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 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.


‘Why Would God Do Such a Thing?’ (a sermon for our Carol Service)

In the original movie ‘Shadowlands’, there’s a fictional conversation between C.S. Lewis and another university professor about the meaning of Christmas. Lewis says, “It’s all about magic, Christopher: God becomes a man”. The other professor replies, “Then God must be bonkers! Who would choose to become voluntarily human? Much better to stay safely divine!”

Well, I have to admit that they both had good points! On Lewis’ side, it’s absolutely that this is what the Christian story claims – that in the birth of Jesus, God has become a human being. A popular song of a few years ago says:

If God had a face, what would it look like?
And would you want to see it right,
if seeing meant that you would have to believe
in things like heaven,
and in Jesus, and the saints, and all of the prophets?

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on a bus trying to make his way back home?

I’ve often thought that we should add this song to the Christmas carol books. This is exactly what the Christmas story is all about; it’s God becoming one of us, God sharing our human life, God experiencing all the things that we experience. The technical word for it in Christian theology is ‘incarnation’ – God taking on himself our human flesh.

But that leaves us with the point made by the other professor in the movie: “Then God must be bonkers!” Has God taken leave of his senses? If God is the almighty creator of the universe, why on earth would he allow himself to be born as a helpless baby on this tiny planet? Why would he put himself in a position of complete dependence on human parents and make himself vulnerable to all the pain and suffering of human life? What would be the point of it? What sort of God decides to do something like that?

Let me suggest a few possible answers to these questions.

First, the sort of God who would do this would be a God who believed in the power of love and not the power of brute force. There are a lot of people in the Christmas story who believe in the power of force. There’s the Roman emperor, for instance: Caesar Augustus. The story tells us that ‘In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered… All went to their own home towns to be registered’ (Luke 2:1, 3). Imagine having that kind of power! Caesar sits on his throne in Rome and sends out an order that all the millions of people in his empire are to be registered – presumably for tax purposes. Immediately thousands of public officials leap to do his bidding! That’s the sort of power that can get things done! Or think of King Herod – he hears that a rival king has been born in Bethlehem, and immediately sends a death squad to kill all male children under the age of two. That’s decisive action! No one would dare to question the authority of a man who could give an order like that!

And yet today, two thousand years later, the only reason we remember Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great is because of the birth of a baby in Bethlehem during their reign. Despite all their power and influence, they died like anyone else, and they left the world much as they found it.

In contrast to them, Jesus did not have the authority to order a million people to interrupt their lives for an income tax registration, and he killed no one during the thirty-three years of his life. He spent his life teaching the truth and reaching out in love to everyone he met. He didn’t concentrate on the powerful and the rich in an attempt to influence the movers and shakers of society; rather, he hung out with lepers and tax collectors, blue-collar workers and prostitutes, and everywhere he went he brought transformation into people’s lives. Jesus touched them, and they had the sense that they had been touched by God. It wasn’t brute force; it was the power of love – God’s love. He modelled it for us in the way he lived his life, and even when human beings rejected him, he did not strike back, but allowed them to kill him by nailing him to a cross. In that act, he was saying to us, “You may be able to kill me, but you can never kill my love for you”.

Christmas tells us about a God who believes in the power of love, not the power of brute force. Second, the kind of God Christmas tells us about is a God who thinks you make a difference by coming close, not by standing far away and yelling instructions.

 There’s an old episode of MASH where Father Mulcahey and Radar find themselves in the situation of having to perform a tracheotomy on a man in a combat zone. Neither of them are doctors, of course; the only thing they can do is call the real doctors at the MASH unit and ask them to guide them through the operation. Of course, it’s an awful thing for both the doctors who are giving the instructions and for the people who are trying to follow them! Long distance instructions might work sometimes, but you know there’s something lacking there.

Religious history is full of stories of gods who give their wisdom at long distance – gods who aren’t crazy enough to get close to this dangerous human race, but stay safely divine, far away in heaven, and send their messengers to give us their words of advice. But the Christian story is not that sort of story. In the prologue to his Gospel, St. John calls Jesus ‘The Word’; he says, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory (John 1:14) – or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it, ‘The Word became a human being and moved into our neighbourhood’ (‘The Message’). This God is not a general who barks orders at his soldiers by radio from a safe headquarters miles away from the front lines; rather, he’s a general who comes right to the front lines and knows what it’s like to wade through the mud in the trenches. ‘What if God was one of us?’ Well, he was!

