Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sermon for Christmas Day

John 1:1-18 December 25th 2007
The Word becomes a Human Being

Talk is cheap’, so the saying goes. We live in a world soured by the empty promises of politicians of all stripes and weary with the endless chatter on TV talk shows. We’re tired of words; we want to see some action. “Preach the Gospel”, said Saint Francis of Assisi, “and use words if necessary”.

And yet – I would still want to affirm the power of words. Some of the greatest movements in human history have been inspired by the words of gifted leaders, for good or for evil. On the one hand, I think of Dr. Martin Luther King and his famous “I have a dream” speech, which galvanised the civil rights movement in the USA. On the other hand, I think of Adolf Hitler, also a powerful public speaker who used his gift to stir up the German people and motivate them to go to war. In his case, talk was not cheap: it ended up being very, very expensive.

No – words are not powerless things. Words can end a marriage, or bring healing to an industrial dispute. Angry words can wound a person for life, and gentle words can turn away anger and bring peace. Words can bring comfort and reassurance to someone facing cancer surgery, or they can incite fear in the hearts of victims of threats of violence. Words can cast a vision for the future that inspires people, and words can ridicule that vision and ensure that it never comes to pass.

What actually is a word? You can learn a lot about me from observing my behaviour; you can watch how I spend my time, you can look at my credit card records and analyse my spending patterns. But if you really want to know what makes me tick, sooner or later you’re going to have to have a conversation with me. If you don’t, you’ll never know what my dreams are all about, and what my deepest fears are. Your knowledge of me will only be superficial. The most intimate way for me to express my thoughts and feelings is through words.

And so, when John wanted to tell the Christmas story, he chose to do it, not by talking about the manger in Bethlehem, or the angels and the shepherds, or the visit of the wise men. He knew other people had already told those stories. He wanted to go deeper, to get to the heart of what was really happening when Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea during the reign of Herod the King. And this is the meaning: God spoke a word, and that word became flesh, became a human being, became one of us.

But John wants us to know that Bethlehem was not the real beginning for Jesus. The real beginning goes much further back than that. In the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, we read that God brought the universe into being by speaking: God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. God’s words were powerful and creative, speaking a new world into existence. Now John tells us that those words had a personal identity of their own; they were not just ‘words’ but ‘the Word’; “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3).

But this mysterious being, ‘the Word’, goes even further back than that. Before all things came into being through him, the Word was already there. “In the beginning was the Word”, says John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. We understand the limitations of human language and how John is struggling here to tell us something about the nature of God, who is by definition beyond definition! A word forms itself in the mind of God, and God speaks that word – but then something strange happens. The literal Greek says ‘the word was towards God’ – or, as one commentator puts it, ‘God spoke a word and the word spoke back!’ All writers know how true this is; our words often speak back to us. We learn things from our own writing, things we couldn’t have learned in any other way.

So John is letting us in on the secret of the true identity of the baby in the manger. The Word of God, who is himself God and yet is also ‘with’ or ‘towards’ God – the Word who existed before all time and will exist after time – at a certain point stepped into time and became one of us. God, the author of the story of human history, at a certain point wrote himself into the story as a character who looked and sounded like all the other characters, and yet was more than just another character, because he personally expressed the thoughts and views and personality of the great author himself. God’s dreams, God’s thoughts, God’s ideals, now took on flesh and lived and breathed and walked around in view of all people. That’s who Jesus is; that’s why the baby was born.

And so in Bethlehem in Judea God spoke a word, a living and breathing and visible word, a human being. John says, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). We get the theological word ‘incarnation’ from the Latin version of this verse, to ‘become flesh’ or to be ‘in the flesh’. Think for a moment about what a radical idea this is. Many people who are interested in ‘spirituality’ think of it as getting away from the material world and getting in touch with what they think of as spiritual reality. But that’s not what God did when Jesus came among us; God embraced the material world. He experienced the pleasure of taste and touch, the warmth of the sun and the blast of the wind, the pain of bashing his thumb with a carpenter’s hammer, and, later, of having nails hammered into his own flesh.

