“YOU’RE BLESSED WHEN …”

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

TEXT: Matthew 5:1-12

A few years ago, television stations ran a series of commercials for Capitol One MasterCard. You may remember them. They had a memorable punch line: “What’s in your wallet?”

Stuck vacationing in tropical storm season because your credit card bonus miles don’t apply at peak travel times? “What’s in your wallet?” Obviously not a Capitol One MasterCard!

Attacked by marauding barbarians while shopping at the mall? You can stop them dead in their tracks by pulling out your Capitol One card.

 “What’s in your wallet?” Those commercials—and that question—always made me think about what I carry with me. Not just in my wallet, but in my briefcase, or in my car, or on my person:

  • Keys
  • Cell phone.
  • Various kinds of photo ID.
  • Face mask for pandemic protection.

It’s exhausting just thinking about it all! Exhausting because, as hard as I try, there is no way to adequately prepare for everything the world throws at me.

Beyond the tangible things we carry, we carry intangible things, as well. And I think these are the things that can really wear us down. We might call them burdens—or worries, or doubts, or just plain fears.

  • Your child is late coming home from school … has something happened?
  • There are 10 messages on voice mail … that can’t be good!
  • A family member is hospitalized.
  • A national tragedy heightens our anxiety and grieves our spirits.
  • The bills are piling up, and we’re being stretched so thin that we feel we’re about to snap!

We all carry burdens. Yet some of us stagger and stumble to a much greater degree than others.

Have you ever noticed how some people can endure and even surpass the most incredibly difficult times in their lives? Why is that? How is it that some people thrive despite all the obstacles they encounter? And how is it that others are so easily crushed—broken, even—by the smallest of difficulties?

Well, Jesus has something to say to us about that. Listen to the first 12 verses of Matthew, chapter five—this time from Eugene Peterson’s wonderful paraphrase, The Message:

When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”

The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.” Not just when you’re content, or caring, or being a peacemaker.

You’re blessed when you’re starved for God.

You’re blessed when you’ve lost something dear; when you’re persecuted and insulted and lied about.

Do you understand what Jesus is saying here? He tells us that no matter what situation claims us—for better or for worse—we are blessed.

We are blessed even when we think we’re at a dead end. We are blessed even during times of deepest despair. We are blessed in the midst of frustrations, and calamity, and heartbreak.

How can this be? How can Jesus say we are blessed in times of trouble? Because God—the Holy One, the One who created you and fills you with all that is good and life-giving—is always present.

If you’re old enough to have seen those “NOOMA” videos which were popular at the turn of the century,  you may remember the first film in the series.* It’s called “Rain”—and in it, Rob Bell tells a story about carrying his one-year-old son through a violent storm. For the child, the storm is terrifying. All he can see around him is chaos—swaying trees, and lightning. All he can hear is thunder and rushing wind. All he can feel is the drenching rain.

But Rob Bell holds his son close to his heart, as together they proceed through the tempest. And all the while, he whispers in the child’s ear: “I love you, buddy … We’re gonna make it … Dad knows the way home.”

God promises to carry you through the storms and struggles of life, as well as through its celebrations and triumphs. You are blessed with a love so fierce, so faithful, that even in the darkest of times, light will shine upon you—light that clarifies, reveals, and supports you.

You will recognize it because the tables will be turned. You will be carried beyond what you have known, to a new future—a hopeful future, a future that is touched by the holy.

It may happen in the company of a friend or a stranger. It may be words offered at just the right time. Or you may wake up one day and realize that something you have deeply longed for has indeed come true. Other times, there will be those surprising, amazing coincidences that occur which are all about mystery—holy mystery. And through events such as these, you will receive what you need most.

We will carry burdens. We will travel through storms. As Rob Bell says, it always rains in our lives. There are always storms. There are always burdens.

But in the midst of all that, blessings are given. They come from beyond us, and they are gifts. Blessings come to us and bring contentment, and joy, and well-being. The most profound blessings take away the heaviness of our burdens and the sting of our injuries. They encourage us to live in hope, to seek wholeness, and to rest in the promises of God that all will be well.

Julian of Norwich—who was a medieval English nun and mystic—is known for this quote: “All shall be well; and all shall be well; and all manner of things shall be well.” In her life, Julian realized that if “God made it, God loves it, and God keeps it.” She understood each day as a blessing from God.

Julian lived through some of the most horrific times of the 14th century—including the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War. Yet her theology is one of indestructible hopefulness. She insisted that God is not known as we wait for visions and ecstasies, but rather as we wait on God through relentless prayer and diligent study. Although she lived in a time of turmoil, Julian was optimistic, speaking about joy and compassion even in the midst of suffering. For Julian, suffering was not a punishment that God inflicted, but an occasion for God’s love to be demonstrated.

So I think maybe Capital One is missing the point. Maybe it’s not at all about what we carry—or what we feel the need to carry. Here’s what I think: it’s all about the One who carries us—beyond what is, to what will be.

May the God of new life—shown to the world in Jesus—continue to carry you and embrace you through all that is before you. “All shall be well” is the promise God invites you to rest upon. May it indeed be so—for you, for me, for all of us. Amen.

_____________________

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loFBGdeXGtg&list=PLtgOv2atkYik3oul9QWbLdqVJDOU3qwut

“If the lights are on, why is it so dark?”

Third Sunday After  the Epiphany

TEXTS: Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23

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

And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19)

At the heart of the Christian proclamation is the assertion that God in Christ has shined a heavenly light in the midst of a dark world. Our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah reflects this belief. It says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Israel’s existence was always tenuous. Most of Israel’s history was lived out in the shadows of giants like Egypt, Persia and Assyria—the superpowers of their day. Not exactly a comfortable—or secure—place to be!

But God shined a light of hope in their darkness, and promised them a Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth came as the fulfillment of that promise. He was the light of God made flesh.

Matthew’s Gospel records how Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophesy. He came announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God. He preached. He taught. He healed. He called people to discipleship—and shined the light of God in their dark lives.

You may recall what another gospel writer—John—said about that: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” (John 1:5)

The light of God—the light of Christ—still shines! And so we, the people of God, the Church of Christ, still proclaim that message. We celebrate the fact that God has shined heavenly light in the midst of our dark earthly existences. We affirm that God still shines the light of his love and grace upon those who dwell in darkness. We proclaim that in Christ God brings joy and peace and forgiveness and grace to those who will believe.

That assertion—that God has shined light on us—is at the heart of all we say and do as Christian people. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

The world still needs that light. This world needs it because it still dwells in darkness. If you don’t believe me, just open your eyes!

Sometimes the problem with we Christians is that we don’t open our eyes to see the darkness. We close our eyes to reality and go around saying, “all is peace and joy and love,” and we don’t see the darkness all around us. Perhaps we have spent so much time talking about the light that we have forgotten about the darkness. But if our eyes are not open to see the darkness, then how can we see the light shine?

We live in a desperate world, filled with injustice. People kill and are killed for drugs in one country—and for bread in another. Individuals everywhere live under the oppression of alcohol and opiates and domestic violence. Toxic ideologies enslave nations, and millions face starvation worldwide. Every day, multitudes perish from diseases that are preventable and curable. Why? Because they cannot afford the medicine.

We send peacekeepers all over the world, but wars persist. Tyrants kill and terrorize, as diplomacy proves futile. War continues to ravage Ukraine. Tensions rise in “hot spots” around the globe.

