Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Naming of Jesus

Some New Year’s Ponderings

Readings: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 67; Gal 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

Today we celebrate the naming of Jesus. Drifting into our consciousness somewhere between the Christmas parties and the observance of New Year's Eve, it almost disappears. In the majority of churches it is only when the celebration comes on a Sunday as it does this year that it is even observed. Yet shake your imagination from its lethargy. For the New Year's feast offers us a wonderful opportunity to contemplate the baffling mystery at the center of our faith.

The time has come. The long-promised Messiah has arrived. Redemption has taken place God's salvation is given to us. We are as Paul points out to us, children of God. God has named us. God has adopted us. We have within us the Spirit of God. And all that was accomplished in a very human way. For God truly became one of us.

What is at the heart of Christmas? Is it not the child in the manger? There is deep significance in the season with just that. The world may celebrate the “Holiday Season” without making any reference to the reason for the celebration, and yet the child in the manger brings about something transformative. For a short time a hush settles over the world. People become kinder. They reach out to one another. It is a time of giving. But of course, there is so much more.

“What child is this?” the world asks. And faith answers, “This is God incarnate.” That is the claim of Christmas. What a wonder that is! Not only a human child, but before that a fetus, a floating presence in the womb of a woman. It defies common sense, does it not? It defies practicality. Couldn't God have accomplished the task in a much more interesting way? Perhaps a simpler way? Certainly in a way which would cause people to take note.

But God, who rules existence, came to us in the common, everyday way that any human person gains existence. God was carried for nine months in the space of a woman's body. God was born in an obscure country in the Middle East. God was born into poverty. God lived and died as one of us. God is with us.

And so we hear once again the story of the shepherds listening to the message of the angels. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” It was the shepherds who affirmed Mary's faith. They got her thinking about all that had happened. They got her thinking about the message from the angel, about God's plan for her and for her newborn child, about the mysteries that surrounded this birth. And so Mary ponders. She considers until she gets to the heart of the meaning.

Pondering is a good thing to do when it comes to understanding all that God intends for us. It is for us to ponder things in our heart. Of all the times of the year, New Year's is the most likely time to find people pondering. It is a time to look back and to treasure the things that have made us who we are. It is a time to look back on our spiritual journey and see the path that we have followed in our lives, the path along which Christ has led us. It is a time to set new goals. 

New Year's resolutions should be the result of our pondering. However, most of the time they are simply wishful thinking. We resolve to live our lives in healthier and better ways. We resolve to diet and to exercise. Those are good resolutions to make. They are good resolutions to keep. The problem is that most of the time we keep them for a short time and then lose our resolve. I hope that all of us have good goals in mind for this New Year. But I hope we do not stop there. I hope that the end of the year gives us reason to ponder, to reflect on the mystery that is at the heart of Christmas, to really reflect on all of God’s blessings, on all that God has given to us. I hope it is a time to resolve to be better people, to live our lives more faithfully and more prayerfully, a time to let go of our past mistakes, to ask God’s forgiveness and to move on knowing that God is with us.

And so I have a list of resolutions for this coming year. Perhaps in sharing them it will spur me on to keeping them.

“This year I will listen. I will quiet my mind and take in what other people are saying as they
tell their story. I will listen to their words and to their hearts. I will listen to their body language. I will seek to understand before I seek to answer or contribute.

This year I will keep the storms in perspective. Struggles are going to come but Jesus has promised to be there in the midst of the struggles. I will remember that as I walk with God, God will walk with me. 

This year I will be gentle and compassionate. When I awaken in the morning, I will say to myself, “I am baptised. I have died to sin. This day I intend to do what is right in the sight of God.

This year I will give myself. I will follow the pattern of the life of Christ. I will extend the grace of God. I will forgive others just as God in Christ has forgiven me. I will remember that it is not my job to set everybody straight. I will choose my challenges with prayer and wisdom.

This year I will look for opportunities to encourage a child, to love a stranger, to
do something good for someone I don't like, for someone who doesn't like me.

