The Birth Announcement (a sermon on Luke 1:26-38)

You can rely on the newspaper and magazine industries to come out with articles about Jesus every year at Christmas and Easter. Usually they’re articles that challenge traditional beliefs about Jesus: he didn’t rise from the dead, the Church suppressed a lot of the old stories about him, and maybe he never even existed! We clergy often sigh with frustration when we see these magazine covers; these are old allegations that have been examined and refuted over and over again, but apparently a new generation of editors can’t be bothered to check the back issues of their own publications!

Any newspaper editor knows that if you can combine sex, royalty and religion in one headline, you’re really going to grab someone’s attention! So when we read a story about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary with the news that she’s about to give birth to a child who will grow up to be Lord of the whole world – and she’s going to conceive this child without the help of a man – people naturally jump to conclusions the way they’ve been programmed to. “Mary must have got pregnant by a Roman soldier!” “This is just the same sort of story we see in the Greek myths, where the gods lust after human women and have children with them!”

Well, no, actually it’s not. In the Greek myths the point is the sex, not the children. The gods weren’t purposely producing kids who would grow up to be saviours; they wanted the women, pure and simple. But in the stories as we have them in Matthew and Luke there’s no hint of any sexual encounter between Mary and God, or the gods. The stories are actually fundamentally different.

So let’s start there. The story as we’ve read it in Luke this morning makes it clear that Jesus was conceived before his mother had had sexual relations with anyone; “How can this be” asks Mary, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Of course, these days many people find that difficult to believe, but they also think we modern people are the first to notice the difficulty. We know so much more about science than first century people! Well, that may be true, but first century people knew as well as we do that babies don’t get born without sex. I’m sure if Mary – a young, unmarried girl – had gone to her parents and said, “I’m pregnant, and God did it!”, they’d have been every bit as skeptical as you or I would have been! The first thought in their minds would have been “There’s a cover-up going on here!”

So yes, Matthew and Luke were well aware that they were telling a miraculous story. And yet they tell it, in versions so different from each other that they are obviously independent – which would seem to indicate that the story was widely known in the early church. It wasn’t a fantasy invented by the Church Fathers generations after the fact. Why would these early writers have invented stories that were so obviously open to misinterpretation, unless they had good reason to believe they were true?

So the mainstream Christian belief from earliest times has been – as the creed says – ‘He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary’. Note that this does not say anything about Mary remaining a virgin after Jesus was born – that’s a much later idea. It’s not making any statement about the goodness or badness of sexual relationships, or implying that virginity is a higher state. Matthew and Luke aren’t putting down women, conception, birth or anything like that. They’re simply stating their belief that Jesus did not have a biological human father, and this was possible because of the work of God. As the angel says in verse 37, “For nothing will be impossible with God”.

Of course, Mary was as confused about this as you or I would have been! After the angel tells her she will be the mother of the Son of the Most High, she says “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Here’s the angel’s reply:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (verse 35).

This immediately reminds us – as it would have reminded the original readers – of many Old Testament stories. When the Spirit of God came upon people in the Old Testament, they were able to do extraordinary things. Prophets spoke messages in the name of God. Soldiers won battles against extraordinary odds. Elijah was able to run for several miles in front of King Ahab’s chariot. The coming of God’s Spirit always makes the impossible possible. People can do things they would not normally be able to do because of the power of the Spirit of God.

So who is this person who will be conceived in this remarkable way? What does Luke tell us about him?

He tells us that Jesus will be God’s anointed king. Look at verses 32-33:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end”.

This echoes some words from 2 Samuel 7, part of which we read this morning. God says to King David:

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who will come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever…Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-13, 16).

This language is taken up in the well known Christmas reading from Isaiah 9:

‘For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority will grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore’ (Isaiah 9:6-7).

So Mary’s son will be the Messiah, the King who God promised to send to set his people free.

Now obviously when Luke wrote these words – probably some time between 70 and 90 A.D. – his readers would have known very well that Jesus had not fulfilled these prophecies in a literal sense. He had not re-established the dynasty of David as a political reality in Jerusalem. He had not overthrown the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders and set up a new government. He had not become the King in a political or military sense.

Luke knew this, and yet he was not afraid to write these words down. Obviously, by the time he wrote this story, Christians were well used to the idea that Jesus is King in a very different sense. In Luke’s second book, Acts, a few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus his disciple Peter will stand up before a Roman household and make a bold claim: that the risen Jesus (who no one could see any more) is ‘Lord of all’ (Acts 10:36). That word ‘Lord’ was one of the official titles of the Roman emperor, so it was an audacious thing for a Galilean fisherman to stand before one of the emperor’s soldiers and claim the title for an obscure carpenter rabbi who had been crucified as a rebel against the emperor.

