Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Year C

Is Christmas Here?

Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

I love the traditions of Christmas. I look back on Christmases past and recapture a wonderful sense of joy. One of my favourite times was helping my mother bake. She made the best mince meat tarts. She would let me put the tops on each one, reminding me that it represented the swaddling clothes for baby Jesus. Even Santa Claus was part of the mystery. Santa always came during the night and put our stocking at the bottom of our bed. As long as we made not a sound, we could open it as soon as we awakened. I would reach in and pull out each item in the darkness of the early morning, unwrap them and savour them. There would be the usual socks and underwear, some little toys to play with, a lovely candy cane, and always tucked into the toe a beautiful big orange. When we children could contain ourselves no longer we would make enough noise that our parents would give in and let us go down stairs to see what Santa had left under the tree. We were allowed to open one gift before church, the one that Santa brought. And that gift would be taken to church for a blessing. I loved the service on Christmas Day. The children would all gather at the creche. We would recount the story and kneel reverently as we sang “Away in a Manger”.

Christmas is like that for us. It is warm and wonderful family memories. It is images of sugar plums and dancing angels. It is the smell of pine. It is turkey and stuffing and Christmas pudding. It warms our hearts. It gives us hope. It brings with it a sense of peace. It brings us back to childhood, year after year after year.

Even when we grow up and replace family traditions with our own, Christmas remains a special time of giving and receiving. I take joy in decorating my Christmas tree, pulling out each decoration and remembering where or from whom it came. I enjoy entertaining family and friends. It is a magical time when there is peace in the world and joy in my heart. But I know that there is so much more to Christmas than any of these traditions. And sometimes the joy is bittersweet. There is so much more to bring joy into our hearts, for the real gift is Christmas itself.

Of all the traditions of Christmas, most of all I love the Christmas story from Luke's Gospel. It is a timeless story. We see it portrayed on Christmas cards. We hear it. We read it. Truly, it does not matter how many times I read it. It does not matter how many times I watch the children telling the story in the pageant. It remains a warm and comforting story. And so I remind you of the story tonight.

A decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all should go back to their hometown for the census. And when a decree went out from the powerful ruler of Rome it was acted upon. Caesar Augustus, the self-proclaimed son of God, the bringer of peace, the saviour used his claim to greatness to exploit the people under his rule.

Joseph and his wife Mary, nine months pregnant obeyed the decree. They set out on a five-day journey from Nazareth where they were living to go to their hometown of Bethlehem. The Bethlehem of Jesus’ day was of little consequence, a back road place close to the big city of Jerusalem, which was the usual destination for travellers. Consequently there were few inns to be found. Most people who travelled to Bethlehem were visiting family or friends. But in its past Bethlehem had birthed some well-known people, amongst them Rachael, wife of the patriarch Jacob, Ruth the Moabite woman, and most important, King David, the shepherd king of Israel. Bethlehem, “House of Bread”, became known as the city of David. Because it was the ancestral hometown of the line of David, a huge influx of travellers, all claiming royal lineage flocked to the town. The few small inns filled up very quickly.

This was no Holiday Inn that we are talking about. The inns were very simple dwellings with several small rooms opening into a courtyard. The wealthy would have a room and would eat their meals in the inn. Many who were unable to afford a room would simply camp out in the courtyard with the animals. They would build a fire in the courtyard to cook their meals. By the time Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem there was no room anywhere. So when Mary gave birth to Jesus she laid him in a manger, a feeding trough for the animals.

Our God is a God of surprises. The true Son of God, the bringer of peace, the real Saviour, is a baby whose family cannot find accommodation. The child is born in poverty, without a proper roof over his head.

And the surprise does not stop there. For on a hillside outside of Bethlehem a very different decree is taking place. Some shepherds are watching their flocks that night when heavenly messengers come to them with great news. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Had they been scholars they might have known that the prophet Micah had foretold it. But the angels did not go to the religious leaders of Israel with the good news. They went to the shepherds, outcasts of society. And the shepherds got the message. They not only got it. They acted on it. They hurried to Bethlehem, praising God all the way there. Then they went out and told the good news to everyone who would listen.

It is Good News! Our God says, “Ready or not! I'm here!” Today God comes into the midst of us, born as the child Jesus, giving us the gift of the divine presence. Tonight more than any other night we are confronted with the wisdom of the observation, “The past is history, the future is mystery, today is gift, which is why we call it present.”

