Sunday, December 26, 2004

Sun, Dec 26, 2004 - The Love that Changes the World

2 Chronicles 24:17-22

Acts 6:8-7:60

Matthew 23:34-39

Doesn’t it seem a little odd that the day after Christmas, when we hear about how the little baby in the manger changed the world, we have the day that honours St. Stephen and all the martyrs? It seems a little disjointed to be celebrating a birth one day and remembering the dead the next. It’s a bit of a downer to go from blissful Mary and Joseph and choirs of jubilant angels to the brutal, bloody stoning of Zechariah and Stephen. So why do we put these two days right next to each other?

Well, to be honest, I think it’s to remind us that although Christmas is first and foremost about God’s love for us, it’s not about the kind of love that dresses baby girls in pink and baby boys in blue and looks, dewy-eyed, on fuzzy baby rabbits and kittens and cute little puppies. That love is okay, but it’s not a love that changes the world. The love of God that burst through on Christmas is a love that is powerful, and overwhelming. It’s a love that challenges you and pushes you to achieve things you never could before. The love of God that came through the birth of a child is dirty, and messy, and rooted in the grittiness of human life. It’s a love that doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the world, from sin, or suffering, or death. That’s the kind of love that changes the world.

And so we have, today, examples of what that love looks like. We have stories of people - martyrs, which simply means witnesses - who have taken God’s love to heart, and lived it out - witnessed to it, and we have the blunt truth of what happens when people do that.

But let’s start out with how these people whom we call martyrs lived. Now, martyrs aren’t people who go out to die for their faith. Martyrs, as I’ve said, are simply witnesses. They witness, by the way they live their lives, to the truth of the love of God for all. Martyrs are simply witnesses who have died as a direct result of the way they have lived out that love.

For Christians, our most important martyr is Jesus Christ. Of course, he was more than a martyr, but he did live a life that witnessed to God’s love. He welcomed the company of sinners over the company of the righteous, he ate with people nobody else would eat with, he touched people that were ruled untouchable and healed them, he forgave sins that were considered unforgivable, he shared God’s love with those who were deemed unworthy of that love. And there were others who lived like him, if not as fully.

There was Stephen, whom we call the first martyr. Stephen was, believe it or not, a waiter. The church calls him a deacon, which is a nice, churchly way of describing what he did, but we would call him a waiter. In Chapter Five in the Book of Acts, it says that there were a number of Greek widows who weren’t getting their daily food distribution, and so the twelve apostles appointed Stephen and six others to "wait on tables." (You might ask yourself, someday, why the apostles considered their work more important than serving widows, but we’ll leave that for now.) In any case, Stephen was appointed to wait on tables, and so he served the widows, whom nobody else thought worthy of their attention. And in doing so, he was a witness to God’s love in the world.

But, just in case you think that all martyrs were men who lived a long time ago in a country far, far away, we also have the story of an American - Sister Ita Ford. Ita, like Stephen and Jesus, was committed to living a life that showed God’s love for people. And she chose to do that by living among the persecuted and oppressed in El Salvador during the early 1980s. Not so long ago. She lived with them, and fed them, and stood in solidarity with them, like Jesus and the poor of his time, because that was what it meant to her to live the love of Christ. The day before her death, she quoted Archbishop Oscar Romero, another martyr, when she said "Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, the one who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, be tortured, to be held captive - and to be found dead." Ita Ford, like Stephen and like Jesus, took to heart God’s love for the world and lived it to her fullest.

But there is a problem when you live your life like that. There is a problem when you live out God’s love in the world, when you stand in solidarity with the oppressed and rejected, when you feed those whom people want to starve, when you love those whom people are dedicated to destroying. The problem is that there are people who want to stop you. The darkness hates the light. Evil hates good. People who have built their lives on the backs of others, people who rely on the oppression of others to survive, well, they’re not too happy when someone tries to take those things away from them. And they will do anything and everything to stop that from happening. Including kill.

And that’s what happened to Jesus, and to Stephen, and to Ita. These people, and all martyrs, were so committed to living their lives loving others that the only way to stop them was to kill them. And so Jesus was nailed to a cross, Stephen was stoned to death, and Ita... Well, on December 2nd, 1980, Ita and three other women were kidnapped by the National Guard of El Salvador - who evidently did not like the way they lived out God’s love - and they were taken into the countryside, were abused, and then murdered. It was the only way to stop them.

