The Meaning of Christmas

I believe with all my heart that at a certain point in history, the Word of God became a human being and lived among us as one of us. I believe he showed us by his life and teaching what God is like. I believe he infected the human race with the love of God in a new and unique way, and this good infection has been spreading ever since. And because I believe this, I love Advent and Christmas with a passion! It is my favourite time of the year!

‘Remove Those Things That Hinder Love of You’ (a sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent)

Many years ago I read a hilarious comedy piece about what the writer called ‘the progress of the common cold in a marriage.’ The way it goes, in the first year, when one of the newlywed spouses gets a cold, the other one waits on them hand and foot, gives them limitless sympathy, prepares the meals, makes sure the house is warm, and thoroughly spoils them. But of course, eventually the ardor dies down, and by year seven, when one of the spouses gets a cold, all the other one can think about is how their coughing is so noisy and how it makes it impossible for either of them to get any sleep!

Those of us who are married probably recognize ourselves in this story! When we got married we were fathoms deep in love, but it’s physically impossible for the human body to sustain those all-engrossing feelings for a long period of time. I’m not saying we fall out of love with each—although this can happen. But we know from experience that as marriage progresses, love is much more a matter of decisionthan of feeling. In fact, the more we make faithful, loving decisions, the more likely it is that new feelings will grow—and they’ll be deeper and longer-lasting, too.

And the same thing happens in our relationship with God. Our Collect, or special prayer, for the Third Sunday of Advent mentions ‘things which hinder love of God’. Let’s look at it again:

God of power and mercy, you call us once again to celebrate the coming of your Son. Remove those things that hinder love of you, that when he comes, he may find us waiting in awe and wonder for him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Our relationship with God is a relationship of love. I need to say right off the bat that it’s unlike any other relationship we have. To state the obvious, we can’t discover God with our senses. We can’t see God, or hear his voice, or feel the warmth of his embrace. Of course, many Christians claim to have felt the presence of God—a sense of joy deep inside, a peace that sustains them through difficulties, a strong sense of being guided to do something, and so on. But we can’t make that happen. We can put ourselves in the place where it can happen, but in the end, it’s up to God whether or not he gives us any sense that he’s near. Sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t, and we don’t always know why.

But there are things we can do to hinder that relationship with God, and so in our prayer today we ask God to remove those things from us. What we’re really asking God to do is to help us repent, but the problem is that people often hear that word ‘repent’ in a negative sense. During Advent we hear a lot about John the Baptist, standing on the banks of the River Jordan, thundering out the call to ‘repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.’ But do you sometimes get the sense you’re not going to enjoythe repentance? The sense that God’s going to ask you to give up some really good things, things you’re quite attached to, things you’d rather hang on to, if it’s all the same to God?

So we hear the call to repentance as a negative thing, because we don’t set it in the context of the most amazing privilege anyone can ever have: the privilege of knowing and being known by their Creator. To put it another way, we hear the call to repentance as a negative thing because we don’t ask ourselves the question whywe’re being called to repent. Our Collect sets out three reasons: first, because we want to grow in our love relationship with God; second, because the day is coming when Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and third,  because we want to be able to greet him on that day with awe and wonder, not with fear and shame.

Remember what we said on the first Sunday of Advent: we’re living in ‘in between time’. We’re looking back on the first coming of Jesus into the world, when the eternal Word of God took our humanity on himself and became one of us, to live and die and rise again to reconcile us to God. In Christian theology we call this the ‘Incarnation’, a Latin word that means ‘taking flesh’ or ‘taking a body’. One of our Eucharistic prayers says, ‘In the fulness of time, you sent your Son Jesus Christ, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.’

This is really the centre of our Christian faith: the story of how God loved us so much that he became one of us in Jesus. The life of God has come among us and has started to spread; C.S. Lewis says it’s like a ‘good infection’, passed on from one person to another by faith and baptism. We’re here today because we caught that good infection somehow; it might have been recently, or it might have been a long time ago. The good infection doesn’t make us sick; on the contrary, it heals us from all that spoils our true life with God. If we let it do its work—if we don’t put barriers in its way, ‘things which hinder love of God’—then it will gradually make us more and more like Jesus Christ, until our whole life is transformed into his image. This is the amazing miracle of Christmas: that the same Jesus who was born in Bethlehem also is born in us, grows in us, and makes us one with him.

