Books I Read (or Re-Read) in 2018.

In the back of my journal, I keep a little list of the books I read. I don’t do this as a kind of score-keeping exercise; more as an aid to reflection. Here’s the list for 2018, in the order in which they were read:

Palmer Becker, Anabaptist Essentials
Khaled Hosseini: And the Mountains Echoed
Matt Haig: Reasons to Stay Alive
Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie: The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity
Columba Stewart, OSB: Prayer and Community: the Benedictine Tradition
Esther DeWaal: Seeking God: the Way of St. Benedict
Joanna Trollope: Sense and Sensibility
William L. Lane: Hebrews: A Call to Commitment
Alexander McCall Smith: Emma: A Modern Retelling
Timothy Fry, Ed: The Rule of St. Benedict
James D.G. Dunn: Romans (The People’s Bible Commentary)
Jane Austen: Emma
Kate Bowler: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved
Adam Shoalts: A History of Canada in Ten Maps
Michael Bond: A Bear Called Paddington
Sarah Ruden: Paul Among the People
David Hackett Fischer: Champlain’s Dream
Karl Vaters: Small Church Essentials
Chaim Potok: The Gift of Asher Lev
Gregory Alan Thornbury: Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock
Tom Wright: Mark for Everyone
Wendell Berry: Hannah Coulter
Mark D. Baker: Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross
John Grisham: The Last Juror
Karen Swallow Prior: Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More
Ariana Huffington: The Sleep Revolution
Bruce Hindmarsh: The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World
John Goldingay: Psalms for Everyone, Part 1
Donald C. Posterski: True to You
Pat Barker: Regeneration
Winnfried Corduan: A Tapestry of Faiths
Pat Barker: The Eye in the Door
Pat Barker: The Ghost Road
Rudy Wiebe: Sweeter than All the World
Randy Ingmarson: How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method
Alexander Fullerton: Love for an Enemy
Alexander Fullerton: Submariner
Michael Frost: Keep Christianity Weird
Madeleine Thien: Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Jaron Lanier: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
Roger Coleman: New Light and Truth: The Making of the Revised English Bible
Dante Alighieri: The Portable Dante (translated by Mark Musa)
Stephen P. Dawes: 1 & 2 Kings (People’s Bible Commentary)
C.J. Sansom: Dissolution
Katharine Welby Roberts: I Thought There Would Be Cake
Richard Bauckham: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
C.J. Sansom: Tombland
Catherine Fox: Angels and Men
Alan Kreider: The Patient Ferment of the Early Church
Susan Pitchford: Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone
Catherine Fox: Acts and Omissions
Catherine Fox: Unseen Things Above
Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol
Catherine Fox: Realms of Glory

And now, as is my custom, a few reflections.

Most enjoyable read of the year? This was a tough one to choose this year, because I read41TIyKAbOpL._SY346_ many really good books. However, if pushed to select one, I’d go with Gregory Alan Thornbury‘s ‘Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?I was a Larry Norman fan in the 1970s and 80s but lost touch with him after that. I heard stories about his failings, but was never really familiar with his story. So I was excited when I heard about this book, and it did not disappoint. Larry emerges from these pages as a real human being, one who struggles with weaknesses and failings as we all do. And yet, his influence on my life as a Christian and a musician was entirely positive, and I suspect thousands of others could say the same thing. I expected to think less highly of him after reading this book, but the opposite was the case. I now go back to the old records and listen to them again with more appreciation for the real human being who created them, and I gladly own up to being a Larry Norman fan. Five stars.

51k74TM4QqLIf I could add a second choice, I’d go with David Hackett Fischer‘s ‘Champlain’s Dream‘. I love Canadian history but my knowledge of it is heavily skewed toward the west. I knew very little about Samuel De Champlain, but this book has more than redressed the balance. Meticulously researched (there are 270 pages of appendices and notes) and beautifully written, it is one of the best historical biographies I have ever read. Also five stars.

Least enjoyable read of the year? Probably Alexander McCall Smith‘s Emma: A Modern51KGPkNsVeL Retelling. Maybe it’s asking too much of a modern writer to try to relocate a classic Jane Austen novel in the modern world. So many of Austen’s story lines depend on social conventions (regarding the roles of women, for instance) that just no longer apply today. This is one of the books in the so-called ‘Austen Project’, in which all of Austen’s novels get a modern makeover. I’ve read several of them and I have to say that only Joanna Trollope’s retake on Sense and Sensibility comes anywhere near success for me.

Important discoveries:

Catherine Fox. I didn’t enjoy her Angels and Men, and it took me a while to get into her51mdHKJtjnL Lindchester Series, but by the end of Acts and Omissions I was hooked, and I gobbled up Unseen Things Above and Realms of Glory. I would describe them as being part Barchester Towers, part Susan Howatch’s Church of England series, but much more lighthearted (though, paradoxically, there’s a real depth to them as well) and with a much broader range of brilliantly developed (and very honestly portrayed) characters. The omniscient narrator is not a style of writing I’m used to, nor is the present tense narrative, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying myself.

51szsJbYt-LKaren Swallow Prior is another writer I’ve never come across before but I loved her biography of Hannah More, Fierce Convictions, and am looking forward to reading her newest book On Reading Well.

Bruce Hindmarsh is not exactly new to me as I read his book about John Newton some years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. So I was 512CP34YQtLlooking forward to his book about eighteenth century evangelicalism and its interaction with the arts and sciences of its day, and I was not disappointed. I highly recommend The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism to anyone who suspects there’s a lot more to this movement than praise bands and Trumpian politics.

51TBxH8M5VLFinally, a new novel by C.J. Sansom is always a delight, and Tombland was excellent. I was not familiar with the historic incident the book is based on – the Norfolk rebellion in the reign of Edward VI – but the character of Matthew Shardlake was as compelling as ever and the historical research behind the novel is meticulous.

I was surprised to discover that the only poetry book I read this year was a re-read of The Portable Dante. It’s not that I haven’t read any poetry; I simply haven’t finished any collections! I’ll have to make a point of that this coming year, as I do find poetry hugely rewarding.

And now – on to 2019!

How are you going to grow in your faith in 2019?

2016 was the year I lost over 50 lbs. I had been wanting to do that for years, but wanting didn’t cut it. So I made a decision, came up with a plan, adjusted it as the year progressed, and eventually reached my goal.

Good wishes don’t lead to change. Change happens when I adopt a course of action until it becomes a habit.