This year I will be a good student. I will read the newspaper. I will read as many books as possible. I will watch less television. I will be affectionate and daring. I will use my God-given talents. Especially I will watch for answers to prayer and give the glory to God. I will give thanks every day for the love of God.

This year I will eat when I am hungry and stop eating at the first sign of fullness. I will lean into life and be excellent. I will share the good news of God's great grace. This year I will see others as holy, treat others with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, be forgiving and forgiven, let God's peace rule my heart, and let the word of Christ dwell in me. I will try to live Scripture in my life. I will live as Christ in the world.

As I ponder, I realize that it is so profound as to be almost unbelievable, the consequences of the Christmas event in my life! But I do believe, that it is by God's grace, that I begin a new year. I celebrate this cosmic event and its glorious consequences for my life and the lives of all those who embrace and follow God as revealed through the Christ of Christmas. Amen.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Eve, Year A

The Contradictions of Christmas

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

What a way for a king to be born! What was God thinking? God took a chance with humanity. We received God's most precious gift. Humanity is threatened by goodness. We resist it. We reject kindness and healing. Yet God sent Jesus into that very world. God continues to love, hope, trust, even as we bungle through our mistakes. What does God see in us?

What a way for a king to be born! And yet he was. He was born into a world of contradictions. His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph had to uproot themselves, and leave their home in Nazareth to go to Bethlehem, several days journey at the best of times. When they arrive there, the few inns to be found are filled to capacity. And so they are led into a stable. And there the baby is born, and they name him Jesus. The Son of God, the bringer of peace, the king, the Saviour, is a baby whose family cannot find accommodation. The child is born in poverty, without a proper roof over his head.

The contradictions continue, for on a hillside outside of Bethlehem some shepherds are watching their flocks that night. These are poor humble folk, despised for their way of life. It is not the kind of occupation you choose for your sons, scarcely the best livelihood. Shepherds are the outcasts of society, not trusted, even scorned. Because of the nature of their work they are not even able to attend synagogue. But they are the ones God chose to bear the message of the angels.

As darkness falls, they settle down on the hillside with their sheep. They look out over the rolling hills toward the town of Bethlehem, resting but remaining alert. After all, a marauding animal could decimate the flock if they are not awake to protect them. They warm themselves over the fire. The sky is bright with stars. Although it is the middle of the night, there is a glow in the darkness. Colours begin to dance and weave like the Aurora Borealis in the northern sky. Suddenly the whole sky is a blaze of light. The 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.” The jubilant song of the angels rings out over the hills. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours.”

God sends messengers all the time. But they are only as effective as the ones who share the good news. Can you imagine what it would it have been like if the angels had come to the CEO of a large corporation? He would have called a meeting of his Vice Presidents. They would have discussed the options. They would have bought up all the vacant land in and around Bethlehem. And no one would have discovered the significance of the event.

But God did not go to the CEO of a large corporation. God did not go to the high priests, or to the king or to the military commanders. God did not go to the university professors or the scholars. God went to the shepherds. And the amazing thing is that 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.

There is a deep mystery at the heart of Christmas that makes it a time of transformation. The secular world cannot begin to understand Easter, but it can identify with the homey human scene of a newborn baby, a courageous mother, a faithful husband, poor shepherds and rich kings. It can identify with our need to reach out to the poor and those in need. So in that stable on that holy night, a strange diverse crowd huddles around a baby. Such is the mystery of the Incarnation. It does not simply symbolize. It incarnates, it embodies what we know to be true. God is with us. The birth of Christ is a perfect introduction to his life, death and resurrection. The clear message of Christmas is that God is love. Love came down and dwelt among us. The purpose of the loving act was so that God could reveal to us the nature of the divine. It came about so that we might come to know and love our creator.