Genesis tells us that after God created the world, he gave an opinion about what he had made; he said that it was ‘very good’. I like that. It reminds me of an artist who has just finished a painting on a huge canvas; he steps back a few feet, looks critically at what he’s done, and eventually nods his head in satisfaction; “That’s what I had in mind”, he thinks. And in the same way God expressed his pleasure and joy in what he had made: “It’s very good”.

Of course, we know that evil later came into God’s good world, so that what we now see is very far from what God originally had in mind. But still, when you look at the created order, you can get a glimpse of the sheer creative joy of God. There are thousands of species of bugs; why do we need so many? Why does God paint the evening sky with colours that no artist would dare to use together on a canvas? Why do some of the most beautiful creatures on the planet live so deep in the ocean that most human beings never get to see them? Who are they beautiful for?

We can climb a mountain and get a glimpse of the grandeur of God. We can enjoy human love and family life, make music and create literature, run a business and do well for our customers and employees. This is human life, and God says, “It is very good”. He doesn’t ask us to run away from it in order to find him. Rather, he himself came into the midst of it in order to find us! The incarnation – God becoming flesh – is an affirmation of the created world; by his presence among us, God has given his blessing to created life – including created human life.

But more than that – in the context of created human life God has revealed himself to us in a more perfect way than ever before. Of course, in earlier days God spoke to his people through the scriptures, but the coming of Jesus took the process of communication to new heights. Our epistle for this morning says, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

You know the old story of the little girl who told her Sunday School teacher that she was drawing a picture of God. “But no one knows what God looks like”, the teacher protested. The little girl replied, “They will when I’m done!” “No one has ever seen God”, says John; “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:14).

How do we know what God is like? We know by paying attention to the life and teaching of Jesus. Yes, the rest of the Bible is important too; it tells the story of God’s dealings with his people and his gradual revelation of himself to them. But Jesus is the pinnacle of that revelation; he is the clearest picture we have been given of what God is like. And so we read the rest of the Bible in the light of Christ, knowing that if we are interpreting other parts of the Bible in ways that contradict Christ, we’re on the wrong track. We sometimes call the Bible ‘the word of God’, but in the truest possible sense, as John tells us here, it is Jesus who is God’s word. He is the key by which we unlock the meaning of the whole of scripture.

The coming of Jesus is God’s affirmation and blessing of our created human life; the coming of Jesus is the highest revelation of God to us. But more than that; it is the highest revelation of God’s will for us. Because when I say that God gave his blessing to human life, I am aware of course that there were parts of human life that God did not give his blessing to. Human life as we know it includes both love and hate, both greed and generosity, both war and peace, both gentleness and violence. In his life and teaching Jesus showed us the way; he affirmed what is good in our human life, but turned resolutely away from what is evil, and told us to do the same. Martin Luther called Jesus ‘the Proper Man’ – in other words, the one who shows us what God had in mind when he created human beings in the first place. After he washed his disciples’ feet Jesus said, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

So we understand Christmas as also a call to follow Jesus. What began in Bethlehem was a blueprint, a living and breathing example of God’s will in humanity. At a certain point that blueprint gave an invitation: ‘Follow me’. In other words, ‘Become my apprentice in the art of living as God intended it’. Jesus still gives that invitation, and we are still invited to respond.

Note the word: ‘invited’. In the middle of today’s gospel John says, ‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1:10-11). Some people find this puzzling. Why was God so ambiguous? Why did he not make himself obvious, so that people couldn’t help believing in him? I don’t have an answer to that question, although I find myself wondering if we could survive such an encounter. ‘From heaven you came, helpless babe’, says Graham Kendrick, ‘entered our world, your glory veiled’. What if his glory hadn’t been veiled? Would our eyes have been fried – and maybe our brains as well? Was the veiling of his glory an act of love on God’s part?

