Sunday, December 25, 2005

Dec 25, 2005 - Christmas Day

John 1:1-14

Who here can remember the last time they saw a sunrise? How would you describe it? I'm more of a night person than a morning person, although these days I'm neither, so I don't see the sunrise very often, but I love those moments in a movie when they show a fast-motion shot of the sun coming up over the horizon, all shimmering, and then they track it getting higher and higher in the sky, and they show the shadows on the buildings disappearing until everything is all bright. Of course, the thing with sunrises, and with the sun in general, is that you can't actually look directly at it. It's too bright - there's just no way to face it directly. But we can all appreciate the beauty of the sun by looking at it indirectly - by seeing what it does for the world - bringing light, getting rid of the darkness and shadows, making us feel warm, making plants grow. Even in the middle of the winter, there's nothing like the feeling of the sun on your face. But like I said, we can never look at it directly.

The same is true of God. We could never, in a million years, face God directly or ever see God as God really is. Nobody ever has - Moses asked, before God sent him off to Egypt - and God only showed him the divine backside. Elijah tried, and God came to him as silence. God has come to us in pillars of fire, or in awesome silences, or in thundering voices, but never directly. But that's for our own safety, because we couldn't handle it. God is too different, too glorious, too much like the sun - bright and powerful - for us to stand it. I imagine that if we were in the direct presence of God, we would probably spontaneously combust, like a space vehicle that gets too close to the sun.

But that does pose a bit of a dilemma for God and for us. After all, what kind of relationship can you have with someone who can't actually be with you? Sure, there's respect, and awe, and even a distant kind of love, but that's it. You can't touch the sun, or hug it, or feel its hand on your shoulder when you're upset. And that's how it is with God - we can't touch God, or hug God, or feel the divine hand on our shoulder. While God can and does love us, we have a hard time feeling that love in any real way, since we have never experienced God in any real way. We have a hard time believing that God is really with us, or for us, or even among us.

Well, our Gospel reading for today tells us what God did about this problem. God sent the light into the world so that we could see who God really is. The Word became light as a reflection of God's light, so that we could see God's glory and all the wonderful things that God does for us - but, and here's the key thing - God sent the light into the world as a human. "The Word became flesh and lived among us."

I want to take a minute and just reflect on what that means, that the Word became flesh. Take a look at your hand. What do you notice? Can you see the veins running underneath the skin? Does anybody have blisters? Paper cuts? What about calluses? I have one on my right hand, on my middle finger where the pen rests when I'm writing. What about hangnails? Scars? I have a scar where a wart was burned off when I was a kid. Our hands are probably the most human part of us, and when we talk about the Word becoming flesh, we're talking about the Word, the light of God, becoming someone with hands. God became Christ who had hands - probably blistered and cut, probably scarred and with hangnails. No doubt, as a carpenter, Jesus had banged his thumb more than once with the hammer, or sliced himself with a plane. Perfectly normal for a human, although not very dignified for a god.

So why would God do this? Why would God send Christ to become flesh among us? Why would God want the light that reflects the divine to become solid and able to be damaged? The first reason is that it's the only way to limit the divine light so that we can look at it. When God's light becomes contained in human flesh, then we can look directly at it, and see how amazing it is face-to-face. We aren't stuck watching the side effects anymore - we don't have to watch the disappearing shadows or the scenery getting brighter. We can look straight at the Son and see the light directly. It's true it's dimmed, like looking at the sun through welder's glass, but it does help us to see God directly. That's one reason God did this miraculous thing.

The second reason is because in Christ, in the Word made flesh, the world can finally touch and see and be held by God. We can finally experience God in a very real way, and know how much God loves us by how God is with us as one of us. God, in Christ, sat down and ate with people, went fishing with them, danced with them at weddings, cried with them at funerals. The Word made flesh touched them, walked side by side with them - small things really, but the things that we do with the people we love, the things that make a difference. It's amazing really, that God would go to all this trouble just so we would know that God loves us, and so that we could see God for ourselves, but that's God.