It is a message that continues to be shared. Christmas, even if the person celebrating does not call it that, is a time of giving, a time when peoples’ hearts open to those in need, when they give for once of themselves. It is a time when people make an attempt to reconnect with their faith community. Our churches fill up. Even those who do not make it to church take on some of the festive spirit and reach out to others in a spate of generosity. We greet each other in a different way. It is a time to give. It is a time of outreach to the poor and to those in need. The celebration is everywhere. One cannot miss it. And secularized though it may be, the world continues to get the message. And it becomes a better place, even if for a few fleeting moments.

But we Christians seek a deeper meaning in our celebration. Without the truth of the Gospel story the lights, the trees, the carols, the gift giving, all become something else, something very fine, something well intentioned and desirable, but something quite empty. For Christmas has become secularized in a way that leaves out the most important, and the best part.

We may look at the story in all of its improbability, all of its contradictions. We may view its squalor one moment and its splendour the next. There is the stink of the stable and the aura of the angels; the violence of the Roman Empire and the peace proclaimed to God’s people; the exclusion of the unacceptable shepherds and the wonderful inclusivity of God’s realm. We may well say, “Is that any way for a king to be born!” And yet he was. He continues to be born in poverty. He continues to live with rejection and betrayal. He continues to be nailed to a cross and crowned with thorns. He continues to burst through the tomb of death and echo in the souls of those who believe. He continues to be born in us day by day. He continues to call us, his messengers, to share the good news that Christ is born in us.

Tonight we celebrate God's message of new life and new love. We celebrate God coming anew into our lives. A loving creator wants to enter our world and our lives. We can keep Christ out. We can ignore the message of the angels. We can keep ourselves so busy that we utterly fail to reflect on its meaning and impact in our lives. We can have too little time to make it personal. We can become too absorbed in the material world. We can become too self-absorbed to even care. We can become obsessed with power or riches or anything that we can find to substitute for God and we are so good at finding substitutions.

But hopefully we will remember that we have good news to share. Christ is born in us. We are the bearers of Christ in the world. Our mission if we choose to take it up, is to make that known to the people in our community who so need to hear good news. Our mission is to draw people into the caring and vibrant community of faith that we have to offer, not just at Christmas, but every day of our lives.

For we know the significance of this holy night. We know that the birth of Jesus has made the stable the very centre of the world. May Christ be born in us this night! And may we with all the angels of heaven sing glory to God!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A

God is With Us, Emmanuel!

Readings: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 24; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

On Friday morning I was watching the CBC news. They had a discussion about what was memorable to them about Christmas, about their traditions around the season. They talked about food, family get-togethers, gifts and all the warm fuzzy feelings that are associated with the season. They spoke about snow sports and tobogganing. Sadly, but understandably in our post Christian era there was no mention of going to church or of any religious significance to the day.

As Christians we know that Christmas is about more than turkey and Santa Claus and presents under the tree. Yet the story is so familiar to us that we forget how momentous an occasion it is. We forget its deeper meaning and relevance. That is why Advent is an important season of the Church year. Advent helps us to prepare by reminding us about the signs that God is present with us, that God has visited us in a special way. Signs that God will come again!

The signs that God is with us are all around us. Yet very often we ignore them. Even when we recognize them as signs from God we can easily dismiss them as irrelevant. We become preoccupied with distractions – TV, outside activities, negative thoughts. Even the cares of life can become distractions.

And don't you find in everyday living that there are simply so many signs that you easily miss them? There are some that really attract my attention, for example the signs along the Gardiner Expressway. With their flashing neon and constant movement they are almost too distracting. I have come close to having an accident as I watched for the next phase of some of the most interesting ones along the route. The colourful lights and changing images are real attention grabbers.

Then there are signs that somehow I would rather ignore. They cause uncertainty in my mind. My computer is a case in point. It will ask me, "Do you really want to replace that file?" And I think, "Is there some reason I shouldn't? What is going to happen if I replace it? Should I or shouldn't I?"

Some signs are simply confusing. On the country lanes in England when I wanted to know where I was heading, they kept telling me where I had been – twenty miles from York they would remind me. Now although I found that to be fascinating, since I was heading to Oxford where I had never been, I found them less than helpful.