Earth is a gloomy place. There is no denying that. It is a world filled with the darkness of murder, oppression, and hatred in all its forms. The world needs the light of Christ!

What I want to know is this: If the lights are on, why is it still so dark? If the light of the world has indeed come, why is there so much darkness? There seems to be a basic incongruity between our faith and the reality of the world.

We Christians believe that the light has shined in the darkness. We say that Christ is the light of the world. But reality shows us that darkness still appears to be the order of the day.

This is an important question. We can’t simply dismiss it, and refuse to acknowledge the darkness out there. This is an important question because it recognizes the reality of human life and seeks to apply the Gospel to it. We need to begin to understand why the darkness persists even though Christ has come. Then we can begin to shine God’s light in that darkness.

So, again I ask: If the lights are on, why is it still so dark? Consider once again our gospel lesson from chapter four of Matthew:

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake … From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matt. 4:12-13a, 17)

Jesus had been born about 30 years before. The light had already come into the world. But the powers of darkness still ruled. When Herod threw John the Baptist in jail, that was just another example of the pervasiveness of the darkness.

The light had come into the world, but the world still did not see it. So Jesus began showing it to them. He taught and preached to help enlighten people’s hearts. He demonstrated the power of God through healings and miracles. He showed them that the world was in the hands of a loving and gracious God.

However, Jesus did not accomplish this by himself. He called ordinary people to follow him. The light of God’s Kingdom had come, and they were to help him spread the good news.

Oh, to be sure, there was still plenty of darkness left when those first disciples died—but through Christ each one of them brought light to someone. Dark lives were enlightened through their ministry. The Book of Acts is full of stories about that. Stories like:

  • The lame beggar who was healed through the ministry of Peter and John (3:1-10);
  • The Ethiopian official whom Philip baptized in the desert (8:26-38);
  • Dorcas (or Tabitha), whom Peter prayed back to life (9:36-41);
  • Cornelius, the Roman centurion (10:1-48);
  • Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul of Cyprus (13:4-12);
  • The Philippian jailer and his family (16:25-34);

Not to mention the “3,000 souls” added to the church at Pentecost (2:41)! All these were given new life in Christ through the efforts of those earliest disciples. And that was only the beginning; there have been 20 centuries of light since then.

We live in a dark world. That is the truth. But it is also the truth that God has shined a light in that darkness. Every single one of us who has experienced that forgiveness and salvation of God—every single one of us has seen that light!

The light is here, and it enlightens and brightens human lives. But there are still so many who miss it. People have shut their eyes to the darkness and so they fail to see the light. So, my word to you today is: shine that light! Follow the example of Jesus’ earliest disciples:

  • Show God’s love to those around you;
  • Shine the light of hope in the midst of someone else’s hopelessness;
  • Dispel the darkness of prejudice and hatred with the light of love that God has given you.

Christ came into the darkness of our lives and our world to bring light. And he called people—just regular people like you and me—to draw attention to that light. God is asking you to be a part of Christ’s ministry—calling you to shine light in the darkness.

So, answer the call! Open your eyes to the darkness around you, then shine the light of Christ in it. You can do it—because you do have the light! You can do it—because the light of Christ in you is more powerful than the darkness can ever be.

Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

“COME AND SEE”

Second Sunday After the Epiphany

The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). 

—John 1:29-42 (ESV)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

Today’s passage from John is jam-packed with proclamation, with imagery, with narrative. I see at least five major themes in these 13 verses of Scripture:

  • First, John the Baptist sees Jesus coming toward him and proclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God.”
  • Second, John reminds us that he baptized his cousin Jesus, and that the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove.
  • Third, John testifies that Jesus is the very Son of God.
  • Then, two disciples call Jesus rabbi—or “teacher”—and ask him, “Where are you staying?” And Jesus responds with a simple invitation: “Come and see.”
  • Finally, we have a recounting of the story of Andrew and Peter deciding to follow Jesus and saying, “We have found the Messiah.”

There’s sufficient material here to fuel many blog posts, not just one! And the theological assertions in today’s gospel reading are profound:

  • “Here is the Lamb of God” …
  • “This is the Son of God” … and …
  • “We have found the Messiah.”

At least, I find those assertions profound. They make me want to ask Jesus not just “Where are you staying?” as the disciples did, but also:

  • “What exactly are you up to?”
  • “What is your purpose?” or even
  • “What do you want from me?”

But to all such questions, I think Jesus would respond with the same invitation: “Come and see.”

  • Who exactly is this Lamb of God? “Come and see.”
  • Who is the true Messiah? “Come and see.”
  • Why should we follow you, Jesus? “Come and see.”

It is as if Jesus is saying, “Why not give discipleship a try?”

This is a difficult thing for us in the 21st century, isn’t it? We are sophisticated people. We know that the choice to follow Jesus is a huge life decision. Discipleship requires commitment. It demands hard work and sacrifice. And as a consequence, we want that choice to be an informed choice.

For most of us, making a major life decision is an arduous and prolonged process. We need time to do research, to consult experts, to ask the opinion of friends. We may consult Consumer Reports before buying a car. We look at Google Reviews when considering a toaster. In medicine nowadays, doctors are very careful to secure your “informed consent” before even a minor procedure, and modern pharmaceuticals come with extensive warnings about their potential side effects.

So we thoughtfully weigh the options. We search for information online or in books, and we begin to compile a list of pros and cons—of positives and negatives. What are the benefits, and what are the risks? I’m sure we’ve all done this at one time or another. Using a process like this, we may have decided to buy a house, or change a career, or move to another city.

Now, I’m not saying this is wrong. Making informed decisions is a good idea. It helps us to avoid making some pretty big mistakes. If we think things through carefully, we can save ourselves a lot of grief. However, I find myself wondering whether our modern habit—of “doing our homework” so thoroughly—may be one of the reasons why so few people undertake serious discipleship.

I mean, let’s consider the pros and cons. If we choose to become disciples of Jesus, then we will be expected to work harder than we ever imagined, to give more than we ever thought possible, and to surrender control over our very own lives.

And what do we get in return?

This is where the invitation to “come and see” becomes pivotal. Because, on the face of it, we get nothing—at least, nothing the world would consider a “gift.” What we get is just more work; more need requiring us to give; and more and more opportunities to surrender our own agendas in favor of God’s agenda.

But that’s because the gift of God’s grace is free, and is offered to everyone without condition. There’s nothing anyone can do to earn it, or to deserve it. And in our transactional world, this just does not seem like a good deal!

No. In our world things go more like: “First I give this, and then I get that in exchange.”

That’s how it’s supposed to work, right? But the gifts of God’s mercy, and love, and grace … they are just not like that. They are given to us freely, without any strings attached. So, if we choose to become disciples of Jesus—and to give our time, and our talent, and our treasure—what do we get for all our trouble?

“Come and see.”

The values of Jesus—the values of Christian discipleship—run counter to the way in which the world assesses value. You really have to immerse yourself in discipleship before you can even begin to understand.

The world cherishes wealth. The world esteems power. The world treasures control. But the gospel calls us to love the poor and serve the needy, without condition. And the gospel compels us to surrender our drive for power and give up our need for control. And what are the potential consequences of that?

“Come and see.”

The Saviour of the world is also the one of whom the Scriptures say: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3a, ESV). That certainly doesn’t sound like someone who’s destined for success or greatness, does it?

The spiritual life is full of paradoxes—full of those seeming contradictions which actually express a deeper spiritual reality. Paradoxes such as: gaining your life by losing your life—or discovering true abundance by giving away your possessions.