Actually, weight loss wasn’t the only change I took on in 2016. I also took up the habit of daily journalling, which I have kept up now for three years. I enjoy it and I appreciate the sense of accountability it gives me (because I try to be honest about myself in its pages). I also used the ‘One-Year Bible’ reading plan to read through the entire NIV 2011 Bible translation.

So how are you going to grow in your faith in 2019?

Sadly, I see many Christians who come to church regularly but don’t seem to want to put any effort into growing in their faith. They’re willing to put huge amounts of effort into other parts of their life – professional development, for instance – but they seem content to stay where they are when it comes to their life as disciples of Jesus.

This doesn’t make sense to me. There’s always more to learn about God. There’s always room for improvement in my behaviour as a Christian. There’s always more to explore in the pages of the Bible. There’s always more love to put into practice.

Peter says ‘But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18 REB). How will you grow this year? It won’t happen by accident. It will happen when you identify the priority areas for growth, pick one or two things to work on, and then make a plan.

This will involve a change of habits. Gretchen Ruben says that what we do every day is far more important than what we do occasionally. The most powerful change in your life will come from the new daily habits that you learn and practice until they become an instinctive part of you.

So – it’s less than a week now until 2019. 2019 can be a powerful year of change for you (as 2016 was for me). How are you going to grow in your faith in this new year?

Good News is for Sharing (a sermon for Christmas Day on Luke 2.1-20)

My oldest cousin recently became a grandfather for the first time. He told me that he’d started to think it was never going to happen, but then, completely out of the blue, his daughter got pregnant, and now we have baby Jorge! Of course, the news spread fast over social media: baby Jorge was born, and within a few hours the photos were up on Facebook and Instagram for all the world to see. A few days later another one of my cousins also had a new granddaughter. Same thing – within a couple of hours we were all going ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ over baby Poppy, even though I can’t remember the last time I met her mom!

Mind you, the quick sharing isn’t totally dependent on modern technology. I remember many years ago when one of our children was born. I think we were living in the Arctic at the time, but we called my Mum and Dad right away – they were the first ones on our list. After that we called Marci’s parents, and then we started to call a few other people on my side of the family, but the next three numbers we tried were all busy. Marci smiled at me and said, “That’s your mum – she’s calling to tell everyone the news!”

Baby news travels fast! But whether modern technology is used or not, I’ve always been fascinated by our instinctive urge to share good news. No one tells us that we should do it; we just hear a story that makes us glad, and we feel somehow compelled to pass it on. Good news is for sharing!

In our Christmas gospel reading for this morning we read about the passing on of good news. First of all we have the angel of the Lord appearing to the shepherds on a hillside near Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth. This is what he says:

“Do not be afraid, for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (vv.10-12).

After this a great choir of angels appears to the shepherds, singing the praises of God.

What’s the next thing that happens? When the angels left them, ‘the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us”’ (v.15). So they left their flocks to look after themselves, and they went down into Bethlehem to search for the child.

I must admit, I laugh when I think of how they might have gone about their search. Did they knock on every door in town and ask, “Excuse me – is there a new baby in this house? Um – is he lying in a manger?” I expect they got a few strange looks, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few doors were slammed in their faces! But eventually, by whatever means, they found the right house; they found the baby and Mary and Joseph, and they told everyone they met what the angels said to them about this new child. The good news had been given to them, and now they were passing it on to other people. Good news is for sharing!

What was it about the message they’d heard that would have motivated the shepherds to abandon their flocks and run down to Bethlehem to see this child? It wasn’t just the fact that a baby was born. I mean, I’m sure my cousins were very excited at the arrival of their newborn grandchildren, but they wouldn’t have expected total strangers to abandon their work schedules just to come to the hospital to see for themselves how this particular baby was of course the most beautiful child ever born!

No, it was what was said about the childthat motivated the shepherds to go and see for themselves. ‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.11). The word ‘Messiah’ sounds like an exclusively religious word today, but it didn’t in New Testament times. In those days the Messiah was the deliverer, the king God was going to send to rescue his people from oppression and violence and restore them to prosperity and peace. The model the Israelites used for the Messiah wasn’t a preacher like Jesus; it was their first great king, David. He had been a shepherd boy in this very town of Bethlehem, but God had chosen him and led him by a long and tortuous journey until he became king of Israel and delivered his people from the threat of the Philistines.

So when the angel told the shepherds the Messiah had been born, their excitement wasn’t just to do with ‘religious’ feelings. They believed God was about to cause a great change in their circumstances; God was sending them the King who would deliver his people from their enemies and usher in prosperity and peace for everyone. No doubt the shepherds could imagine this having a direct impact on their own lives. That’s why they were so excited.

Of course we know today that Jesus confounded some of those expectations. He chose not to be a political and military ruler; he knew that political and military solutions to human problems might work in the short term, but in the long term they don’t address our human addiction to sin and evil. So when he grew up he chose a different path. He gathered a group of followers and taught them the way of life of the kingdom of God – a way based not on violence and greed, but on love for God and your neighbour and even your enemy. He embodied this way himself when he went to the cross, and God vindicated him by raising him from the dead. He then sent his followers out to share the good news of God’s power and love with the whole world, and they went out boldly and fearlessly to tell everyone that God has made this Jesus the true Lord and Messiah. Once again, good news was for sharing! And they did it to tremendous effect! Even though they had no organisation and no access to mass media, the community of followers of Jesus spread like wildfire around the Mediterranean world and beyond. And two thousand years later, here we are this morning, still celebrating the good news that the angel brought ‘for all the people’.

Note those words, ‘for all the people’ (v.10). To be frank, shepherds didn’t normally get royal birth announcements! They were ordinary working class people, making a living by the strength of their hands and the sweat of their brows. Their work forced them to break the Sabbath and so they were often looked down on by the religious people of the day. We can be sure the political rulers didn’t give them a second thought. Would those shepherds have expected to get an invitation to the birth of the next royal prince of the house of David, who would grow up to be God’s anointed king? I don’t think so.

But they did get that announcement, and they were invited to the birth of the new prince. And this is just one example of the way Jesus reached out to marginalized people and outsiders and people no one else cared about. When he became an adult he was constantly being criticized for partying with the wrong people; instead of spending time with the righteous, he went around with tax collectors and prostitutes and other lawbreakers, and he invited them to come into God’s kingdom and learn the new way of life he was teaching. Good news is for sharing – but it’s for sharing with everyone, not just the select few on the inside track.