And the thing is this: by coming close to us in this way, by living as one of us, he showed us two things. He showed us what God is like, and he showed us what a real human life is meant to be like.

Jesus shows us what God is like. This is what the writer of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews means when he says:

‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

‘The exact imprint of God’s very being’. In other words, Jesus is the very best picture of God that we humans have ever seen. Someone has well said: ‘In God there is no un-Christ-likeness at all’. When Jesus had lived his life of love for God and others, when he had gone all the way to the cross to show us the true extent of God’s love for us, then we humans had a true portrait of what God is like: God is like Jesus.

But Jesus not only shows us what God is like; he also shows us what human life is meant to be like. We have a common saying: ‘I’m only human’; usually we use it as an excuse for the times we mess up and fall short of what we know we should be. It’s as if we’re claiming that being human is an excuse for being bad! And, of course, you and I have never seen a human being who wasn’t flawed in some way.

But Jesus came and lived the sort of life that God dreamed for us humans when he created us in the first place. He told us that the two great commandments – the ones everything else depends on – are that we love God with all our heart, and we love our neighbour as ourselves. And then he lived that out in his daily life. To learn to follow him is to learn to be truly human, the way God intended human life to be lived. It’s not about who has the most toys, or who is the most popular, or who can force the most people to do what they want. It’s about right relationships – with God, and with our neighbours. Get that wrong, and we’ve missed the whole point. Get it right, and we’ve grasped the reason we were created in the first place.

But there’s another aspect to this as well. Jesus knows what it’s like to be tempted and to suffer as a human being, so he can sympathise with us in our suffering and our weakness. Again, the writer to the Hebrews says:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).

So no – God was not out of his mind when he decided to become one of us. There was method in God’s madness. God is love, through and through, and everything that he did was consistent with that love. He came in love, not in brute force. He came close to us, to show us the way and to give us the help we needed, rather than standing at a safe distance and barking orders at us.

The song ‘What if God was one of us?’ also has this question: ‘If God had a name, what would it be?’ The Christmas story tells us that when God came to us in his Son, he chose a name for himself: ‘Jesus’, or ‘Yeshua’ in Hebrew, which means ‘God saves’ or ‘God to the rescue’. This name tells us so much about the character of God. The old saying, ‘God helps those who help themselves’, is completely wrong; the Bible tells us that God helps those who can’t help themselves! That’s why he came: to save us from sin and evil and death and to lead us into freedom and joy and goodness and love.

What sort of God would do such a thing? Surely the simple answer is, a God who loves us more than we can begin to imagine. The Christmas story assures us of that love. Let’s thank God today for the great love he showed by coming among us as one of us, and let’s trust and follow him day by day so that we can learn to live by that same love.

The Revolution Begins in Bethlehem (a sermon on Luke 1:46-55)

The story is told that when one of the kings of the Franks, who lived in Europe in the dark ages, first heard about the crucifixion of Jesus, he jumped to his feet, pulled out his sword, and cried out, ‘If only I and my Franks had been there, we would not have let them do that to Jesus!’

But of course, Jesus didn’t need their protection. He himself said that if he had wanted, he could have had access to the services of twelve legions of angels, who I’m sure would have been more than a match for the Roman troops and the temple guards. And if Jesus had been following the usual plan for changing the world, that’s exactly what he would have done – he would have called up the largest and most powerful army he could raise, and marched out at the head of them to do battle with the forces of evil. But Jesus didn’t do that, because he was starting a revolution much more far-reaching than any the world had ever seen before, and in that revolution the act of going to the cross was going to be far more powerful than the act of fighting to avoid the cross. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the world has been turned upside down far more effectively than by any political or military leader.

And that’s the theme of the Magnificat, or ‘Song of Mary’, which we used as our psalm for today. In Luke 1:46-55 Mary is describing the coming of the kingdom of God in revolutionary terms. She has just heard from the angel that she is to be the mother of the Messiah. She has gone to share the story with her older cousin Elizabeth, and has been greeted with a prophecy about the child in her womb and everything he will accomplish. In response, she sings this song about how God is going to bring about a revolution that will turn the world upside down.