Well, whatever the reason, the choice is now ours. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). The Word of God became a human being and shared our life; in response, he invites us to share his life, his intimate relationship with God, as children of the Father. A new baby was born in Bethlehem, and ever since then new babies have been born all over the world, or ‘born again’, as Jesus put it in his conversation with Nicodemus.

So we are invited to welcome Jesus into the centre of our lives. That’s what you have done this morning, on this Christmas morning, at a time of day when there are many other really attractive options for spending your time! You have chosen to come together with Jesus’ people, to focus on him and worship him, to meet him in the sacrament, and to put him at the centre of your Christmas celebrations.

Let’s do the same when we leave this place. Just as God sent his Son to share his love with the world, so God sends us out from this place with the good news, which we share with our neighbours by our words and our actions. ‘As the Father sent me’, said Jesus, ‘so I send you’. As God came into the centre of our human life, so he sends us back into our ordinary daily lives to live and share the message we have received, so that the world will be touched and changed by the love of the God who came to live among us as one of us.

Sermon for Christmas Eve

Luke 2:11 December 24th 2007
Kingdoms Collide when a Child is Born.

I don’t know if any of you have ever had the experience of trying to point a dog in the right direction. It’s rather frustrating. You point with your finger and you say to the dog, ‘Go over there’. Where does the dog look? Does he look at the direction you’re pointing in? No – he looks at your finger! It gets a bit frustrating after a while; the dog is giving all his attention to a sign, rather than to what the sign is pointing toward.

I sometimes wonder if Luke, the author of our gospel reading for tonight, ever feels that sense of frustration, if and when he ever takes a peek at what we’ve done with his gospel. You see, he’s put a sign in our reading for tonight, and just to make sure that we get it, he repeats it three times. In verse 7 he says, ‘And (Mary) gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn’. Then in verse 12 the angel says to the shepherds, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger”. So the shepherds go to Bethlehem to look for this sign; in verse 16 we read, ‘So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger’. Three times Luke mentions that the child Jesus was lying in a manger, an animals’ feeding trough – a rather strange place to put a newborn baby.

Legend has had a field day with that manger; like the dog looking at your finger when you try to point him in the right direction, we just don’t seem to be able to get over our fascination with the sign. St. Francis of Assisi is credited as the first person to actually bring a manger scene into a church, and since then we’ve added all sorts of other people to the cast, people Luke doesn’t mention at all. The ox and ass and camel adore Jesus in Christmas carols, but Luke and the other gospel writers never mention them, nor do they say that the shepherds brought their own animals with them, although most crib scenes have a shepherd with a lamb under his arm.

We’ve also added a stable, and a cranky innkeeper who won’t let the obviously pregnant-and-maybe-already-in-labour Mary into his inn. But in fact, the inn may be a mistranslation! Bible scholars have known this for a long time, despite the traditional translation ‘because there was no room for them in the inn’; the latest version of the New Testament, the TNIV, translates that phrase as ‘because there was no guest room available for them’. What’s the natural meaning of that phrase? Well, Joseph’s family was from Bethlehem, so it seems natural that he would plan to stay with relatives when he got there. Unfortunately, other relatives who had come to Bethlehem for the census had the same plan, and so the only room available for Mary and Joseph was the ground floor room that was normally used to bring in the animals at night – hence the presence of the feeding trough. This also explains why, according to Matthew’s gospel, when the wise men came later on, they found the holy family in a house.

So we need to set aside all the traditional details and look at what Luke actually says in his story, and when we do, the manger stands out in bold print and eighteen-point type! Why is the manger important? It’s important because it was the sign given to the shepherds to tell them which baby was the right one. Down there in Bethlehem that night there were probably a few newborn babies, but one of them was special; one of them was the Messiah, the Lord, the one God had sent to be the king who would deliver his people. The shepherds needed to know which child was the right one, and so they were told, ‘He’s the one in the feeding trough’. I actually find it quite funny to think of them, walking down the quiet streets of Bethlehem that night, knocking on doors and asking, “Excuse me – is there a new baby in this house? Er – is he lying in a manger? Yes, I know, that sounds ridiculous, but an angel told us… oh, all right, slam the door, then!”