And yet Peter made that claim, a claim that all early Christians would have agreed with. Jesus is King, not in an earthly political sense, but in a cosmic sense: he is the transcendent king all earthly rulers are ultimately answerable to. As Peter says at the end of his Day of Pentecost sermon: “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

So to celebrate Christmas is to make that claim today. Jesus is above all earthly political rulers. His authority is higher than any provincial premier or national prime minister. His teaching has more authority than the customs or laws of any country. To say we are Christians is to say that our loyalty to Jesus comes before any other loyalty we have. The Kingdom of Jesus is a cosmic reality, and we Christians are part of it. It has already begun, and it will still be in existence when Canada and the United States and all other nations are only a memory. Jesus is Lord forever, because he is the Son of God. In his voice we hear the voice of God. On his face we see the smile of God. In meeting him, we meet God and we know what God is like; it’s the ultimate case of ‘like Father, like Son’.

How do we respond to this good news?

Mary knew what this message would cost her. She knew people would smear her name and spread lies about her. She knew family members might well misunderstand and refuse to believe. And yet she was willing.

‘Then Mary said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”’ (Luke 1:38).

…which is a rather convoluted example of traditional Bible-speak!!! Here it is again in the much clearer language of the New Living Translation:

‘Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true”.

Mary hears God’s call and she responds with her willing assent. The text doesn’t read as if the angel was giving her a choice in the matter, although we have to believe that God knew what he was doing when he picked her. He knew this young girl was devout and would respond positively to his message.

And I guess there’s a sense in which we are also called to follow in Mary’s footsteps. The carol says:

‘O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin, and enter in – be born in us today’.

Paul tells us in Colossians that the mystery of the gospel is ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Colossians 1:27), and he prays for the Ephesians ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (Ephesians 3:17). When the Son of God lived in her Mary was a human temple – a house of God – and we also are called ‘Temples of the Holy Spirit’, because the Holy Spirit lives in us and forms Christ in us.

In Revelation Jesus says to his people, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20). In today’s gospel Mary heard God knocking and she opened the door wide for him to come in. Can you hear his knock this morning? It’s the God of love that knocks, so there’s no need to be afraid; just open the door and let him in.

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A Witness and a Voice (a sermon on John 1:6-9, 19-28)

Can you imagine John the Baptist participating in a modern election and being questioned by journalists at a press conference?

      “So, John, are you the one we’ve been waiting for, the one who will defend our nation from terrorists and keep our streets safe from crime?”

      “I am not”.

      “Oh. Well, then, are you the one who who’ll solve the problem of poverty, who will make our society prosperous again, and do away with excessive taxation?”

      “I am not”.

      “Well, John, what exactly are you planning to do if we vote for you?”

      “Voting for me isn’t important. I’m the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’. He’s the one you really should be voting for; I’m just here to point you to him”.

      “Ah. So where’s his press conference, then?”

The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent, which we used last Sunday, includes this phrase:

‘Almighty God, who sent your servant John the Baptist to prepare your people to welcome the Messiah…’

‘Messiah’ is a Hebrew word; it means ‘anointed one’. It was the custom to anoint kings with olive oil at their coronations as a sign of God’s power coming down on them to equip them for their role. But – like us – the Israelites got tired of crooked politicians who ruled for their own benefit; they looked back to the golden age when David had been their king, and they longed for the day when God would send them another king like him – a king who would rule justly, care for the poor and needy, defend Israel from their enemies, and set up the Kingdom of God on earth. This king would truly be ‘the Messiah’.

They had high expectations for his coming! It would be a day when the nations of the world would turn to God; they would beat their swords into ploughshares and there would be no more studying the arts of war. It would be a day when natural enemies, like Israel and Assyria, would be reconciled and live together in peace. Israel would be free from tyrants, the land would enjoy peace and prosperity, and orphans and widows would be safe under the Lord’s just and loving rule.

It would also be a year of Jubilee. The Law of Moses said that every fiftieth year there was to be a Year of Jubilee in Israel: all debts were to be forgiven, all slaves set free, and – most importantly – all land was to revert to its original owners. The goal of this was to prevent one family accumulating great wealth at the expense of another.

The Jubilee was mentioned in our Old Testament reading for this morning:

‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn’ (Isaiah 61:1-2).

‘The year of the Lord’s favour’ means the year of Jubilee, when the captives are to be set free and the oppressed are to be liberated.

It was an attractive and compelling vision; who wouldn’t vote for a politician who promised all that! And the easiest way to get followers in the time of Jesus was to start using this kind of language. It was such a tempting way to gain power; you can be sure that if someone in those days was asked, ‘Are you the Messiah?” it would be rather unusual for them to say, “No”!

But John the Baptist said ‘no’. The first thing he wants people to know is this: “there’s only one Messiah, and I’m not him”. He says, “I am not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet”. The only one who is qualified to be the true Messiah is Jesus.