What sort of world does Mary live in? Apparently, the same sort of world we live in today! It’s a world where most people don’t notice someone who’s ‘lowly’, a world where some are proud and some are humble, and the proud can usually push the humble around. It’s a world of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, where the rich hoard greedily and the poor starve. It’s a world where God’s promise to help his people seems like a mockery because of the situation they are in. In Mary’s world the Herods and the Caesars are at the top of the social scale, living in luxury and using their power to run their kingdoms for their own benefit and that of their friends. At the bottom of the scale are the people Mary called ‘the lowly’, the ones who have no voice and no vote, whose contribution to the system is to pay their taxes and get nothing in return. And if we look around the world today and see the enormous differences in wealth and power between rich and poor, strong and weak, we have to ask ourselves “How much has changed in the last two thousand years? What happened to the revolution that Mary was talking about?”

Make no mistake, Mary’s song talks about a revolution. In her view, the coming of the kingdom of God would level the differences between people. Actually, she went further than that – she saw God as giving the rich and the powerful their turn at learning what it was like to be poor and weak. Those with the power and wealth would be toppled from their high positions, and the lowly and weak would take their place. God would finally keep his promise to rescue his people from their suffering and oppression, and bring peace and justice to the world.

What sort of world would this lead to? In Mary’s view, it would be a world where everyone, no matter how lowly, would be looked on with favour, just as in verse 48 she says that ‘God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant’. Everyone would have enough to live on, but no one would have too much; as verse 53 says, ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away’. Instead of individual acquisition of wealth, we would emphasise community sharing and giving. Those in power would use their power for the good of all, not just themselves and their own families, friends, and political allies. This is the consistent message about the kingdom of God, not just in Mary’s song but all through the prophets and the teaching of Jesus. It’s what Jesus had in mind when he taught us to pray ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.

But as Christians we might want to hesitate a bit at some of Mary’s words. She may have been a wise person, but in some ways she shared the common view of her generation; she thought that the way God would create this sort of an egalitarian society was by force. That’s how you stop the greedy and powerful from being greedy and powerful! So when she heard that her son was going to be the long-awaited Messiah, she assumed that’s how he would do it, and that may be why she misunderstood him later when he chose a different path.

Jesus, of course, saw things somewhat differently. To him, the heart of the human problem is not the gap between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless; these are the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. No, the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart that can create these conditions in the first place. Lasting change won’t be achieved by casting down one set of rulers and replacing them with another set who idealistically promise to govern for the benefit of all. ‘All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Over and over again we’ve seen revolutions in which the powerful are brought down from their thrones to be replaced by the lowly, who soon become the new powerful and quickly get a taste for it. The problem is the selfishness and self-centredness in the hearts of sinful human beings – including me, I have to say. Do I want God’s kingdom to come if it means my standard of living has to go down? To be honest, no, I don’t – so I am part of the problem.

Jesus knew this, and so when he set out to bring in the kingdom of God, he chose a different route. Rather than appearing suddenly at the head of a heavenly army to sort things out, he chose to become a poor and vulnerable person himself. When he grew up, his work was not to form a military force to drive out oppressors and punish evil; rather, it was to teach people how to live together under the reign of God. You can of course find his teachings in the Gospels, and they challenge our way of life to the core because they’re all about love and non-violence, and caring for the poor and needy, and living a simple life, uncluttered with lots of possessions and focussing on the kingdom of God.

Jesus showed us by his life and teaching what it meant to live according to God’s way. But he also knew that our addiction to sin is what prevents us from following that way. And so he gave himself on the cross for us, so that we could be forgiven and reconciled to God. In his resurrection he showed us that good will indeed triumph over evil, and that love is stronger than hate. And he went on to send us the priceless gift of the Holy Spirit, who is working patiently in us, changing us from the inside out.

This is the ‘slow and messy’ way of changing the world. The quick and easy way – sending in the heavenly SWAT team and wiping out all the evildoers – might be more efficient, but the problem is that there’d be no one left to enjoy it, since all of us are evildoers. God’s world, unlike Mary’s, isn’t divided into good guys and bad guys. There’s good and bad in all of us, so we’d better be careful about praying for God’s judgement on evil.