Now, you might say that's all well and good, but Jesus isn't around anymore. We can't see and touch and hug Christ anymore. We can't see the divine light before us anymore. Well, yes and no. It's true - nobody has walked with Christ for generations. On the other hand, though, the miracle that Christ became flesh at Christmas isn't over. It's continuing as Christ comes to be in us - as God makes us the flesh that shows God's love to the world, and as God makes us the ones to reflect God's light into the world. Our hands, our scarred and earthly hands, are made to become the hands of God, reaching out to others, to one another, to touch and hug and offer comfort. It's remarkable that God would come to be a human at all, but that God would become so humble and limited as to come to be in us - living in us, never leaving us, never abandoning us, that is why Christmas still has meaning for us today.

It's a little bit weird that God would dim his own light just so that we could see him, or show his greatest act of divine power by becoming human. That's not how gods usually operate. But that's how our God operates, coming to us in humility and vulnerability and love, so that we would know that God is truly Emmanuel - God-with-us - and God for us and God among us. Amen.

Dec 24, 2005 - Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

I wonder if Mary expected things to turn out a little differently. From the moment the angel Gabriel came to her to announce that she would be giving birth to the Son of God, I imagine that the birth scenario she had pictured in her head was a little different from what actually happened. Mary probably expected to give birth in Nazareth, at her home, helped by female friends and relatives, like her cousin Elizabeth, comforted by the familiarity of faces and surroundings. Those would have been reasonable expectations for her, especially seeing as how this was her first child.

But, boy, did things happen differently than Mary expected, or even than we would have expected. For one thing, Mary was nowhere near her home when it happened. She wasn't even in a house - she was in a stable, for goodness sake! Talk about not meeting your expectations - I mean, really, who expects to give birth in what is essentially a barn? And on top of that, the family support that Mary expected wasn't there - no mother, or sister, or aunt, or neighbour - only Joseph, who had probably never seen a woman give birth in his life. Mary was essentially on her own for this birth, and I'm pretty sure that's not what she expected.

And of course, if she had had any other expectations because this particular baby was Jesus, the Son of the Most High - you know, like maybe there would be angels to welcome the baby, or maybe even Gabriel might show up and say, "Good job, Mary," since he was the once who was there at the beginning, well if she had had any of those expectations, and they would have been reasonable, to be sure, well then she would have been disappointed then, too. Sure, there were angels, but they came to the smelly shepherds in the field, not to Mary who had laboured so hard to bring forth God's Son. They showed God's glory to some guys who hadn't done anything - Mary and Joseph only got to see the cows and donkeys that were in the stable with them. Some birth of the Saviour of Israel! The whole thing must have been a bit of a let- down for May, and I think it's safe to say that that very first Christmas didn't live up to expectations.

We sometimes find that to be true for our Christmases, too. Christmas is a time of expectation for us. We spend the four weeks of Advent getting ready for it religiously speaking, and even longer shopping and putting up decorations and making plans. Although most of us haven't spent nine months getting ready, like Mary did, we still come to this day with a lot of energy invested in certain hopes and desires for what the holiday will be like. In our heads, we all have a picture of what Christmas is supposed to look like - families gathered lovingly around the Christmas tree, waiting patiently to open presents, children gratefully thanking their parents for whatever they've gotten, feelings of love and warmth and peace filling our homes. And we expect, or at least hope, that after all our hard work, our Christmas will look something like that picture.

But Christmas doesn't alway happen that way, and for some people it never does. We can feel let down at this time of year, we can feel that the season doesn't live up to our expectations. Where we might remember our childhood Christmases as being times of unparalleled joy, where every present brought happiness, except for maybe the socks, sometimes we find now that Christmas has lost the magic it once had. Presents need to be more elaborate and more expensive than past years in order to elicit the same grateful response. The joy we expected to get from the gifts is diminished.

Where we might remember past Christmases as times when the family got together and everyone was happy and the house was filled with love and warmth, sometimes we find now that that's no longer the case. Sometimes people aren't there who used to be - they've passed away, or families have split up, or they're too far away or too busy to travel. Sometimes we see with adult eyes what we missed as kids - that despite smiling profusely, Mom and Aunt Betsy really can't stand each other, that jolly Uncle Rory is actually an alcoholic, or that Grandma and Grandpa are getting older and this might be their last Christmas. The love and fulfillment we expect to get from our family gatherings isn't always there the way we thought it would be.