But the world would prefer to try to build the Messianic Kingdom without the true Messiah. The true Messiah is too challenging for us. We need to find someone else who’ll do the job in his place, someone who won’t demand that we sell our possessions and give to the poor, or love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. But it’s a very rare leader who has the courage to say, “No, I’m not the one. Let me point you to the true Messiah, the one you really need to be following; his way is the only way that’s really going to change the world’.

We Christians are called to follow the example of John the Baptist: to insist that there is only one Messiah, and it’s not us or Donald Trump or Justin Trudeau or any earthly leader; it’s Jesus. John was not the Messiah: he was a witness, and a voice. Look at what he says about himself in today’s gospel reading:

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23).

Earlier on in the chapter we read,

‘(John) came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world’. (John 1:7-9).

John was a voice crying out in the wilderness, and he was a witness to testify to the light of the world, Jesus himself.

So we go back to our collect for last Sunday: ‘Almighty God, who sent your servant John the Baptist to prepare your people to welcome the Messiah’. That’s what we’re being called to do this Advent and every Advent: welcome the true Messiah. We do this in three ways.

First, we refuse to listen to false Messiahs who propose alternative ways to find peace and happiness. In the long run, war and politics can’t solve the problems of the world. Those problems will only be solved by love in action, and that’s not so much a political program as a program of transformation that asks every one of us to change our hearts toward God and our neighbours. That’s what Jesus taught us.

So we refuse to listen to these false Messiahs. Secondly, we give our obedience to the true Messiah, Jesus. By his life and teaching, he has shone a brilliant light into the darkness of the world; our role as his followers is to let that light transform us. You know the kind of thing he’s talking about, because you’ve heard the gospels read many times, and read them for yourselves too. He taught us to seek first the Kingdom of God. He taught us to forgive those who sin against us and to love our enemies and pray for them. He taught us to live simple lives and give generously to the needy. He taught us to speak the truth, keep our promises, love God with all our hearts and be a neighbour to all in need. This is the program for us disciples of Jesus. Do you think there’s enough there for us to work on? I think there is.

So we refuse to listen to false Messiahs, and we give our obedience to the true Messiah. Lastly, like John the Baptist, we give our witness about Jesus to others.

He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:7-9).

My witness to you today is that the only way I can make sense of life in this crazy world is to follow Jesus. In his words and example I find the light of God. And so I want to share his story with others and encourage them to come to his light as well. That’s my role as a disciple of Jesus. Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people”. The first part, ‘follow me’, leads inevitably to the second part, fishing for people; it’s an integral part of being a follower of Jesus.

John the Baptist is reminding us today that the true Messiah, the true light of the world, is Jesus. So let’s follow Jesus, live by his light, and spread it to others. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Light in the Darkness (a sermon on Isaiah 9:2-7, John 1:4-5, and John 8:12)

Back in the mid-1980s I was the minister in charge of All Saints’ Anglican Church in Aklavik, Northwest Territories. Aklavik is situated on the western side of the Mackenzie Delta, and from it you can easily see the Richardson Mountains, the northernmost part of the chain of mountain ranges that runs up the whole western side of North America. The Richardsons are an easy one-hour snowmobile ride from Aklavik, and I often went up there on hunting trips, going after caribou with other members of the community.

These were winter trips, of course, and they usually involved long hours of riding on a snowmobile, dressed in several layers of down clothing, and sometimes an overnight stay in a cabin up there, waking up in the freezing cold, lighting the wood stove, and then waiting for daylight – which comes late at that time of year – so that we could go looking for caribou. By the time we came back to Aklavik it was usually dark again, and by then I was cold and tired and looking forward to a hot bath, a cup of tea, and a good meal.

Aklavik had an airstrip, and at one end of the airstrip there was a huge revolving light. When you were coming down out of the mountains by skidoo you could see that light a long way off – as long as thirty miles away, actually. I can remember how good it felt to catch the first glimpse of that light. You knew you still had miles to travel, but suddenly there was hope that the journey would not last forever Underneath that light was a warm house and a warm welcome. It was amazing how much difference it made.

A light shining in the darkness; haven’t we read something about that this morning? Oh yes:

‘The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
on them light has shined’ (Isaiah 9:2).

 One of the Advent traditions that’s become very special to me over the years is the use of the Advent wreath. I wasn’t raised with the Advent wreath; in fact, I don’t think I ever saw one until Marci and I got married and moved to Arborfield, Saskatchewan in the Fall of 1979. There, for the first time, I was introduced to the custom of the four purple candles – one for each Sunday of Advent – with the central, white candle for Christmas. We adopted it into our family, and we found a little book of devotions for each day that we could use with our kids after supper, as we lit the candles, sang the songs, and prayed the prayers.