Christmas has come to us. We are gathered here in this lovely church, decorated with poinsettias, a Christmas tree, lights, candles, the creche. Our voices ring out with joyous carols.

Christmas has come to us. There is no doubt about that. But what about other places in the world? Has Christmas come everywhere? Is this silent night holy for political refugees in in Northern Pakistan where people are returning to villages that have been damaged or destroyed in the war between the Taliban and the Pakistani army? Or for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have poured out of Somalia into Kenya to flee violence and drought, only to face severe shortages of food in that country? Or for child soldiers in Uganda taken away from their homes and forced to fight for their very lives? Has Christmas come for them?

Is it Christmas for those who are dying of AIDS? Are they bathed in the glow of candle light? Has Christmas come for the children in Africa who must care for an ill or dying parent rather than going to school or having a normal childhood? Has Christmas come for them?

Is it Christmas for the starving around our globe? Has Christmas come for the farmers in India whose crops are failing as drought worsens? Has it come for them as they fall deeper into debt to unscrupulous bankers who prey on their need to feed their children? Has Christmas come for them?

Is it Christmas for those who are unemployed during this recession? Is it Christmas for the homeless on the streets of Toronto? Has Christmas come for the man who, when his house was repossessed last month moved his possessions into his truck, but then was forced to abandon it after having it towed away? Is it Christmas for the family evicted from their home? Is it Christmas for the addicted or the mentally ill who cannot keep a roof over their heads? Has Christmas come for them?

Most certainly it has come for all of us, for Christmas comes whether we are ready or not, because Christmas is about God's love. God's love doesn't come only when everything is perfect. It breaks in on us despite all the struggles of life. It breaks in on us through the distractions. It comes stealing in, quietly, silently. It comes and Christ is born.

There is an old story that comes to us from Persia. Long ago, there ruled in Persia a wise and good king. He loved his people. He wanted to know how they lived. He wanted to know about their hardships. Often he dressed in the clothes of a working man or a beggar, and went to the homes of the poor. No one whom he visited thought that he was their ruler. One time he visited a very poor man who lived in a cellar. He ate the coarse food the poor man ate. He spoke cheerful, kind words to him. Then he left. Later he visited the poor man again and disclosed his identity by saying, "I am your king!"

The king thought the man would surely ask for some gift or favor, but he didn't. Instead he said, "You left your palace and your glory to visit me in this dark, dreary place. You ate the course food I ate. You brought gladness to my heart! To others you have given your rich gifts. To me you have given yourself!"

The King of glory, the Lord Jesus Christ, gave himself to you and me. Amid the mistletoe and angel hair and carols and wrapping paper and presents, amid the gatherings and celebrations, amid the feasting, let us remember that the most precious gift we receive this day is the gift of a child who closes the gap between the Creator and the created. May Christ truly be born in us this day!

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C

Better Than Angels!

Readings: Micah 5:2-5a; The Magnificat; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

At this time of year angels come to the forefront. They are part of the folklore of Christmas. They adorn our Christmas trees. We see them on cards and wrapping paper. They are an important part of every Christmas pageant. They are part and parcel of the Christmas story.

There are many references to angels in Scripture. The Old Testament belief about angels was that they were messengers sent from God to speak or do wonders in God's name. Angels were usually seen as intermediaries who preserved God from too intimate a contact with earthly creatures. In the New Testament they continued to communicate with humankind, bringing messages of comfort and hope from God. They were part of the heavenly retinue, as we see in the nativity story as the angel hosts appear to the shepherds.

In modern folklore angels are part of the phenomenon of the unexpected and unexplained that is so common in current television series and movies. They are viewed as miracle workers, magical in their powers, helping to unleash our creative powers. There is a worldview that our destiny is to become angels.

In Christian circles, they are still seen as messengers. In an anecdote in Chicken Soup for the Soul it says that “Angels never say “Hello!” They come knocking at the door of our hearts, trying to deliver a message to us.” That is certainly the sense that I have of angels. Most of the decorations on my Christmas tree are angels. I find it to be a comforting symbol of how God communicates to us. Even though I have no physical proof of angelic beings, I have certainly been aware on more than one occasion of an aura of holiness that comforted me in a way that I have put down to angelic.