Even the Christmas Eve service doesn't always bring the peace we expect it to. Sometimes the beautiful carols aren't enough to take us away from all the things we have to finish before tomorrow, from the problems that we know will face us again in the New Year. Sometimes the Christmas story just doesn't hit home the way it used to. And again, our expectations aren't met.

We're disappointed when that happens, just as Mary must have been a little disappointed by the way her son came into the world. Now, Christmas isn't always like that - sometimes Christmas really is magical and full of love and warmth. But everybody, at some time or another, has had a Christmas that's been a let-down. And when that happens, we can find ourselves wondering, where is God in all of this? After all, this isn't just any holiday - this is a religious holiday, and we expect to feel the presence of God somehow, whether it's in the family gathered together, the holiness of the Christmas Eve service, or the joy of thoughtful gifts. But when Christmas doesn't live up to our expectations, when we feel disappointed somehow in the holiday, we start to lose hope. We start wondering if God has somehow opted out of this one, or, more seriously, if we're doing something to keep God out, if maybe we've been too busy meeting our own expectations at Christmas to truly feel Christ.

Part of me wants to say, yes, that's it. That when we get so preoccupied with gifts and cooking and family, it makes sense that we would be too preoccupied for God, and that God has sent Christ elsewhere, to people who can appreciate him. It makes sense that God would only be with those who expect their happiness to rest solely with Christ, and not with the perfectly trimmed tree or the present they've been waiting for all year. It makes sense that God, in fact, might be disappointed in us, that we have failed God's expectations, and so has stayed away.

But God isn't about making sense. Christmas isn't about making sense. In fact, the point of Christmas is that God sidestepped all of our expectations and sent Christ to us in the most disappointing of places and in the most unexpected way. You see, the remarkable thing about Christmas is that God chose to come as a human, the complete opposite of a god, someone who was born and who would, shockingly for a god, die, someone who would feel love, but also pain, who would be vulnerable in ways that God was not expected to be, who was on the same level as the paltry humans who worshipped the divine. Even more unexpected, God chose to make the Son of God not a great high king, or a mighty military ruler, but, disappointingly to some, an ordinary joe - one of us. The world expected God to come as someone great and grandiose - the world did not expect God to come as a poor baby born in a barn with no fanfare whatsoever, and yet that is what God chose to do. God chose to come at a time when no preparations could be made, when the city and country was in chaos because of the imperial registration, to a couple whom the world didn't even know existed. God chose to be with us in Christ in a way that none of us would - or did - expect.

And so I'm sure Mary wasn't disappointed for long. After all, the baby she had carried for nine months was born alive and healthy - a miracle in itself at that time. The angels did appear to sing of her son's birth - a whole host of them, even if they were in a field in the middle of nowhere. And Mary was reunited with her friends and family who helped her to care for the new infant. But even more, despite the unexpected birth situation, the baby did grow up to be the Saviour of the world - and not in a pop-star, Canadian Idol way. Christ brought life to the world not through power and greatness, through hob-nobbing with the celebrities, or brunching with heads-of-state. Christ brought life as the healer of the sick, the companion of the outcast, as the agent of God's forgiveness for all. God's promises to Mary at Jesus' conception did indeed come true - not, again, the way we would have expected, but, then, we know now that's not how God works. God doesn't come in grand ways, or in conventional ways, but in small and humble, unexpected ways.

Why? So that we would be comforted in our disappointments and failed expectations, because it's in those moments that we find God with us. You see, Christmas wasn't one day two thousand years ago and now it's over. God continues to send Christ to us in unexpected ways. Yes, Christ may very well come to us in the joy of presents and food, in the warmth of festivities and family - that's why they're so meaningful to us at this time of year. But, more importantly, Christ comes to us disguised in those moments of failed expectations and disappointments. Christ comes to us when we can't keep our family together, when the kids fight over the presents, when we're alone on Christmas Eve. Most importantly, Christ comes to us when we wonder where God is in all of the holiday disappointments, when we feel our most human and most disillusioned by our expectations, when we look for angels and see only barnyard animals, in others and in ourselves. God will come to you in this way. Christ will be with you this Christmas in this way. So don't lose heart when Christmas celebrations don't turn out the way you expect, when things are far from perfect, when they look nothing like you had hoped. Instead, take heart that God is working in unexpected ways in the world, sending Christ to you in the midst of your disappointments, tonight, tomorrow, and always. Glory to God in the highest heaven! Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Advent 4 - God Uses the Losers