And this is why the world is changing so slowly, and why Mary’s revolution is a long time coming: it’s because people like me are stubborn about changing. God has chosen to respect our free will and work through us, and as long as I continue to be hooked on material prosperity and enjoying the inequalities of the present world order, then there are still going to be rich and poor, powerful and powerless. The challenge to me is to listen to the teaching of Jesus – to listen to the values that Mary expresses in her song – and to reshape my life accordingly.

The Advent season assures us that one day the Kingdom of God will come in all its fulness, and Mary’s vision will become a reality. While we wait for that day, we pray that God will work in our hearts and change us from self-centredness to God-centredness and from selfishness to love. And we do our best to create the kind of world, right now, where people acknowledge God as king and follow his loving rule of their own free will.

The revolution begins in Bethlehem. Coming to the manger and welcoming Christ into our lives is a revolutionary act. If we are faithful to the principles of the Jesus movement, it will lead to a world of justice, equality, and peace. But on the road to that revolution God will not violate our free will. How far the gospel revolution goes in our time is up to you and me. Do we dare to take Mary at her word, and shape our lives accordingly?

Extravagant Joy (a sermon on Zephaniah 3:14-20)

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that this Christmas season, joy is in short supply. Fear and worry seem to loom a lot larger in many people’s lives.

The world has been a scary place this year. It’s not just terrorist incidents and war in the middle east. There’s also the economy, and the number of people who have lost jobs, or had their income cut significantly because of what’s going on. There are the increasing worries about climate change. and the controversies about the best way to deal with it. There’s the refugee crisis and our awareness of the millions of people around the world who have had to leave their homes in fear of their lives. And on top of all this, of course, there are individual things some of us may be experiencing – financial stress, serious illness, family difficulties, and such – all of which are present in our church just like any other community.

How can we celebrate ‘joy to the world’ in the face of all this? ‘Joy’, in our minds, tends to overlap with ‘happiness’, and ‘happiness’ is often connected to what’s ‘happening’ to us. When what’s happening to us seems scary and discouraging, Paul’s words about ‘rejoicing in the Lord’ can be a pretty hard sell.

But the truth is that in the New Testament, joy is not usually inspired by happy circumstances; more often than not, it’s in spite of circumstances. For example, there’s the story in the Book of Acts of 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, but Acts tells us that, far from feeling sorry for themselves, ‘About midnight they were praying and singing hymns to God’ (Acts 16:25). Actually, 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 we’re celebrating the Third Sunday in Advent, and it’s traditionally known as ‘Gaudete’ Sunday, from the Latin word for ‘joy’. The note of joy in our scripture readings for today is strong. In our epistle Paul says ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). And in our Old Testament reading we hear Zephaniah – a prophet 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 this 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. And secondly, we rejoice because of the future. Yes, we’re well aware of the continuing presence of evil in the world, but we rejoice because of God’s promise that one his kingdom will come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and we will all live together in justice and peace forever. Because of these two focal points – in the past, and in the future – we can live in joy 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 outrageous sense of joy and celebration amongst God’s people.

First, we rejoice because we have been forgiven. In verses 14-15 we read these words:

‘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 a condemned criminal coming into the courtroom to hear your sentence passed by a judge. There is no doubt about your guilt, and over your head hangs the probability of an enormous penalty that will overwhelm you for the rest of your life. There is no hope of any relief, and you have resigned yourself to your fate. You take your place in the dock and the judge asks you to stand. Then to your absolute amazement the judge says, “A royal pardon for this crime has been received. You are free to go, and your record is clear”.

According to the New Testament this is our situation as Christians. In terms of one of Jesus’ parables, you are like the finance minister of a country, and you’ve been quietly embezzling tax dollars for years. One day you are found out, and the king demands repayment of what you have stolen – an amount equal to several times the annual budget of the kingdom. Since you cannot 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 does not give you what you ask for – he gives you more than you dared to ask or imagine: he forgives your whole debt and allows you and your family to go free! According to the Gospel, this is what God has done for us.

Do you believe this? This is truly at the heart of the message of the New Testament. So if you are carrying a huge burden of guilt on your shoulders, the Gospel says that 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. If you believe this – if you have experienced it – then it’s certainly one huge reason to rejoice.

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

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 his address be? Many would say ‘heaven’, which to a lot of people means a faraway place that we can’t reach until we die.