What is a Messiah? The shepherds would know that, and so would everyone else in Bethlehem. In ancient Israel, a shepherd boy had been brought in from keeping his family’s sheep, when God called him to be a shepherd for his people Israel. His name was David, and he was the King Arthur of ancient Israel, the one the people looked back on as a man after God’s own heart, a king who loved God and loved his people. History actually records that David had human failings like the rest of us, but the people looked back on his reign as the golden age when Israel was strong and free. And they looked out on a world where they were ruled by the might of Rome, a world in which the rich and powerful exploited and oppressed the poor and vulnerable, and they prayed, “Do it again, Lord! Send us another king like David, one who will set us free!” The custom was to anoint kings with olive oil at their coronations, and so they called the King they were longing for ‘the anointed one’ – in Hebrew, ‘The Messiah’, and in Greek, ‘the Christ’.

But the world into which Jesus was born already had a king, a very powerful king, and Luke tells his story in such a way as to emphasise this fact. In verse 1 he says,
‘In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.

Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. He became the sole ruler of Rome after a bloody civil war in which he defeated all his rivals. The last one he overcame was the famous Mark Anthony, who committed suicide not long after his defeat at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Augustus turned the famous Roman republic into an empire, with himself as the first emperor. He claimed that he had brought peace and justice to the whole world. He claimed that his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, was divine, and that he himself was the ‘son of a god’. The Roman poets wrote songs about the new era he had brought in; people referred to Augustus as the ‘saviour’ of the world, its ‘lord’ and ‘king’. In the eastern part of his empire, people were already beginning to worship him as a god.

Luke was well aware of all this; in his day the Roman empire was still all-powerful and he knew how people were overawed by it. All Augustus needed to do was to say the word, and all over his empire millions of people had to travel back to their home towns to be counted and registered – presumably for taxation purposes. That’s power for you! And yet, Luke is telling us, what did this do? Why, it brought Mary and Joseph back from the Galilean town of Nazareth to the perfect place for the Messiah to be born – the hometown of his famous ancestor, David – just as the old prophets had foretold. Even Augustus found himself doing God’s will, without even knowing it!

Luke contrasts the two kings. Augustus lives in great wealth, but Jesus’ family is poor; later on in Luke chapter two when they come to offer the sacrifice for Mary’s purification after childbirth, they offer the cheap version designed for poor people. No doubt the birth of a Roman aristocrat would have been attended by distinguished family members and visitors, but at the birth of Jesus the visitors were shepherds, despised by most Jews as Sabbath-breakers. Augustus could compel the world to obey him by the power of his legions, but Jesus never forced anyone to obey him. His kingdom, he said much later, was ‘not of this world’ – in other words, it was not patterned after a worldly kingdom. Rich and powerful were not excluded from it, but they entered on the same terms as the poor and humble. Wealth was to be shared, not hoarded. Wrongs were to be forgiven, not avenged. Enemies were to be loved, not ‘taken out’. The king didn’t lord it over his servants; rather, he washed their feet. And when the time came for the supreme confrontation with the forces of evil, this king gave his life for his followers.

As Luke tells the story, that moment of Jesus’ death is, of course, the supreme confrontation between the two kingdoms. Jesus, the carpenter rabbi from Nazareth, hailed by his followers as the Messiah, stands before the might of imperial Rome in the person of the governor. Pontius Pilate. Any royal pretensions Jesus may have look ridiculous as he stands before the real power, the brute force that can whip a man with a whip designed to tear his back open, and then nail him to a cross designed for rebels against the empire. So Jesus dies, his kingdom supposedly defeated.