Walking the Camino in May of last year we had to follow signs very closely. The trails are certainly the road less travelled. There are markers to show pilgrims which path to follow. The marker is a shell, which points you in the direction you should take. However, sometimes they are difficult to spot. As you come to a fork in the road, you look for the right path. The sign may be hidden behind brush, or back off the road. Many times they are spaced far apart. If you miss one, you could walk many miles without knowing that you are going in the wrong direction. Fortunately people watch out for you. You will be standing in the middle of small village trying desperately to find the next sign, and a head will pop out of a window. “Peregrine! Camino! They will point you in the right direction. One of the most unhelpful signs was at a fork in the road where there were two markers pointing in opposite directions. Fortunately I knew we were heading for the Atlantic Ocean, and I could see it beyond the fork on the left. It was crucial to read the signs correctly.

That is true in our Christian life as well. The readings today point out our need to follow the signs carefully. They also point out how easily they may be missed, ignored, or misinterpretted. The word in Scripture, which is translated from the Greek as sign is very close in meaning to the word for miracle. And that is no mistake! A sign is a miraculous gift of God's grace that assists us in our faith journey, which allows us clear access to God if we allow it to seep into our consciousness.

The Old Testament reading takes place at a time in Judah's history when the kings of Syria and Israel had formed an alliance in order to depose the King Ahaz. The prophet Isaiah told him to trust God. "Ask a sign of the Lord your God," Isaiah tells him. But Ahaz declines. He says that he does not need a sign. In reality he is afraid of what might be in the future for him in somewhat the same way that a politician might fear the outcome of a poll.

A sign comes to him anyway through the prophet. “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” Because we filter everything through our knowledge of the New Testament, we immediately recognize the Christmas story echoed in this passage. In terms of the situation of Ahaz, there is no certainty about the child to whom Isaiah is referring. Old Testament scholars think it is a prophecy about Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, who became a great king in Israel's history. No matter how we view the prophecy, whether from the Jewish point of view, or from our Christian perspective, the underlying message for him is exactly what it is for us. The future is made possible by the miracle of human birth. Every birth brings God among us. God is in each of us. We are bearers of God in the world. The answer for Ahaz and the people of Judah lies in the political and social ambiguities of human life. For us as Christians it is lived out in our life in Christ.

In the Gospel, God offers a sign to Joseph. It is a sign he would have liked to ignore. For the drama he sees unfolding before him makes him look like a fool. Mary, the woman to whom he is engaged is pregnant. It is not his child. How angry he must have felt when he heard the news! How betrayed! There was one way out for him. He could dismiss her quietly and end the relationship. Everyone would understand. Eventually it would blow over for him and he could get on with his life. But as he slept, he had a dream and resolution came.

Isn't that true to life? So often it is as we sleep and dream that we find the answer to the deepest problems of life, for we free up our minds to interpret the signs around us. Freed from the distractions of our lives, we work out our innermost thoughts and worries. So it is with Joseph. He finds his fears transformed. He begins a new journey in faith. His dismay turns to trust of God.

Sometimes we feel burdened by the decisions we have to make. We want to give it more time. Sleep on it. Joseph did this. He wrestled with his thoughts and feelings. There was no easy solution. He slept on it, but then he acted on it. In trust he carried out what God had asked of him. He accepted Mary. He accepted responsibility for the child. He named the child – Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us.

And then there is Mary. What an astounding woman she is! Not only does she understand the sign that God gives her; she willingly becomes the sign bearer. With her the future is made possible by the miracle of human birth.

Emil Brunner, a Swiss theologian, one of the great teachers of our century, says of the Christmas story, "Faith in Jesus Christ is not an interpretation of the world, but it is participation in an event, in something which has happened, and which is going to happen." Christmas is our opportunity to participate in the central miracle of our faith. Every other true miracle prepares for this, exhibits this, and results from this. These happenings are more significant than anything else in life.

We like things to be simple and clear. Sure signs! What we lack is an Advent attitude, the capacity to wait for the fullness, for it will come when the time is right. The Spirit of God continues to birth human life. We can trust time. God did!