Discipleship calls us to become followers of the all-powerful One who emptied himself of power. You really need to “come and see” in order to understand—or to even begin to understand.

For example, without regular experience of fellowship in a specific congregation, Sunday worship may seem like nothing more than empty ritual. So … instead of “church hopping” … or “church shopping” …

Pick a church. Stick there for a while.

“Come and see”—regularly, again and again. As the Letter to the Hebrews says: “Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near (Heb. 10:25, CEB*).

Without an ongoing discipline of prayer, our conversations with God can seem hopelessly one-sided. So …

“Come and see”—regularly, again and again. As the apostle Paul advised the Colossians: Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2, ESV).

Without personal sacrifice, our lives can become meaningless, focused more upon the accumulation of material goods than upon sharing the love of God.

So, “Come and see.”  Come and see the Lamb of God, on whom the Spirit descended like a dove. Come and see Jesus the rabbi, who teaches us the way of salvation.

Come and see Andrew and Simon Peter, who drop their nets and leave behind everything to follow Jesus.

“Come and see.”

Just as the invitation was offered to those first disciples so many centuries ago, it is offered to us once again, today.

Come and see—and be enriched in Christ.

Come and see—and learn once again that God is faithful, and that you are called into the fellowship of God’s Son.

Come and see—so that you, also, can declare with confidence, “We have found the Messiah.”

_____________

* Common English Bible (CEB) Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible

WHEN GOD IS REVEALED

Epiphany and Baptism of Jesus

TEXTS: Matthew 2:1-12 and Matthew 3:13-17

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:1-2)

Today’s first gospel reading is, of course, the familiar reading for Epiphany Day (which was Friday, January 6). It’s the story of the “three kings” who “traverse afar” to visit the baby Jesus in his rude manger in the stable in Bethlehem. Except, of course, if we read the Scripture text carefully, we see that they are not referred to there as kings, it does not say there were three of them, and they visited Jesus in “a house,” not a stable.

No matter. However many of them there were, they did visit Jesus, they did bring him gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and they did travel a long distance to see him. These “wise men” (or Magi) were most likely from Persia, and might have been on the road for as long as two years before they got to Jesus, who almost certainly was not an infant any longer by the time they saw him.

Then there’s our other gospel text for this morning, which is Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.  And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

This second reading the assigned gospel text for the First Sunday After the Epiphany, which is known in the church calendar as “Baptism of Christ Sunday.”

So, is there a reason for using both texts today? (I mean, besides wanting to sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”)

Yes, there is. In fact, there are a couple of good reasons. First, both Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ are important festival days in the church year. Epiphany is held in such esteem that many Christians celebrate it with a church service and a family celebration, no matter what day of the week it happens to fall on.

And as for the Baptism of Christ—well, there is an ancient tradition (still emphasized by the eastern church) which says that it was at the moment of his baptism that Jesus finally understood who he was.

Do you see what I mean? It was at the moment of his baptism that Jesus the carpenter’s son finally got it—finally understood, in a flash of brilliant clarity, just who he was in the eyes of God! Understood his vocation. Understood what God was calling him to do.

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (as the heavenly voice says in Mark 1:11).

It is in relation to this flash of insight—this revelation—that we come to the second reason for celebrating both days in this one blog. For it is the idea of revelation—of revealing or illuminating or uncovering something—which connects Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ.

The word epiphany means “a revealing,” or “an illumination.” In the story of the Magi’s visit to Jesus, a whole bunch of things get revealed. Traditionally, the big thing that happens is that Christ is made known to the gentiles—because, of course, the wise men were not Jews. But a whole lot of other things come to light, too.

First, the Magi—who have come to the royal court in Jerusalem because that seems like a logical place to look for a newborn king—find out that the incumbent king has no idea what they’re talking about. And so it’s up to the scribes to inform King Herod, who is none too pleased to discover that God is about to overthrow his dynasty. Nevertheless, Herod points the wise men toward Bethlehem, secretly hoping they will lead him to the child so he can destroy it.

The Magi make their way to Jesus, and must have been surprised to discover him in relatively humble surroundings (which ought to have revealed to them that when God makes a King, he doesn’t throw in a royal palace or an earthly throne). I think Mary and Joseph must have been surprised, too; it’s not every day that an ordinary person gets a chest of gold at a baby shower!

Of course, the final revelation to the wise men comes in the form of a divine warning delivered in a dream: “Don’t go back to King Herod—the guy is bad news!”

Now, fast-forward about 30 years. John the Baptist, a charismatic preacher and desert mystic, has been moving about the Judean countryside, stirring people up with his hellfire-and-brimstone sermons and baptizing them by immersion in the Jordan River.

The child whom the wise ones visited has now grown up. And the man Jesus, moved by the Baptist’s preaching, comes to the riverbank to be baptized. John obliges him, plunging him into the cold, running water. And then there is this amazing, dramatic moment when everything becomes clear as crystal. As Jesus comes up out of the water, he hears the voice of God, claiming his as His own Son.

Then, right away—at the beginning of chapter four—the next paragraph begins with the words: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1).  And Luke’s gospel tells us: “Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his work” (Luke 3:23).

“When he began his work.” He was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit so that he could begin his work—begin it by preparing himself for it through prayer and fasting and contemplation. The wilderness—because of its isolation—is a perfect place for that sort of thing.

He was already a grown man—and a quite mature person by the standards of his time. He had probably been earning a living for himself and his family since he was 13. Very likely, he had taken up Joseph’s trade, had been a carpenter, had been settled in it. Maybe he had a prospering business, was good at what he did, thought he knew where his life was going.

But then something happened. God happened. And in a flash, everything was different. His life was changed. His plans were changed. And everything he thought was important suddenly didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered now was following the path which lay before him, which God’s light had so brilliantly illuminated.

Have you ever had an experience like that? Have you ever had a moment of such life-changing clarity?

We can still expect such an encounter, because that’s what Epiphany is all about. It is like seeing the face of God, shown to us in the person of Jesus—first as a tiny infant, then as a grown man.

And there is something real and present about the love Jesus has for us—love so great that it led him to lay down his life for us. Such great love has to make an impression upon us, if we will just open ourselves up to it. And if we do, it will change us forever.

That’s a gift that’s better than gold, or frankincense, or myrrh—and it is offered freely, to anyone who wants it. My prayer this day—for every one of you—is that you shall come to want this gift, that you will accept it, and that you will cherish it, and be forever changed by it. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

______________________________________________

And if you DO want to sing “We Three Kings” … check out this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0BJonwPCds

 

EXCHANGING GIFTS

First Sunday After Christmas Day

TEXT:  Matthew 2:1-23

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:7-11)

In our culture, it’s hard to imagine celebrating Christmas without exchanging gifts. Some people trace gift-giving back to the Magi—the “wise men”—who arrived from the East bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the baby Jesus.

But the Magi were not the first Christmas gift-givers. At best, they came along second. The first gift-giver was God, and the first Christmas gift was Jesus.

Now, we sometimes give gifts with strings attached. But the story from Matthew’s Gospel demonstrates how fully and completely God gave up the Christ-child to us.