The Gospel for today tells of how God sends an angel to speak to a young peasant woman named Mary. God chooses Mary to become the 'God Bearer'. The angel delivers the message to Mary that she has been chosen. She willingly accepts the unexpected demand of God, but her encounter with the angel leaves her confused. She knows what lies ahead for her in the community. No angelic message can help her deal with her confusion or fear. She turns to her cousin, Elizabeth. She knows too that Elizabeth will understand. She needs to share not only her fears and struggles, but also her joy, her good news. She knows that her cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant, will understand.

Elizabeth, "Consecrated to God"! That is the meaning of her name. However, Elizabeth, "The cursed one" is how she is no doubt known in the village in which she lives. Women who could not have children are scorned. They are considered cursed by God. For years she has been pleading with God asking what she has done to deserve God's wrath. God hears her plea. And now, the aged one, the one all the women in the village felt sorry for, is going to have a baby.  She can hardly believe it.  She had given up all hope of ever becoming a mother. 
Elizabeth was in her sixth month when Mary arrived from Nazareth.  She had not been expecting the visit because it was about four days journey from Nazareth where Mary lived to Elizabeth's home in Hebron.  But she knew instinctively before Mary had a chance to say anything that something even more wonderful than her miracle had happened in Mary’s life.  Her response to Mary was better than any angelic message could possibly have been. It is instinctive. It came from the heart. God has blessed her; because of her yearning she understands Mary's situation.

In her joy she says, “And why has this happened to me?” There is a very different sense to those words as Elizabeth speaks them. Usually they are spoken out of the tragedies of our lives, yet Elizabeth is responding with a real sense of joy and love. She understands that Mary is truly blessed to be the God Bearer. She also understands that Mary is blessed to have listened to the voice of the angel and responded to God's amazing call. She affirms Mary's call to be the God bearer.
The Elizabeth's of our lives are real blessings.  They are quiet people who often remain unnoticed.  Yet when God wants them to do something important they do not hesitate.  They humbly trust God who is able to take our barrenness and turn it into a wonderful gift, a real blessing.  They trust that God's word will be fulfilled.   They know themselves well enough; they are secure enough in themselves, to enable others to share their own gifts and talents. They don't have to be in the limelight.
The Elizabeth's of our world give wholehearted encouragement to bring about God's purposes.  They prepare the way for the Saviour to be born in us. They are models of good ministry. You see, ministry is not about something that you have hired a priest to do on your behalf. It is something to which each of us is called in our own way. The best ministry is done by people like Elizabeth who open up their hearts to those in need. They are the listening ears of the church who always know who is hurting. They are the wounded healers of the community who reach out to the abused, to the neglected, to the needy. They bring healing wherever they go.
The Elizabeth's of our world teach us about real ministry.  They quietly and effectively go about doing what God has called them to do.   They know that God can take our barrenness and turn it into a wonderful gift. 

Keep yourself in God's hands.  Be prepared for whatever miraculous way God's message comes to you. Open yourself to hearing God's call. God may be preparing your life for greater purposes than you can see right now.  Let Christ be born in you again and again and again. Amen.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Third Sunday of Advent, Year C


Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 3; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

When I was a child my grandmother gave me some of her old books. They were about a little girl named Elsie Dinsmore who was awfully good. I am certain that grandmother gave me the books because she wanted me to be more like Elsie. They had, I am certain, the opposite effect. For Elsie was just too perfect to be believed. She spent her life overcoming terrible tragedies. She always did what was good and right, and as I remember the stories now, it was often at the expense of others. She was quite insufferable, especially since through it all, she never stopped smiling.

Reading over Paul's letter to the Philippians reminded me, just for a moment, of Elsie Dinsmore. There he is in the midst of chaos, singing to these people, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice."

Now you may think that it is easy for someone like Paul to talk that way. After all, he doesn't have to worry about mortgage payments. The crime rate in Philippi is not climbing at an alarming rate. The world is not heading into ecological and economic disaster. He is not about to be attacked by terrorists.

Except for one thing! This joyful hymn is coming from Paul, a person who has experienced great personal tragedy. He has been beaten, persecuted, and thrown in jail for his faith. And yet he is able to call on his inner resources, on his relationship with God, on his faith, not simply to get him through it all, but to enable him to rejoice.