God is with us even when our world seems to be falling apart. Because God is with us, we can be assured that God understands our situation. We can know that God still acts in our world today. We can have the courage to answer God’s call as Mary and Joseph did.

What are the signs of incarnation that God is offering to us today? How will we bear those signs in the world? Will we try to ignore the signs, or will we be active participants in the event? God is with us, Emmanuel.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Third Sunday in Advent, Year A

Signs of Healing in a Fractured World

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; Magnificat; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

My first parish was rural in many aspects when I moved there. People would give me directions to come out to their house for a visit. Drive up through Ashburn. Turn right. You'll see a small blue house on the corner. Turn there. Drive a couple of miles. You'll see an old shed. And so on. They would always end with, “You can’t miss it!” Believe me! That was not always the case.

Now we depend on GPS to get us to our destination. We think somehow because it is computerized that it cannot possibly make a mistake. We will surely find our destination if we simply put the right address into it. We trust it to take us to our destination by the best route.

Soon after I moved to Port Hope, I was meeting a friend at the train station in Cobourg. “You can’t miss it!” my friend assured me. I should just go along Division St. and follow the signs. I didn’t trust myself, so I put the address into my GPS. It took me along a side street that came out directly in front of the station – on the other side of the tracks. Indeed, I could miss it!

Living in an age of uncertainty and unrest, a time in society when we worry about the state of the world, about the ecology, about whether there truly is a future, it is easy to miss the signs of hope. We long for the coming of God’s kingdom of Shalom. We look for signs of the activity of God in our daily lives. We look for signs of healing. But somehow we are not attuned to God. We are unable to look beyond our own limitations for signs of the activity of God in history.

But take heart! For John the Baptist, the one of whom Jesus says, “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than he,” missed all the signs of Jesus' coming.

To be fair, John was in prison. What he heard about Jesus from the confines of his prison cell prompted him to ask some serious questions. He considered that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, but doubts kept creeping in. This Jesus with his urban approach, wandering through the towns and villages preaching good news to the poor, the needy, the outcast presented a totally different perspective to John. In fact, Jesus was not at all what he expected. After all, he is the wild man out in the wilderness, preaching repentance, looking for God to come and judge the people. And so he sends word through his disciples. “Are you the one, or do we wait for another?”

And Jesus sends back word, “Tell John what you hear and see.” John does not understand what is happening. After all, signs of life are difficult to see from behind prison bars. From that perspective, it is so much easier to see death, blindness, disease, and evil. John had announced what Jesus would do. He had dreamed about how God’s power would be shown. He had preached it with fervour. He had shouted at the people, “You brood of vipers!” He was waiting to see what would happen. But it wasn't what he expected. He expected to hear about the axe falling at the root of the tree, about retribution, about the overthrowing of the political powers; yet he hears nothing of the sort. Instead of the axe, there is Jesus healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead, preaching the good news of the gospel. It was so far from John's expectations that he could not be certain.

There is a wonderful Peanuts cartoon of Lucy talking to Charlie Brown. She has convinced Schroeder that her religion is better than his.

“How did you do that?” asks Charlie.

“It was easy!” says Lucy. “I hit him over the head with my lunch pail,”

That was the problem for John the Baptist. He himself expected to be hit over the head, to be judged, to be deemed unworthy. He expected the changes in society to take place through retribution. His mission was to prepare the people for disaster.

For Jesus, the mission was quite the opposite. He preached a Gospel of love and generosity. His mission was to do as he was doing, healing the sick, making the blind see and the lame walk, raising the dead. He knew that it was never going to happen by hitting people over the head with a lunch pail or railing at them about the retribution to come. That would never bring them to their senses. That would never get them to accept God. He knew that it was through faithful people coming into relationship with a loving God that the kingdom would be ushered in.