In Jesus, we have been given the most precious gift ever—a gift straight from heaven. To be sure, God must have hoped that we would appreciate that gift and take good care of it—but no strings were attached. Even so … God knows the human heart …

… an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Matt. 2:13b)

God did not yank Jesus out of the world at the first sign of trouble. Instead, God turned Jesus over to the world. The world can be a rough place, however—as our gospel lesson reminds us.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. (Matt. 2:16)

Matthew’s heart-rending account of the slaughtered children of Bethlehem introduces a harsh note into the Christmas story. We remember them to this day as the “Holy Innocents.” Jesus was Herod’s target—they were the “collateral damage.” Their tragic story reveals a sad truth: that from the very beginning, the powerful of this world did their best to destroy God’s gift. And so, Jesus and his parents became refugees.

… Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. (Matt. 2:14-15a)

But of course, Jesus did not escape from death because his family carried him to Egypt. No. He merely received a stay of execution. In the end, the world took the God’s gift and nailed it to a cross. You might say that the world did not care for this gift, and decided to exchange it. The world exchanged the living, challenging Jesus for a dead and silent Jesus.

Have you ever noticed how exchanging gifts takes on a different meaning in the days following Christmas?

After Christmas, we return to the store with all the gifts that we do not want. The gifts that did not fit, or did not work, or did not please … they are exchanged for something else—something we like better.

Now, some gifts certainly ought to be exchanged—but other gifts deserve to be honoured and cherished. Trouble is, sometimes we’re just not wise enough to know which is which.

Consider the gift of that Child born in Bethlehem. In one way or another, most of us keep trying to exchange Jesus for something more comfortable—something that we think will fit us, or suit us, better.

We take God’s gift of Jesus Christ, and we exchange him. Exchange him for what? Perhaps:

    • For the “heavenly buddy” who helps us out in a pinch—and leaves us alone the rest of the time.
    • Or for the annual Christmas visitor—all cuddly and speechless—in whose name we can throw parties, and hang lights, and gain a few pounds.
    • Or perhaps we exchange him for the Jesus who lives only in the church building, whose blessings we invoke when we’re baptized, married, or buried (“hatched, matched, and dispatched,” as someone has said).

Sadly, it’s not just ugly sweaters and unwanted aftershave that will be exchanged during this season. Once again, most of the world will exchange the living Lord for something more comfortable, something less demanding—something that will fit on the shelf, something that does not require so much time and energy and sacrifice.

You know, the expression “to exchange gifts” has a double meaning. It may mean trading in what we don’t want. But it can also mean giving gifts to those who give gifts to us. You give me a gift, and I give you a gift.

There’s nothing wrong with that—not if it’s done freely and in a spirit of grace. When someone gives you a gift, it’s a healthy instinct to give something in return.

It is in that spirit that I encourage you, at the start of this new year, to exchange gifts with God. God has given us something unspeakably wonderful—the gift of God’s own self.

With our human minds, we cannot understand how God could fit in a manger—or on a cross, for that matter—but this is the truth of the Incarnation, whether we understand it or not.

Friends, what we have received in Christ Jesus is nothing less than God’s own self—his whole self. And the gift we must give in return is nothing less than our own, whole, selves. If you’ve never done that, I encourage you to do it now.

Our culture loves making resolutions each New Year. People resolve to lose weight, give up smoking, spend less money, and try new things. As 2023 begins, let’s not forget that the most important resolutions we can make are in regard to our faith.

One of the most thrilling verses in the Book of Revelation informs us that the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ ” (Rev. 21:5)

Christ has the power to transform us completely–from the inside out. In 2023, we have the opportunity to offer all of our joys, all of our sufferings, all of our triumphs, and all of our failures to Jesus, so that he can make them new.

If you’re looking for a good New Year’s resolution, how about this one: how about drawing closer to Jesus? Learning more about him? Becoming more like him?

It may be the Sunday after Christmas, but it’s certainly not too late to exchange gifts with God. And you know what? You are the gift that God is longing for! And he will never exchange you for anything else.

That is the Good News we proclaim! Amen.

Singing on the Journey

Christmas Eve

Text: Luke 1:26-55

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:41-44, NRSV)

That gospel passage is a classic Christmas Eve text; yet it might also serve well as a reading for Mother’s Day. Luke writes about two very important mothers, Elizabeth and Mary.

The Bible tells us that Elizabeth and Mary are relatives (and tradition says that Elizabeth was Mary’s aunt). But as near as they are as kin, they possess several significant differences. Elizabeth is old and has suffered infertility all her life. Much like the Genesis character of Sarah, Elizabeth prayed for a child. Mary endures a contrasting and scandalously embarrassing circumstance; she is young and unmarried.

Despite their differences, Elizabeth and Mary are surprised by their pregnancies, in part due to the conception of each child under the shroud of wonder and mystery. Each pregnancy reveals the mysterious hand of God. And each pregnancy’s unexplained circumstances issues forth a boundless joy—joy that bursts into song.

The “Song of Mary” which comprises vv. 46-55 has been known to countless generations of Christians as the “Magnificat.”

My soul magnifies the Lord,

And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.

For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.

For He who is mighty has done great things for me,

And holy is His name.

And His mercy is on those who fear Him

From generation to generation.

He has shown strength with His arm;

He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has put down the mighty from their thrones,

And exalted the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

And the rich He has sent away empty.

He has helped His servant Israel,

In remembrance of His mercy,

As He spoke to our fathers,

To Abraham and to his seed forever.                (Luke 1:46-55, NKJV)

Do miracles create singing? Or does singing create miracles? I suspect Luke would tell us that miracles create singing. Certainly many of us have seen this miracle in our own lives.

Once upon a time (long ago) I knew a devoted and generous Christian. However, he lacked joy in his life. He told me that he did what he did out of a sense of duty to God. And he acknowledged that his greatest satisfaction in life was living up to God’s expectations.

But he also told me his spiritual life was as lifeless as a valley of dry bones. He did what he thought God required, but he missed the happiness that other people of faith seemed to have. We talked about his perceived spiritual emptiness often, because his dedication to the church was beyond question. He felt, however, as if his faith lacked something deep and satisfying.

However, one Christmas Eve night, as we stood in church with candles lit, I noticed that he had picked up a hymnal (something he almost never did) and he was singing. Singing “Silent Night.”

Silent night! Holy night!

All is calm, all is bright.

Round yon virgin mother and child,

Holy infant so tender and mild,

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.

And there were tears streaming down his face. That’s when I knew the Lord had broken through to him on that special night.

Miracles do produce singing. But in this case, maybe it was the singing that produced the miracle. Either way, the Christ Child was born in my friend’s heart that Christmas Eve.

I said that happened a long time ago, and it did. It happened when I was still living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. That’s my home town, and of course—for that reason—it’s a place that’s full of Christmas memories for me.

One of the most vivid memories I have, in fact, is of being a small child and going to the train station with my mother and grandparents to meet visitors who were coming for the holidays. My family didn’t get many visitors when I was a boy. And the train station was a big, crowded, busy place, with lots of sights and sounds—especially at Christmas. I guess all those things conspired to burn images of the train station into my mind. And one of my clearest images of that place and time, oddly enough, is about looking up and seeing two huge signs above my head. On one sign, the word “ARRIVALS” appeared; and on the other, the word “DEPARTURES.”

Now, as an older adult, when I reflect upon that memory, I find myself thinking that life is much like that train station. It’s a place where we arrive, and it’s a place from which we depart. Each of us lives our lives metaphorically between the two signs. We arrive at birth and we depart at death. Between these two milestones we live our lives.

In our gospel reading today, Luke speaks to us of elements of the human journey between arrival and departure.