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:47-55
Luke 1:26-38

"Great things come from great people." That's one of the keys to "Seven Steps to Greatness," according to internet columnist Daryl Gibson. Great things come from great people. That's the key to success in the world, isn't it? That if you want to do accomplish something great, you ask a great person to do it? When we're looking for someone to fill the new management position, we look for someone who has been doing a great job in their current place. When we're looking for someone to represent us in court, we look for a lawyer who has won all his cases. When we're looking for a doctor to perform surgery on us, we look for someone who has had successful surgeries and recoveries. When we want to accomplish the near impossible, we look for people who are winners, who are great. And we avoid those people we consider to be losers. We wouldn't hire somebody who has been fired from their last three jobs. We wouldn't hire a lawyer who has lost all his cases. We wouldn't put ourselves in the care of a surgeon whose patients have died. It's pretty simple, really. If we want to accomplish great things, we use great people. We don't use losers.

To a certain extent, that's what we see in the Bible, too. Now, you wouldn't think so at first glance. After all, we have a great many stories where God turns the underdog into the hero of the story. The youngest son, Isaac, gets the birthright from his older brother Esau. The youngest brother, Joseph, becomes right-hand man to the Pharoah and saves his family from starvation. The scrawny shepherd boy, David, becomes the king of Israel and the founder of a royal house that will last for generations. Even Jesus, the illegitimate son of a poor family, becomes the Lord and saviour of the world. So when I say that, by and large, our Bible stories don't concern themselves with losers, it would seem that I'm wrong.

But what we often overlook is that of the two groups of people represented in our Bible, one group is far and away more consistently lifted up than the other. One group appears to be the constant focus of God's attention while the other is barely mentioned. One group is considered to be "great" enough for God to use, while the other is considered too lowly for God's attention. Or at least, when God does use this lowly group, hardly anybody seems to notice, and almost nobody seems to have written it down.

Which means that when we do see God using this lowly group in the Bible, we have to sit up and take notice, because the story must have been exceptional for it to make it in the Bible. And today, we have one such exceptional story. It is a story about women. Yes, the two groups that people get divided into in the Bible are men and women. And, for the most part, it is men who are seen as agents of God's grace, as the ones bringing God's Word into the world. David, John the Baptist, Jesus - they are all men. Great men - I'm not denying that for a second, but men. Not women. The women who appear in the Bible are few and far between, and while it is sad, it shouldn't surprise us all that much. After all, the writers of the Bible lived in a time when women were the lowest of the low, when they were seen as unclean, unworthy, unacceptable, and completely unfit to be graced with God's presence. So, like I said, when we see stories about women in the Bible, we sit up and take notice, because here is God doing something absolutely remarkable - here is God turning the usual way of operating - to accomplish great things you use great people - on its head and here we see God using the lowest of the low to accomplish some of the greatest things ever.

Our story for today - the Gospel reading - is remarkable at the very least because it actually brings us to think about four women, not just one, and it draws both the Old and New Testament into the picture. And the first woman in our story that I want to lift up is Elizabeth. Now, although she doesn't show up until the end of our reading today, she is actually the first woman mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. Elizabeth was the wife of Zechariah, a priest, and was herself a descendant of Aaron, Moses' brother. As far as women went, she actually had quite a bit of status in her community. Or, she would have, if she wasn't barren. Even today, the inability to have children can cause women to feel bad about themselves, but back then, it was even worse. The ability to bear children was the reason men married women - they expected the women to give them children so that their name would be carried on. Without children, the men were considered almost worthless, and their wives even more so. So a woman who couldn't bear children, and who was "getting on in years" as Luke describes it, was a disgrace to her community. Like Elizabeth. She couldn't have children and she was getting old. (And just as a side-note, here we have the second reference to a woman, because here we are meant to think of Sarah, Abraham's wife, who was also old and childless, and ended up being the mother of the nation of Israel.)