But here’s the thing: the darkness has not overcome the light and God’s will is for life, not death, to flourish.

And it does. Jesus Christ, who, because of the way he loved, was crucified, died, and was buried, on the third day was raised from the dead. He was given new life. Through Jesus, God showed us that God is committed, God has a covenant with us, that precludes the permanence of death. In the resurrection of Christ, we see that living a life that brings God’s love to all people actually results in the power of death being broken. Yes, we die, but we are promised the same new life that Christ received, and in our dying, the world is given new life.

The life that Jesus lived, that caused him to die on a cross, that life has changed the world. That way of living, that way of loving, has inspired millions of people to care for those less fortunate than themselves. Aside from Stephen and Ita Ford, there’s the Salvation Army, the Quakers, the Red Cross, Mother Theresa, World Vision, Habitat for Humanity - the list goes on of people and organizations who were inspired by Jesus to serve the poor. The number of lives they have touched because of that are too many to count, and the effect is new life for the world. And no darkness can stop that light and that love from spreading.

So, the question I always ask, what does that mean for us? How does this apply to our lives?
Well, we are called, each one of us, to live the lives of martyrs. Now, that sounds tough, but I believe that it’s true: we are all called to live lives that witness to God’s love for the world, and we are called to live them in ways that provoke others. What I mean is that if our choice of who to love and serve does not anger others, then maybe we have to consider whether or not we’ve made radical enough choices. Now, this doesn’t have to be done in El Salvador, or in Greece, or in some remote country of the world. Some of you might, indeed, be called to go there. But most of us are called to be witnesses - martyrs - right where we are, in this time, in this place. At this exact moment, I can think of no better example of that than Dru Stewart, the teenager who, just a few weeks ago, in this city, stood up for a pregnant, unwed mother, and was killed because of it. Like Dru, we are called to love the strangers and outcasts who are already in our lives, to keep company with those less fortunate than us on our own streets, in our own homes, at our own workplaces. We are called to make every single day of our lives a witness to the love of Christmas, and Easter, and to the new life that God has promised.

We can expect opposition - from others, who don’t like the company we keep, from friends, from strangers, even from other Christians. We can expect opposition from ourselves - from our own doubts, from our own fears. But we are called to go through that opposition to the other side, to move from the darkness to the light.

By now, you might be thinking, well, not me. I’m not called. I don’t have what it takes. I’m not that brave. Well, no, you’re not. Neither am I. Neither was Stephen, or Ita. But God - God gives us what we need to accept that calling. God gives us the Holy Spirit. The reading in Acts makes it very clear that Stephen was only able to do what he did because he was filled with the Spirit of God. Jesus did what he did because he was filled with the Spirit of God. Even Zechariah, the prophet from the Old Testament who told the king that God was angry with him, he, too, could only do that because he was filled with the Spirit of God. And so are we.

So there you have it - there’s the reason St. Stephen’s Day, the day of the martyrs, follows immediately after Christmas. We proclaim that the birth of Christ did indeed change the world. And now we know that it’s changed, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, through our witness. It’s not easy, it’s not always safe, but God has empowered us to be witnesses and, through our actions, the love shown to us on Christmas does indeed change the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Fri, Dec 24, 2004 - Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-10

Isn’t Christmas wonderful when you’re a kid? You know that one, shining day of perfection is coming, when everything is lights and food, presents and laughter, and the family all gets along. You can’t sleep at night waiting for the magic of Christmas, and the world just glows.

But then you get older, and it doesn’t seem quite as magical. If we could all just stop on Christmas, and not go on to the next day, it would be great, but we know that there’s Boxing Day, and then maybe a few days off, and then life pretty much goes back to the way it was before: the money’s tight, the kids fight, the parents get sick. Nothing really seems to have changed; Christmas doesn’t really seem to have made a difference. It ends up being just the same old thing as it was last year.

But I’m here to tell you that it’s not. That the Christmas story we just heard - this version of the birth of Jesus - is so radical and unexpected and so absolutely outrageous that if we heard it for the first time as adults, I suspect that we might, like the shepherds, be completely overwhelmed. The story of Jesus’ birth is iconoclastic - it completely breaks the mould on what we’ve come to expect from power and grandeur - that it really changes the world.