And then there are the Philippians. This community to whom he is preaching is a community under fire. First of all, they are under fire from within. They are bickering amongst themselves about who the leaders of the congregation should be. They also face opposition from other Christian communities who oppose the inclusivity of Paul’s message. The Christians in Jerusalem want these new converts from Philippi, a flourishing Greek community, to assume the traditions of the Jewish roots of Christianity. The Jewish faith means absolutely nothing to them. Finally they are threatened by danger from a hostile environment. Simply by becoming Christians they have opened themselves up to persecution. They live in the Roman Empire where it does not pay to convert.

Paul’s appeal to joy is not simply encouragement. He is calling the people back to God. He knows that faith is their greatest resource. They trust in a God who walks with them. They have experienced the great love of God. God is a part of their daily lives.

The prophet Zephaniah also sings to us across time and place about living joyfully. His fiery message reflects the turbulence of his time, a time of social injustice, a time of secularism. The leaders of Israel have exploited the people shamelessly. They in response have turned away from God. They feel the sting of God’s judgement. They feel abandoned. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion,” he proclaims with passion. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart. The Lord has taken away the judgements against you.” They are words of transformative hope. His passionate song rings out to the people reminding them of their close relationship to God. Their hope lies in God, who offers empowerment. God continues to call them back into covenant, time and time again. They are God’s people; God continues to walk with them.

John the Baptist also sings out a message of great hope to the converts who have followed him out into the Judean wilderness to be baptised.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you of the wrath to come?” Not exactly words designed to please the people to whom he was preaching! John is preaching a challenging message. He is preaching against Imperial Rome with its worldview based on ammassing power and material wealth for itself. He is preaching against the religious institutions with their elaborate systems run by powerful priests. The way he lives his whole life speaks out against corrupt power. He baptises in the River Jordan, not in a beautiful Temple with its gilt and opulence. He is preaching out in the wilderness. He is calling people to repentance. He calls them to prepare for what they have been waiting for all these years. He calls them to transform their lives as they await the coming Messiah.

And they respond to the song. “What should we do?” they ask him.

“Share what you have with the poor, “ he tells them. “Be honest in your work. Be satisfied with your wages. Don’t be chaff or you’ll burn in Hell.” John is not one to mince words. These are not the lyrical reminders of Zephaniah. His words are judgemental and harsh. But they sing just the same. Those who are fit for the Lord are those who go beyond lip service and actually produce the fruits of repentance. “You have to make changes in your lives,” John tells them. “You need to be transformed.” Difficult as they may be, these are not earth shattering revelations. For the world to become a better place these people need to act. They need to conduct their affairs with integrity and compassion. Not that it will eradicate all the pain and injustice that exist in the world, but it will be a starting point. It will begin to put things right. His words fill the people with hope, expectation and joy.

What song of joy do we sing as we prepare for the birth of Christ? “How can we sing?” I can hear you saying. Look at the hopeless situations in the world around us! War in Afghanistan, terrorism, violence on our once peaceful streets, failing economies, changing ecology, secularism ... We live complicated lives. How can we possibly rejoice in the terrible society in which we live? How can these passages speak to us of joy when all we can see is turmoil and trouble?

It has been said that Advent is a time for joy, not primarily because we are anticipating the anniversary of the birth of Jesus, but because God is already in our midst. That is something to sing about. Let us prepare for the birth of Christ by allowing God to transform our sorrow into joy, the chaos and turmoil of our world into peace. Experience assures me that if we do, then the world will change for us. It will be bathed in light. It will be beautiful. Hope will be renewed. Like Elsie, we will begin to see the world not for what it is, but for what it will become when God ushers in the Kingdom.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Second Sunday of Advent, Year C

Wilderness Thoughts!

Readings: Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

For the most part, the Old Testament stories which we read Sunday by Sunday, recount the conflicts and struggles of the people of Israel.  Once in a while, they offer bright flashes of divine light which speak to us in a much deeper way.  Such passages bring us to a realization of what is to come.  They speak to us through time.  They reveal, not an exact account of future events, but an unfolding of God's plan for the world.  It is such passages which prepare us for the good news of the gospel. 