But God took no account of Elizabeth's disgraceful state, and in fact seems to have favoured her because of it. We know this because God sends an angel to Elizabeth's husband, not, sadly, to Elizabeth herself, but to her husband Zechariah and tells him that Elizabeth is going to have a son, John. And not just any son. John will be "great in the sight of the Lord," as the Gospel tells it, and "will be filled with the Holy Spirit.. . . With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before [the Lord God], to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Pretty remarkable, eh? God uses Elizabeth, a woman, a barren woman, the lowest of the low, a loser - if you will, to bring forth God's Word in John the Baptist, the second holiest man in the Gospels. God uses a lowly person to accomplish something truly great.

But as great as Elizabeth's story is, it is nothing compared to the story of Mary. Or rather, to the story of God using Mary. Because let's be clear, here. Mary's story isn't great because it's about Mary, because she was the mild-mannered virgin who happily said yes to what God had planned. Mary's story is great because it's about God, how God used Mary to accomplish the greatest thing of all. The remarkable thing about the story of Mary is that God chose to use a teenage girl from an invaded people, who lived in an obscure town that nobody had heard of, who was nothing in herself, who was special only because of who she was engaged to. God used this lowly servant to bring forth God's Word incarnate, the promised messiah, the heir to the throne of David. In the story of Mary, we see God taking a nobody and making her the Mother of God, the greatest of all humans, men and women, through whom the Saviour of the world comes into the world.

Now, Mary herself acknowledges that what God is doing isn't about her when she sings her magnificat, our psalm for today. (And just as another side-note, here we have a reference to the fourth woman in our story. Mary's song is based on the song that Hannah sang, when she prayed in the Temple for God to send her a baby boy, one who ended up being Samuel, the great prophet whom God used to anoint David as king.) In both Mary's and Hannah's songs, they praise God for lifting up the lowly, for choosing the humble to do great things, for showing favour to the poor and hungry and oppressed. They praise God for showing forth God's Word in losers, as it were.

But that is something that we can count on God to do. We can count on God to use people like Mary and Elizabeth, women who counted for nothing in their time, because that is the epitome of God's grace. God takes people who, according to the world, least deserve it, who have done nothing to warrant it, who are totally unworthy and unacceptable, and God showers them with forgiveness and mercy and favour. That is grace. God "chose," as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, "what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who become for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption." That is grace - God choosing losers to accomplish great things.

And the ultimate show of God's undeserved grace, that begins at Christmas, well, it's not only Mary's story and Elizabeth's story, but it is your story, as well. That is, it is the story of all the lowly today, of the people in the world considered to be losers. The people who've been fired from their last three jobs, the lawyer who can't win a case, the doctor whose patients have died. To these people, and for these people, God came down to earth incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth, to save the world and to be Emmanuel - God-with-us. Through and with these people, God brings God's Word to the world, to demonstrate whom it is that God loves most. Not the winners. Not the great people. But the losers, the useless, the ignored, the despised.

So if you have ever felt yourself to be the lowest of the low, if you have ever considered yourself to be a complete loser, to be unworthy of attention or love, than take heart because God favours you, and God is using you to show forth God's Word in the world. It may seem hard to believe, especially when the world is constantly telling us that it's only the great who get used, but as Luther wrote in a piece on Mary's Magnificat, ". . . without any wavering or doubt, realize [God's] will toward you and firmly believe that [God] will do great things also to you, and is willing to do so." [Luther's Works Vol 21] That is the story of the Bible, the story of Elizabeth and Mary, the story of Christmas, and the story of Christ's coming kingdom as well. It is what we wait to celebrate, it is why we praise God as we do, and why we proclaim with hope and joy, "Come, Lord Jesus, come!" Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sun, Dec 11, 2005 - The Spirit Is Helping Us

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

So, at the beginning of Advent we learned about how Advent is about waiting. Us waiting not just for Christmas and the celebrations of Christ's birth, but also waiting for Christ to come again, to bring justice to the world and to make God's kingdom a reality on earth. And last week we learned that Advent is not just about us waiting for God, but about God waiting for us. That is, God is waiting for us to get ourselves adequately prepared before sending Christ so that we will be ready for the big day. And so last week I talked a bit about what preparations God expects us to make - how God expects us to "straighten out" - so to speak - so that Christ can come to us more quickly. Well, today I want to reflect a little more on what kind of preparations it is that we're called to make, and how God helps us to actually carry them out.