The realization that something unusual is going on really hits for the first time when the angel makes the proclamation to the shepherds. Up to this point in the story, things seem pretty normal. We have the sad, but not unusual, situation of a couple: poor and forced to relocate for political reasons, who have their first baby boy in the back of an inn, among the cows and the horses. It’s a situation not unlike ones that go on every day in the world - poor women around the world have their children on the dirt floors of their homes, in the fields where they work, by the side of the road where they happen to go into labour, all because they don’t have the resources to go to a hospital, or pay for a midwife, or even take the day off from working. Sometimes these women are married, sometimes they’re alone. But all of them, like Mary and the baby Jesus, find themselves on the edges of society, with nobody to care that they’re there, or to notice if they’re gone. They are, in a word, unremarkable.

Except that, and here’s where we discover the outrageousness of this story, except that there is something so remarkable about this birth, and more particularly this baby, that a host of angels - not just one - a host, bursts into the sky above Bethlehem praising, singing, glorifying God for what has just happened. The Bible has no story of such a choir happening before, and it has no story of such a choir happening again. Nothing like this birth had happened before or since. But what’s so special about this birth and this baby? What’s so special about a son being born to a poor couple in a barn?

Well, this baby, this poor, seemingly unremarkable baby was, in fact, a Saviour. Can you imagine? Listen carefully - the angel didn’t say that the baby was going to become a Saviour. The angel said that the baby already was a Saviour. This baby, who was born to unwed parents, apparently without any extended family to take them in in their hometown, this baby was the Messiah - God’s own anointed one. Now you and I know that Saviour-Messiahs aren’t babies. They’re grown adults, with impressive careers; people who’ve spent a lifetime preparing for the moment of deliverance. They’re not crying, flailing babies. And yet, here we are....

And there’s more. The angel goes on to say that this baby, sleeping in the feedbox of a bunch of cows, this baby whose parents couldn’t afford to bribe the innkeeper for a room, is the Lord. Now, the only one who went around in those days with the title "Lord" was the Emperor Augustus. He was the one with the money, and the power. He was the one, with trumpets and heralds to announce his coming, who was the Lord. He was the one, with the rich palaces in Rome and people obeying his every whims, who was the Lord. Not this little tiny baby, whose birth was heralded by a few clucking chickens, and who was wrapped in cloth. This could not possibly be the Lord, the ruler of the known world. And yet, according to the angels, he was. This baby, who would normally have grown up to be just another poor Jew in the oppressive Roman Empire, this baby who was not rich or powerful or mighty or any of the things that Lords were supposed to be, this baby was the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord.

Talk about radical and unexpected and completely outrageous! To say that the people who heard and saw this were "amazed" is probably the understatement of the year! God had done something so new and so generous and so beyond the realm of anything that anybody could ever have predicted (except the prophets, of course), that most people couldn’t even understand it. God broke apart every expectation and stereotype that people might have about Saviours and Lord and what it meant to have power, and God remade a new image of a Saviour in the form of a tiny baby. And then God gave this baby to us. "To you" is born this day, proclaimed the angel. Not to Mary, not to Joseph, not even to God, but to you. For you. This amazing birth, this outrageous baby-Messiah, was born to you, a gift of sheer, unconditional love. And this gift changed the world. This gift made the world a new place, one of joy and peace and, most importantly, hope.

It’s hard to see it now. The world this past year has tended to be a place that has made us feel depressed and despairing of any real change. This year we have been confronted with daily deaths in Iraq, with the massacres in the Sudan, with the staggering cost of AIDS in Africa. It seems like every week we have heard of a teenager in Toronto being killed for one reason or another. In our own lives this year we may have experienced families breaking up, or slowly growing farther apart. We have probably been touched, in one way or another, by debilitating illness, or the slow, steady decline that comes with growing older, or maybe even by death. Every day seems to have been like the day before it, there seems to be no expectation of change, and the future looks dim. And by the end of the year, hope is hard to come by.
But the coming of Jesus into the world, the unexpected and unprecedented birth of the Messiah, in a barn in the middle of nowhere tells us that that is simply not the case. Because with Jesus we have something new, something never done before. And with this new thing, we have reason to hope.