So the shepherds were excited to be invited to this event, and they willingly left their sheep and came down to celebrate the birth of God’s anointed King. And this morning you are like them. When I was a little boy growing up in England, Christmas Day services were very popular, but I’ve discovered this isn’t the case in twenty-first century Canada! Most people, even Christians, don’t include a Christmas Day service in their Christmas celebrations. And I’m sure you had lots of other options for spending this hour on Christmas morning – options involving coffee and Christmas cake and wrapping paper, and gathering around the tree and so on. But you’ve left all that behind – you’ve ‘left your flocks to look after themselves on the hills’ – and you’ve come down to join in the celebration.

Why have you done that? Probably because you love Jesus. You try to live with him at the centre of your life; you do your best to walk with him, listening to his word and trying to put it into practice. And the decision to be here this morning is a conscious choice to put him at the centre of your life, and even your Christmas Day celebrations.

So here we are on Christmas morning, gathered at the manger, and what do we find? Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, we find ‘a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.10). The baby in the manger who looks so ordinary turns out to be extraordinary; he’s the one God has sent to change the world by the power of love. When we welcome him into our lives, he gives us the power to be what we can’t be by ourselves; he give us the power to change, and to live the life that God dreamed for us when he first created us. We receive that good news ourselves, and we experience its reality, and we pass it on to others, and they also are changed by it. And so the world is changed one heart at a time, and the kingdom of God comes nearer and nearer. 

The invitation goes out to all of us, without exception. Some find themselves thinking, “I’m not the sort of person God would be interested in. I’m no one significant, and anyway I’ve done a few things I’m not proud of. I’m not sure God would welcome me if I turned up at his door; I’m sure he has more important people than me to worry about”. I’m sure that’s what the shepherds thought, but they discovered that the invitation is sent to everyone. The good news is ‘for all the people’. It doesn’t say, ‘for all the people, except for you!’ It says, ‘for all the people’ without exception.

Jesus has welcomed all of us into the presence of God. So this morning let’s welcome him– into our hearts and our homes, our places of work and recreation, into all we do and say and think and feel. Let’s experience for ourselves the good news that he is our Saviour, and let’s not forget to pass it on. Good news is for sharing. I’ve passed it on to you this morning; now it’s your turn to pass it on to others. And may God bless you in the sharing of it. Amen.

Why Did God Become Human? (a sermon for Christmas Eve)

Our gospel reading tonight give us the central message of Christmas. We might not have recognized it right away, because it’s not the familiar story from Matthew or Luke – the journey to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, the baby in the manger, the shepherds, the wise men. That’s the story we know really well.


What John gives us is the bigger picture – not the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but the journey from heaven to earth. John introduces us to this mysterious figure who he calls ‘the Word’. He says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1.1). We sense that John is straining at the limits of language here: how can something or someone both beGod and also be withGod? Don’t worry about that: if you think you understand it, it’s probably not God!


A few verses later comes the great moment in the text: ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1.14). This is what’s happening in the Christmas story. God the Word – who has always existed for all time with God the Father – decides to enter the life of this planet in a real and visible and tangible way. So he becomes one of us. He takes on our humanity, our physical form, our limitations. He lives among us – or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, he ‘moves into the neighbourhood’.


Why? Why would God do such a thing? Let me share with you three things Christmas means for us.


First, Christmas is an affirmation of our human life.


As the years go by we’re becoming more and more aware of just how big the universe is. The numbers stagger the brain, so I’m not even going to try to explain them, but we all know that the universe stretches for millions of light years. When you look at some of the stars in the night sky you are actually a time traveller. You aren’t seeing those stars as they are today. You’re seeing them as they were when the light particles began their journey to earth, hundreds of thousands of years ago.


Imagine a God who could make a universe like that! It stretches through unimaginable distances of space, and it’s been in existence for over fourteen billion years. This planet that we live on is a tiny speck in that vast expanse. And we human beings are even tinier. This planet got along for most of its history without us. For us, a lifespan of a century is an amazing thing that very few of us achieve. So why would God take any notice of us?


And yet, he did. He holds the entire universe in his hands, but he chose to become a little child that Mary could hold in her arms – completely helpless, completely dependent on her. He accepted the limitations of being human. He experienced the pain and injustice we feel. As Paul says in one of his letters, ‘he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2.8).


Imagine the love that could motivate God to do a thing like that! Love is the only possible explanation for it. Apparently the smallness of our planet is not an issue with him. Apparently the insignificance of humanity in the history of this planet doesn’t even figure on his radar screen. Apparently he’s so in love with the human race that he was willing to come to us and be with us. What an affirmation of us as human beings!


And also, what an affirmation of our bodily life! Some religions think the body isn’t that important. It’s just a tent that we live in temporarily. It’s a nuisance, actually – if you really want to get close to God, you have to remove yourself from bodily concerns as much as possible. Not so, says Christianity! In fact, God himself took our humanity. He smelled the smell of good food cooking. He felt the enjoyment of a loving embrace. He heard the sound of music. He saw the beauty of a sunset over the lake of Galilee. He doesn’t ask us to abandon physical life to get to know him. Rather, he adoptsour physical life to get to know us!


So that’s the first thing we can say about Christmas – it’s an affirmation of our human and physical life. But that’s not the whole truth. Christmas is also a correction of the way we’ve chosen to live our life.


We all know we live in a fallen world. The evidence is all around us. Human beings are capable of incredible acts of kindness and love, but we’re also capable of unbelievable cruelty and selfishness. We don’t need to look at the big global events that are going on all around us. All we need to do is take an honest look at our own human capacity to mess things up. I’m incredibly good at that! In fact, it might just be my biggest talent!


Let me just explore this with you for a minute. In our Anglican liturgy, every Sunday we confess our sins to God in these words: ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves’. All we need to do is focus on the second half of that statement. A few years ago I remember hearing the story of an elderly lady who died alone in an inner-city apartment. It was two weeks before anyone discovered she was dead. What sort of a society have we created where that kind of thing can happen? Where were her neighbours? Why was there ‘no room at the inn’ for her?


We humans are made in God’s image, which is a good thing, but our life is spoiled by selfishness and self-centredness. And so the Incarnation acts as a corrective for us. Jesus not only shows us what God is like, he also shows us what we are meant to be like. He lives a life of complete love for God and for human beings. Rich and poor, young and old, insider and outsider, he loves them all. He speaks the truth at all times. He cares for the sick and the hungry. He loves his enemies and rays for those who hate him. Martin Luther called him ‘the Proper Man’.