In contrast to this view, the Old Testament people had a strong sense of God’s presence with Israel, and especially in the Temple in Jerusalem. As long as God was there in the midst of his people, they felt safe and secure; he would protect them from their enemies and from disasters of various kinds. But when the Babylonians came to destroy the city and take the people away into exile, 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 – that God had abandoned them to their fate – and that their sins had caused this terrible situation. For these people, then, verse 17 was very good news: ‘The LORD your God is in your midst’. For Zephaniah to tell them that God was living among them again meant that God had forgiven their sins and was willing to start again with them.

For us as Christians, the good news is even better than that. The traditional gospel reading for Christmas Day tells us 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’! Where does God live? Because of the birth of Jesus, God lives in our neighbourhood; he has come among us as a human being and shared our life. Furthermore, he didn’t leave the neighbourhood when he ascended into heaven: his gift of the Holy Spirit means that he is still with us today.

So what’s God’s address? The answer for us is that God’s address is our house, and our hearts. 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 leave to go home and to go to our places of work tomorrow he will be there ahead of us. He’s not far away, holding himself aloof from us; he has made the decision to become ‘one of us’ – and we rejoice in this good news.

So we rejoice because we are 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).

Apparently God is so excited about us that he sings a song of joy over us; 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 are believers we often transfer this to our relationship with God. We think of ourselves as so unworthy, and so we might be able to force ourselves to believe that God could maybe tolerate us – but surely not to enjoy us, to rejoice over us?

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! God rejoices over 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? Surely the best motivation for me to pray is the knowledge that God made me for the pleasure of knowing me. God is looking forward to spending time in my company – and in your company. It may be hard for you to believe that, but the scripture says it’s true.

So we’ve seen three things we can rejoice in, even in the midst of all the bad stuff that’s going on. First, God freely forgives our sins and welcomes us into his presence. Second, God is not far away from any of us; he became one of us, and he lives in us and among us as we gather together. Third, God rejoices over us and loves spending time in our company. And there’s one more thing Zephaniah wants us to rejoice about: We rejoice because 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 miles 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 exiles in Babylon for the seventy-year period of their captivity – two or three generations, in other words. 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. Politicians and retailers want us to believe that, of course: it makes us more susceptible to the unrealistic promises they make. And maybe for a while we do believe it, but then something happens to shake us up – perhaps a bereavement, or the loss of a job, or the sentence of a terminal illness. Then we realise afresh 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. Now we know the joy of having our sins forgiven. Now we have the joy of knowing that God lives in our hearts and that God lives among us as we meet as Christians. Now we 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 of believers who have gone before us.

So let us now 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 us also remember that this is only the beginning. Let us 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!

‘Why is the Lord’s Coming Delayed?’ (a sermon on 2 Peter 3:1-15a)

For many modern people, the theology of Advent is a hard sell. I think that might be one of the reasons why we prefer to skip it, and get to Christmas as fast as possible.

What do I mean by saying ‘the theology of Advent is a hard sell’? Well, the message of Advent is that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. In other words, we’re telling people that one day that world as we now know it will come to an end in a miraculous way, and be replaced by something new. And the biblical language about this ‘ending’ is very strange to us: it talks about signs in the heavens, the sun being turned to darkness and the moon to blood, and the heavens being folded up like a tent; it talks about the last trumpet sounding, the dead being raised imperishable, and all of us meeting the Lord in the air. And it talks about these events happening ‘soon’; the New Testament authors seem to assume that they are already in ‘the last days’. How is it possible for modern scientific people like us to believe in these kinds of things?

Of course, we know that the earth will not last forever. Scientists tell us that eventually, over a billion years from now, our sun will turn into a red giant, scorching our world into extinction, and it will then collapse into itself and go dark. But this is a scientific theory; it doesn’t involve the intervention of supernatural beings, like angels blowing trumpets. And furthermore, a billion years is a long time, and it’s not very likely that any of us will be around then! So we go about our daily lives, working our jobs and paying our mortgages and paying attention to significant events like the fact that the Edmonton Eskimos won the Grey Cup! And in the same way, even though every week we stand up in church, say the creeds and proclaim our belief that Jesus will ‘come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’, we still make plans for retirement, because deep down inside, we don’t really think he’ll come again any time soon.