Now, thirty-eight years later, the kids are grown and gone, but Marci and I are still lighting the candles and praying our Advent devotions, and I still love it. And this year, as I’ve been going through the Advent season and moving toward Christmas, I’ve found myself reflecting on the fact that we use the symbolism of candles as we wait for the coming of Christ. I’ve been thinking of that verse: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9:2). As John says at the beginning of his gospel, ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:4-5, NIV 2011). Jesus himself uses this language; he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

In the last few years I’ve been taking photos of our Advent wreath to post on Facebook, and like many other people I’ve discovered that the photos look a lot better when all the lights in the house are turned out. Then, truly, ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’! And I’ve been thinking about that symbolism a lot this year as well. At Christmas time we tend to jump straight to the light, but Isaiah doesn’t start with the light; he starts with the darkness: ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’.

I think this year, 2017, we’ve been very much aware of the darkness. I’m sure I don’t need to go into great detail about the political events that have been happening in various places – some near, some far away – but it seems as if anger and hatred and fear, and prejudice have been given a new lease on life over the past twelve months. And if we take a slightly longer term view it can be even more depressing. Those of us who remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain really believed that a time of great darkness was finally passing away and the world was moving into a new era of cooperation and freedom and peace. It’s hard now to remember the optimism of those days. If you base your outlook on life on what you see in your daily news feed, the world at the end of 2017 looks like a pretty dark place.

So yes – we have to take the darkness seriously before we move on to the great light. But of course, that darkness has always been present in human history, right back to the days of the Old Testament prophets. Scholars aren’t sure what exactly Isaiah was originally referring to in our first Old Testament reading for today, but I think it’s likely it was Assyrian military aggression he had in mind. The Bible wasn’t written in an idyllic world where people had lots of time to contemplate the meaning of life; it was written at a time when human life was cheap – when tyrants had absolute power and murdered anyone who stood in their way – when ordinary people had very little control over their own destiny. In other words, a time very much like our own time for many of the people on this planet.

Hundreds of years later, not much had changed. Israel was under the power of another tyrant, Caesar Augustus in far away Rome, and he had an accomplice in Judea, Herod the Great, a fanatically insecure ruler who had murdered several members of his own family because he suspected them of plotting against him. Rome decided that it needed to update its tax records, and suddenly daily life was disrupted, people’s plans were put on hold, and an ordinary engaged couple from Galilee, Mary and Joseph, found that they had to make an unexpected journey to Joseph’s ancestral home, Bethlehem, the home of Israel’s ancient hero, King David. And while they were staying in Bethlehem, the miracle happened:

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this (Isaiah 9:6-7).

No doubt when Isaiah first spoke these words he was referring to the birth of a son and heir to the king of that time, but Christians have always read a deeper meaning into these words, because what human king can possibly live up to the titles ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’?

And at first glance these titles seem out of place when we apply them to the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, too. This is Yeshua, the son of Yosef and Miriam, a little boy who cried and got hungry and needed to be changed just like any other baby. He wasn’t born in a palace and didn’t have the advantages of wealth and power. He was never an ordained priest in any recognized way. He was never involved in any of the power structures of Rome or Judea or Galilee.

And yet, it’s very clear to me that even today, he shines – he shines as a light in the darkness. In a world obsessed with wealth and possessions, he demonstrates a life based on simplicity and generosity. In a world split apart by hatred and violence, he loves his enemies and prays for those who hate him. He reaches across borders to Samaritans and Romans and refuses to recognize dividing lines between people and races and classes. In a world where women and children are definitely second-class citizens he treats them with dignity and respect.

Most of all, in a world where most people struggle to have a sense of God’s presence in their lives, he walks with God in a living and dynamic and tangible way. You get the sense as you read his story and listen to his teaching that his heavenly Father was every bit as real and close to him as his earthly father and mother had been. When I read the gospels this is what stands out to me; I want to go to him and say “Lord Jesus, you obviously know God really well. Will you show me how to know him like that? Because I think that might just be the key to everything else I’m looking for in life”.

‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9:2), says Isaiah. John says, ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1:4-5, NIV 2011). Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). So let us follow him so that we can walk with him in the light of God.

Coming Home (a sermon on Isaiah 40.1-11)

The word Isaiah speaks in our first reading for today is spoken to people who feel the situation they’re in is hopeless. I wonder how many of you have felt as if things are hopeless?

I think about the person who gets into debt so deeply they can’t see a way of ever getting their head above water again. Or the person in an abusive relationship in which they’re being hurt over and over again, and they can see no way out. I think about the parents who realise they’re in a negative rut in their relationship with their child and can’t see any way of changing it – or the teenager who wonders if his parents will ever understand him. These people are on the verge of giving up all hope – or maybe they’ve already done so.