Now I can hear you saying, ‘He may be the proper man, but his example is way out of reach for me’. That’s true – and that’s why Christianity has always taught that being a Christian isn’t just about gritting your teeth and trying to follow the example of Jesus. You’ll fail every time if you do that! We’ve also been taught that God comes among us – God actually enters our lives – and gives us a power beyond our own power. The Bible uses the symbolism of the heart – the very centre of our being. In the Incarnation God came to live in Mary in a physical way, as a human foetus in her womb. But now, Paul says, ‘I pray that…Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (Ephesians 3.17). As we choose to trust him, so Jesus lives in us. As we pray and listen to him, and as we share in Holy Communion, his life in us gets stronger. And then we start to discover a strength we didn’t know we had before.


So Christmas is an affirmation of the goodness of our human life. It’s also a correction of the wrong choices we humans have made, and a pointer back to the right path for us. Finally, Christmas is an invitation.


‘O Come, all ye faithful,
joyful and triumphant;
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him, born the king of angels.
O come let us adore him,
Christ the Lord’.


Christmas is the story of how God has come to us, but it’s also an invitation for us to come to God.


Think with me for a minute about what happens in human reconciliation. A genuine reconciliation can’t be a one way thing. Both parties need to move, or it can’t be real. Even if most of the guilt is on one side, the other party still has to make the decision to forgive, which is also a movement of its own.


Sometimes you see incredible stories of reconciliation, where one party seems to be making ninety percent of the movement – that’s a sign of how deeply they care and how much they want the reconciliation to happen. But that can only go so far. Unless the other party is prepared to move the final ten percent, the reconciliation won’t take place.


Paul says, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5.19). God travelled an incredible distance to be reconciled with us. The one who created the vastness of the universe shrunk himself down to become a tiny little embryo in a mother’s womb. He went so far as to make himself unrecognizable! There was nothing unusual about the way Jesus looked. Nobody fell down at his feet instantly and cried out ‘My Lord and my God!’ He didn’t look like God; he looked just like one of us. And even when we rejected him and crucified him, he still forgave us.


God has gone the distance, but we’re invited to travel the final few yards. It may seem like a big journey for us, but it’s tiny compared to the journey he’s made. Our journey is to turn away from our selfishness and self-centredness and welcome him into the centre of our lives.


‘O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today…
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.’


This isn’t just a one-off thing. This is a daily journey we make. Each day we’re invited to trust Christ and welcome him in. We can do it again tonight, as we come up in a few minutes to receive our Christmas communion. We take a step of faith; we get up out of our seats and come to the front as needy people, knowing that the most important need we have is our need for the presence of God. We hold out our empty hands, and Christ fills them. We receive the bread and wine in faith and we feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. The God who entered the womb of Mary enters into us again. As Paul says, Christ lives in our hearts through faith.


Christmas is an affirmation of all that is good and beautiful in our created life. God came among us and lived it with us as one of us, so we know that nothing human is strange to him! But Christmas is also a correction of where we’ve gone wrong: Jesus shows us what human life is meant to look like, and he offers us his presence to help us reach toward that ideal. And finally, Christmas is an invitation: as God has made the long journey from heaven to earth for us, so we’re invited to make the journey of faith to him.


Tonight in this church we’re all at different stages in that journey. Some of us have been on it for many years. Some of us are in the very early stages of that journey. Wherever you are on that path, tonight Jesus invites you to take another step with him. The table is set. The meal is ready. You’re invited to come.

“I’m In!” (a sermon for Advent 4 on Luke 1.38)

I’m not sure how many Gilmore Girls fans there might be in the congregation today. I’m not really a bona fide Gilmore fan, but I’m married to one and I’m the father of another one, so I kind of absorbed a lot of quotes from the show by osmosis, if you know what I mean? And this morning I’m thinking of a quote from when – after years of being ‘just friends’ – Luke and Lorelei start dating. Luke, who isn’t exactly the most emotionally expressive of guys, says something like this: “Lorelei, this thing we’re doing here, me, you – I just want you to know, I’m in. I’m all in”. For a guy who doesn’t ever wear his heart on his sleeve, that’s quite a statement.

What got me thinking about that? It’s the statement that Mary makes at the end of this morning’s gospel reading, after the angel has made his shocking announcement that she’s going to have a baby without the help of a man, and this baby is going to be the Messiah. I can’t begin to imagine how she must have felt about the whole experience, but at the end she has her “I’m all in” moment. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1.38). Or, in the slightly less decorative language of the Revised English Bible: “I am the Lord’s servant…may it be as you have said”.

There are all kinds of details the angel hasn’t given her. For instance, he hasn’t told her how she’ll survive. In the Law of Moses, the penalty for sex outside marriage was death by stoning. Granted, it wasn’t often enforced, but it was a law on the books, and if someone wanted to make an issue of it, there wouldn’t be much Mary could do about it. The angel hasn’t told Mary if her fiancée Joseph will continue to be involved in her life. Will he still want to marry her when he finds out she’s pregnant, or will he abandon her? And if he abandons her, where will she live? How will she eat? Who will help her bring up the baby?

These are the little details the angel doesn’t cover. He covers the big theological issues: the Holy Spirit will come upon her, the power of the Most High will overshadow her, the child will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and he will inherit the throne of his ancestor King David. This all sounds very grand, and I’m sure it thrills Mary’s socks off to know that she’s going to be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. But women tend to think about the details; that’s why men have survived for all these years! And if I’d been in Mary’s shoes, I think the details would have given me a lot to worry about.

But I don’t hear worry in her voice. I hear commitment. God has called, God has made her an awesome promise, it’s going to be costly and it wasn’t what she had in mind, but she’s in. She’s all in.

C.S. Lewis once said that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer and say “Thy will be done”, we can pray it in either a passive or an active sense. The passive sense is the sense of resignation: “Whatever will be, will be, I don’t really understand why you’re doing this, God, and I know it’s going to be hard, but thy will be done”. Alternatively, we can pray it in an active sense: “I’m in! I’m all in! This plan you have to spread your kingdom of love and justice, God? I’m all in! You can count on me to play my part in it. I know it’s going to be tough sometimes, but I’m up for it. I believe in it, and I’m going to be part of it!”

I’d suggest that Mary’s prayer is both passive andactive. At first God is the active one, and she’s passive. The Holy Spirit is going to do whatever miracle he needs to do to create a new life in her. She’s got nothing to do with it except to give her consent. By the way, I do believe that she had to give her consent. The God I believe in is not the kind of God who forces himself on anyone. If she had said “No, the cost is too high”, I believe God would have respected that. Of course, I also believe God knew Mary’s heart, and he wasn’t overly worried about her refusing.

