Saturday, December 30, 2017

The First Sunday after Christmas, Year B

On the Seventh Day of Christmas

Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1.1-12
John 1:1-14

Our family has a tendency to stubbornness. Our prime example was Great Uncle George. I remember one day as a child of perhaps ten, going with him to the Old Mill Restaurant. We parked, and since I knew the way, I began to lead my Aunt and Uncle towards the front entrance. Uncle George stopped us. "This way is shorter," he declared, indicating that we should walk around the building. I pointed out the front entrance, only a few steps away, but nothing would deter him from his chosen path. Aunt Alice and I walked up to the entrance and stood waiting at the steps for him. Finally, huffing and puffing, he met us and declared, "I told you my way was shorter!" We could have argued. We both knew that he was wrong. But it wouldn't have done any good. He would never have changed his mind. People are not often changed by arguments. They have to see for themselves. They have to experience. And above all, they have to accept.

It is the same on our faith journey. Theologians present arguments. Books of theology have been written arguing every aspect of the Christian faith. You can read countless volumes arguing the existence of God. The great theological debate of the Middle Ages was about how many angels you could fit on the point of a pin. There have been great debates on the Virgin birth. Nothing can have been argued more than the concept of the Incarnation. When did Christ become human? Is it right to depict Jesus? The list goes on and on.

But God did not give us a debate about the Incarnation. God did not argue with us. God gave us not an argument, but a Saviour. The Word became flesh and lived and died among us. God is made flesh. Christ is born. The Holy Spirit penetrates the darkness of our world.

That is the essence of what I read in the first chapter of John’s gospel. Some of you may remember as I do that each Eucharist ended with the reading from John’s Gospel. Now we hear it only occasionally. It is not even heard every Christmas because we would rather hear about shepherds and sheep, angels and stars, gifts and magi. Without the truth at the heart of the Gospel the lights, the trees, the carols, the gift giving all become something else. Something very fine, well-intentioned, desirable, but yet empty somehow. It becomes the “Happy Holiday” the world celebrates. But once we get beyond the abstract thought of the Word made flesh, we get to the real truth of the Christian faith that lies at the heart of Christmas. It is through living with us, as one of us, that Word becomes deed. We can talk about solidarity with the poor, but only when we share our lives with them are they be able to say, “You are one of us!”

So it is with Emmanuel, God-with-us. The promise has been fulfilled. God is in solidarity with humankind. That kind of solidarity is encouraging news. It is like the moment when a friend comes to see us when we are sick or discouraged. It is like the time when someone truly shares their life with us. It becomes more than words; it becomes a fact. Jesus can speak from his own human experience. He is one of us, through our joys, trials, struggles, discouragement, hopes and dreams. God is with us. God is with me. God is with you.

Consider for a moment your own faith journey. How did you come to faith? And by that I mean, not the faith of a child, but a mature adult faith. It is a rare person who comes to faith through some intellectual pursuit. We see God's glory, not in arguments, but in unselfish lives. We find God, not through ecstatic experiences, but through the ordinary events of our lives. We are convinced about the love of God by experiencing it at work in our own lives. And then we pass it on to others as we might pass the light of a candle one to another.

In a Bible Study a number of years ago, I asked people to reflect on where they had met God in the past week. They came up with an amazing list. A conversation at the breakfast table … seeing a friend’s newborn baby … a walk in the park … letters out of the blue … a flower … an apology … a phone call … a smile from a stranger. Not one of them said anything about church. Not one of them spoke about reading a book or hearing a sermon. It led me to reflect that fortunately God speaks to us more outside of our churches than inside. That makes perfect sense, because God is speaking to all of creation all the time. God spoke once, and life happened, and that Word keeps ringing in human ears through all of time.

The whole of the Gospel shows us what grace looks like, tastes like, smells like, sounds like, feels like. God in becoming flesh has committed God’s self not only to revealing what God’s grace looks like, but that God wants to know it and feel it as well. This beginning of John’s Gospel reminds us above all that Christmas is not just a season; it is a way of life. We are an Incarnational people. Christ is born in us. For those celebrating the Holiday Season, Christmas is over once the wrappings have been disposed of, and the feasting done. For us it is just beginning. Not just the twelve days until Epiphany, but the hope and life that Christmas promises.

Howard Thurman, an African-American writer, philosopher, theologian, activist, writes the following:
“When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.”

The Word has become flesh. Christ lived and died as we do. He assured us of life for evermore. Thanks be to God.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

Active Participants

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a, 18; Mark 1:1-8

Mark begins his gospel, not as Matthew and Luke do, with birth narratives of Jesus. Nor does he begin as John does with a theological argument about who God is. Rather he announces the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is the ushering in of a new era, of a new way of being in relationship with God. It is the beginning, but just the beginning of the good news. That means there is more to come. It is a new beginning, a fulfilling of the Old Testament as a fresh inbreaking of God. It is a new beginning not only for the early Christians but for every generation that encounters the gospel. Human experience and the written word come together to create a new reality of faith.