So we look back on that first coming, when the whole movement started, when the good infection began to spread. But we also look ahead to a future coming. The collect says, ‘Remove those things that hinder love of you, that when he comes, he may find us waiting with awe and wonder for him.’ ‘When he comes’; this is the event we proclaim every week in the creeds: ‘He will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’

Actually, it’s not quite accurate to call it a ‘coming’, because Jesus has never really left. The word the New Testament authors use is ‘parousia’, which means, ‘appearing’. I like that word. It tells us that Jesus is still at work in the world in an invisible way, by his Spirit. But one day he will be revealed, on what the New Testament authors call ‘the day of his appearing’. And we have a choice about whether or not that’s a happy day for us. Will we shrink from his appearing, with shame and fear, or will we be waiting for him with awe and wonder?

I’m not sure how common it is in these days, but there was a phrase that moms used to use to scare kids in years gone by, in the days when most moms stayed home and dads went out to work. I wonder if any of you ever heard it? You’d done something really bad, and you knew you were really going to suffer for it, but then your mom came up with a really cruel way to make your suffering last all day long: she said, “Wait till your father gets home!” Oh bummer! That just spoiled the whole day! Why couldn’t she just administer the punishment and get it over with? But no, this was a crime so heinous that only dad was equal to the task of punishing you for it!

Some people have heard the Gospel in those terms—God as an angry schoolmaster, Jesus as a strict judge—and the message is: repent, or you’ll burn in hell forever. In other words, that message uses fear to scare us into the Kingdom of God. All very well, I suppose, but in one of his letters the old apostle John tells us ‘perfect love casts out fear.’ So isn’t it better to change because we love Jesus so much, rather than because we’re afraid of him?

Let’s go back to the marriage illustration we started with. We know there are people who only start working on improving their marriages when thing have gotten so bad that they’re afraid they’re going to lose their spouse—that the marriage will be over. In other words, they start making changes out of fear. And if that’s the way it’s got to be, fair enough, but wouldn’t it have been better if they’d made those changes much earlier, because they caught a vision of how good a good marriage could really be?

That’s why I love those words ‘awe and wonder’. I think about the expressions on children’s faces when they look at a fully decorated Christmas tree with all the lights twinkling away and all the gifts stacked underneath. ‘Awe and wonder’ aren’t nearly strong enough to describe it, are they? And I’m reminded of the story of a man who went to hear Handel’s Messiah with his grandfather. The time came for the Hallelujah chorus, and everyone stood, as is the custom, for those amazing words: ‘King of kings, and Lord of Lords, and he shall reign for ever and ever.’ The man looked at his grandfather and was surprised to see tears running down his face. “That’s my Saviour they’re singing about!” the old man said. There you have it: awe and wonder and love.

This is why we repent: because we want the good infection of Christ to do its work without hindrance, transforming us into Christ’s image and likeness. And so we turn away from those things that hinder love of him, so that we can come closer and closer to his incredible vision for us: a life totally transformed by love.

What things? Well, we’ve already given ourselves a big clue by using the word ‘love’. Jesus tells us that love of God and love of neighbour is the meaning of life—always remembering that the word used in the language the Bible was written in means love as an action and a decision, not love as a feeling. If we wait for the feeling to come, sometimes we wait forever. But if out of obedience to God we do the loving actions and make the loving decisions, sometimes the feeling surprises us by sneaking up on us when we were least expecting it.

What hinders love? If love is generosity and self-giving, the opposite of love is selfishness and self-centredness. These things will kill love every time. If I love God, then God will be the centre of my world, and I will want above all else to get to know God better and get a clearer picture of what God is like. So I’ll take time to pray, to listen to his voice in the Bible and the silences of prayer, and ask his help to do the things he teaches me. And the primary thing, of course, is to love my neighbour as myself, so I’ll make it my business to find more and more ways of being a blessing to the people God has put into my life, including the ones far away, the ones I’ll never meet, who I can help through the wonders of modern technology.

Selfishness spoils all this. Selfishness says my whole life is about me and what I want, so I’ll reject God’s will and the good of my neighbour and spend all my time on my own agenda. I’ll want to grow bigger but I’ll end up becoming smaller, because my vision is too small to be worthy of me. Selfishness and self-centredness are great vaccines against the good infection; the problem is that in the end they kill you.

So this week we pray that God will remove selfishness and self-centredness from us. Which brings up one last tricky question: aren’t we supposed to be doing something about that ourselves? Aren’t we dodging our responsibilities here by asking God to do it?

No, we aren’t, because the truth is that any good thing we do can only be done with God’s help. Yes, we make a decision to do what he’s asking of us, but if he doesn’t help us, we’ll fall flat on our face. So it’s not an either-or; it’s a both-and. Yes, we respond to God’s call to repent and remove those things that hinder love of him. Yes, we ask him to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, so that our feeble human strength is increased by his divine power.

