea to turn our eye onto ourselves, to examine ourselves, to see how we fall short of the way of life that Jesus has taught us, and to make the necessary changes in our lifestyle. The traditional word for this is ‘repentance’, which means a change of mind leading to a change of life: turning away from what is evil and turning toward what is good. In Isaiah 40 the prophet talks about ‘preparing the way of the Lord’;

‘Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain’ (Isaiah 40:4).

I don’t know about you, but I know that in my life there are plenty of ‘rough places’ that need to be made plain, and plenty of ‘uneven ground’ that needs to be leveled. Advent is a good time to work on these things.

So we’ve talked about two Advent themes, hope and judgement. A third theme, related to them both, is readiness. The New Testament makes it perfectly clear that we don’t know when the day of the Lord is going to come. Jesus tells us in Matthew 24 that ‘about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’ (v.36), and he tells us that his coming will be as unexpected as a thief breaking into a house during the night. ‘Therefore you also must be ready’, he says, ‘for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’ (v.44). This illustration of a thief breaking unexpectedly into a house during the night obviously captured the imagination of the early church; Paul repeats it in 1 Thessalonians 5 where he says, ‘for you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night’ (v.2), and Peter also uses it in his second letter, chapter 3, where he says, ‘But the day of the Lord will come like a thief’ (v.10).

Of course, it’s not the damage that the thief does that these writers are stressing; it’s the unexpected nature of his coming. Everyone was asleep, no one was prepared, and so the thief got away with it. And Jesus warns us in the gospels not to be asleep – in other words, not to get lulled into thinking that the day is never going to come. Instead, we’re to be ready, and we’re to show our readiness by our eagerness to live the way that Jesus taught us to live.

One of my favourite stories on this theme – many of you have probably heard me tell it before – 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 they thought the end of the world was at hand. But one of the members 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 doing it when he comes back.

So, to sum up, in these next few weeks let’s take time to ponder the themes of Advent, and let them do their work in our lives. Let’s remember the Advent message of hope and let it bring light into the world when we find ourselves getting overwhelmed by all the bad news in the world. Let’s also remember the message of judgement: let’s examine ourselves, and make the changes that are necessary to prepare the way of the Lord in our lives. And let’s not put it off; let’s remember the message of readiness, and make sure to live each day knowing that it could be the day we see the Lord face to face. Amen.

Everyone is Included

I want to post some good links to things others have said about the currently controversy about refugees from Syria. There is no particular mystery about my position: I am a Christian, and therefore I am under orders to do what I can to welcome the stranger, either by acting on my own or (more likely) working with others. I’m trying to counter what I see as the fear-based – and in some cases (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump) overtly racist – arguments that have flooded the internet lately.

American Nathan Empsall writes the excellent country/folk/Americana blog ‘Hard Times No More‘. His piece is entitled ‘Everyone is included when we sing “This land is your land”‘. Here’s an excerpt:

Part of “Americana” music is “America” – and all the values that that word claims to stand for. Values like love, justice, compassion, and hospitality. America should not and can not stand for hatred, bigotry, nationalism, or rejection. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” These are the values we have always sung about, and what we must keep singing. What do we want America to be is a question that all of us answer every minute of every day, and need to talk about in every space, even music blogs. So I write today as an American, as a Christian, and also, later in this post, as a music fan, so if you only came for the music, please press on (or scroll down).

Donald Trump said this week that Muslims in the U.S. “absolutely” have to register in a database, and that we need more than just databases to manage them. He did not argue with comparisons to Third Reich Germany requiring its Jewish citizens to wear identifying symbols and tattoos. His bigoted broadside against religious freedom comes on the heels of Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz’s comments that America should allow Christian refugees, but not Muslim refugees – never mind that Daesh/ISIS’s primary victims are its fellow Muslims.

Jesus calls me to love everyone. Everyone means everyone, but especially Muslims, my brothers and sisters in the God of Abraham. These brothers and sisters face far too much violence – abroad from ISIS, at home from bigotry – leaving them bleeding at the side of the road. Jesus says I need to love my neighbor, to think of everyone as my neighbor, and to help the person bleeding by the side of the road. He used a Samaritan as the example, because Jews in 30 AD looked at Samaritans the same way Trump, Cruz, and Bush look at Muslims today. But, Jesus said, that’s not what matters.