Sometimes this is complicated by guilt; the situation’s hopeless and it’s my fault. Think of the alcoholic or drug addict who can’t see any way out, but he also knows all the suffering he and his family have gone through is his own fault. Think of the person who struggles unsuccessfully to control her temper and can’t see any hope of change, all the time being aware of the damage she’s caused to other people’s lives. “I’ve ruined it now and there’s no way it can ever be fixed”.

That’s the kind of situation God’s people were in when our Old Testament reading was written. They’d chased after other gods made of wood or stone and worshipped them. They’d abandoned God’s ways and oppressed the poor and needy. Over hundreds of years God had tried and tried again to call them back to him; he sent a long line of prophets to try to persuade them and warn them about what would happen if they didn’t repent. A few responded, but most ignored God’s call.

Eventually God allowed foreign armies to come against the land and defeat the Israelites; the leaders and educated classes were taken away as prisoners into exile in a foreign country and their land was given over to others. The temple in Jerusalem – which they saw as a sign that God was with them – was destroyed by the Babylonians. And the people who were taken away to Babylon thought God was so angry with them that he would never again accept them as his people.

Into this hopeless situation God sent a prophet to speak a word of comfort. We call him ‘Isaiah’, but he’s probably not the same prophet that wrote the first 39 chapters of the Book of Isaiah as we now have it; those chapters were likely written many years earlier. God gave this ‘Second Isaiah’ a word of hope for people who lived in hopelessness and despair. You can find it in our first reading for today, from Isaiah chapter 40. Let’s start by looking at verses 1-2:

‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins’.

The prophet brings the people an incredible message: despite all the sins they’ve committed, despite all the suffering they’ve been through, God still cares for them. And God is coming to them now with a message of comfort and hope.

That comfort and hope comes in the words of three ‘voices’ that the prophet mentions in verse 3, verse 6, and verse 9. We’re not told who the speakers are. Likely they’re just a poetic device the prophet uses; one of the things we know about Second Isaiah is that he’s a wonderful poet. Let’s explore what he has to say by listening to these three ‘voices’.

The first voice is a promise of homecoming. Look at verses 3-5:

‘A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”’

So this is a promise of a homecoming. For more than a generation the exiles had been living hundreds of miles away from their home. We can get a sense of how they felt in one of the most poignant psalms in the Bible, Psalm 137:

‘By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land?’

I can only imagine what it felt like for them. When I was seventeen my family moved from the U.K. to Canada. At the time I wasn’t too pleased with the move; I had good friends back home and I had no desire to start over again at the age of seventeen in a completely unfamiliar country. Making friends wasn’t easy for me in those days, because I was a pretty shy guy. Eventually, of course, things brightened up, and now, forty-two years later, I’m very happy in this foreign land!

But let’s change the illustration; let’s think of the children of the residential schools, taken away forcibly from their homes and their families, forced to live in a completely unfamiliar boarding school system, forced to forget their own languages and customs and learn a completely alien way of life. I can’t begin to imagine how awful that must have been for them.

But for Israel it was even worse, because they had a very strong belief that Jerusalem was the city of God and the Temple was the place in Jerusalem where God’s presence was strongest. If you wanted to meet with God, you went to the Temple; you could be sure he’d be there! But how could you ‘sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land’?

How does this translate into our experience today?

I would suggest to you that the truest and most secure home any human being can have is the presence of God. God is our Creator, our rock, our loving parent. To live in God is to be truly at home in the most complete sense of that word. Every other home will disappoint us eventually; only when we find our home in God will we be fully satisfied. “You have made us for yourself”, Saint Augustine prays, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”.

So what does Jesus say to us?

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3).

I don’t think Jesus is especially talking about death here. We don’t have to wait until we die to find our home in God. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Do we have to wait until we die to ‘come to the Father’? Of course not; we can come to the Father right now.

So that’s the first announcement of Advent for us Christians: our exile is over. Jesus has come to take us home to the Father. Advent is an invitation for us to find our true home in the presence of God.

Let’s go on to the second voice. The second voice is a promise about the dependability of God’s promise. Look at verses 6-8:

‘A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever’.

The issue here is a simple one: Who can you count on? When the chips are down, who will come through for you? Is there such a thing as a human bring whose promise is utterly reliable? The prophet doesn’t think so.

We live in an age of great scepticism when it comes to the promises of politicians. Most of us suspect that they have no intention of keeping them. They want us to vote for them, so they say what they know we want to hear, but it’s all a con game. Of course, that’s an outrageous generalisation; there are good and sincere politicians who genuinely want to make a difference. But generally speaking, when political promises are broken very few people are surprised.

And even when people make promises with every intention to keep them, there’s still a problem: we human beings aren’t in total control of our lives. We’re not gods; we’re ordinary mortals. The prophet uses the illustration of blades of grass. A blade of grass isn’t in control of the hot desert wind that dries up the ground and causes all growing things to die of thirst. Neither is it in control of the man who comes striding across the field, flattening everything under his feet without even thinking about it.