And of course, another thing that makes it difficult for us is that Jesus’ return has been predicted so many times before. Back in the 1500s many Protestant theologians claimed that the Pope was the antichrist; in the early 1800s some people said it was Napoleon Bonaparte, and in more recent times people have claimed it was Hitler, Stalin, and even Henry Kissinger! The other day I saw a conversation on Facebook that pointed to the fact that Russia and the European Union are all involved in fighting in Syria and the wider Middle East; apparently this was all predicted in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, and this is evidence that we are now, finally, in the ‘Last Days’! And over and over again, despite Jesus’ warning that ‘no one knows the day or the hour’, there have been preachers who thought they were smarter than him, and who insisted on predicting ‘the day or the hour’ – all in vain, of course.

Well, who wants to keep company with obvious crackpots? If you tell your friends at Starbucks that you believe Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will never end, they’re likely to quietly consign you to the religious lunatic fringe! And so, as I said, the theology of Advent is a hard sell. It’s much safer to move as fast as we can to the child in the manger and the guy in the red suit.

Now, here’s the thing: apparently it was a hard sell in biblical times, too. In our second reading for today, we read that even in the late New Testament period, people had a hard time with it. We’re not exactly sure who wrote the second letter of Peter; it might have been Peter, or it might have been a later follower of his, writing in his name and trying to apply his teaching to the situation in the later years of the first century A.D. But whoever it was, here’s what he says:

First of all, you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation”’ (2 Peter 3:3-4).

This all sounds very contemporary, doesn’t it? The scoffers are saying, “So he promised that he would come again, did he? Well, where is he? Everything’s pretty well carried on as normal for as long as we can remember. So why do you Christians continue to cling on to this foolish notion that he’s coming again? Wake up and smell the coffee; he’s not coming!”

How does Peter respond to this? Well, I’m not going to spend a lot of time this morning with his argument from the story of Noah’s flood. That’s because I expect that if you’re the sort of Christian who has doubts about the second coming of Jesus, you’re probably not sure what to make of the story of Noah’s flood either! But Peter has two other arguments that he wants to share with us, and I think they might be very helpful for us today. Let’s look at them together.

The first argument concerns how God sees time. And here, it helps if you’re a little older.

When we’re young, a summer holiday seems to last forever, and we’re genuinely surprised when school starts again in the Fall; it seems so long since we’ve been there that we can barely remember it! But as we get older, each passing year takes up a smaller and smaller proportion of our life, and so time does indeed seem to get shorter for us. A year, for a six-year old, is one sixth of their life! For a sixty-year old, it’s only a sixtieth, and you might have noticed that it seems ten times shorter as well! So when we old folks tell a young child to be patient and wait for something, it really is harder for them, because it seems a lot longer to them than it does to us!

That being the case, consider these words of Peter:

‘But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day’ (v.8).

Of course this makes total sense. Given that the entire history of the universe is present to God, and that the earth has been around for at least 4.6 billion years, a thousand years is truly as short as a day in the experience of God.

But most theologians would go even further than that. Most theologians would say that even time itself is a creation of God, and that therefore God is outside of time. God doesn’t look forward to the future and somehow ‘foresee’ it; this would mean that the future is fixed, and human choices would be meaningless. Nor does God look ‘back’ on the past, as we do. Rather, the past and the future are all present to God; he sees our life, and the life of the whole earth, as complete, just like a book that I’ve finished reading is totally present to my mind, from beginning to end.

So no, God might not necessarily be delaying. He might just have a very different view of time than we do. But there might be something else in it as well, and here we go on to Peter’s next argument.

The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel tells us that God has no vested interest in the death of a sinner; God would much rather that we turn from our wickedness and live. And that, Peter tells us, is another reason why God is not in a hurry to call the last curtain on the story of the world:

‘The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance’ (v.9).

So this point concerns God’s desire for everyone to repent and return to him. This is sometimes difficult for us, because we tend to think that the Day of Judgement only applies to desperately wicked people: ISIS terrorists, for instance, or child molesters, or other hardened criminals. But we need to be very careful about that way of thinking, and I’ll tell you why. In verse ten Peter says,

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Peter uses the term ‘the day of the Lord’, and I believe that this is the only place in the entire New Testament that this term is used. It comes from the Old Testament, and apparently it was originally used to describe the day when God would take vengeance against the pagan nations who were invading and ravaging Israel. In other words, ‘the day of the Lord’ was a day of judgement on somebody else.