Read the rest here. Please do.

My Kingdom is not from This World (a sermon on John 18:36)

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 Christ the Lord of all, and one day his reign will be acknowledged by every living creature on earth.

But 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 at all. 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’. 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 avoiding bad habits, 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 telling people to be nice to each other! 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?

You see, people who think Jesus meant that his kingdom is not in this world at all will then often go on to say that his kingship is not here and now, but in some other place, or some other time. And this means that right here, in this world we live in right now, we don’t actually have to take much notice of what he says as our king. This world is the kingdom of darkness and evil, and we have to play by the rules of darkness and evil in order to survive here. But one day we’ll die and go to heaven, and that’s when we’ll live in Jesus’ kingdom, where his rules operate. Or, perhaps, one day Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will then be in force and will last forever. But it’s not here yet; we still wait for it and are looking forward to it, but we can’t have it right now, and we can’t live right now as if it had already arrived.

This has had a drastic effect on the way people understand what we’re supposed to do with the commands of Jesus. We all know that Jesus gives us some pretty demanding instructions. He tells us that not only are we not to murder people, but we aren’t even to hate them or get angry with them. Not only are we not to commit adultery, we’re not even to lust after someone else. We’re to be absolutely truthful at all times, to love not just our friends and neighbours but even our enemies, to turn the other cheek rather than retaliate when we’re attacked, and to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. He told his disciples not to accumulate large bank accounts but to give their possessions to the poor and needy. He said that if we have two of something and we see that our brother or sister has none, we’re to take our extra and give to the one who needs it.

That’s demanding enough, but there’s more. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel Jesus gives us a kingdom manifesto. He stands up in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth and reads these words from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus was quoting from Isaiah 61, which was commonly understood in his day to be an allusion to the Old Testament law of Jubilee. This law stated that every fifty years all debts were to be forgiven, all slaves were to be set free, and all property was to revert to its original owners so that no one would accumulate vast amounts of wealth at the expense of others. Human nature being what it is, there is no evidence that the people of Israel ever actually obeyed this commandment; it was too much of a threat to the power of those who profited from keeping people in debt, or in slavery, or in poverty. But after Jesus read those words from Isaiah, Luke tells us that he said to the people in the synagogue, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v.21). In other words, ‘Now is the time to put the year of Jubilee into practice. Now is the time to set the captives free, to forgive debts, to live in equality and justice as God commanded us in the Law of Moses’.

So it seems pretty clear to me that Jesus could not possibly have been saying, “My kingdom is not in this world”. What he said was ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, or, as our NRSV has it, ‘My kingdom is not from this world’. And he goes on to explain what he means: ‘If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews’. In other words, Jesus’ kingdom comes from another place and it has a different character than the kingdoms we know in this world. In the kingdoms of the world, citizens of one country fight to protect their king, but Jesus’ followers were forbidden from fighting to protect him, because violence is a characteristic of earthly kingdoms and not of Jesus’ kingdom.

So we might ask ourselves, how is Jesus’ kingdom different from the kingdoms of this world? And fortunately for us, there is plenty of New Testament teaching to help us answer that question.

In Mark chapter 10 we read that two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, came with a request for him; they said, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory’ (Mark 10:37). In other words, they thought Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to be crowned as an earthly ruler and they wanted him to give them the top jobs in his cabinet! But Jesus rebuked them for their misunderstanding: he wasn’t about to be seated on a throne but nailed to a cross, and the ones who would be on his right and his left weren’t his cabinet ministers, but the two thieves who were crucified with him. And then Jesus called all the disciples together and said this to them:

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Earthly kingdoms are based on hierarchy and power structures; it’s the same whether we’re talking about monarchies and tyrannies or democratically elected governments. The higher your position of authority, the more power you have and the more people are working for you and serving you. But this is not the way Jesus worked when he came as our king. He was the servant of all, healing the sick and caring for the needy, washing the feet of his disciples and willingly giving his life to save us. And this is what his kingdom is like: it’s been called an ‘upside down kingdom’, in which there are no distinctions based on race or gender or power or wealth, but all freely serve one another in love. And as followers of Jesus whose kingdom is not from this world, you and I are called to live on this basis now, even though the world around us does not.