We human beings are like that. I lost a good friend who died of cancer at the age of forty-six, leaving behind four children under the age of twelve, one of whom had Down Syndrome. It was his intention to be there for those kids into a ripe old age, but that wasn’t the way it turned out. No fault of his, but he was unable to keep those promises.

So who can we trust? In verse 8 the prophet says ‘The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever’. God’s promise is totally dependable. He promised to bring the Israelites home from exile, and he kept that promise. He promised to send a Saviour for all people, and he kept that promise. He has promised to bring us to his Kingdom, and he will keep that promise as well.

Of course, sometimes God’s promises seem a little slow in fulfilment to us poor mortals. The people were taken into exile in 586 B.C. and their return began about fifty years later. In those days a fifty-year lifespan was a long one for ordinary people; very few of the original exiles would have lived to see the journey home. I sometimes wonder what it means when we pray to God – who lives outside of time – and ask him to hurry up! One of the most common phrases in the Old Testament is ‘wait for the Lord’; apparently it was common knowledge that he takes his time, since he has plenty of it! My Dad used to say “God knows I’m impatient, so he’s made me wait for almost every important thing in my life!”

I think part of the call of Advent to us who live in an age of great materialism is this: be sceptical about the extravagant promises mammon makes to us. Advertisers promise us that if we just buy their product we’ll find true happiness and fulfilment, but in the end that’s a lie. What we’re looking for we can only find in God; only he can give us what Jesus calls ‘life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10). So the prophet calls us to believe the promise of God and to turn to him for what we’re looking for.

We’ve heard two voices: a promise of a homecoming, and an assurance of the dependability of the promises of God. The third voice is a promise of the presence of God himself with us. Look at verses 9-11:

‘Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep’.

Remember, the prophet is talking to people who assumed that God had abandoned them because of their sins. This was the only way they could make sense of the disaster that had happened to Jerusalem. ‘If God had truly been with us the Babylonians wouldn’t have been able to destroy us. So God must have left us’.

But now the prophet tells them ‘Here is your God’. And the image he uses emphasises the tender and loving nature of God: ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep’ (v.11). Yes, God is coming to live among them again – and not as an angry judge, but as a tender shepherd caring for the weakest and most vulnerable members of his flock.

God is not far away from us; he is present with us and lives among us. This is what the coming of Jesus means. Matthew says that the birth of Jesus was in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us’” (Matt. 1:23-24). Never again will God be a stranger to human life; he has lived it to the bitter end just as we do. As Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 1:14: ‘The Word became a human being and moved into our neighbourhood’.

So the Advent word is a call to look to Jesus. As I said last week, he’s the human face of God. In him, God has come to us and he has never left us since then. And because of him God’s Spirit lives among us. When we gather here week by week, that’s what we’re celebrating: Emmanuel, God with us. That’s what Jesus means.

So this Advent message is full of comfort and hope for us. Jesus came among us to lead us home to God – the one place in the universe where we can be completely secure. The Bible uses the old word ‘abide’; to ‘abide’ somewhere is to make it your home. ‘Abide in me’, Jesus says. Where God is, there we are home, and we believe that God is in Jesus, so we are at home in Jesus.

Jesus came to us as the fulfilment of the promises of God. False gods make all kinds of false promises to us – perfect happiness, eternal youth and so on. But we know we can’t rely on those promises. Only in God can we find what we’re really looking for. So we’re called to be sceptical about the promises of the false gods, but to put our trust in the Word of God, who is Jesus.

And Jesus is ‘God with us’, our Good Shepherd. God has not abandoned us and he never will. We may not always feel his presence, but our feelings are not a reliable guide. They’re influenced by all kinds of factors; some we’re aware of, some we’re not.

But the presence of God with us is deeper than our feelings. I heard a phrase at a clergy conference a few years ago that really struck me. The speaker said, “We sometimes talk about asking God to come into our hearts, but we might just have it backwards. What the gospel tells us is that God holds us in his heart!”

‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God’ (v.1). I can’t think of anything more comforting than the thought that God holds us – you and me – in his heart. Our true home is the heart of God. We live there now, and we’ll live there forever. Ponder that one for a while, and ask God to help you experience it as a living reality.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘Restore Us, O God’ (a sermon for Advent Sunday on Psalm 80)

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the new church year. Happy new year, everyone! Advent isn’t just about preparing for Christmas, although of course in our culture that’s what December – and, increasingly, November too – is all about. Yes, in Advent we go back to the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Messiah and try to imagine ourselves waiting in expectation and longing for God to fulfil them. But in Advent we also look forward to what the New Testament writers called in their language the parousia – the appearing of Christ at the end of the age, the time when (as the creeds say) ‘he will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will never end’.

