“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.

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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.

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.

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.