But that is not the end. Luke tells the story of Jesus’ resurrection three days later, and in the book of Acts Luke goes on to tell the story of how the message of the risen Jesus spreads throughout the Roman empire. The so-called defeat of the cross is turned into the great victory of the resurrection, and before three decades have passed, the Christian message has reached even the imperial city of Rome itself. God is gathering together a new empire, with citizens drawn from every tribe and language and nation, united in their loyalty to their king Jesus and their determination to live the life he taught them.

So at the manger in Bethlehem, two kingdoms collide – the kingdom of power and wealth symbolized by Caesar Augustus, and the kingdom of love and justice, symbolized by the baby, the descendant of David. The angel said, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (v.11). The good news is that this defenceless child, and not Augustus on his mighty throne, is the true ruler of the world. By his life and death and resurrection he has won the decisive battle against evil, and he now calls all people to give him their allegiance.

Tonight we celebrate his coming and his kingdom. We give thanks to God for the promise that the last word of history will not go to military tyrants or terrorist fanatics or to the faceless heads of multinational corporations, but to Jesus, the servant King. And God challenges us to decide which king we will serve; we will undoubtedly become like the king we choose. Will we serve the kingdom of Augustus, devoting ourselves to power and wealth and worldly success, or will we follow God’s anointed King, Jesus, who rules not by the love of power but by the power of love, the one who, in the words of an earlier character in Luke’s story, will “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79)?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

'Emmanuel: God is With Us' (Matthew 1:18-25)

Have you ever noticed how deeply the idea of God’s presence with us is built into our language – especially our prayer language? We pray for someone who is going through some serious trouble in their lives, perhaps a terminal illness or a family crisis, and we say, “Please be with them, Lord”. We seem to know instinctively that if people can just have a sense that God is walking alongside of them through their difficulties, then things will be a lot easier for them, even if the problem itself doesn’t go away.

When we say, “Goodbye” to someone, what are we saying? The word “Goodbye” is a contraction of “God be with ye”. We take leave of someone and we pray for them that, as the old hymn says, God will be with them until we meet again. To say “goodbye” is actually a way of wishing someone a blessing, the blessing of God’s presence.

On the other hand, we sometimes say of a particularly desolate area that it is a “godforsaken place”. What does that mean? To say that God has ‘forsaken’ a place means to say that he is so disgusted with it that he has abandoned it – and the result is that, well, it’s not looking too good! The way we use this word tells us that we understand the implications of God not being present somewhere.

In the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Matthew claims that the birth of Jesus is a fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy. We read, ‘All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel”, which means, “God is with us”’ (1:22-24). Matthew is claiming that the birth of Jesus is evidence of the fact that God is with his people in a very special way. Let’s take a closer look at why this might be so.

The context of the original prophecy from Isaiah that Matthew is quoting is a time of national emergency. The nation of Judah is threatened by a major enemy – the two armies of King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel - and the prospects are not good. The people are feeling that God has abandoned them to their enemies. And so God sends the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz and tells him, “Here’s the sign I’ll give you. A young woman is about to give birth to a child, and she’s going to call him Immanuel. Before that child is old enough to tell right from wrong, the land of these two kings you’re so afraid of will be deserted. So quit worrying!”

Obviously the prophecy had an application at the time it was originally written, but Matthew sees a principle there, and so he takes the words of Isaiah and applies them to his own time too. Isaiah wanted to assure the people of Judah that they did not need to be afraid of their enemies; God was with them and God would save them. That’s what the name ‘Jesus’ means, by the way; it’s the Greek form of the Hebrew name ‘Joshua’ or ‘Yeshua’ which means ‘God saves’, or even ‘God to the rescue’. Normally in the Old Testament the idea of salvation has a military context: God will save his people from their enemies. But Matthew gives it a startling new interpretation: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (1:21).