Because this new thing, which has been given to us in the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ, is a gift of love that changes the world. You see, even though on Christmas we focus on Jesus’ birth, that’s just the beginning. In fact, the way Jesus began his life is only remarkable in the context of what he did with that life. And what Jesus did is live a life of transformative love. What I mean is that Jesus lived in such a way that his love for the world, his love for sinners and outcasts, for rejects and losers, his love transformed everyone he came into contact with. His love taught people that, no matter what, they were children of God, and cherished. His love taught people that there was nothing they could do that would ever estrange them from God, or ever keep them from God’s side. And his birth, death, and resurrection are proof of that.

Through Jesus’ birth, we saw that God was determined to do a new thing, crafted out of love, and through Jesus’ death, we saw that this new thing was love, the love of God, and it new no bounds, and would let nothing get in its way. And through his resurrection, we saw that nothing, absolutely nothing, could stop this love from coming to us - not even death.

And this changes the world. This gives us hope. Because in Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, we see that we are not doomed to repeat the cycles of violence and war, we are not tied to death and despair. In Jesus, we see those cycles broken, we see that love does make a difference, and that life, not death, has the last word. We see that light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness is simply not able to overcome it.

And this light gives us new eyes to see the world. I described to you all the ways in which the world this year has been a depressing place. But with eyes of light, and hope, and love, we can see something new. We see that, according to the Stockholm International Peace Institute [] despite the news time devoted to the devastation in Iraq and Afghanistan the number of wars and armed conflicts has actually dropped significantly in the past ten years. And, the number of people "killed in battle" is the lowest number the world has seen since WWII. With eyes of hope we see that the crime rate in Toronto has actually dropped over the past few years. It’s true that the rate of violence among youth has skyrocketed, but we also see youth like Dru Stewart, who stand up to bullies and protect the weak, even if it costs them their lives. With eyes of hope we see that love does change things, that families do reconcile, that babies being born can bring peace to the world, that people really are reaching out to care for the strangers and outcasts and sinners in their midst.

We are not without hope. Jesus’ birth, the sending by God of a Son into our world, has brought about a new thing. And this new thing, this Jesus, Emmanuel - God-with-us, is in us, changing us. We are not doomed to be the same people we have been. We are not consigned to the darkness. We are given Jesus Christ, the ultimate example of transformative love, and that means that when we go out into the world, we bring light to the darkness of others, we bring peace where there is violence, and we bring new life where previously there has only been death.

And really, when you think about it, that is the most magical and outrageous part of our Christmas story. It’s not just that God brought the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, to us as a poor little baby, thereby changing the world forever. It’s also that God is using us, God is using each one of you, to do the same - to change the world. And this is a reason for rejoicing, for thanking God for the wonderful thing that God has done and is continuing to do in us through Jesus Christ. Most importantly, this is our reason for hope.

So, as you reflect on the gift of love lying in the manger, may the hope and light of Christmas Eve be with you and your loved ones, today and every day. Amen.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Sun, Dec 19, 2004 - Advent Reality

Sorry, there's no sermon from me today. Instead, we had a guest speaker, Jan Drews, from Canadian Lutheran World Relief.

She talked about the work they do, and how when we contribute to that work, we are living out Emmanuel - God-With-Us - in the world. It was a lovely sermon that helped us to remember to reach out to others.

My Christmas Eve sermon will be up Friday night, so see you then!

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Sun, Dec 12, 2004 - Advent Dream

Isaiah 35:1-10

Luke 1:47-55

James 5:7-10

Matthew 11:2-11

What is your dream? Do you have a dream? Most people start out in their lives with dreams. Usually it’s a dream for a better life - a bigger house, a new car, higher education for the children, a beautiful home. Some people dream of starting a new business, or of bringing their family together, or of a life without pain. Our dreams can change over time - we might look at a dream from our past, and wonder what we were thinking. We may have dreams now that we never even thought of when we were younger. We might dream bigger, or smaller; we might share our dreams with others or keep them to ourselves. What is your dream?

I hope that you have a dream. Some people don’t. Dreams are, after all, somewhat tricky. They require us to be vulnerable, to hope for something, to risk disappointment. Some dreams don’t come true, after all. Sometimes it’s because the circumstances never worked out, sometimes because our frail humanity got in the way of achieving them, sometimes because they were the wrong dreams. Sometimes, no matter how hard you wish for something, and have grand visions and work really hard, sometimes, even then, your dream doesn’t come true. And that can be really disillusioning.