I don’t know about you, but I’m thrilled by those words ‘awe and wonder’. Think of how awesome God must be—far above anything we can imagine! Think about how full of love Jesus is, and how he reaches out to all who need his love. I’m looking forward to getting closer to him, and I’m looking forward to the day when he comes and we’ll be able to see him face to face (don’t ask me how that’s possible, by the way—I’m content to leave that one in God’s hands!).

Let’s close by saying this prayer again, and saying it from our hearts:

God of power and mercy, you call us once again to celebrate the coming of your Son. Remove those things that hinder love of you, that when he comes, he may find us waiting in awe and wonder for him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Cast Away the Works of Darkness (a sermon for Advent Sunday)

We’re in the middle of a season of getting ready right now, and if you’re taking your cues from the retail industry, your mind has been on Christmas since before Remembrance Day. The joys of Christmas are on everyone’s mind: presents to buy, cards to send, parties to arrange, visits to plan, food to prepare, turkeys to stuff and so on. Personally, I love Advent and Christmas, so I’m a sucker for all this stuff.

However, if we’re taking our cues from the scriptures and from our church calendar, there’s another type of preparedness that should also be on our minds. It tends to get lost these days, because the Christmas season starts earlier and earlier, and so we forget that Advent is not the same as Christmas. Advent isn’t just about looking forward to the manger at Bethlehem, and the shepherds and the wise men and all that. In Advent we’re not just putting ourselves back into the Old Testament and looking forward to the coming of the Messiah; we’re looking forward to our own future, too. The Creed says, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’. The Christian church teaches us that if there’s a judgement coming, then it’s wise to spend some time getting ready for it. And it’s wise not to put it off; usually it’s not smart to start your studying for the final exam the night before.

In the Anglican tradition we have specific prayers set for each of the Sundays of the church year, one for each Sunday and holy day. We call them ‘collects’, because they collect together the themes of our scriptures into short, pithy little prayers that we can easily memorize. It used to be the tradition in the Anglican Church that the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent was repeated on every Sunday of the Advent season until Christmas Eve, and so it was especially easy to memorize, as you heard it again and again through the four weeks of Advent, year after year. I’m going to read it to you again, but I’m going to use the version found in the old Book of Common Prayer, which is slightly different from our B.A.S. version. 

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, now and ever. Amen.  (BCP)

This prayer helps us think about two questions, and you might think at first that they’re a little strange. The first question is, ‘What time is it?’ We have to answer that one first, because the second depends on it: ‘Okay, given the time, what should we be doing about it?’

The answer to the question ‘What time is it?’ is ‘It’s in-between time’. In between what? In between two comings of Jesus. The Collect describes them for us. There’s his first coming, which is the theme of Christmas; the Collect refers to this as ‘the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’. Viewed chronologically, of course, that coming is behind us, in the past. But there’s another coming, which is still ahead, on ‘the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the living and the dead’, the time when ‘we may rise to the life immortal’. The Collect contrasts these two comings: long ago, Jesus came to visit us ‘in great humility’, but when he comes again, it will be ‘in glorious majesty’. Furthermore, at his first coming, he entered ‘this mortal life’, but at his second coming we will ‘rise to the life immortal’.

What does the Collect teach us about these two comings? One of the reasons I like the old prayer book version is that it uses the word ‘visit’. The B.A.S. says ‘when your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility’, but the prayer book has ‘in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’.

Why is this important? Well, if you read the Bible, especially in the King James Version, you’ll notice that a visit from God is always a significant thing. He never shows up empty-handed; he always brings something with him. It might be plague and suffering and judgement, or it might be blessing and salvation. So in Jeremiah 9:9 the Lord sees all the wickedness of his people and says, ‘Shall I not visit them for these things, says the Lord? Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?’ And in Ruth 1:6 old Naomi hears that the famine is over in Israel, because the Lord has visited his people and given them bread.

So what’s this visit at Christmas time all about? Well, in Luke 1:68 old Zechariah reflects on it; he says, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people’, or, in a modern version, ‘he has come to his people and set them free’. This is definitely a visit to bring blessing. This is a wonderful visit!

But how did he come? The Collect says, ‘in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’. This reminds me of what Paul has to say in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians:

‘Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (vv.5-8).