For Elizabeth, the Lord provided a final destination for which she had longed. She had arrived at the birth of a child—the answer to her prayers.

For Mary, the Lord provided her a point of departure through the holy child’s conception in her womb. This pregnancy was certainly problematic, but Mary could not have missed the holiness of the angel’s visit, with its announcement of a new beginning.

Even for Jesus, whom she was carrying, this moment was the beginning of a journey—a journey from cradle to cross.

On this Christmas Eve, God speaks to each of us about our journey of faith. God is more interested in where we are going than where we have been, and gives to each of us an opportunity for renewal, for rebirth—to use the scriptural language, a chance for salvation from sin and death.

Thus, God saves us from something. But God doesn’t stop there. We are also saved for something—for a life of meaning and value, and to love others as God first loved us.

To those like Elizabeth, the Lord provides the hope-filled completion of prayers and dreams. For those like Mary, the Lord provides hope and strength for tasks yet to be undertaken. For you and me, the Lord gives the gift of the Christ Child, that we might trust God more fully and live more completely than we ever dreamed possible.

If our arrivals and departure are truly within the loving concern of God, then—whatever may befall us here and now—we have no real cause for anxiety about the future. This is the miracle of Christmas. And this is the best Christmas gift we could ever get! Thanks be to God for it. Amen.

__________________________________

He Has Come!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FuFtOFvTsM

GOD’S PROMISE OF IMMANUEL

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT       

TEXTS: Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel. —Isaiah 7:14 (NRSV)

When Walt Disney drew his first cartoon, he probably didn’t envisage all the animated films that were to be made. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t foresee all of the stuff that would come from those films—action figures, toys, TV programs, books, recordings, “Disneyland” theme parks, and so on.

When Colonel Sanders sold his first piece of fried chicken, he probably had little idea of just how many branches of KFC there would be in the world one day (and how many imitators).

That’s the way it is with good ideas; they may start out small, but they just get bigger and bigger! Or to put it another way, if an idea has promise, you can expect it to grow.

In today’s Hebrew Scripture text, there is an example of something like that—of a promise that began in a small way and just got bigger and bigger. In the time of Isaiah the prophet, Judah and its King Ahaz were under threat from two neighbouring kingdoms. Ahaz and his people were—frankly—terrified. So God sent Isaiah to King Ahaz with a message: “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” (Isaiah 7:11)

“Do not worry, O king,” Isaiah said. “God will not let you be destroyed. God wants to show you that he is on your side—so, ask for any kind of proof you like, and the Lord will provide it.”

But Ahaz refused to put God to the test. He may have been more afraid of God than of the two kings who were threatening him.

After Ahaz declined the offer, God promised him a sign anyway: the sign of a young woman who would bear a child called Immanuel, a name that means “God is with us.” Before this child is old enough to know right from wrong, Isaiah said, Ahaz’s two enemies would be defeated.

This promise was fulfilled in Isaiah’s time when Isaiah’s wife bore him a child, and—just as God promised—the hostile kings were indeed defeated. Interesting (isn’t it?) that God would send a small child to be the sign of a great promise.

This promise of Immanuel—God’s promise to care for his people—began in this small way, but it became bigger and bigger. It outlasted both Isaiah and his son. The sign—or the promise—of Immanuel would grow into a legend. And through the generations that followed, it remained a beacon of hope for all God’s people.

In today’s Gospel reading, we heard how a young woman named Mary became the mother of a child conceived by the Holy Spirit. And we read:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matt. 1:23)

A life was about to unfold which could truly be given the title, “God is with us.” Think of some of the events from this life and how they fulfilled that name.

Think of John the Baptist baptizing people in the Jordan River. Jesus steps forward to be baptized, the heavens open, and God’s voice is heard: “This is my beloved Son.”

Immanuel! God is with us.

Think of Jesus preaching on a hillside nearby Capernaum: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:3-4)  Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers, and those who desire what is right.

The people are astounded at Jesus’ teaching, because he speaks as one who has authority (Matt. 7:28-29). Immanuel! God is with us.

Think of Jesus calming the stormy sea with a command. The disciples ask, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matt. 8:27)  Immanuel! God is with us.

Jesus points out that the wedding guests do not mourn while the bridegroom is with them (Matt. 9:15). Immanuel! God is with us.

Jesus walks on the water and those in the boat worship him saying, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33). Immanuel! God is with us.

During Advent, we are reminded that we live in the “in-between” time: the time between the first coming—the first advent—of Immanuel and his second coming, his second advent.

Even as we celebrate his birth in Bethlehem long ago, we also wait for his return. Jesus has already come—and yet he is on his way. Even as Christ’s work on earth is being completed, the Kingdom of heaven is still to come.

Paradoxical? I suppose it is. Enigmatic? We know it is.

Jesus told the disciples of John the Baptist, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away …” (Matt. 9:15). And he would be. Taken away in death—and yet he would rise again. Taken away into the clouds, he promised to return in glory to bring the whole earth into God’s eternal kingdom (Acts 1:9-11).

“I am with you always,” he assures us, “to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)  Not with us in the way he was, to be sure. And not with us in the way he will be—but still with us! We can still rejoice in the name, “Immanuel.”

Immanuel! God is with us. He is with us in the gathering of Christians for worship. He is with us in Holy Communion. He is with us in the carols we sing, in the prayers we say, in the love we share.

He is with us in triumph and in defeat, in glory and in shame. He is our companion through all the days of our lives—even when others desert us or are driven away.

He plays on the floor with our children, and is the unseen guest at every birthday party, every wedding anniversary. Immanuel is present with us, always. At the cradle and at the deathbed, Immanuel waits with us.

In some ways, I think, Advent is even better than Christmas. If Christmas celebrates the first coming of Christ, Advent celebrates the presence of his Spirit with us as we wait for his return. That is our tradition, after all. We believe in the promise of Immanuel. And—however we imagine it—we wait for the day when Christ Jesus will return.

That little promise of Immanuel to Isaiah so many centuries ago grew into the greatest promise the world has ever anticipated: the promise of Immanuel—the promise of God, to be present with us.

May God bless us all, as in faith we watch, and as in hope we wait. Amen.

JOHN THE DISAPPOINTED

Third Sunday in Advent

TEXTS: Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11

“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:10-12)

That was John the Baptist last week. If you read both scripture lessons noted in last week’s post, you would have heard from John the Bold Proclaimer, come to herald the advent of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, who at last would set all things right—rewarding the virtuous, destroying the wicked, and restoring the nation’s sovereignty. Clearing. Gathering. Winnowing. And burning.

John was full of hope … I guess …

Today, however, we hear from John the Disappointed. He is locked in Herod’s dungeon for condemning Herod’s behaviour—and, very soon, his head will be the main course at Herod’s banquet.

What a difference a week makes! Of course, in real time, it’s been much longer than a week. The Revised Common Lectionary has jumped ahead eight chapters, right into the middle of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry. Many months have passed since John baptized Jesus and proclaimed him the Chosen One.

And who knows how many months John has been in prison? He was cast there, you may remember, because he denounced King Herod … calling his marriage to Herodias incestuous, among other things … And—just like other prophets who insisted on publicly embarrassing other kings—John was now paying the price.

But that’s not the worst thing for John. After giving his unequivocal support to Jesus—even calling him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29)—John, apparently, is having second thoughts.