So to help us out we've got John the Baptist again this week. Last week he was talking about making "straight the way of the Lord" and we found that that meant repentance, and getting rid of the roadblocks, otherwise known as sins, in our own lives so that Christ could come to us. Well, this week the word associated with John is "witness." "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light." John the Baptist came, not to direct people to himself, but to point people to Jesus, who was coming. By John's actions and by what he said, he hoped that the people who saw and heard him would turn to Jesus, the true Messiah. By his actions and words, he was preparing the people to encounter Jesus, and Jesus' own radical actions and words.

And that is what we are called to do as well. I know that so often we think we are called to be like Jesus, but I wonder if we are rather called to be like John - if we are called to be witnesses and by our words and actions to point people to Christ, rather than to ourselves. Certainly in Advent that is what we are called to do - to prepare people not only for Christmas, but to prepare them for Christ coming again. So how do we do that? How do we prepare others to encounter Christ?

Well, I'm going to depart a bit from the traditional evangelism script and suggest that we don't do it by telling people about Jesus Christ. I mean, sure, if somebody asks you flat out about this Jesus person and why Christmas is so important, by all means go ahead and tell them the story. But I would hesitate to bring Jesus up without asking. And there're two reasons I say this. The first is that in the last century, Christians have not been particularly good witnesses for Christ. That is, a lot of nasty things have been done by Christians in the name of Christ, and people, naturally, have come to associate Christianity and Christ with those nasty things. Residential abuse, pedophile priests, dominion over creation, the oppression of women, the murder of gays, pre-emptive war - these things have all been done by Christians claiming to follow Christ. And Christians who don't agree with them, who find their actions horrific, have in fact been astonishingly unprotesting about it all. So whether we as Christians have perpetrated evil ourselves, or just stood by and said nothing about it, either way we have not been very good witnesses for Christ. We have done a very poor job of preparing the world for Christ to come again.

So that's one reason I would hesitate to prepare people by telling them about Christ. The second reason is quite simple - that telling people is not as effective as showing people. In other words, actions speak louder than words. Rather than using our words - which are beginning to mean less and less every day - to prepare people for Christ, it is far more powerful to use our actions. And the actions that best prepare people for Christ's coming again are actions that best witness to Christ, that best testify to who he is. Actions that show his love, his mercy, his compassion for sinners and outcasts, his desire that all be forgiven, his wish for justice.

This is how we witness to Christ, how we make our Advent preparations. Isaiah says it so poetically in our first reading, when he says that Lord has sent him to "bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour, . . . to comfort all who mourn." We are meant to go out into the world and proclaim the goodness of Christ's reign by helping the poor, loving those who have never known love, working for justice, being with those who are lonely and mourning. Things that seem so obvious at Christmas time, but things which I think we so often forget to do in our hurry to get to the malls for the latest Christmas deals, in our rush to cook the perfect Christmas meal.

But maybe I'm being too hard on us Christians. It's true, there is a lot to do during the Christmas season - there's Christmas shopping, getting the decorations up, planning for all the get-togethers, sending out Christmas cards, connecting with family and friends. And spending money on charity instead of gifts, spending time with the poor instead of friends, writing letters to protest injustice instead of writing Christmas cards, well that all seems just a tad unrealistic, wouldn't you say? A bit too much like a fairy tale, like Santa visiting every single house in the world in one night. To witness the way I suggested, to prepare the world for Christ with our actions instead of our words, well even to me that sounds like a bit too much work.

And it would be if we had to do it on our own. The kind of witness God is asking us to do would be impossible - is impossible - to do by ourselves. Nobody, not even John the Baptist or Isaiah the prophet, could do this kind of work alone. We are, sorry to say it, too self-involved, to addicted to our own comfort levels, too afraid of risk to witness to Christ the way God wants us to.