That’s the first thing: Jesus’ kingdom is not based on hierarchy and power structures, but on love and service to others. Secondly, we go to the words of Jesus in our gospel for today, where he explains the difference between his kingdom and the kingdoms of the world. He says, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews” (John 18:36). Worldly kingdoms are protected by military power, and their soldiers fight and give their lives to protect their monarchs. We know that, in fact, one of Jesus’ followers did attempt to do this; in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested, Peter drew a sword and slashed at one of the high priest’s servants, cutting off his ear. But Jesus rebuked him: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). The early Church Father Tertullian, writing in about 200 A.D., commented on this story and said, ‘The Lord, in disarming Peter, also disarmed every soldier’.

So earthly kingdoms are kept in place by power and violence, but Jesus’ kingdom is not; it’s not based on the love of power but on the power of love. His followers are not called to fight their enemies but to love them, to do good to them and to bless them, just as God pours out his love and blessings on good and bad alike.

So Jesus’ kingdom is not based on hierarchy and power structures, but on love and service to others. Secondly, it doesn’t advance by violence and power, but by reaching out even to enemies and caring for them.

Thirdly, we think of one of Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Here he tells us that when the Son of Man comes in his glory he will gather the nations before him and separate them into two groups as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He’ll turn to the one group, the sheep, and say to them, “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”. Then the righteous will ask him, “Lord, we don’t remember that! When did we do all these things for you?” And the King will reply, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me” (see Matthew 25:31-46).

When the Olympic Games came to Atlanta, Georgia in 1996, the homeless were forcibly removed from the city before the games began. This tells you how the poor and needy are so often seen in the world today: they are an embarrassment, or a nuisance. But in the Kingdom of Jesus, the poor and needy are not an embarrassment but an opportunity to serve the king. When you care for someone who is in need, you are really caring for the King himself. When you clothe a needy person you are putting royal robes on the King; when you feed a hungry person you are contributing to the King’s banquet. You don’t serve this King by lavishing wealth and pageantry on him; you serve him by loving the people he loves.

My brothers and sisters, today we proclaim our faith that Jesus is Lord – that he is the Messiah, God’s anointed King, and one day his Kingdom will be acknowledged by every living creature. But we don’t have to wait until that day to live as his subjects, because he came into Galilee at the beginning of his ministry saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). To ‘repent’ means to turn away from our sins and from our previous allegiances and to give ourselves in joyful obedience to God’s anointed king. It means that instead of living according to the pattern we’ve received from earthly kingdoms in the past, we look forward to the future when God’s Kingdom will be seen in all its fullness, and we live like that now, as a sign to the people around us of the coming of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus’ Kingdom is not from this world, but it is definitely in this world, right now, today. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). So let us live as faithful followers of Jesus our King, by putting his teaching into practice and working for the spread of his Kingdom in the midst of the world he came to save. Amen.

Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from last year, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-two years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And thank you.


There is no Rock like our God (a sermon on 1 Samuel 1:1 – 2:10)

Today I want to talk with you about the story of Hannah, a woman who was in a desperate situation and who cried out to the Lord for help. There are some aspects of Hannah’s story that we don’t find it so easy to relate to; she was in a polygamous marriage, and the tensions and rivalries of that sort of marriage are hard for us to imagine today. But the main factor in her story is all too familiar to many people; she longed for a child, and her longing had not been fulfilled. There are many people today who know all about that sort of grief, and even if we aren’t familiar with it, we’ve all had times when we longed for things and our longing was not fulfilled. So let’s see what happens in the story of Hannah.

This story takes place about a thousand years before the time of Jesus, and we can find it in the first Book of Samuel, chapters one and two. There we read that there was a man of the tribe of Ephraim named Elkanah and he had two wives; one named Hannah, the other named Penninah. Penninah had children, but Hannah had none. Childlessness is bad enough in a monogamous marriage, but in a polygamous situation, in a culture that saw producing sons as one of the most important duties of a good wife, we can well imagine how difficult it would have been. And Penninah didn’t make things easy for Hannah; the story tells us that she ‘used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb’ (1 Samuel 1:6).

In those days it was the custom for people to go on pilgrimage to Shiloh, a town in the centre of Israel. This was where the Lord’s tabernacle was located – the tent that Moses had made in the desert many years ago, with the box in which the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments in them were kept, and the altar of incense and all the other holy furniture that Moses and the Israelites had made. This was before the temple in Jerusalem was built, so this simple tabernacle was the place above all others where the Israelites felt they could meet with their God. At that time the old man Eli was the priest at Shiloh.