But from that point on, Mary’s prayer becomes active. She’s the one who has to care for the child, and bring him up, and do what no one else has ever done before in the history of the human race: be the mother of the Son of God. She’s the one who has to put her own plans and dreams for her marriage and her family aside, and embrace God’s plan instead. She’s in! She’s all in!

What exactly is it she’s ‘all in’ for? Two things. First, she has to welcome God into the centre of her being. Second, when the time comes, she has to give him away She can’t cling to him and make him her own forever. He’s been given to her to share with the world.

This is where we come in.

First, we’re asked to welcome God into the centre of our being, what the Bible calls ‘our heart’. Nowadays we use that word in either a medical or a romantic sense. The heart is either the muscle that pumps the blood around our body, or the centre of our emotions. But in the Bible it was deeper than that: the Bible talks about ‘the choicesof our hearts’. The heart is where we decide what’s important to us, where we make choices and decisions. So to welcome God into our hearts is to choose to put God on the throne of our lives. “I’m sorry, Lord – I appear to be sitting on your seat!” So we get up, step down and bow, and he takes his rightful place. My life doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to him. He gets to decide what’s important and what isn’t important. Which is an oddly comforting thought, actually! After all, he loves us more than we love ourselves, and he knows us farbetter than we know ourselves. We can be assured that the choices he makes for us will be good choices, and they’ll benefit not only us but also everyone else in our lives.

One of our Christmas readings contains these words:

‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’ (John 1:10-13).

Mary ‘received’ him – she welcomed him into the centre of her life – and so a new life was conceived in her and grew slowly. And the same is true for us in a spiritual sense. We’re asked to ‘receive’ Christ – to welcome Christ into the centre of our lives. When we do, a new life is conceived and begins to grow in us. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit – “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). And it makes you a temple, a place where God lives.

But this new life isn’t given to you to keep to yourself. Mary has to care for Jesus before and after his birth. She has to get to know him and anticipate his needs. She has to train him and guide him. But the one thing she can’t do is keep him to herself. The Bible has some amusing stories of their developing relationship – when he’s twelve, and later on at the beginning of his ministry. Every parent of adult children will smile at those stories. We’ve been there! These kids don’t belong to us anymore; we brought them up, but now we have to let them go out into the world.

It’s the same with our relationship with Christ. We invite him into our hearts, but he holds the whole world in hisheart. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” isn’t just about me finding spiritual resources for a happy life for myself. It’s about the world being changed, as I practice the teaching of Jesus and share it with others. Jesus isn’t given to us for hoarding. He’s given for sharing. He doesn’t belong to us; we belong to him. But as we live and share his love by words and actions, the kingdom of God slowly spreads in the world. Justice spreads. Compassion spreads. Mercy spreads. The lonely find friends. The sick are cared for. Enemies are reconciled. And people find a relationship with the God who created them.

Mary was up for this challenge. “I’m in!” she says; “I’m all in!” What about you and me? Maybe, like Mary, we’ve got a list of unanswered questions. And the chances are that, like Mary, we’re going to discover that God doesn’t usually give us the answers to those questions up front. He invites us to trust him and take the step of faith, with no guarantees and no sneak previews of the future.

Are you in? Are you all in?

Let’s pray about this.

Loving God, it’s a fearful thing to be asked to put our trust in you without reservation. We’d like to know the future. We’d like to know what the price is going to be. But you don’t give us any of that information. You simply ask us to trust you and commit to your will.

God, when we’re afraid, help us remember your great love for us and everyone you’ve made. Inspire us with the example of Mary, this young Jewish girl who was willing to set her own plans and dreams aside, and put her life in your hands, and go wherever you led her. Give us courage, like her, to be able to truly say to you, “I’m in! I’m all in!” We ask this in the name of Mary’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Extravagant Joy (a sermon for Advent 3 on Zephaniah 3.14-20)

You may have noticed that in the media we Christians don’t exactly have a reputation for being joyful. The standard media Christian in many TV shows seems to be a long faced, angry person who spends their whole life trying to impose strict moral standards on the people around them – and then getting mad at them when they don’t eagerly fall into line.

But in the New Testament, joy is one of the defining characteristics of Christians. And it’s not usually inspired by their circumstances! For example, there’s the lovely story in the Book of Actsof the night when Paul and Silas had been flogged and then thrown into jail in Philippi. There they sat in the stocks, their backs bloody and sore from the whipping they’d just received. How did they react? Acts tells us ‘About midnight they were praying and singing hymns to God’(Acts 16:25). This seems to be a standard feature of Christian life and mission in Acts– Christians get persecuted, Christians rejoice and praise the Lord, and so the story goes on!

Today is the Third Sunday in Advent. Traditionally, it’s called ‘Gaudate’ Sunday, from the Latin word for ‘joy’. The note of joy in our scripture readings for today is strong. In our epistle we hear Paul saying, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). And in our Old Testament reading we hear the prophet Zephaniah – who for most of his book has been foretelling judgement against Jerusalem – suddenly switching gears and finishing his prophecy on a note of jubilation: ‘Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!’ (Zephaniah 3:14).

Why is joy such a strong characteristic of Christian discipleship? Advent provides us with two focal points for our joy. First, we rejoice because of the past. We look back to that incredible time in human history when God became a human being and came to live among us in Jesus, to save us from evil and sin and to give us hope for the healing of the whole world. Secondly, we rejoice because of the future. Yes, we know all about the continuing presence of evil in the world, but we rejoice because we know it won’t always be like this. The day will come when God will heal the world completely, and we will all live together in justice and peace. Because of these two focal points, we can live in joy right now, in the present, between the two comings of our Lord. And when we look at our reading from Zephaniah we discover four more reasons for this wonderful sense of joy and celebration amongst God’s people. 

First, we rejoice because we have been forgiven.Look at verses 14-15:

‘Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgements against you…’

Imagine yourself as the finance minister of an ancient middle-eastern country. You’ve been quietly embezzling tax dollars for years. But then one day you’re found out, and the king demands repayment of what you’ve stolen – an amount equal to several times the annual budget of the kingdom. Since you can’t possibly pay, he sentences you and your family to be sold into slavery. You fall down and beg for time to pay your debt. But the king doesn’t give you what you ask for – he gives you morethan you asked! He forgives your entire debt and allows you and your family to go free!