It’s really appropriate that Psalm 80 is our psalm for today. Psalm 80 is a psalm of longing – or even a psalm of desperation. The second half of verse 17 in the BAS version says ‘Give us life, that we may call upon your name’. ‘Give us life’ is translated in many Bibles as ‘revive us’ and this verse became a great theme for revival movements – times of great spiritual power in the history of the church, when the Holy Spirit seemed to work in a special way among the people of God. Revivals often led Christian people to share their faith with their neighbours so that new people came to faith in Christ. But the revivals didn’t usually start there; they started with a reawakening of faith in the hearts and lives of Christian people. And that’s what Advent is meant to be all about, too.

If you’ll look at the psalm on page 812 of your BAS, the first thing I want you to notice is the refrain that’s repeated three times, in slightly different form each time. Verse three says, ‘Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved’. This is repeated in verse seven. Verse 19 adds the name ‘Lord’: ‘Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved’.

But I want you to look carefully at a different verse, 14: ‘Turn now, O God of hosts’. The word ‘turn’ here stands for a Hebrew word that we often translate ‘repent’. Normally in the Bible the word ‘repent’ is applied to human beings; we’re called to turn away from our sins and turn back to God. But occasionally in the Old Testament it’s used for God; God is said to change his mind and repent of his anger toward his people. That’s what the people of God are praying for here. “God, your face is turned away from us. Won’t you turn back to us?” This ties in with the phrase that’s used in the second half of the three refrains: ‘Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved’. The ‘countenance’ is simply ‘the face’. We might paraphrase this as “God, won’t you smile on us again? It’s been so long since we’ve seen your smile!”

I suspect we all know what that feels like. Sometimes you might go to a close friend and ask “How are you?” and they reply, “Well, I’ve had better days”. We can all identify with that in one way or another. Small communities are having a hard time surviving in these days of urbanisation. Many churches are struggling and they look back nostalgically to the days when they had full pews and big Sunday Schools. And for us as individuals, too, there are times when God seems a long way away from us. We go through financial struggles and problems at work – maybe even loss of a job and a livelihood. Many of us are feeling the effects of advancing age. We go through debilitating illness. We lose people we love. We have worries about our kids and our grandchildren. We go through family conflict and heartache. Yes – ‘we’ve seen better days’.

In Psalm 80 the community reminds God of those better days in verses 8 to 11. Israel was like a grape vine that God brought up out of Egypt and planted in the good land of Canaan. The people filled the country and flourished, and for many years it seemed God was really blessing them.

But now what has happened? Verses 12-13 say ‘Why have you broken down its wall, so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes? The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, and the beasts of the field have gazed on it’. This sounds like one of the invasions that took place in the eight and sixth centuries B.C., when God’s people were defeated in battle and many of them taken away into exile. We can imagine the writer of the psalm standing in the ruins of Samaria or Jerusalem, looking around and shaking his head. “God, why have you done this to us? Why have you abandoned us? We are your flock and you are our shepherd. We are your vine, and you are the owner of the vineyard. We are your firstborn son. How can this have happened to us?”

Other passages in the Old Testament give an explanation for this. They talk about how Israel turned away from God to worship false gods and practice injustice and oppression. But this psalm doesn’t go there. It doesn’t assign blame, or if it does, it throws the blame on God. We can hear the anger in the people’s voices. “God, where are you? How come you didn’t help us? Please, come now and rescue us from this desperate situation we’re in. How long are we going to have to wait?”

So what is the psalm calling us to today, as followers of Jesus? Three things.

First, the psalm is calling us to prayer. The psalms are the prayer book of the people of God. We use them as prayers, and also as models for prayer. Are you afraid to tell God how you really feel? The psalms encourage you not to be afraid. Are you wondering if your little troubles are important enough to pray about? The psalms encourage you to pray about everything. And the psalms speak for us when we can’t find the words to speak. I’m grateful to have been praying the psalms in church and outside church for as long as I can remember. The psalms are my school of prayer.

And we need to learn how to pray, don’t we? Every single one of us, at one time or another, has felt that life is just too much for us. And we know, deep down inside, that human planning and ingenuity can only go so far. Sometimes the changes we need are just beyond our power to achieve. We’re desperate for help. And that’s a good place to be. Ole Hallesby once said that the two essential conditions for prayer are faith and desperation. I’m sure most of us don’t have any difficulty supplying the ‘desperation’! But we might feel intimidated by our lack of faith, so Hallesby adds that if we have enough faith to turn to Jesus and ask for his help, that’s all we need!

So this psalm is calling us to prayer. Second, this psalm is calling us to turn. As we’ve seen, in verse 14 the people beg God to turn back to them: ‘Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine”. “Turn to us and let us see you smile on us again”. But the turning is a two-way street. In the refrain, the people ask three times “Restore us, O God of hosts”, but the Hebrew word translated ‘restore’ includes the little syllable ‘shub’ – repent. In fact, you could translate it ‘Make us to turn, O God’.