Isaiah offers us wonderful images of healing and reconciliation. He had a balanced vision of human healing. For him it was not merely physical but was connected also to emotional well being. He trusted that God would re-create new life for God's people. Wilderness would be turned into lush farmland and a salvation road could be fashioned where one had been thought impossible. Even humanity would be remade to walk the salvation road singing all the way to Zion itself. Hope, he knew is alive even at times of apparent hopelessness.

Everything about the Christian story teaches that real wholeness, real change comes from within. Rebirth comes from within our hearts, from within our lives and families, from within our communities. That is why Jesus’ ministry worked. Those who found themselves in Jesus’ presence were reborn. They were healed. The lame walked, the deaf heard, the dead were raised, the poor heard good news. Change took place in people’s lives, and what a different kind of change it was. Humanity was getting healed.

We all need that kind of healing. It is certainly needed in First Nations communities across Canada. They are beginning to defend their identity, their nationhood, their environment. It is a challenge to every one of us, a challenge that we need to take up. They challenge us to be faithful to the treaties we have made. They challenge us to be faithful to the truth rooted in the creation covenant calling every one of us to be stewards of the land. They call us to be open to their sense of spirituality, wondering if we will accept their desire to be both First Nations and Christian. They challenge us to understand our need for strong communities where people are open to helping one another.

You have undertaken a program about the Truth and Reconciliation process. That is important work for everyone in our community. Hopefully as you undertake this learning experience, you will learn about your own need for truth telling and reconciliation. This church community is a fractured one. How badly you need that kind of healing! That is the gift of Advent. It is a wilderness time in the Christian year, a time to consider our need for repentance, a time to allow God’s healing grace to permeate our lives, a time to transform our lives. It is above all a time to prepare for Christ to be born in us.

Advent is a time of renewal and transformation in the Church year. It is a time to be spiritually prepared for Christmas. It is a time for the wilderness to be brought to new life. There are many people who need that kind of transformation in their lives. We need to go where Jesus goes. We need to do what Jesus does – serving, healing, helping, and sharing out in the world. We need to live lives of generosity and love.

Our task during this Advent season is to let Christ come more fully into our lives. It is to share with others the joy of his presence by our concern for the suffering and the poor. It is to embrace this wilderness time and use it as a time to grow spiritually so that the wilderness rejoices and blossoms. It is to embrace the good news that God’s kingdom of shalom is breaking in, that change is taking place and that humanity is getting healed. It is to live our lives in Christ. It is to see Christ in those we meet. It is to prepare the way of the Lord.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Second Sunday of Advent, Year A

The Hope of Advent

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

A friend was visiting a local church for some special occasion and took her young daughter with her. The preacher was quite fiery in his delivery, trying to make an impression on the congregation. The little girl looked up at her mom and asked, "Why is that man shouting at us?"

I resonated with the child at some deep level, remembering my father's 'hell and damnation' style of preaching as I was growing up. I have always found such preaching disturbing and rather frightening.

I find the same thing when I read about John the Baptist. There is no doubt about it; he is more than a little disturbing. It isn't just his wild appearance, although camel's hair clothing is certainly part of it. His food – locusts and wild honey – also leaves much to be desired. The crux for me is his preaching, that 'fire and brimstone' message aimed at making even the saintly quake in their boots. There is so much anger in it. Perhaps that is what frightens me most, for it causes me to reflect on the anger that I carry in my life.

It seems to me as I read the newspaper that the whole world is erupting in anger. There are countries in the world that have been constantly at war for over forty years. We live in a world under constant threat of terrorist acts. Besides that, many people, even national leaders, ignore the threat of humankind on the environment.

Closer to home, violent acts take place every day on our city streets. There is bullying in our schools, racist acts, violence against women ...

I try not to be political, but there was an article in the Saturday Star that consolidates what I have been mulling over as I prepared to preach this week. It speaks of the rising tide of populism that led to a Trump victory in the United States, and a Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. Our Prime Minister recognizes that Canadians too are feeling the same kind of anger and frustration. He says of the last election, “We didn’t do it to the same degree of anger – we tried to channel it into hope instead – but the recognition of the same issue was there.”