This of course is one of Jesus’ parables. According to the Gospel, this is what God has done for us. Do you believe it? This is truly at the heart of the message of the New Testament. Perhaps you sometimes feel like ‘Christian’ in Pilgrim’s Progress,carrying a huge burden of guilt on your shoulders, but the Gospel says you don’t have to carry it a moment longer. You can drop it at the foot of Jesus’ Cross, leave it there, and walk away free and forgiven. Surely that’s a reason to rejoice?

We rejoice because we’ve been forgiven. Second, we rejoice because God lives among us. Look at Zephaniah 3:15-17:

The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst…’

This is the time of year when children are mailing letters to Santa Claus. And we all know his address: Santa Claus, North Pole, Nunavut, H0H 0H0! But where would one mail a letter to God? What would hisaddress be? Many would say ‘heaven’, which to a lot of people means a faraway place we can’t reach until we die.

But the Old Testament people had a strong sense of God’s presence withIsrael, and especially in the Temple in Jerusalem. As long as God was living there among his people, they felt safe and secure; he would protect them from their enemies and from disasters of various kinds. But in the 6thcentury B.C. the Babylonians destroyed the city and took the people away into exile, and they wondered what had happened to God’s presence among his people. The only conclusion they could draw was that God was no longer with them – he’d abandoned them to their fate. Surely God must be angry at them because of their sins? That was why he’d left them.

So for these people verse 17 was very good news: ‘The LORD your God is in your midst’. If God was living among them again, that must mean he’d forgiven their sins and was willing to start over with them. 

For us as Christians the good news is even better than that. The good news we celebrate at Christmas time is that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14), or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it, ‘The Word became a human being and moved into the neighbourhood’! And he didn’t leave the neighbourhood when he ascended into heaven: his gift of the Holy Spirit means he’s still with us today.

What’s God’s address? Christianity teaches us that God lives in yourhouse and shares your daily life. This morning God’s address is 12603 Ellerslie Road, because Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”. He’s here among us as we worship this morning, and when we go home and go to work tomorrow he’ll be there ahead of us. He’s not far away, holding himself aloof from us; he’s made the decision to become ‘one of us’ – and we rejoice in this good news.

So we rejoice because we’re forgiven, and we rejoice because God lives among us and in our hearts. Thirdly,we rejoice because God rejoices over us.Look at verses 17-18:

‘He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival’ (vv.17b-18a).

God is so excited about you that he sings a song of joy over you! That’s what this verse says. For some of us this is pretty hard to believe. We’ve grown up with a low opinion of ourselves – for all kinds of reasons – and it’s pretty hard for us to accept that anyone would actually enjoy spending time with us. And if we’re believers we often project this feeling onto our relationship with God. We think of ourselves as sounworthy! We might be able to force ourselves to believe God could maybe tolerateus – but surely he could never come to enjoyus, or rejoiceover us, could he?

Yes, he could. Listen again to what verse 17 says: ‘he will rejoice over you with gladness’. These words are spoken to God’s people in all their brokenness and imperfection. And you are one of God’s people, so these words are spoken to you. As a friend of mine likes to say, ‘I want to introduce you to a God who loves you more than you can ever imagine, and who made you for the pleasure of knowing you!’

How does this good news impact my habits of prayer? I blush sometimes when I think of all the excuses I make for not praying more. What will motivate me to change this situation and spend more time in prayer? Personally, I find the best motivation is to remind myself that God made me for the pleasure of knowing me. God is actually looking forwardto spending time in my company – and yours too. It may be hard to believe, but in our reading today the prophet says it’s true.

Are you catching a sense of the joy Zephaniah feels? God freely forgives our sins and welcomes us into his presence. God is not far away from any of us; he became one of us, and lives in us and among us as we gather together. God rejoices over us and loves spending time in our company. And the fourth thing Zephaniah wants us to rejoice about is this: God is bringing us to our eternal home.Look at verse 20: ‘At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you’.

When I lived in Valleyview I had a quarter time job as a consultant for the Diocese of Athabasca, and once a month I would travel to lead workshops in various parishes across northern Alberta, from Fort Vermilion to Fort McMurray. I remember many occasions when I was driving home on Sunday afternoons over hundreds of kilometres of snowy roads, often tired out from a full weekend. But it was always a wonderful feeling to pull into the driveway of the rectory in Valleyview, knowing that inside that house I would find some loving hugs, a hot cup of tea, and a nice supper. It was always great to get home!

But imagine if you could never go home! Imagine being one of the Israelite captives, exiled to Babylon for half a century. During that period they preserved their language and culture, their identity as Jewish people. They purified themselves from the worship of idols. And they longed for the day when they could return to their own land.

Earlier generations of Christians had this same longing for what the Nicene Creed calls ‘the life of the world to come’; they sang ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through’. Today many of us live a very comfortable lifestyle, and we can easily buy into the illusion that complete happiness is possible in this world as it is. But then something happens to shake us up – perhaps a bereavement, or the loss of a job, or the news of a terminal illness. And then we realise again that it’s a mistake for us to expect complete happiness right now. We were made for something better; we were made for eternity. The kingdom of God is our real home, and on the day when it comes in all its fulness, that’s when we’ll find pure, unadulterated joy forevermore.

So there’s a ‘now’ and a ‘not yet’ to this joy we experience as followers of Jesus. Nowwe know the joy of having our sins forgiven. Nowwe have the joy of knowing that God lives among us. Nowwe might possibly even dare to believe that God rejoices over us and made us for the pleasure of knowing us.

But not yet do we know the complete, unadulterated joy, with no hint of sorrow at all, that we will know one day. That’s the future side of Advent; we look forward to the day when God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. On that day, each of us will truly be home forever – home with God, and home with the millions who’ve gone before us.

So right now, let’s obey Paul’s exhortation: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). As we’ve seen, there’s already plenty for us to rejoice about. But let’s also remember that this is only the beginning. Let’s look forward to the day of our great homecoming, when we together with all God’s people will know fulness of joy forever. And what a day of rejoicing that will be!

Purify our Hearts (a sermon for Advent 2 on Malachi 3.1-4)

I’ve sometimes heard the Gospel summed up in this phrase: ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leaveus there!” And I have to say that in the times I’ve allowed myself to become lazy and complacent about my Christian life, I really need to hear the second part of the phrase! It reminds me that God wants positive change to happen in my life, and God’s power is available to help that happen.


Our Old Testament reading for this morning, from the prophet Malachi, emphasises this second aspect of the Gospel – the need and possibility of change. The image Malachi uses is the image of ‘refining’. He says of the Lord, ‘For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver’ (Malachi 3:2b-3a). I want to explore these words with you this morning.