, on the other hand, as the songwriter Peter Gabriel said in his song, "Mercy Street," everything you see, all the things around us, "were once just a dream in somebody’s head." So, there is a point to dreaming after all. Dreaming makes the world a better place. Without them, we would have nothing.

Well, today we begin the third week of Advent, and although your current dreams probably centre around what you want for Christmas and "visions of sugar-plums dance in [your] heads," there is a common dream that we are all waiting for. There is a dream that we all hope will come true. It is God’s dream.

Yes, God has a dream for the world, one that God began dreaming when the world was first made. And God’s dream is that the world would be a different place, that it would be a better place. Right now, as I’m sure you know, the world is not such a great place to be. There is fighting everywhere - from wars, to terrorists, to gangs, to little girls getting shot on buses, to teenagers being stabbed at school. Not so great. There is greed everywhere - food goes to waste in North America, particularly at holiday parties, while people starve in Africa; people demand cut-rate prices for goods here, which means that people work at slave-labour in China and India. Not so great. There is discrimination everywhere - based on the colour of a person’s skin, to the way they speak English, to the amount of money they have, to what gender they are, to what their sexual orientation is. Not so great. There is evil everywhere, perpetrated by one group of people against another, and every single one of us here is implicated in that, in one way or another. This is not the way we are meant to be. This is not the way the world is meant to be. This is not what God has dreamed for us.

God’s dream is so much bigger and better than what we have envisioned for ourselves that we can only express it using the metaphors of poetry. And today, in our Scripture readings, the poets Isaiah and Luke give us tantalizing glimpses of what God’s dream for the world. Isaiah begins with the beautiful imagery of a desert nourished by water. Now, I’ve never been to a desert - not like the Arizona desert, or the Sahara, but I have been to the wilderness of Judea, and it’s pretty desolate. There’s dry, dusty sand everywhere, and the only things growing are measly little shrubs that don’t account for hardly anything at all. So I can understand why Isaiah’s vision of water in the desert would be so powerful to people. He talks about flowers blooming all over, and water springing up everywhere, clean, fresh water. Just imagine that, life everywhere. It’s as if all the parking lots in all the malls in Toronto were to suddenly burst into bloom, as if the cracks in the pavement would start sprouting luscious greenery and trees would take over the empty strip malls and grow fruit and provide shade in the middle of our terrible summers. The air would be clean and refreshing, instead of brown and polluted. Can you imagine how beautiful that would be?

But Isaiah doesn’t just stop with nature. Isaiah knows that God’s dream isn’t just limited to the environment around us. Isaiah goes on to talk about how God’s dream for the world involves people. Those who are ill, those whose hands are weak, whose knees are unsteady, those who are hard of hearing, who can’t see very well, we might even say those whose hips are bad, or whose backs ache, or whose mental faculties are breaking down, all those people will be made whole again. This is God’s dream for the world - that people’s bodies no longer betray them, that people’s bodies give them joy and make them happy; that the weak and unsteady and frail will dance like deer, or maybe like teenagers at a party. Can you imagine this dream?
In Isaiah’s vision of God’s new world, people don’t get lost. They don’t get caught between the lesser of two evils, they don’t get torn by trying to do what’s right, they don’t get misled by people trying to corrupt them, they don’t get taken advantage of by others. Instead, they travel along "the Holy Way" of life. They know where they are going, they know who they are, and they are protected by God.

Luke, too, talks about God’s dream for the people of this world. For Luke, God’s dream for us is that we are all equal, that those who are most oppressed in the world, those who are marginalised and vilified, that those people will be given places of honour while those who have spent their lifetime thinking themselves better than others will realize that they are not. God’s dream is that all people will have enough - that those who starve will be fed, and that nobody will waste food. God’s dream is that those in society who "aren’t worth it" will realize that they are worth it, that God considers them worth it. This is God’s dream for us. It’s a beautiful dream.