There is anger and frustration in the Church as well. We look back to glory days when our Sunday Schools were full of children. We look out on a sea of grey and wonder where the Church will be a generation from now. There are controversial issues that divide the people of God.

How do we channel all of the anger and frustration into hope? Someone commented to me that to understand the preaching of John the Baptist one had to take a look at the bad people in our world – the deranged, the wicked, the evil, and then look inside themselves at how they have fallen short of the glory of God. I suspect that is very true.

The thing is that when we consider our own culpability in the scheme of things we can come up feeling pretty good about ourselves. We wonder whether there is any relevance for us in the message of John the Baptist. John is not an easy prophet. He sees the axe lying at the root of the trees. He writes off the world as it is. He proclaims that we – even the most Godly of us – cannot escape the retribution that is coming. He is not talking to terrible people who have perpetrated unspeakable atrocities. They are not the ones he is calling a "brood of vipers". He is speaking to good, upright, synagogue-attending Pharisees and Saducees. He is speaking to us.

These are people who have followed him out into the wilderness looking to further their faith. The deeds that he is railing against are not the works of darkness, of people who never go to church. They are the self-destructive behaviours of those who do.

"Demonstrate to me," he is saying, "that you really are repentant. Reconcile with your friend that you haven't spoken to in twenty-five years. Be the first to offer your hand in reconciliation. Don't ignore cheating when you see things happening down at the office. Give to the poor; don't just pass them by on the street. Take your givings to the church seriously. Don't just throw a loonie on the plate and think it's enough."

When people ask John what to do he does not say, "Go and pray about it", or "go on a retreat," or "offer a sacrifice to God." He says, "Change your lifestyle." Do a complete turn around. Become a different person.

So where is the grace in all of this? Where is the hope? We are a people, a nation, a world under judgement. But there is much that is worthy of becoming the ingredients of the future. God's kingdom is not some future event. God's kingdom is here now.

Isaiah's beautiful vision of the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together is a vision of God working through history. It is a vision of God's kingdom of Shalom. Reconciliation with nature and trust among power structures are within the realm of possibility. In our own apocalyptic vision are many signs of hope. We do not have to have a vision of destruction. We are not helpless spectators to the activity of God. We are stewards and instruments of God. We are in relationship with God. We are part of the process of redemption.

But it takes a willingness to come before God and seek God's forgiveness. The wonderful thing about it is that we have a God who wants so badly to forgive.

There was a woman who claimed to have visions of the Virgin Mary. One day she called the Bishop from the Philippines, Cardinal Sin – that really is his name – to tell him about her vision. He didn't pay much attention to her, so she called him again. After five unsuccessful calls, she went to his office and asked to see him.

He decided to put an end to her foolishness. "When you talk to the Virgin Mary this evening," he said to her, "tell her to ask Jesus what my gravest sin was." And so the woman left, happy at last to have been heard. The next day she went back to see the Cardinal.

"Well, did you speak to the Virgin Mary last night?" he asked.

She responded, "Yes, but…"

"But what? Did she ask Jesus about my sin?" Cardinal Sin asked.

"Yes, she did ask him," the woman replied. "But Jesus told her that he had forgotten."

We cannot fathom the wickedness that is in the world. We cannot fathom what possesses mass murderers or terrorists or rapists. But we do know the secrets of our own hearts and our need for forgiveness. That can help us to understand our need to hear the message of John the Baptist. That can help us to commit our lives to God knowing the power of Christ to forgive. That can help us to change our lives to reflect the love of Christ. Then we will be participants in the ushering in of God's peaceable kingdom.

Let us hear those words of John speaking to us across the ages. “Repent! Change your lifestyle! Demonstrate in your lives that you really are repentant.”

That is the hope of this season of Advent as it calls us to repentance. Commit your life to God knowing the power of Christ to forgive. Reflect that power to forgive in your own dealings. Reflect the love of Christ in your life. Seek the love of Christ in those you meet. Participate in the ushering in of God's peaceable kingdom. Shalom!

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 ...