But we aren't being asked, or even expected, to do this on our own. God is fully aware that the only way we can witness and testify to Christ the way John did is through the presence of the Holy Spirit. The only way we can act on issues of love and justice the way Isaiah did is through the presence of the Holy Spirit. That's why when Isaiah talks about all the things God has anointed him to do, he begins by saying, "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me." I know we don't usually talk about the Holy Spirit during Advent and Christmas - we usually reserve that for Pentecost - but it is only through the Holy Spirit that we can carry out the preparations that God is calling us to. The Spirit that moved over the waters of creation, the Spirit that inspired the kings and prophets of the Old Testament, the Spirit that was with the Word in the beginning, the Spirit that came upon Mary when Jesus was conceived, the Spirit that filled Jesus when John baptized him, the Spirit that inspired the early church to spread the good news far and wide, this same Spirit fills us and moves us to carry out the actions that truly testify to Christ as the light coming into the world. This Spirit is what enables us to prepare for Christmas in a way that witnesses not to the consumerism that grips our culture but to what Christ is really all about.

That's not to say that everything suddenly becomes easy. Now that you know that the Spirit is working in you, helping you with your Advent preparations, I don't expect that you'll walk out the church doors, give up your Christmas tree, and spend the next three weeks working at a soup kitchen. But I do suspect that the next two weeks leading up to Christmas will be a little different for you than before - that the Spirit of the Lord will move you, whether you're aware of it or not, to "witness to Christ's coming and prepare his way." And so in small but very real ways, the preparations will take place, the kingdom of the Lord will come closer, and we will know that our prayer is being heard: "Come, Lord Jesus, come." Amen.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sun, Dec 4, 2005 - Advent 2 - The Lord is Waiting For Us

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

So, Advent is about waiting. And last week, I talked about what we're waiting for. During the four weeks of Advent - three weeks now - we're waiting not only for Christmas to come, when we celebrate that the Son of God deigned to come into the world as a vulnerable baby, as one of us, but we're also waiting for the Son of God to come again. We're waiting for that day when Christ will make his unmistakable presence known to the world, when all wrongs will be righted, when the oppressed will be freed, and the marginalized welcome. We're waiting for God to fix the world - for the hungry to all be fed, for the sick to all be healed, for the naked to all be clothed. We're waiting, in short, for the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven. That's what Advent is about.

But you have to admit, we've been waiting a long time. When Jesus came onto the scene, healing the sick and feeding the hungry, he proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven had come near, that the kingdom of God was at hand. And, indeed, with all the miracles he was working, it really seemed like it. To the people who followed Jesus, every day was a glimpse into the kingdom that was to come. Their faith was shaken a bit when Jesus was ignominiously crucified, but it was restored and strengthened when he was raised from the dead three days later. And during the heady days of the early church, when the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples in Jerusalem during Pentecost and over three thousand people were baptized on the spot, when Peter and John repeated the very same healing miracles that Jesus had, well then it was easy to believe that every day, the kingdom of heaven was coming closer to fulfillment.

But that was two thousand years ago. The Spirit doesn't seem to move so obviously in the world anymore, sometimes it even seems as if every day the kingdom is getting farther away instead of closer. Yes, we still have hope, but the continued delay in Christ's coming again leaves us wondering. Is the day really coming? Is there really a point in our Advent waiting?

It's a concern that the author of the second letter of Peter addresses. His audience is obviously wondering the same thing, and so he (or she) writes, "Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance." It may have been two thousand years for us, but not for God. We may think God is taking too long about all of this, but not God. You see, while we've been waiting for God to bring all of this about, while we've been wondering what's taking God so long, it turns out that God is actually waiting for us.