And so he sends his own disciples to ask Jesus, quite plainly, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

What’s going on here? This is the third Sunday in Advent. Christmas is but half a month away. By this time, most of us have bought our trees, decorated our houses, been to at least one party, and gotten a good start on our Christmas shopping. Now it’s time for Mary and Joseph, isn’t it? Or the angels. Or the shepherds. Or something else that will help get us into the Christmas spirit … Instead, we get this passage about John and his doubts! That’s a strange choice for Advent, isn’t it?

Or is it? In the midst of all the planning and shopping and celebrating we have been so frantically about, is there also a smattering of doubt and fear? The holiday season is not all about mistletoe and fruitcake, is it? I think any pastor—along with physicians, psychologists, and counselors—would tell you that Christmastime is a terrible time for many.

Throughout the season we call Advent, there is an increase in requests for counseling, admissions to mental health facilities rise, and suicides peak, along with episodes of domestic violence. It would seem that John is not alone in his troubles.

We should not be surprised by John’s crisis of faith. He is, after all, in prison, and—so far—what he predicted and longed for has simply not arrived. For when John announced the coming of God’s Kingdom and proclaimed Jesus as the Lord’s Anointed … Well, he expected things to change. Now—after the passage of way too much time—things seem all too dreadfully the same!

To put it another way, what John hoped for in Jesus was the consummation of all God’s promises to Israel. Now, sitting alone in a prison cell, he is still waiting for that to happen. Why hasn’t the Messiah picked up his winnowing fork? When will Jesus throw the chaff into the unquenchable fire?

John is beginning to wonder if he’s made a mistake.

Certainly, this is not the John we heard from last week!

But, look … isn’t this John a tremendously more sympathetic character at this time of the year? I mean, we are all still waiting for the consummation of the Christmas promise, are we not?

Is not this our problem: that the very things which are most wonderful about Christmas are also the things that are most difficult about Christmas? We hear the promises of “peace on earth” and “goodwill to people” … and then we pick up the newspaper, or turn on the evening news. Headlines and lead stories—and sometimes even what takes place in our own homes—make it abundantly clear that peace and goodwill are as scarce today as they were in John’s time.

And so, try as we might to ignore the darkness of the season—and of our spirits—by lighting candles on the Advent wreath or putting presents under the tree, all it takes is the loss of a friend or a job or a loved one to burst our good-cheer bubble and leave us as deflated as John was, alone in his prison cell.

When this happens, we, too, are disappointed. Disappointed with ourselves. Disappointed with the world. And even—and perhaps especially—disappointed with God … which feels all the worse at Christmastime.

Which is what makes this gospel passage so poignant. And so necessary. The message of Scripture—and of the Church—must speak to people’s disappointments as well as to their dreams. Jesus knew this. That’s why he confronted religious leaders who were more of a burden than a blessing to ordinary people. That’s why he embraced our human pain and sorrow. And maybe that’s why the beloved Christmas carol tells us that “the hopes and fears of all the years” are met in him.

The Bible does not tell us how John received Jesus’ answer. I doubt that he found it reassuring. Jesus instructs John’s disciples to go and tell him what they have heard and seen. But John already knew what Jesus was doing. In fact, that’s likely what had provoked his doubts in the first place.

Nor, I imagine, would John take much comfort in the rest of Jesus’ answer: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

What kind of answer is that? I’m sure it’s not what John wanted to hear. What John probably was looking for—and, if truth be told, what we look for most of the time, too—is a strong Messiah for a strong people, a Messiah who helps those who help themselves, a Messiah who knows how to stand up for himself …

What he gets, instead … is Jesus. And measured against John’s hopes and expectations, Jesus falls disappointingly short of the mark. I mean, let’s face it. The people Jesus seems preoccupied with: the lame, the deaf, the poor, the sick—and the dead, for heaven’s sake—these are not the movers and shakers of the world. No. They are the ones who are moved and shaken—moved and shaken by every whim of the rich and powerful.

These people are not going to change things! They are the social outcasts and economic losers of John’s day—the kind of unfortunate people who can barely fend for themselves, let alone help anyone else.

Why in the world does Jesus talk about these people when John—apparently at the end of his rope—asks for some sign, just some little indication, that Jesus is in fact the One for whom Israel was waiting? Well … maybe that sign is given. And maybe it’s simply this: all these outcasts and losers share one thing in common with John the Baptist. And that one thing in common is their need.

Think about it. There’s John, pacing and pondering in his cell. John, who—suddenly, despite his earlier fame, despite his charismatic personality, despite all his followers, despite even his mighty faith—finds himself in a position of absolute need. And—whether he realizes it or not—he is now at one with all those who are in need: with the poor and the lame, with the outcasts and the lepers, and with all the others who can boast of nothing.

Nothing, that is, except their utter dependence on God’s grace and mercy and protection.

And here, I think, we find a clue to the meaning of the last part of Jesus’ answer to John—the part about not being offended by Jesus. For to the degree to which we claim to have made it on our own—to not need anything we cannot earn or make or hoard for ourselves—to that degree we will undoubtedly take offence at Jesus—this one who was born in a stable, laid in a feeding trough, and, ultimately, hanged on a cross.

But, at just the same time, to whatever degree we admit our need … to whatever degree we identify with all those who depend on God … to that degree, we discover in Jesus a God who is—once and for all, absolutely and completely—for us!

Now, this, I realize, can be a frightening thing. We live in a world that preys on the weak. Not surprisingly—from early on—we are taught to trust no one, to take nothing for granted, and to cover all the bases.

And so, when push comes to shove, we try to hide our insecurities and fears behind our houses and careers and accomplishments. Until, that is, the word “cancer” or “downsized” or “divorce” is spoken … and then we know ourselves to be just as fragile and vulnerable as anybody else. And at these moments—which seem so much worse … and so much more common at this time of year—the words Jesus speaks offer us some measure of comfort.

This is what we prepare for during this season. In Christ, our Emmanuel, God draws near to us. In the flesh and blood of that very human baby, the God of earth and heaven becomes one of us: living our life—and dying our death—so that we may believe in his promise to be with us—and for us—forever.

And so, while Matthew’s portrayal of John and his doubts is striking—even startling—maybe it’s not so odd that we hear about it at Christmas.

This is the time when so many of us feel stuck between God’s promises made and God’s promises kept; when we find ourselves living in between Christ’s first coming at Bethlehem and his second coming in glory; when we—we who are also disappointed by ourselves, by the world, and even by God—fall on our knees to utter a prayer as desperate as it is ancient and simple: Come, Lord Jesus … come!

Here’s the good news: whatever our misgivings, whatever our doubts or failures or regrets—whatever our disappointments—God is not disappointed in us!

He comes to us anyway—to join us in our weakness, to embrace us in our insecurity, and to comfort us in our fear. In Jesus of Nazareth, God came—not for the strong and the proud, but for the weak and the vulnerable. He came—as Isaiah said—to “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees” (Isaiah 35:3).

In Jesus, God came … for us.

So there’s John—still pacing, pounding the few steps around his cell, wondering and worrying whether Jesus is really the One—when, all of a sudden, there is a knock, an entrance, and the delivery of the long-awaited response to a heartfelt question.

And I imagine his disciple saying: “John, Jesus told me to tell you that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at him.”

I wonder if John got it. I hope so.

I hope we do, too.