This is what Christmas is about: Jesus shares the divine nature—he is equal with God—but he lays aside all his divine prerogatives. The one through whom all things were created humbles himself to become part of his creation; the one who is immortal by nature puts on mortality, and goes on to become obedient to the point of death on a cruel cross. And he does all this out of love, to serve his creation, to show us what God is like, to show us God’s will for our human life, and to deliver us from sin and death.

So we stand in time after this first great event; we live on what C.S. Lewis calls ‘the visited planet’. But we also look forward to a future event. The collect speaks of ‘the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the living and the dead’.

Strangely enough, this is actually a message of hope. We live in a time when the power of evil seems enormous. I’m not just talking about the fact that terrorists can commit outrageous acts, even murdering thousands of people in one go. I’m talking about the fact that the world economic system seems to be set up in such a way as to provide cheap goods to the richest people on the planet, while denying the poorest people on the planet the right to a fair living wage. I’m talking about the fact that in the average multinational corporation the highest paid individual in the company earns more than three hundred times what the lowest paid individual earns. I’m talking about the fact that the single most common category of websites on the Internet is pornography.

These are just a few of the symptoms of the power of evil in the world today. In the face of such great evil, I’m always surprised when people tell me they don’t like the message of God’s judgement. Surely the message of God’s judgement brings hope! It tells us the day is coming when God will bring this evil to an end. God cares! He cares about the children who have been stolen from their homes and forced to become child soldiers; he cares about the children who never had a chance because they were born in refugee camps where there was never enough food to go around; he cares about the people who spend their lives slaving away for starvation wages growing cash crops for people who live thousands of miles away.

God is not prepared for this state of affairs to continue. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says the day will come when the king will sit on his glorious throne and gather the nations before him, and he will separate them into two groups as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. On one side will be those who recognized Jesus in the hungry and thirsty, in those who have no clothes to wear, in those who are sick or are refugees or immigrants or prisoners; their conduct will be affirmed and rewarded. On the other side will be those who had the opportunity to do good for all these people and refused to do so; their conduct will be judged.

This is our Advent hope: that the last word will not go to the forces of cruelty and hatred, selfishness and prejudice. The last word will go to God, and Jesus teaches us that the vital evidence of our faith in him will be practical love. And so the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed will be the only reality in God’s creation, and the prayer we have prayed for the last two thousand years will finally be fully answered: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

So this is the in-between time we live in. We look back on that first coming, when God’s Son Jesus Christ ‘came to visit us in great humility’. And we look forward to ‘the last day, when he will come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead’. On that day, every one of us hopes to be among the number of the saints who will ‘rise to the life immortal’, as the prayer says.

So as we look back on Christ’s first coming and look forward to the day when ‘he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end, what should we be doing’? The prayer says, ‘Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light’. What’s that all about?

When Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote this prayer for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, it was immediately followed by a slightly longer version of our reading from Romans this morning. We read Romans 13.11-14, but in the Book of Common Prayer the epistle is 13.8-14. Here it is in full:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

So you can see where Cranmer got the language about casting away the works of darkness and putting on the armour of light. I like the way the New Living Translation puts it: ‘So remove your dark deeds like dirty clothes, and put on the shining armour of right living’.

The dirty clothes are plain enough: again, here they are in the New Living Translation: ‘Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarrelling and jealousy…Don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires’ (vv. 13b, 14b). But the armour turns out to be something of a surprise. ‘Armour’ is a military image, so we might think of it as being something like courage, or strength, or self-discipline. But once again, what Paul actually focuses on is love. All the commandments, he says, ‘are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’ (vv.9-10).

We’re back with the sheep and the goats, aren’t we? The sheep are the ones who notice the suffering of others, and then do what they can to help. Love isn’t just a warm fuzzy and it’s definitely not just words; it’s being there for others, spending time with them, doing what we can to be a blessing to them, whether we especially like them or not, whether we feel like it or not. This is what God is like; the Old Testament talks about his chesed, a Hebrew word that our New Revised Standard Version translates excellently as his ‘steadfast love’. I like that word ‘steadfast’: love you can depend on, love that’s unconditional, love that never gives up. That’s what we’re called to imitate.

Shall we pray this prayer through the Advent season? Shall we remember how God’s Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility? Shall we look forward to the day when he will come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead? Shall we ask God to help us to cast away the works of darkness like dirty old clothes, and put on the new life of steadfast love?Are you ready to pray that prayer, and to expect God to answer it?

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in 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 forever. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where we come in.

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

One of our Christmas readings contains these words:

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

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

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

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

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

Are you in? Are you all in?

Let’s pray about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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