I think we all understand instinctively the idea that our sins can be our enemies. We sometimes say of someone, “He’s his own worst enemy”. What do we mean by that? We mean that his habitual way of behaving comes back to bite him every time, but he just doesn’t seem to be able to get free of it. I think of alcoholics and drug addicts, struggling to get free of a powerful addiction; I think of people who struggle to manage their anger, or people who’ve gotten into the habit of always doing the easiest possible thing, no matter whether it’s the best thing or not. Yes, our sins can be our enemies – in some ways, perhaps the most potent enemies we face.

What does it mean to say that God is with us as we struggle with our sins – that in some sense he will ‘save’ us from them? Isn’t that something of a surprise? We talked earlier about a land being a ‘Godforsaken’ place, and we might expect that when we fall into sin God would get angry and ‘forsake’ us, too. But no – what we see here is that God is coming to be with us in our sins, and that he will save or deliver us from them.

Why is the birth of the baby a sign of this? Because Matthew sees Jesus as the son of God, the one who was sent from heaven for us. Later in the New Testament, the gospel of John takes this idea even further; Jesus is ‘the Word’ who was with God in the beginning and in fact is himself God. The New Testament writers are straining the limits of language to describe how God could at the same time be present as creator and sustainer of the entire universe and also be sleeping in the manger at Bethlehem. If you can’t begin to grasp that, don’t let it bother you; Christian writers and thinkers have been trying to make sense of it for two thousand years, and we still haven’t been able to grasp the fullness of it. We simply bow before the mystery that in Jesus God came to visit the human race, to reveal himself to us, to show us the way, and to save us from evil and sin. Far from ‘forsaking’ the human race because of our sinfulness, God has chosen to come even closer to us, to be with us in a way we couldn’t even begin to imagine – to be born in Bethlehem as one of us.

The baby in the manger will grow up to be the man Jesus, whose life and teaching give us such a bright vision of God and of God’s will for us. He will go all the way to the cross to show us the full extent of God’s love for us – even when we reject him and kill him, God does not stop loving us. By his resurrection he will win the great victory over the power of evil, and he will then begin to send his Holy Spirit into the hearts of the men and women who follow him, so that in their struggle against sin they have access to a strength far beyond their own – the strength of God who is not only ‘with’ them, but in fact is living ‘in’ them.

In his New Testament letter to the Romans Paul asks a rhetorical question about what it means for God to be ‘with us’. He asks, ‘If God is for us, who is against us?’ (Romans 8:31). A few verses later he goes on to ask, ‘who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’ (8:35). I don’t know, Paul – having no food or clothing, or being persecuted with the sword – those sound like pretty powerful enemies to me! But Paul goes on to say, ‘No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (8:37-39).

At our service on Friday night I told the story of Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie was a little Dutch spinster lady, a devout Christian, and during World War Two she and her family were actively involved in hiding Jewish refugees and getting them away from the Nazis. Eventually the family were caught and arrested, and they were sent away to concentration camps. Corrie and her sister Betsy went to Ravensbruck, and you can well imagine the terrible sufferings they endured there: the lack of food and clothing, the awful cold in winter, the long hours of backbreaking labour and the brutal discipline.

Betsy was determined to serve the Lord in the camp and she started a Bible study group at night in their cell block. She and Corrie often wondered why the guards never interfered with the group; in fact, they never seemed to come near that particular block at all. One day they discovered that it was because of the fleas that infested that cell block; the guards were afraid of them and so they stayed away. Corrie had often complained about the fleas, and said she would never learn to thank God for them, but when they heard this story Betsy looked at her sister and said, “See? Even the fleas!”

Eventually Betsy died because of the sufferings and brutal treatment at the camp. When she was dying, she gave her sister a commission. She said to Corrie, “You must go all over the world and tell everyone that there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. And they will believe you, because you have been here”.