A group of parishioners in one of my parishes was visiting another denomination as part of an ecumenical program. I was sitting with some of the children during the sermon. The minister became quite passionate about what he was saying. The little girl beside me leaned over and asked in a rather loud voice, “Why is that man yelling at us?” It took me back to my own childhood and its “hell fire and damnation sermons” which were, no doubt intended to scare us into being good in order to avoid the wrath and judgement of a vindictive God. That was not good news to the child in my congregation. It was not good news to me as a child. It is in no way the good news that Mark is offering.

Mark begins his gospel with a message of hope. He begins with a claim that he is the bearer of good news for the world. He heralds in a new beginning, a fulfilling of the Old Testament as God breaks into the world in a new way. It is a big claim to say that you have something that is good news. And what Mark is saying is that “this is it.” This is what God has been preparing humankind for throughout the centuries. This is what the prophets were predicting as their minds opened to God’s eternal truth. “This is it.” This one, Jesus Christ, is the answer to the aching longings of men and women throughout the ages. This is the healing and the cure. This is the cancelling out of the debt of sin. This is the way back to God’s order, to the transformation of a world in need of God’s healing grace. Mark is telling us, “This is it, and it is happening now!”

Mark sets the stage for telling the story of Jesus who is the Good News. ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one bearing good news to Israel and announcing God’s coming kingdom!’ He announces John the Baptist, the prophet anointed by the Spirit to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim liberation. This is not the John of Matthew or Luke ranting at the people, calling them a ‘brood of vipers”. He is admittedly a strange messenger, this man dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey. The other messengers in Scripture have tended to be angelic. That is not the picture one gets of John. His message is one of repentance as the way of entering into the kingdom. He points beyond himself, offering hope through renewing a right relationship with God. He preaches metanoia, conversion. His is a call for a major change in direction, a call for transformation. It is a call for the whole nation to repent as preparation for the coming of the Messiah.

And so as we enter this season of Advent let us remind ourselves that it is a new beginning, one that can provide us with a reason for existence, a purpose, an objective. Jesus confronts us, not with a message of fear, not with a message of hell fire and damnation, but with a promise – the promise that we are his children and servants for ever. But do not take that as a signal that we are off the hook. It is a beginning that must be followed up by each one of us.

No matter at what stage of our Christian life we may find ourselves, there is possible a deeper encounter with Christ who waits to enter our experience. Are we prepared to search and to be open to such a possibility? It is easy to become self-satisfied. We need to remember that the Christian life is a journey into a maturing and deepening spirituality. Each new discovery takes us deeper. It becomes a new beginning, a new birthing, a renewal of one’s baptism.

It is called salvation. As Anglicans we are often reluctant to think in terms of salvation, being saved. I remember as a child walking down Yonge St. in Toronto with my mother. We were confronted by a man who shouted at her, “Are you saved?” My mother stood as tall as 4’ 8” can make you. “I’m an Anglican!” she declared.

We need a new way of thinking about salvation. I was quite taken with what Marcus Borg had to say about it as we listened to him on tape at the Advent Conference last week. “The Christian life” he said, “is not about pleasing God the finger-shaker and judge. It is not about believing now or being good now for the sake of heaven later. It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now. Spirituality is about this process: the opening of the heart to the God who is already here.”

That is a wonderful message about salavation. It is also a wonderful message for Advent, because Advent is about the journey. It is about how God wills our reconciliation. It is about how much God wants to forgive us, to release us from sin and guilt. It is about how we are to see ourselves as God’s beloved. It is above all, about how God wishes the well-being, not just of the Christian, but of all creation. And above all God wants that salvation, that healing, to take place here and now. We are active participants in the salvation of God.

And so we need to ask ourselves, what can be ‘good news’ for what is going on in the world? What can be good news for a world in turmoil? What can be good news for starving children around our world? What can be good news for a creation that is crying out for healing? A world where forest fires ravage whole communities, where polar bears starve, where nature is turned upside down? Because it is not just John who is called to cry out and prepare the way of the Lord. It is all of us. Here and now! Making a difference in the world. Actively participating in God’s saving grace; actively involved in sharing the sacred story. Seeing Christ in others. Allowing others to see Christ in us.

That is the invitation of this season of Advent. Advent is the beginning, but it is only the beginning. The salvation story continues to unfold around us. More importantly, it continues to unfold through us. Amen.

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 ...