THE COURAGE OF A SPROUTING PLANT

Second Sunday in Advent

TEXTS: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.” ’           (Matthew 3:1-3)

In today’s passage from Isaiah, we find an unexpected image of the coming Messiah: There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”

Now picture what this looks like. I’m sure you’ve seen it before. A tree gets chopped down. For whatever reason—whether because it’s diseased or in danger of falling over on your house, or maybe just because it’s in the way—you remove the tree. All that’s left is a stump—cleanly cut, flat on top, perhaps close to the ground so no one will notice it. But then—weeks or even months later—a tiny shoot emerges from the seemingly dead stump. And that shoot begins to grow.

Most people would see this as an unwanted eyesore. These little shoots that grow out of stumps are actually known by the unflattering name of “suckers”—and there are all kinds of remedies on the Internet for how to seal off a stump so the suckers won’t begin to grow. But I understand none of them work very well. Usually, you just have to keep chopping off each new shoot as it appears.

Israel’s enemies had tried everything they could think of to seal off the stump of Jesse—the stump that was in fact the root of David’s royal lineage. War, slavery, imprisonment, starvation, exile—Jesus’ ancestors suffered all this and more. In fact, when Jesus was about to be born, there had not been a legitimate king on the throne of Israel for generations. Yet, somehow, life still lay dormant within that burnt-out old stump. And now, it was going to send out a shoot—a branch which would bear Messianic fruit.

Now—in the season of Advent—now is the time when the tiny shoot begins to sprout. But it is so fragile! No match for a determined gardener with sharp pruning shears.

What an odd symbol to use for Jesus! He is the new King of Israel, but he is described as a fragile branch growing out of a dried-up old stump. Not a particularly triumphant image. But that’s what Advent is all about. It’s about coming to terms with the incredible truth that God chose to come to us as a defenseless human baby.

You wouldn’t expect either a baby or a fragile branch to survive for long against any kind of enemy. And yet, as the Christmas story is told, the birth of this child is announced by angels whose message is …

  • “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God” (Luke 1:30).
  • “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife” (Matt. 1:20).
  • “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).

Fearlessness. That is what lies behind God’s decision to let Jesus be born as a helpless infant—as a little shoot out of the stump, a fragile branch that could be cut down at any moment.

Fearlessness. Not just on the part of God, but on the part of those who get on board with God’s plan.

  • Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
  • Joseph—believing the unbelievable—took Mary as his wife (Matt. 1:24).
  • And the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15).

Fearlessness. Born of the assurance that a new day of peace is about to dawn. God’s Kingdom is almost here. And Isaiah paints for us a vivid picture of what that Kingdom will look like:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:6)

Peace and wholeness. It’s called shalom—a secure place for the vulnerable. A safe place to reach out, to stretch out, to grow. The Kingdom of God. We know it’s on its way because we see the first tender shoots emerging from the stump—soon to become branches.

Here’s an interesting fact about branches on a tree: they grow right on the edge. Very little of the growth of a tree happens internally, down in the trunk. New cells are produced right at the very edge and build outward—fragile, but brave.

I wonder: are there edges of your life that need more attention to really start growing? Are there parts of you that feel unfinished and vulnerable? That you’re afraid to let out into the light? I’ve certainly got them, and I’ll wager that you do, also. And you know what I think? I think we must listen to the message of the angels. We need to hear them say, “Fear not!” and then respond in faith. If that new growth within us is to have half a fighting chance, we require some measure of fearlessness. We need to have at least the courage of a sprouting plant.

It feels strange to be talking about this in December, doesn’t it? To be talking about the fragile budding growth of new tree branches now that winter has set in. But I think that is an important sign, as well. The new life and new growth that Jesus brings do not always arrive in the obvious places. In fact, they usually don’t. We need to look for birth and growth within ourselves not only in warm, familiar, and friendly chambers—but in the cold, forgotten, and inhospitable places, as well. We need to spend time facing winter’s icy blast and the fury of the wind. Because the storms that we experience are important to our growth.

Do you recall a project called “Biodome”? Back in the ‘1990s, Biodome was an attempt to create a totally self-contained biological environment—a “mini-Earth” sealed away from the outside world. Parts of the Biodome project were quite successful, but one of the most baffling disappointments was the trees. They had all the sunlight and water and nutrients they needed—but, as they grew, they could not stand up straight. They flopped over on the ground, weak and limp.

The Biodome scientists finally realized that there was one vital ingredient of the outside world that they had forgotten: wind. In nature, the force of the wind causes tiny microcracks in the trunk and branches of trees. As it turns out, trees rely on this minor trauma in order to grow strong. Standing straight to the wind—breaking a little, but then rebuilding at the same time—this is what makes trees resilient.

Just like trees, human beings need to be buffeted by the wind. We need to endure the storm, in order to grow stronger.

Did you ever think that you might need the fierce storms of your own life? Or that they might be as necessary for your growth as warm rays of sunshine?

Today, John the Baptist explodes on the scene like a raging storm. He descends with locusts and vipers and axes and fire!

Now, you may be asking, “How does John’s violent message square with the promised peace? Of the wolf lying down with the lamb?”

Remember the image of the shoot growing up out of the stump? Consider how that environment was created. A tree had to be chopped down to a stump in order for the new shoot to grow up out of it.

John the Baptist says, “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees.” And he is the very personification of that message. He has arrived to shock us out of our complacency, to call us to chop down and root out all the old habits of greed and shame and selfishness that have grown up within our souls.

Advent is the beginning of the new church year. It is a time to start over—to begin with a fresh slate. We are told by John the Baptist to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

What does that mean? I think what it means is this: all the old condemnations—of ourselves, and of others—must be chopped down and thrown away. Why? To make room for the new shoot of Jesse to grow up within us. That is how we can prepare the way of the Lord. The Baptist’s message is not one of condemnation, but rather of liberation. It’s as if John wants to hand each one of us a machete, so we can hack our way out of the thick, choking overgrowth that has entangled us—that has trapped us in misery and despair.

But then, for all the ferocious power of his message—which we must take seriously to heart … what action does John take?

He baptizes! Even as he spews forth the brimstone of his fiery language upon the ears of the inquirers and seekers on Jordan’s bank, he also plunges them beneath the cleansing stream that foreshadows living water. He sees the potential of these believers, and so he waters them. He waters them, so that a new shoot of life might yet sprout and grow from them.

Through Advent, we have our own opportunity to test the waters. Through Advent, we are called to gather our courage and ask the Holy Spirit—with fiercest fire and with gentlest water—to cleanse our souls as we prepare for the coming of the Christ child. In this season of anticipation and possibility, the coming Christ is looking for fertile ground in which to grow—in which to send up a new shoot out of the old stump. Isaiah proclaims: In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations enquire, and his resting-place shall be glorious.

Friends, we can make ourselves that resting place—transformed into something glorious and new by the presence of Christ.

Are we up to the challenge? I hope we are. Will we open our hearts to make room for the King who is coming? I hope we will. Because—if we will do that—we can expect to witness miracles. We can expect to find ourselves manifesting grace in ways that we never expected. Tender shoots of life—parts of ourselves we never knew existed … these will grow from us, and bear good fruit.

So, on this second Sunday in Advent, I offer you an updated version of the Baptist’s call:

“Let’s be like Jesus; let’s branch out!

Amen.

The Coming Christ

First Sunday of Advent

TEXTS:  Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24: 36-44

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:36-44)

The “Second Coming”: no subject has caused wilder speculation and controversy. Nothing else has inspired more lunatic behaviour. No other topic has given birth to such bizarre preaching and writing.