But the prophet Amos turned this idea on its head:

Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? (Amos 5:18-20).

Amos is saying that the ‘day of the Lord’ will not just bring judgement on the enemies of Israel, but on Israel herself as well. It’s not just the pagan nations who have sinned against the Lord; God’s people, too, have been faithless to God, have worshipped false gods, and have oppressed the poor and needy. Do they really think that they will escape God’s judgement just because they bear the name of Israel?

Jesus says the same thing to us as Christians. We believe that in Jesus, God has come and lived among us, and has revealed to us what life is meant to be all about. We have accepted Jesus as our Lord, and in our baptismal covenant we have committed ourselves to obeying him. Well, then, let’s listen to his words:

“That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating, but the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating” (Luke 12:47-48).

In other words, as C.S. Lewis once said, if you’ve receive the light of Christ, you’re playing for higher stakes. We cannot assume that God’s judgement will always fall on someone else! Remember the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. When the King said to the Goats, ‘Depart from me, because I was hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison or naked or a stranger and you didn’t help me’, the goats were surprised; they didn’t remember that. They hadn’t connected the dots; they didn’t realize that in refusing to help the needy they were refusing to help Jesus. So this parable reminds us that there may be some unpleasant surprises on the Day of the Lord.

Are you glad, then, that God has decided to give us more time to repent? I know I am! To be honest, I’ve only done a very half-hearted job of repenting of my sins so far. I’ve gotten far too comfortable each week with saying “we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves”, and then not doing anything about it! The Advent message is meant to be a wake up call to me.

And this, of course, is what Peter says at the end of our reading for today:

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in living lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. (vv.11-15a).

Don’t get distracted by the apocalyptic language about the heavens being set ablaze and the elements dissolving; it’s symbolic, as we said last week, just like when we talk about something being ‘an earth-shaking event’, even though we know that the earth was not literally shaken. In the same way, after 9/11 many people said that we were now living in ‘a different world’, and Peter certainly agrees that the world after the coming of the Day of the Lord will be very different.

But what will the difference be? Peter says, ‘We wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home’ (v.14). What a beautiful phrase! In the world as we know it today, too often it seems that righteousness is not at home. War, injustice, oppression, violence of all kinds, greed and covetousness, hatred and prejudice – you name it, the nightly news reports it. So often, in the world as we know it, people who want to do the will of God feel out of step with those around them. Yes, of course, there are many people of good will out there, and we shouldn’t exaggerate the wickedness of the world, but there’s no doubt that there’s an element of dissonance that we all experience as believers.

Well, Peter says, the new world will be different! In the new world, the law of love for God and love for neighbour will be the way of life we all practice. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control – the fruit of the Spirit – will be completely at home in this new world. Selfishness, greed, lust, hatred – not so much. Which of course is why we need to be weaning ourselves of those sinful habits now. Why would we think we would enjoy the new world, when we haven’t trained ourselves to enjoy it? So that’s our agenda: while we wait for the Lord’s coming, we need to be consciously growing as Christians, daily practising the virtues that will describe our way of life after the Day of the Lord comes.

So yes, we continue to believe that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will never end. And we aren’t worried about the fact that he’s taking a lot longer to fulfil that promise than many people thought he would. Our reading for today ends with Peter telling us that we should ‘regard the patience of the Lord as salvation’ (v.15a). God sees time differently, and he is also delaying the judgement to give everyone as much time as possible to repent and come back to him. This delay is giving the opportunity for salvation for many more people.

Including me. And this is where I must end. The New Testament is clear that believers have no room for presumption. Am I at peace with God, living at peace with my neighbours, living a life of holiness and godliness, and waiting patiently for the Lord’s promise to be fulfilled? If I’m not, then I can be thankful that the day of the Lord is being delayed! But I must not presume on this; I must respond to God’s call. And I must not delay this; I must give it my best attention, today and every day.

Does this sound negative? It isn’t. In the last two verses of this letter, which we didn’t read as part of our reading today, Peter says this:

‘You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (vv.17-18).

‘Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’. There’s a text for us to chew on! Don’t get complacent; don’t be satisfied with mediocrity; don’t think there’s nothing more for you to learn, or no further progress for you to make in holiness and love. ‘Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’. That’s the agenda for us as followers of Jesus. That’s what we should be doing while we wait for the promises of Advent to be fulfilled. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.