Malachi probably wrote these words after the Jewish exiles had returned from the Babylonian captivity around 500 B.C. The temple in Jerusalem had been repaired and daily worship was going on, but if you read all four chapters of the little book of Malachi, you’ll see he isn’t happy with the way things are going in the temple. The priests aren’t living holy lives and they’re not putting heart and soul into the worship of God. The people aren’t giving their best to God in sacrifices either – they’re just giving lambs that are so sick they would have died anyway. So Malachi speaks of the Lord coming to ‘purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness’ (3:3).


We might wonder what this has to do with us today. After all, the Levites were full-time temple ministers and most of us are not! But remember, in the New Testament we don’t have a physical temple made of stone any more. The people of Jesus are a livingtemple. You and me and all Christian people around the world – together we’re a temple, a community where God lives and where God is worshipped. So for God to come and purify his temple means God getting to work among us to set right things that are wrong. And this applies to us as individuals too, because Paul tells us in one of his letters that each of us is a ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’, because the Spirit lives in us. So the Holy Spirit is going to be at work ‘refining’ his people, both as a community and as individuals. Let’s think about this for a few minutes.


First, let’s ask the question “What does ‘refining’ mean”?The Old Testament prophets often use words of judgement against God’s people. When we hear them, it sometimes sounds as if God’s aim isn’t to help his people but to smash and destroy them! That’s why Malachi’s image of refining is so helpful. A refiner is attempting to purify molten metal from all its dross, in order to create an object of beauty and strength – perhaps a silver cup. In Malachi’s time they would do that by putting the unrefined metal into a pot or furnace and heating it up until all the impurities were burnt out of it. And there’s another lovely little detail here. According to some Bible scholars, the refiner would know the process was complete when the molten metal was so clear he could see his own face reflected in it.


This illustration of refining provides a very helpful picture for us of the ongoing process of purification in our lives. The General Confession in the old Book of Common Prayer says, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done”. In other words, God’s work of change in us will have both negative and positive aspects. Negatively, the refiner will be trying to remove our impurities – the ‘things we ought not to have done’. Positively, God will be trying to form the image of Jesus in us – Jesus who shows us by his way of life ‘the things we ought to have done’.


So I guess the question is, do the people I meet every day somehow have the sense that they’re rubbing shoulders with Jesus as they interact with me? Because surely that’s the goal of this refining process: that we would be transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus in our daily living.


This applies on a corporate level too. Wouldn’t it be great if our culture was continually noticing how Christ-like the Christian Church is? That doesn’t necessarily mean ‘nice’ or ‘inoffensive’, but it does mean becoming a community of self-sacrificial love, consciously modelling its life after the teaching of Jesus. Think about the things that Jesus taught us in the gospels, and then think about the way we live our life as a parish here at St. Margaret’s, and ask yourself the question, ‘Does this look like Jesus? Would new people who come among us notice the way we live together and be reminded of Jesus? Or if they don’t know about him, would they learn about him without ever opening a Bible, just by noticing the way we live as a community?’ Of course, the honest answer is “Sometimes yes, and sometimes no!” Obviously, some refining is in order.


We’ve seen that refining is about the transformation of our lives so that people see the face of Jesus in us. Now, let’s go on to ask ourselves ‘How does this refining take place?’If I was a lump of silver and I found myself suddenly picked up by a refiner, thrown into a pot of molten metal and heated up to boiling point until parts of me were burned away, I don’t imagine I would find that to be an entirely comfortable process! And in the same way, God’s refining process is often uncomfortable for us – in fact, it challenges us to move out of our comfort zones into new territory with God. Let me share with you just three of the methods God uses to refine us into the image of Jesus.


The first method involves a number of activities I’ll gather together under the heading of encounters with God.In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul says, ‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit’. I’m reminded of the story in Isaiah chapter six of how the prophet found himself in the presence of the heavenly court, with the Lord on his throne in the centre. Isaiah cries out “Help! I’m a foul-mouthed sinner and I’ve seen the Lord!” Then one of the angels takes a live coal from the altar, touches Isaiah’s lips with it, and says “See, this has touched your lips – you are cleansed and purified from your sin”.


How do we encounter God in a transformational way? It can happen when we come together to worship, to sing his praises, to listen to his word and share the sacrament. It can happen when we pray alone, or when we open up the scriptures. The word of God rebukes us, corrects us, encourages us, and trains us in the new way of life of God’s kingdom. So a willingness to allow the Refiner to do his work in us includes making a commitment to public worship with other Christians, and to regular times of prayer and meditation on scripture for ourselves.


A second way in which God refines us into the image of Jesus is through circumstancesthat call for the development of the virtue we’re trying to cultivate. I remember my dad saying on a number of occasions that he was a very impatient man, and so every time in his life when he really wanted something, God made him wait for it! “Well of course”, God might say to us; “how else did you think I was going to help you grow patience?” The King James Version translates the word ‘patience’ as ‘longsuffering’; another friend of mine joked about this, saying “Every time I pray for patience the Lord sends me longsuffering!”


This shouldn’t surprise us; this is the way we normally grow as human beings. I became a decent guitar player through practice. I didn’t expect God to magically give me guitar-playing ability with no effort involved on my part. And in the same way, God teaches us love and compassion by putting us in situations where we’re invited to practice it. He teaches us to trust him by putting us in situations where we have to learn to trust him – even stressful situations, perhaps!


God refines us through encounters with him, and through circumstances that help us develop the virtues we want to cultivate. A third way, I’m afraid, is through suffering.Suffering often invites us to concentrate on the really important issues in life and shows us that so many of the things we used to value so highly aren’t really that important. For example, someone once said ‘the prospect of an immanent death wonderfully concentrates the mind’. Terminally ill people have frequently told me how clearly they now see their lives, and how much better able they are to let go of less important things and to focus on things that really matter. It’s an uncomfortable truth that if we pray for holiness, God will often answer our prayer by allowing us to experience suffering on the way to that goal.


I don’t personally believe that God sendssuffering into our lives, but I have no doubt that he uses it to help us grow. And I think we all know that instinctively. After all, when we’re looking for someone to help us in difficult circumstances, we don’t tend to look for someone who’s never suffered. We look for someone who’s had their share of the hard knocks of life and somehow managed to come through them on an even keel.


We’ve thought about encounters with God, circumstances that test us, and suffering. These are all tools God can use in the refining process in my life and yours. Through it all, the Holy Spirit will be working gently in our hearts to transform us into the image of Jesus. Paul says ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’(Galatians 5:22-23). That’s the image of Jesus. That’s what the Holy Spirit will be working toward as we go through this refining process. So let’s ask ourselves now – what does this mean for me today?