That’s what it means to say, ‘God is with us’. It means that no matter what pit we find ourselves in, God is in it with us. God is not our enemy; God has not forsaken us. Rather, God has come among us and shared our human life, and he will never leave us alone again. And no matter how tasty the turkey is or how expensive the presents are, that truth - that God is with us - will still be the single most important message of Christmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sermon for the Longest Night of the Year: 'When Christmas Hurts' service

What if God was one of us?

One of my favourite Christmas songs isn’t actually a Christmas song at all – at least, the author didn’t write it as a Christmas song. I’m sure you know it. The chorus goes:
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on a bus trying to make his way back home?

The glorious thing about Christmas is that this song is true – that is exactly who God is. In our culture, Christmas has become a time for parties and eating and drinking and buying and selling and giving presents and celebrating. But the first Christmas wasn’t like that at all. Let’s try to think our way back into it.

A young Jewish girl, probably in her mid-teens, comes to her fiancée and says, “I’m pregnant”. Her fiancée knows that the child is not his, but when he asks the obvious question – ‘Who did it?’ – she replies, ‘God’.

The Bible doesn’t report this conversation, but I think if I’d been in Joseph’s shoes I’d have been more than a little skeptical about that story! And in fact we’re told that he planned to break his engagement to Mary as quietly as possible, until an angel came to him in a dream and told him that Mary had been telling him the truth.

Still, when her belly started to get bigger, I expect the rumours started to fly. In that culture, the law had harsh penalties for sex outside of marriage – death by stoning, in fact. Of course, it was often not enforced, but the law was on the books all the same. I’m sure some people thought about it. I’m sure Mary got some dark looks when she went to synagogue on Saturdays. “A child out of wedlock, eh? And she used to be such a good girl!”

Then came the news that everyone in Israel had to travel back to their ancestral home town to be registered for taxation purposes. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time – Mary was in the last weeks of her pregnancy, and now she would have to make the hard journey south to Bethlehem. Tradition says she rode on a donkey – tradition has even given us songs about the little donkey – but the truth is that we have no idea whether she rode or walked. But we know for sure that it must have been an awful journey for her.

And then, after Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, we’re told that there was ‘no room for them at the inn’. Well, actually, the word used in the Bible might not mean ‘inn’; a more accurate translation might be ‘because there was no guest room available for them’ (Luke 2:7b TNIV). If Joseph’s family came from Bethlehem, it would make sense that he would try to stay with relatives when he arrived. But I expect that the relatives had the problem of space: there were so many people coming home for the census, and there was just nowhere to stay in the house.

Where was the baby born? Tradition tells us in a stable, but the New Testament doesn’t say that. It simply says, ‘She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger’ (Luke 2:7). We can be sure that the circumstances were uncomfortable, anyway – not the maternity ward at the local hospital, if they had had such a thing – or even a comfortable room in a relative’s house. Perhaps it was the room downstairs where the animals came in at night - a common practice in that culture. We just don’t know.

What happens next? The king sends a death squad after the new baby. Joseph is from the ancient royal family of King David, and there are rumours that this baby is going to be the king God is sending to set his people free. The present King is a tyrant who doesn’t like this revolutionary talk about freedom. So he sends his soldiers to kill every male child under two years old in Bethlehem, just to make sure he’s got rid of the threat to his throne. Joseph and Mary and the young Jesus get out of there just in time, and they escape into Egypt.

So now the holy family are refugees. In order to be safe, they have to live for a while in a foreign country, where they have to learn a different language and get used to strange customs. Their religion makes them different from the people around them, and they have to get used to strange looks and whispers behind their backs. Not until King Herod dies do they feel free to return to their own land.

This is the Christmas story, you see. It’s not a story of pure unadulterated partying and cheerfulness. It’s about ordinary people being called by God, and going through all sorts of struggles and difficulties in the course of doing what God asks of them. God comes among us in Jesus but he doesn’t remove himself from the pain of ordinary human life; he plunges right into it. In fact, some thirty years later, he experiences it to the full, as the nails pierce his hands and his feet and he hangs on the cross alone, rejected by the people he came to save, abandoned by his closest friends.