So we’re told that Elkanah and his family used to go up to Shiloh year by year to worship the Lord, to offer sacrifices and offerings. When animals were offered in sacrifice to the Lord, it was the custom to burn a portion of the offering and then for the worshippers to eat the rest. There’s a bit of a translation problem in the text here, because the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain. Our NRSV says that when Elkanah gave out the food from the sacrifice to his family, he gave Hannah a double portion, because he loved her. However, the Revised English Bible has an alternative translation: ‘When Elkanah sacrificed, he gave several shares of the meat to his wife Penninah with all her sons and daughters, but to Hannah he gave only one share; the LORD had not granted her children, yet it was Hannah whom Elkanah loved’ (1:4-5 REB).

So one possible translation is that Hannah did better out of the situation than Penninah, the other is that she did worse! Whichever is right, it’s plain that there was a lot of tension in the family, and it went on year after year. As often as they went up to Shiloh, Penninah used to provoke Hannah, and so Hannah would not eat and was reduced to tears. And it has to be said that Elkanah wasn’t the most sensitive of guys in this situation; the story tells us that he said, “Hannah, why are you crying? Why don’t you eat? Why are you so sad? Aren’t I more to you than ten sons?”

So on one of these occasions, after they had eaten and drunk their fill, Hannah got up and slipped away from the family group; she went back to the tabernacle, to the presence of the Lord. Eli, the old priest, was sitting on a seat beside the door, and he saw her going into the tabernacle. She was deeply distressed and wept bitterly as she prayed to the Lord. In her prayer, she made a vow to God; she said, “O LORD of hosts, if you will only look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head” (1:11). A nazirite was a person who had been specifically dedicated to the LORD, and abstaining from alcohol and from haircuts was an external sign of their vow.

Now the old priest Eli was watching Hannah, and she was doing something unusual; she was praying silently. Most people in those days prayed out loud; in Hannah’s case, though, her lips were moving but she was not sounding out the words. Eli totally misinterpreted the situation; he thought that Hannah was drunk, and so he rebuked her. “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” he said; “Put away your wine”. But she replied, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul to the LORD. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time”. Then Eli answered her, “Go in peace: the God of Israel grant the petition you have made”. And so Hannah went back to her husband and ate and drank with him.

Hannah’s prayer was answered. They went home, and in due course she conceived and she had a son, and she called him Samuel, which apparently sounds like a Hebrew word meaning, “asked of God”. In those days, of course, it was common for mothers to breast feed their children for much longer than today; as long as two or three years in fact. So for the next two or three years Hannah skipped the annual trip to Shiloh; she told Elkanah, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the LORD, and remain there forever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time” (1:22).

Elkanah agreed to this, and so Hannah waited until her son was weaned. She then took him up to Shiloh, where she offered sacrifices to the LORD and then presented herself to old Eli and said, ‘“I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the LORD. For this child I prayed: and the LORD has granted me the petition I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he is given to the LORD”. And she left him there for the LORD’ (1:26-28). We’re told that every year when she and the family came up to Shiloh she’d bring a new robe for the boy; and Eli would bless her and pray that God would give her more sons and daughters. And God heard that prayer; Hannah had three more sons and two daughters.

1 Samuel 2:1-10 gives us a song of thanksgiving that Hannah sang to God when she brought Samuel up to Shiloh to present him as a nazirite. In this song, Hannah rejoices in God who has turned away the proud and mighty and blessed the weak and helpless; obviously she’s thinking of her own situation here! ‘The barren has borne seven’, she says, ‘but she who has many children is forlorn’ (2:5). I particularly want to focus on what Hannah says in verse 2: ‘There is no holy one like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God’.

The term ‘rock’ is actually one of the most common biblical metaphors for God; it appears over and over again in the psalms, such as in Psalm 95 where we read, ‘O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation’ (v.1). It’s a dangerous thing to try to analyse a metaphor; metaphors appeal to the right hand side of our brain, the artistic side, and analysis is a left-brain procedure. So I’m not going to try to define exactly what the ‘Rock’ metaphor means when it’s applied to God. But if I think about my own impressions of a rock, I find that a number of things come to mind. I think of Jesus’ story of the wise man who built his house on the rock; the rock foundation was firm, and when the storms came the house was able to stand, whereas the house built on sand fell with a great crash. So the rock is a place of safety and security in a storm. And the person who trusts in God also finds that God is a place of safety and security when times get tough.