And that’s interesting. Because, you know, the Bible never uses the phrase “the second coming.” The Bible does speak of the Christ who comes or who is coming, but it does not speak of different comings. Nevertheless, every one of us has heard some of the dire predictions about what it is all going to mean: the “great tribulation”; the “rapture”; “the lake of fire,” and all that stuff.

It’s been going on for a long time. The earliest Christians expected Jesus to return within a generation of his death. The Watchtower Society set 1874 as the date … and then, 1914. Perhaps most famously, followers of William Miller set the date for October 22, 1844—a missed deadline which led to what’s been called “The Great Disappointment.” Even today, you often see specific dates for Christ’s return as banner headlines in supermarket tabloids.

Now, it would be very easy for me to stand here and ridicule such ideas. But the fact is that the Bible does allude to the approaching return of Christ. I can scoff at other people’s predictions of what it all means, but—if I’m honest about it—my laughter at people’s predictions of a particular date for the end of the world is always muted by a little bit of nervousness. What if they’re right? What if the world does end next Thursday? What if it ended last month and none of us noticed?

Seriously, though, the question is important. Our gospel reading said that the coming of Christ will catch us off guard, coming when we don’t expect it. So it’s a fair bet that it won’t happen on the day that the story in the newspaper says. But what is going to happen? And when? And how?

I don’t pretend to know the answers to those questions—and I really doubt that anyone else knows the answers, either. But I do think there are questions worth asking.

The first question we need to be asking is, I think: just who is the Christ who is coming? That might seem like a strange question—but think about it for a moment. There are, after all, two rather different images of Christ.

On the one hand, there is the Christ of mercy—Christ the humble servant, who is not willing that any should perish, who accepts sinners and brings healing and forgiveness.

But, on the other hand, there is the image of Christ as the righteous judge, who weighs up your deeds—who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. This is the Christ who crushes the oppressors and casts the unjust into eternal damnation. This is the Christ who—as in “the days of Noah”—unleashes the wrath of God to sweep away an unrighteous generation.

To some extent, both of these are Biblical images. But I have to say that—if you did a tally of the Scriptural texts—the image of the merciful Christ would come out the winner. The image of the wrathful Christ, however, makes better movies and newspaper stories—and so it usually gets more publicity.

But look: the Christ who is coming is the same person who was revealed to the world as Jesus of Nazareth. His personality—his welcoming, accepting tenderness—remains unchanged. The coming Christ is the risen Christ—the one who accepts the doubts of Thomas and wins him over with humour and with love. He is the same one who met the heartbroken Mary Magdalene in the garden, and—with a single word—filled her with new hope and happy bewilderment. He is the same one who sought out the deeply ashamed Simon Peter, who had denied him and deserted him. Jesus not only forgave Peter, but also accepted him as a brother and entrusted him with the care of his flock.

This is the same Christ who met with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. You remember the story. They had given up. They were broken-heartedly traipsing home after witnessing the crucifixion. Then Jesus joined them on that road. And what did he do? Far from berating them for their lack of faith, he befriended them and inspired them to such a renewed hope that they described their hearts as “burning” within them.

The Coming Christ is not seeking vengeance for each prayer time you missed. He’s not coming to punish you for the times you messed up. No. This is the Christ who comes to establish peace, to bring healing, to restore justice and freedom. Most of the Biblical discussion about Judgment Day has very little to do with rewards and punishments. It has to do with the establishment of righteousness—a righteousness that creates justice and puts people right. It is about redemption and reconciliation.

The Christ who teaches us to love our enemies is obviously not a Christ of retaliation, but rather a Christ who—through suffering love—breaks down hatred and enmity. In mercy, he restores both the just and the unjust. It is this coming Christ who establishes the vision Isaiah gives us of all the nations streaming to the house of the Lord and learning his ways. They beat their missiles into water pumps and their battleships into fishing boats, and they study war no longer.

The Bible does tell us that the coming of Christ will catch some people unprepared. Matthew’s Gospel is full of parables about those who are ready and those who are not. Two of them are in the passage from chapter 24 which forms the Revised Common Lectionary gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Advent. One  of them says that it will be like the days of Noah when the flood caught people unprepared. Notice that it doesn’t say it caught out the desperately wicked. It says it caught out those who were eating and drinking and marrying and generally going about their inoffensive business—just common garden-variety folks like you and me. They were caught out only because they lived without any awareness of what God was doing. So it will be at the coming of the Son of Man, says Jesus. Those who are not living their lives in preparation to receive Christ at any moment …  Well, they will be caught out like the owner of a house that is broken into and robbed while he is sleeping.

Christ is coming. Not only is Christ coming, but Christ is arriving. The old is passing away and the new creation is at hand. As the great prophet Bob said, “The times they are a-changin’.”

Through the Spirit of God, the risen Christ is transforming the world and all that is in it. Some will be taken with it, some will be left behind. Jesus says that two apparently similar men will be doing the same work in the same field. One will be caught up in the new creation and one will be left behind—desperately clinging to the old ways and the old order of things. Two women will grinding meal together, and—even though no one could tell the difference between them by looking at them—one will be taken and one will be left. One will be caught up by the breath of God, and be transformed into the likeness of the risen Christ. The other one will be left breathing the stale, polluted air of the dying world—unwilling to be moved, unprepared for change.

How, then, shall we live? Christians have often seen their lives as shaped by memories—memories of the events of Jesus’ life. But I don’t think that the Bible allows us to see our lives as shaped only by memories of past events. No. Our lives are overshadowed by a coming event—by an event that even now is breaking into the world that we know. Our lives are shaped by the living God, by the coming Christ. We live in expectation of Christ returning—breaking into time, and establishing justice and peace and freedom.

To be sure, there is a continuity between the past life of Jesus and the life of the coming Christ. But Christ’s work was not finished when Jesus died. Neither was it completed when he rose from the grave, or ascended into heaven. No, my friends. Christ is living and acting, even now! Christ is coming to renew a poisoned creation. Christ is coming to heal the broken and battered victims of our society. Christ is coming to fill the starving stomachs with good food, to beat swords into plowshares, and to shine his light into the darkness of despair.

It is in that light that we are called to live. Any of you who are parents will understand this. You understand how profoundly your life can be transformed by anticipation. When you’re expecting your first child, you live differently than you have before. You see things in a new light. You get things ready so that you won’t be caught unprepared when the time comes. You begin to re-examine your style of life. You feel a shift in the balance of your responsibilities. A coming event—something not yet quite here, but well on its way—begins to dominate everything in your life. In light of this coming event, nothing can ever be the same again.

As Christmas approaches, that coming event, too, changes many things. Our lives begin to revolve around parties and celebrations and preparations. At Christmas, we will remember the birth of the one for whom we are now waiting. Christ is coming, and our lives should revolve around that fact. Our lives are supposed to reflect the hope that we have—the expectation of something new.

In whatever time is left, let’s respond to the call of the Spirit, who urges us to break free from the old world, and to live lives that demonstrate the love and the peace and the justice of the new world.

When Christ comes again, will he find faith upon the earth? We know he wants to. He wants to find his people—you and me—living an expectant faith that shows itself in action:

  • faith that confronts hatred and wears it down with love;
  • faith that confronts greed and overpowers it with simplicity;
  • faith that confronts despair and breaks through it with hope;
  • faith that lives as though Christ has already come.

He wants to find us living lives full of love, joy, peace, and hope … because he is coming!

This is what it means to live out the Gospel we preach. And we can do it. Yes we can! We can do it in Jesus’ name. We can do it through the power of Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.