And it’s coming true. It’s not completely true yet, obviously, and that’s why we still have the season of Advent every year, because we’re still waiting for God’s dream to become a reality. But the work has begun. Two thousand years ago, when a tiny baby was born to a poor couple, when the Son of God was born as the lowest of the low, God’s dream was coming true. And as this baby grew to be Jesus, and as Jesus walked through Israel healing people, welcoming outcasts, and forgiving sinners, God’s dream was coming true. As Jesus died on the cross to show people that love overcomes everything, God’s dream was coming true. And today, two thousand years later, as we sit and listen to what God wants for the world, and as we take part in that vision, God’s dream is coming true.

It will take time. Our Advent waiting isn’t over. It will take time for God’s dream to come fully true, but we know, we KNOW, that since it is God who dreams, it will come to pass. So, as James said in our second reading for today, "Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.. . . Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord." God has a wonderful dream for us, the Lord is coming to make that dream come true, and that dream is making the world a new place. Thanks be to God!

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Sun, Dec 5, 2004 - The Spirit of the Lord

Isaiah 11:1-10

Romans 15:4-13

Matthew 3:1-12

Well, it’s a wilderness out there! There’s all kinds of chaos, people everywhere, voices yelling about the upcoming season, how everything’s going to be perfect, noise, noise, noise, and the entire experience out there in the wilderness can be described as exhausting, bewildering, and stressful. It just makes you yearn for that time of peace, when the wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the baby goat. In the wilderness, it seems as if the wolf and the leopard have already devoured the baby lamb and they’re coming after you next.

Think I’m talking about the shopping malls these days? Well, I could be, but actually, I’m talking about the wilderness where John the Baptist was, the wilderness of Judea, where our Gospel story takes place. Whether you’re talking about the desert in Judea or the chaos of the malls, a lot of things are similar. For one thing, they’re both places that make us wish for the world to be a better place. In the wilderness of Judea, John was constantly proclaiming that things were about to change, that the kingdom of heaven, a place of justice and mercy and life, was coming and that all sadness and despair and inequality would be banished. And in the malls, we hear a similar message - one that tells us that soon we will be happy and content, and all feelings of loneliness and sadness and meaninglessness will be gone, and everything will be different. Granted, John was talking about the coming of Jesus Christ, and the malls are talking about the coming gift-giving and unbelievable sales season, which they coincidentally call the Christmas season, but the desire for a better world is still there.

And as in the wilderness so in the malls, and so we have all kinds of people coming out seeking that kind of happiness. In Judea, people from all around the neighbouring area went out to see John and to hear about Jesus, and here, well, the malls are just packed. Everybody wants a part of the new, wonderful world.

But along with all the genuine seekers, there are those who are insincere. There are those who go out, not because they’re truly seeking something better, but because they want to see what the fuss is all about. Because they want to do what everybody else is doing. Maybe even because they want to laugh at everybody else for their foolish hope. The Pharisees and the Sadducees went out, not because they really cared about what John was saying, but because, they wanted to see what was drawing everybody else. They weren’t interested in a new kingdom, they were just going to carry on the way they always had. Their motivations were wrong. And it happens in the malls, too. People go out, not because they’re interested in Christmas, or even in any of the other religious holidays, but because they just want to buy more stuff. Everyone else is doing it, and so they want to, too. They’re only seeking gratification, not real change.

And how do we react to these people, to these insincere seekers? Well, John called the Pharisees a "brood of vipers!" and warned them that they were about to get chopped down by an axe and then thrown into the "unquenchable fire." Pretty violent imagery! John had absolutely zero tolerance for those who came seeking Christ for their own personal gain or glorification. He was sure that when Jesus came, boy, were these fake believers going to get it! No mercy, no second chances, only judgement and condemnation.

Now, we might not be as harsh as John, but, let’s admit it, when we go out to the malls and see all the people clamouring for the "next big thing" instead of the light of Christ, we get annoyed. We get resentful and angry towards these people who "don’t know the real meaning of Christmas," who don’t know the real Christmas story, who think that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a legitimate Christmas hymn. And we sometimes even secretly think, like John did out loud, that when Jesus comes, boy, are they going to be in for a surprise. Boy, are they going to be sorry they spent more time shopping than they did attending Christmas service. And the sooner Jesus comes and brings an end to the craziness of this world, the better!