You see, it turns out that as impatient as we are for the kingdom of heaven to come, the truth is that we're not ready for it. I know that we've been waiting for a long time, but just because we've been waiting doesn't mean that we've been preparing. Waiting and preparing are not the same thing. It is entirely possible to wait for something without preparing for it. Say, for example, you have a project at work that is due to be finished on a certain date. And so you're waiting for that day to come, when you can hand in your project. But if you haven't prepared for that day - that is, if you've spent your time waiting by surfing the internet or playing solitaire on your computer - then you're not going to be ready when the boss wants your project. But if you've been preparing - that is, if you've spent your time waiting by researching what you need to do and fulfilling all the requirements - then it won't be a problem when the boss comes to see what you've done. You can wait for the deadline without preparing for it. And that's pretty much how the situation is for us when it comes our Advent waiting. Sure, we've been waiting for two thousand years, but we haven't really been preparing.

Which is why, the author of 2 Peter implies, God has delayed in bringing about the promised day. Because God knows that we're not ready. God knows that if the deadline were today we would be judged failures, God knows that our attempts are far from perfect, and so God has granted us an extension on the deadline. Rather than seeing us fail, rather than having to punish us, God is giving us extra time. God is hoping that this extension will give us the time we need to actually prepare for Christ coming again.

So how do we prepare? What is the project God has given us to work on during Advent while we wait for Christ to come again? Well, both Isaiah and John the Baptist make it pretty clear. The project is to "prepare the way of the Lord" by "straightening out" the path that the Lord takes to get to us. In the old days, when the king would go out into the wilderness to visit his people, which wasn't very often, the people would build a straight, flat road, leveling out any bumps and filling in any holes, so that the king would have a smooth journey. Of course, the king could, and would, travel on a rough road if he had to, but why would the people want that? Why not make the journey for the king as quick and as easy as possible? After all, he was giving them the privilege of going to see them, rather than making them come to see him. So of course the people would do whatever they could to make king's journey smooth.

And the same is true of us - we want to make it as easy and smooth as possible for Christ to come to us. Now, straightening out the path for Christ to return to us means, according to John the Baptist, repentance - pure and simple. And if you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. If you imagine that Christ is coming to us along a physical road, it is easy enough to see that our sins and deliberate wrong-doings create potholes and speed-bumps that slow Christ down. They don't stop him, mind you - none of our sins can ever stop Christ from coming to us - but they can seriously slow him down. And so repentance is the way we fill in those potholes and smooth out the speed-bumps. When we repent of the actions we know to be wrong - bad- mouthing co-workers, disrespecting family members, judging those around us - when we turn away from those actions, we are straightening out the road so Christ can get to us sooner. Like I said, Christ will come whether we straighten out or not, but properly preparing the way means Christ's return happens sooner.

Now here's the thing. This is a group effort we're talking about. Our Advent waiting and preparations are personal things, yes, but the end result is not personal. If we're talking about Christ returning to the world, bringing the kingdom of heaven to the world, if we're talking about this on a global scale, which we are, then that means that we're also talking about repenting of our actions on a global scale - and as privileged North Americans, there's a lot of them to repent of. We're talking about straightening out on a global scale. We're talking about turning away from things like over-consumption, abusing the environment, propping up our own consumer lifestyles at the expense of under-paid, poverty stricken workers overseas. The road Christ is taking to come to the whole world is so full of potholes and speed-bumps that it makes the 401 look as smooth as a hockey rink. And so God is looking to us to prepare the way and make the paths straight.

Because doing this hastens the coming of the day of God, as we hear in 2 Peter. The neat trick about all of our Advent repentance and preparation is that not only are we making straight the road, but we're also actually participating in making the kingdom of heaven a reality. When we turn from those actions of ours that abuse others, when we take steps to right the wrongs that we've committed in the world, when we strive to rebuild the relationships between us and our global neighbours that we've broken, when we help heal the sick, feed the hungry, free the oppressed, and welcome the marginalized, then guess what? We are helping to continue the work that Jesus began, to bring about the kingdom of heaven. We are actually making Christ's return smoother and easier than before.

So, with all the preparations that we have to make, it turns out that our Advent waiting is not so long after all. Two thousand years doesn't seem to have been nearly long enough for us to prepare properly for Christ's return. How blessed we are, then, that God is in fact waiting for us to complete our preparations before bringing about that day. Nevertheless, while this is work we can begin, it is not work that we can finish. We can't bring about the fullness of the kingdom of heaven on our own, and so we cry out, with Advent repentance and expectation in our hearts, "Come, Lord Jesus, come!" Amen.