The good news this passage is communicating to me is that I don’t have to be stuck in ‘no progress’ forever. Change is possible, and I’m being invited into a change process. Listen to those words of Paul again: ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’(Galatians 5:22-23). Wouldn’t it be so much better for my family, my friends, and my work colleagues if those words described me? Wouldn’t it be so much better for me?


Well, how’s it going to happen? Let me give you an example. Those who know me well know that I’m rather anal-retentive about punctuality. I was raised in a punctual home and it was bred into me that being on time for appointments was a way of showing respect for the other people involved. I still think this is true, but of course one of the Devil’s favourite ways of knocking us off course is to take a virtue and push it to extremes, so that we’re good in a bad kind of way! I think when I’m dealing with other people – people who haven’t had the same sort of punctual upbringing as I had – it’s possible they might have noticed that the fruit of the Spirit marked ‘patience’ still needs a lot of work in my life!


But do you know what is really happening in those times when I’m forced to wait for other people? Really happening, in God’s school of character development? What’s happening is that God’s putting me into a situation where I have an opportunity to grow some patience. I have a choice; I can rant and rave about it, and so pass up the opportunity to grow. Or I can choose to keep my cool and practice the discipline of enjoying God’s gift of a bit of extra free time in my day. The choice is up to me.


So let me close by asking you to consider two things. First, think of your experience of worship with other Christians, as well as your private times of reading the Bible and praying. Have you noticed that God is using those times to invite you into the change process? Have you noticed that God will use the scripture readings to point out to you areas of transformation that are especially necessary for you in your life right now? And have you noticed that you sometimes find an inner strength to be more Christ-like, a strength you didn’t notice before? If so – welcome to the refining process. Stick with it, and see where God leads you.


Secondly, what difficult circumstances in your life right now – maybe suffering of some sort, or maybe just general circumstances that stretch you – what difficult circumstances are actually God’s invitation to you to grow in Christ-likeness?  Is it a difficult person God has put in your life? Is it something you’d like right now that you’re having to wait for? Is it a prayer that hasn’t been answered as fast as you thought it would be?


Remember where we started from: God loves us so much he accepts us just as we are, weaknesses and all – but he loves us far too much to leave us there. This morning God is gently inviting us into this process of being refined from all impurities until he can see the image of Jesus clearly in us – and until the people around us can see it too. So this morning let’s commit ourselves afresh to co-operating with God in this process of being refined into the image of Jesus.

‘What’s Advent All About?’ (a sermon for Advent Sunday 2018)

I’ve noticed over the past few years that the word ‘Advent’ seems to be out there in the media a lot more than it used to be. For a while it seemed as if it was disappearing along with many other parts of the Christian ethos that used to be part of our culture. But in recent years I’ve been hearing more about Advent calendars, and not all of it from Christian sources. Most of these secular Advent sources get the timing a bit wrong: they start on December 1st, not the fourth Sunday before Christmas. But still – the word ‘Advent’ is out there again, waiting for us to pick it up and use it to celebrate the good news of Jesus.

What exactly is Advent? In our Church Year, it’s the season between the fourth Sunday before Christmas and Christmas Day itself. The main theme of Advent is the coming of the kingdom of God, and the coming of the 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 the sufferings of God’s people, and then they looked ahead to a time to come when God would rescue them from evil and restore them to his original dream for them.

Some of those prophecies were fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, so 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, 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’. 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’, ‘The Advent of our King’, and so on. These are hymns that express our sense of deep longing for the Kingdom of God and the Saviour who makes it possible.

What are some of the themes of Advent? Let me suggest three, and point you to some scriptures that explore them.

The first theme is hope.Hope is vital if we’re going to make it through the dark times that everyone experiences in this broken and imperfect world.

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 the things it does is to use 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 last few years many people have experienced ‘earth-shaking’ events, 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! Not to get all political, but the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. seems to have ushered in a new era of confrontation and belligerence, with old peaceful alliances breaking down and a sense that dangerous things could happen. Extreme climate events are becoming more regular, and we have the sense that it’s going to get more and more expensive to deal with them. The economic system seems to be failing more and more people and we’re aware that the gap between rich and poor seems to be getting wider. Many people are finding it harder to find secure jobs, and many parents fear for their children’s future.

So ‘fear and foreboding’ may be exactlywhat we’re feeling, and if that’s the case, then we could certainly use a good dose of hope. We need a sense that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that somewhere there’s a plan, that someone’s in charge and is wise 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 it won’t last forever. And that’s the hope we find in some of the writings of the Old Testament prophets.

Today we heard the words of Jeremiah foretelling a 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 Isaiah:

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.
All the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples 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 the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
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;
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. (Isaiah 2.2-5).

Isaiah 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 follow them as our path through life.

The early church believed this scripture had been partially fulfilled with the coming of Jesus, as he sent out of his church to spread the gospel to the whole world: 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’s a promise of God we can look ahead into God’s future with certainty and work for peace and justice now, knowing our labours aren’t in vain, because God will complete them when the Day of the Lord comes.

So during the Advent season we draw encouragement from this hope. 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 experience what Paul talks about in Romans: ‘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 related to it: 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 say 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’s not going to judge evil and remove it from his world, how can things ever be different? If God’s 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 helpless – if that’s all going to continue because ‘God is a God of love’, then how can there be hope? Hope is meaningless without change, and the sort of change we need has toinclude judgement.

The New Testament writers agree with this – in fact, some of the strongest language about judgement in the whole Bible comes from Jesus! He’s 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. He’s the one who talks about the servant who knew his master’s will and didn’t do it, and so received a greater beating. He’s 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 as we meditate on the theme of judgement in Advent it’s a good idea to turn our eye onto ourselves. We examine ourselves, we see how we fall short of the way of life that Jesus has taught us, and we 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. In Isaiah 40 the prophet calls it ‘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.

We’ve talked about two Advent themes, hope and judgement. A third theme, related to them both, is readiness. The New Testament makes it clear that we don’t know when the day of the Lord will come. Jesus tells us that ‘about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’ (Matthew 24.36), and he tells us 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).

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

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 is the true Christian way. Whatever 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 hopeand let it bring light into the world when we find ourselves getting overwhelmed by all the bad news. Let’s remember the message of judgement: let’s examine ourselves and make the necessary changes 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 it could be the day we see the Lord face to face. Amen.