But here’s the thing. Along with John’s wilderness of anger and retribution, we also have this gorgeous vision of a new world laid out for us in Isaiah. Isaiah, who’s just seen his country laid waste by invading armies, not just once but twice, nevertheless manages to speak beautiful words of hope and light. He expresses his belief that God will cause something new to come out of all the chaos and destruction he’s experiencing. God will cause a green shoot to grow out of the chopped off stump of the tree of Jesse. Not only that, but God will bring about a time when all of the hurt and destruction will be ended, when the nations will be genuine in searching for a new way of living, when, as we might put it, the old ways of mass consumerism and meaning through merchandise will be replaced with meaning that comes from living in God’s glory.

So how do we get from John’s wilderness to Isaiah’s new kingdom of God? How do we move the world from this choas it’s in to the paradise that awaits it? Well, we don’t do it by behaving like John with the Pharisees and Sadducees, that’s for sure. Although we want the authenticity of those seeking the kingdom of heaven, although we want the world to experience the true light of Christ, the way we’re currently going about it, complaining about insincerity and being resentful of shoppers, just isn’t going to work. People have never moved towards the light because somebody yelled at them to. The Judeans didn’t follow Jesus because John scared them into doing it. People don’t truly welcome Jesus into their hearts when they’re forced to under threat of condemnation. They do it when they can see for themselves that the light is truly a better place to be, when they can be shown that the kingdom of God is a far nicer place than warehouses full of 50% off electronics. People embraced Jesus when they were shown that the kingdom he was bringing was full of love and mercy and welcome, not judgement and condemnation. In fact, it’s only when someone comes along who can truly communicate that message to us that we find ourselves opening up to God.

And that only happens, that true communication of God’s love for us, only happens when the messenger is endowed with the Spirit of the Lord. Which, Isaiah tells us, is the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. It takes a lot of spirit to tell people about the kingdom of God! Now we know, through John the Baptist and through the accounts of the Gospel writers that Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, was one such person who had the Spirit of the Lord. Jesus came, and he was able to deal with the seekers, both the sincere ones and the insincere ones, in such a way that they did not feel condemned but loved, they did not feel judged but forgiven. That they did not fear the kingdom but welcomed it. Jesus had the Spirit to do that.

But Jesus wasn’t the only one who was given this spirit of the Lord. We are, too. Yes, us. We are given the same Spirit of the Lord. If the words sound familiar to you, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, spirit of counsel and might, spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, take your LBW and open it up to page 124, in the service of Baptism. There, near the top of the page, you’ll see that we pray for this Spirit to come upon the people, usually babies, that we baptize, and we repeat the prayer again when they are confirmed as teenagers. We prayed these words, we prayed for God’s Spirit when You were baptized. And, since this is no idle prayer, we know that God hears us, and we know that God sends this spirit into all baptized Christians. And that’s awesome - not only do we have Jesus, the Son of God, working to make the kingdom of heaven a reality, but now there’s millions of us Christians who are helping, as well.

And that means that the kingdom of God is closer than we think. And Advent is only as long as it takes us to understand that. Now, I know that I’m messing a little with the seasons of the church year, that I’ve now dragged us straight from Advent into the middle of Pentecost, but even though it’s only the 2nd Sunday of Advent, we’re not pretending that Jesus hasn’t been born, or that he hasn’t died and been resurrected, or that he hasn’t sent the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts. Jesus Christ has indeed done all of those things. And that means that we are indeed closer to the day that the kingdom will come than we were before. Thanks to the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, the gap between John’s wilderness and Isaiah’s paradise is getting smaller every time we go out and speak words of love and joy instead of anger and vengeance. Thanks to the presence of God’s Spirit, the Spirit of the Lord, the kingdom of God comes among us even more fully every time we allow that spirit to shine forth from our hearts, speaking words of reconciliation and forgiveness instead of axes and fire.

Isn’t that wonderful? The world is not doomed to live in John’s wilderness forever, with the peace of Isaiah constantly out of reach. People aren’t doomed to be cut down and burned in unquenchable fire. The vision of wolf with lamb, lion with calf, children playing with snakes is becoming a reality. God has already begun the work of reconciliation, and is continuing that work through us. So, as we make our way through Advent, waiting for Christmas, waiting for Christ to come again, waiting for the kingdom of heaven to come among us, we pray "may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." Amen.