This might seem strange to us. After all, we’re familiar with the call to repent. We know we need to turn away from our sins and distractions and turn toward God and his will for us. But we usually see it as something we have to do. But here it’s a prayer we pray to God: ‘Make us to turn, O God’.

I would suggest to you that this is an honest and realistic prayer. Change is hard, whether it’s the change of trying to lose weight, the change of trying not to be so bad tempered, the change of learning patience, the change of being more careful about how we talk to other people. Those habits have created neural pathways in our brains, and they live there like deep ruts on a gravel road – the car tires just keep falling into them!

One of my favourite writers, Francis Spufford, describes sin as ‘our human propensity to mess things up’. Actually, he uses a much stronger word than ‘mess’ – one I won’t repeat in this pulpit! But when I first read that phrase I gave a grunt of recognition. That’s me! I have an incredible talent for messing things up, for hurting people, for spoiling relationships. And I find it incredibly difficult to change! So any hope that’s based on my ability to do things differently isn’t going to get me very far, because that ability is severely hampered by human weakness.

So the psalm acknowledges that we can’t do this alone; we need God’s help. “Make us to turn, O God”, isn’t a cop-out. It’s not asking God to do something that we should do ourselves. It’s a humble acknowledgement that if we want to change our lives, our human strength isn’t up to the job. We need to come to God in desperation and faith and cry out for God’s help.

So the psalm encourages us to pray, and the psalm encourages us to turn to God. Finally, the psalm encourages us to hope in Jesus. You need to look carefully to see this, but once you’ve seen it, it’s all over the psalm. It’s actually quite striking how Jesus takes up metaphors in this psalm and uses them for himself and his work.

‘Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock’ (v.1). ‘Shepherd’ in the Old Testament is a metaphor for ‘king’. But who is the Good Shepherd in the New Testament? It’s Jesus, of course. In John 10 he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”.  He talks about calling his sheep by name, leading them out, guiding them, feeding them. In Psalm 23 David prays ‘The Lord is my shepherd’; in the New Testament ‘the Lord’ is Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Jesus has been called ‘the human face of God’. So when the people pray, ‘Make your face shine on us, O God’, Jesus is the answer to that prayer.

And what about the ‘vine’ metaphor? The psalm talks about Israel as God’s vine, planted in the land to produce good fruit. But who is the true vine in the New Testament? Again, it’s Jesus. He says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (John 15:1). In the Old Testament the prophets talk about God looking for good fruit on his vine, but only finding bitter grapes – in other words, his people didn’t produce the fruit of good and holy living that he was looking for. But Jesus is the fruitful vine. And what does he say to us? “Abide in me as I abide in you”. To ‘abide’ somewhere means to make your home there. So we make Jesus our spiritual home. We live in fellowship with him. We listen to his words and put them into practice, and with his help – and only with his help – we can produce the fruit God is looking for.

The third metaphor is the ‘son of man’. Verse 16 says ‘Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, the son of man you have made so strong for yourself’. In the original context this is a metaphor for Israel – Israel is God’s firstborn son – but in the gospels Jesus takes it and uses it for himself; it becomes his favourite way of talking about himself. In other words, Jesus is the true Israelite; he’s the chosen one of God. He’s the one who shows us what it means not just to be God, but also to be truly human. When we look at Jesus, we’re looking at God’s dream of what a human life is like. In him – as we make our home in him – it’s possible for us to truly repent, to truly love, to truly pray, to truly be faithful to God.

So let’s go round this one last time. This psalm calls us to pray – not just as individuals, but as a community. We pray as desperate people, people who realize that life is often too much for us, that we aren’t up to the task, that we need help. But we also pray as people of faith, people who know we’ve been invited to turn to Jesus and ask for help. Are you desperate? Have you got enough faith to simply turn to Jesus and ask for help? Then you can pray!

This psalm calls us to turn – or, to be more accurate, it calls us to ask God to help us turn. We know that often we get distracted by too many things, and sometimes our lives are consumed by stuff that’s got nothing to do with loving God and loving our neighbour. So we ask God to help us turn from that, and turn back to God.

Advent is a time to be more faithful in prayer and to be more intentional about turning to God. But lastly, it’s a time to look to Jesus. He’s the human face of God. In him God has shown the light of his countenance to us – he’s made his face shine on us – we’ve seen the smile of God in him. He’s our Good Shepherd. “My sheep hear my voice”, he says. So we take care to hear his voice, and where he leads, there we follow.

 

May it be so for us. In the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

(Reblogged, slightly adapted,  from 2013.)

No – not what you’re thinking. Not Christmas: Advent. It starts today, November 27th (the fourth Sunday before Christmas), and lasts until Christmas Eve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ
came to us in great humility,
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge both the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.