A rock is also difficult to move. There’s a well-known story about an American warship traveling at sea on a dark night. A light was seen in the distance, and thinking it was another ship, the American captain noted that he had the right of way and signaled asking the other ship to give way to him. There was no response. The captain signaled three times, identifying himself, and asking the other ship to change course; “I am the battleship U.S.S. Kentucky”, said his signal; “We are on a collision course and I have the right of way. Please change your course”. Finally an answering signal came through: “I am a lighthouse; you will have to be the one to change your course!” A battleship may be strong, but if it ran into a lighthouse built on a rock, the lighthouse would probably be the one to survive the encounter!

God is a safe place in a storm; God is not easily moved by those who try to oppose him. God’s love is steadfast and sure, absolutely dependable, not here today and gone tomorrow like sand that the rain washes away.

Hannah found by her own experience that God was her rock. She had nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to; only the Lord could help her, and so she prayed and cried and poured out her heart to God. God heard her and gave her what she asked for. But I suspect there are some of you listening today who are feeling uneasy at this point. “Well, that’s okay for Hannah; she got what she asked for. But I asked for something, too, and I didn’t get it. Why not? Am I a bigger sinner than she was? What does it mean to say that God is a rock, that God is strong and reliable, when you ask for something over and over again and you don’t get it?”

This is a huge issue, and we must not hide from it or pretend it’s not there. Certainly the Bible doesn’t hide from it. Many of the psalms are written as prayers of people who don’t seem to be getting what they ask from God, and they aren’t afraid to pose the difficult questions. But one of the most remarkable passages on this subject is the eleventh chapter of the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament.

The first part of Hebrews 11 is a long list of the heroes of faith; it talks about all the wonderful things they were able to do because they had faith in God. It talks about how Abraham and Sarah were able to have a child even though Sarah was long past the age of child-bearing; it talks about how Moses was preserved from death by faith in God and grew up to be a great leader of God’s people. It goes on to list other Old Testament heroes and what they did through God’s strength.

But then it goes on to say this: ‘Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground’ (Hebrews 11:35-38).

This is a different story! It seems that some people had faith enough to trust God to rescue them from their circumstances – but other people had a different sort of faith, a faith that continued to trust God when he didn’t rescue them from their circumstances, a faith that trusted that somehow in the midst of their suffering God knew best, and God was able to give them the strength they needed to carry on.

Many of you here know about this sort of faith. This is the faith of the person who prays desperately that God will heal their dying spouse, but still clings to God after the spouse dies, and somehow finds that God is able to lift them up in the midst of their grief. This is the faith of the person who cries out to God in the midst of chronic pain, and asks to be delivered from it, but finds that instead of being delivered from it they are finding the daily strength to bear it and still be true to the God they believe in. They are not finding deliverance, but they are still finding that the Lord is their rock.

God is our Rock. God is inviting us to call out to him, to come close to him, to take refuge in him in time of trouble. Perhaps we can make these words of Psalm 61 our own: ‘Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy’ (vv.1-3).

But I can’t leave this ‘rock’ metaphor without going back to the words of Jesus. Jesus talks about the wise man who builds his house on the rock, and the foolish man who builds his house on the sand. But who is this wise man, and what does he do to build his house on the rock? Well, Jesus says, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” (Matthew 7:24).

God is our rock of refuge, and the way we rest on that rock is to follow Jesus and put his words into practice. In context, the ‘words’ that Jesus is referring to are his words in the Sermon on the Mount – the commands to love our enemies, to pray for those who hate us, to stop laying up for ourselves treasure on earth, to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness and so on. The one who learns this way of life, Jesus is saying, will be secure in God forever.

Hannah says, ‘there is no Rock like our God’. So let’s not be afraid to pour out our hearts to God in trouble, as Hannah did, and ask for his help. And let’s also learn to live by the teaching of Jesus so that we can be like the wise man who built his house on the rock: “The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock” (Matthew 7:25).

What I Will Remember on Remembrance Day

This is a repost from 2013 and 2014; I thought of writing something new, but realized again that this still says what I want to say.