Such passages were often the inspiration for Luke.  In the events of the life of Christ, he saw the events of the Old Testament coming to pass.  He recognized the coming of the kingdom.  God would visit the planet.  God would be revealed through the coming of Christ.  He saw the need for people to be prepared for that coming. 

The picture which we get of John the Baptist from Scripture is as the last of the Old Testament prophets.  John lived in solitude in the wilderness.  There he had companionship with eternal things.  There he watched stars blaze in the darkness.  There he meditated and prayed.  There he listened to the voice of God.  And there he spoke words of truth.  Difficult words that cut to the heart of the matter.  For his message was a call to repentance and forgiveness.  The baptism of John conveyed,  not what God was saying, but what God was beginning to do. 

To hear such a message required commitment.  It required risk.  It required travelling into the unknown.  If you wanted to hear John preach you did not go to the synagogue. He was not to be found there. You had to go to where he was.  You had to go far out into the Judean wilderness.  You had to be prepared to find God in the least expected places.  And isn't that how it often seems to happen? Isn't it through our wilderness experiences that we are enabled to hear God more directly? 

I had a friend whom I used to visit who lived in the L'arche community, “Daybreak” in Richmond Hill.  L'arche was begun by Jean Vanier to assist those who are developmentally handicapped.  It brings together people of all abilities to help each other.  My friend Tom was a very simple soul.  He lived in the community for over ten years.  It allowed him to live independently in a way that none of us ever thought possible.  He helped to prepare meals and to do the cleaning.  More importantly, he was part of a family. 

In the same house with Tom, lived Henri Nouwen.  You may have heard of him for he was a well known author.  A Roman Catholic priest, an academic, who taught theology both at Yale and at Harvard, he was perhaps an unlikely one to be found in the community.  In his book, "Journey to Daybreak", he recounts the story of his search and how it lead him to take up his life there. 

He was at a point of transition in his life.  He had no idea what he should be doing.  Then one day there was a knock at the door.  He answered it.  It was a young woman. 

"Hi, I'm Jan," she said.  "I bring you greetings from Jean Vanier." 

Immediately his mind went into gear.  Did Jean Vanier want him to speak a conference?  Or direct a retreat?  "That's nice, he said.  "What can I do for you?" 

"Nothing!" she replied.  "I just came to bring you greetings from Jean Vanier."  No matter how much she insisted that her purpose, her only purpose, was to bring greetings, the more Henri thought she must be there to ask him to do something.  Finally the message sank in.  She was bringing him greetings, nothing more. 

Some time later, Jean Vanier phoned.  "Spend a quiet day with me in prayer," he said.  The mind went into gear again.  He must want something.  But he insisted that his only purpose was to pray with him.  His friendship with Jean Vanier lead to a visit to one of the communities of L'arche in France, and ultimately gave him the direction for which he was seeking.  The simple message of greeting opened him up to God's call.  He realized that he didn't have to "do" anything.  He just had to "be".  He ended up leaving the academic life for the community life of L'arche.  He became the chaplain and administrator to Daybreak. 

His learning was perhaps the most important thing that any of us can discover on our spiritual journey.  We are called, not to do, but to be.  To be what God intends us to be.  To be real people living in a real world.  And for most of us that is not a call to anything extraordinary.  It is a call to live our lives intentionally.  To share the love we have for Christ with those who need to hear the message of love. 

But that listening requires that we prepare ourselves carefully.  It requires that we have a prayer life.  That we read and study the scriptures.  That we participate in the life of the church.  And that we carry with us the Christ we serve.

Advent is time of anticipation, a time for looking forward. John the Baptist continues to remind us that we must first look within. We must reflect upon our lives and changes that prepare us for the coming of Christ. Change is a call and a challenge to grow but it is also a reality of life. To live is to change; to grow is to change greatly. John in the wilderness recognized his need to change and grow.

For us too, it means change and growth. There are always mountains and hills in our lives which need to be torn down.  There are obstacles which keep us from living intentionally, which keep us from truly serving God.  Like those who followed John into the wilderness, we begin by asking for forgiveness.  By recognizing what separates us from the love of God.  By recognizing what keeps us from reaching to others.  Those things we bring to God.  Advent is a time to walk into our hearts and to notice the shifting sands of our lives. It is a time to leavethat wilderness place a bit changed and ready to make a difference. Then we are  prepared for Christ to be born in us. 

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...