386302_10150434245270400_1399354246_nRemembrance Day is often promoted these days as a day to remember the sacrifices of military personnel who served our country in time of war.

In fact, the original Armistice Day, after World War One (the ‘Great War’ which was also called, optimistically, ‘the War to end all wars’), had a wider focus; it was a thanksgiving that the guns had fallen silent after four years of butchery and carnage on a scale the world had never seen before, and a silent remembrance of all who had lost their lives, military or civilian. It was also a day to pray fervently for peace and to commit oneself to a simple message: ‘Never Again!’

So on Remembrance Day this year there will be many things I will remember.

First and foremost, of course, I will remember family members who were impacted by the ravages of war.

I will remember my grandfather, George Edgar Chesterton (1895-1963), who served with the Leicestershire Tigers from 1914-18. He was eventually captured and spent eighteen months as a P.O.W. before returning home after the armistice.

I will remember my Dad’s uncle, Charles Hodkinson (1912-1941), shot down and killed in a bomber over the Netherlands in 1941.

I will remember my great grand uncle, Horace Arthur Thornton (1896-1917), killed in action in France July 27th 1917.

I will remember Brian Edgar Fogerty (1924-1941), related to me through my grandfather’s sister, who served in the merchant navy during WW2 and died at sea Feb. 22nd 1941; he was just 17.

I will remember Brian’s uncles, Harold Edgar Fogerty (1892-1919) and Edward Ernest Vernon Fogerty (1901-1920), both of whom served in the Great War. They died of illnesses after the war ended, but are remembered on the war memorial in Cheltenham because it is felt that war injuries contributed to their deaths.

I will remember the many other relatives who served in the military in the two great world wars of the twentieth century, many of whom would never speak of their experiences when they returned, and lived with the trauma for the rest of their lives.

I will also remember the brave men and women who served in the enemy armies, many of whom were conscripted and had no choice unless they were willing to be shot. I will remember the people who died because of the bombs my Dad’s uncle Charles dropped. I will remember the U-Boat men who fired the torpedoes that killed Brian Fogerty; the U-Boat arm had the highest casualty incidence of any unit of the German military in WW2, and I expect that most of them died in terror as they heard the explosions of depth charges getting closer and closer; no doubt those who were religious prayed that God would save them, just as my relatives prayed to be saved.

I will remember the civilians whose lives were lost in carpet bombing: in the Blitz in London and other cities in Britain, in the fire-bombing of Dresden, in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I will remember the residents of the towns and cities of Europe, Africa, and Asia, whose homes became battlegrounds and who lost everything they had, including (in millions of cases) their lives. I will remember the millions of children who became orphans, many of whom were institutionalized for the rest of their lives.

I will remember the ridiculous sibling rivalry between King Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm I, which was a primary cause of the arms race between their two countries in the lead up to World War I, and thus arguably contributed to the outbreak of the war. Britain and Germany had no history of aggression, but the Kaiser wanted battleships like his cousin King Edward, and the only excuse he could offer was to create the illusion that Britain was a threat to him. On such stupidity hung the lives of millions of young men.

I will remember the millions of people in eastern Europe who were condemned to forty years of communist tyranny because Britain and the U.S.A. needed the support of Russia to win the Second World War. Our victory was thus won on the backs of the freedom of millions; who were the ‘winners’ here?

I will remember the lies that have been told to justify war, from the lie that Polish soldiers had invaded Germany and killed men at a border post in 1939 (told by Hitler to justify his invasion of Poland) to the lie that Iran had weapons of mass destruction. I will also remember the appalling arrogance of western nations who assume that we have the right to impose our ideas of government on people who obviously do not want them.

I will remember how the words of my Lord Jesus Christ, ”greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, have been taken out of the context in which he spoke them – in which he was about to lay down his life without resisting, loving his enemies and praying for those who hated him – and have been used to honour and glorify the deaths of those who were killed while they were fighting and killing others.

I will remember all of this on Remembrance Day. I will pray that this madness will end, that human beings may find better ways to resolve their conflicts than sending young men out to butcher each other, and that those who profit from war will have their eyes opened to their own wickedness, and repent. And I will pray that the Christian Church throughout the world may be alive to the call it has received from its master, to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us.

And, as always, I will find Wilfred Owen’s immortal poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ to be a penetrating aid to true remembrance of what war is all about:

Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

– Wilfred Owen, 1917