So if you feel rejected and abandoned – if you feel grief or fear or pain of any kind tonight – the Christmas story is for you. It tells us that God has come among us and shared our troubles. So we can bring our pain to God in the confidence that God understands it – from personal experience.

In our Gospel for tonight we read, ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (John 1:14). In his paraphrase of the Bible called ‘The Message’, Eugene Peterson translates that verse like this: ‘The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’. Your neighbourhood; my neighbourhood. The places where we live, where at any given time there are happy families and families breaking up – newborn infants and people who are grieving relatives who have died before their time – people sharing a glass of wine over supper and people who just can’t stop drinking no matter how hard they try – people with good jobs and secure income and people eating Kraft dinner who just don’t know where the next rent cheque is coming from. That’s the sort of neighbourhood Jesus feels at home in.

So whatever pain you are struggling with tonight, I encourage you not to be afraid to bring it to God. There are two ways you can do that in the context of this service.

First, you can light a candle – an ancient symbol of prayer. We have several candles on the altar, as you can see. In a moment we’ll be having a time of quiet prayer and reflection, and during that time, if you want to offer a prayer for your own needs or those of someone else, I encourage you to come forward and light one of these prayer candles.

Second, you may have noticed that in your bulletin tonight there is a little three by five card. If you would like prayer for a specific issue you’re struggling with, or if you want to pray that sort of prayer on behalf of someone else, I encourage you to write your request on that card, and then bring it with you when you come forward to light your candle, and lay it on the altar here. You can be as specific as you like; you can write the request in detail, or just write the name and leave it at that. We will send these requests around our church prayer chain and they will be prayed for all through the Christmas season.

Let me close with a story that has always inspired me. Corrie Ten Boom was a little old Dutch lady who was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp by the Nazis during the Second World War; her crime was that she had helped Jewish people to get away from those who were hunting them down. Corrie’s whole family were involved in this, and she and her sister Betsy went to Ravensbruck together. I need not describe for you the horrors they experienced in that concentration camp, or the way the Betsy eventually died of the sufferings she endured there; Corrie has written all about it in her book ‘The Hiding Place’. But what I want to close with are the words Betsy spoke to Corrie just before she died. She said, “You must go all over the world and tell people what we have discovered here. You must tell them that there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. And they will believe you, because you have been here”.

There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. That was true for Corrie and Betsy, and it can be true for us tonight as well. So let us turn to God in our pain and struggle, knowing that he hears our prayers and shares our sufferings, and that nothing can ever separate us from his love for us.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent: 'We look for the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Life of the World to Come'

Woody Allen has to be one of the most quotable people in North America, don’t you think? His quotes make you laugh, but they also make you think, because he has the courage to voice the questions and doubts and fears that most of us don’t even dare to name. And this is particularly true on the subject of death. “Dying”, he says, “is one of the few things that can be done just as easily lying down!” And again: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying!” “I am not afraid of death”, he says; “I just don’t want to be around when it happens”. And, “I don’t believe in the afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear”.

What’s going to happen to me after I die? This is one of the questions human beings have pondered throughout history. We go through life, we work hard to achieve something, we find someone to love and if we’re fortunate we build a family and experience good and positive and lasting relationships. But what does it all mean if it all ends in death? What’s the point of learning, if my brain’s just going to go demented and then die out? What’s the point of love, if sooner or later you’re going to lose the one you love? Is it really possible that all these years of laughing and working, eating and sleeping, learning and loving are going to end up in nothing more than the decay of my body in the grave?

Human beings have always pondered these questions. An ancient writer used the illustration of a great banquet hall at night, full of light and food and feasting and song. The windows are open as they usually were in the ancient world, and a little bird flies in one of the windows, flies around the hall for a few minutes, and then flies out one of the other windows. That’s what our life is like, the writer said: we come in from the darkness of the unknown, and after we die we go out to the darkness of the unknown again.

But human beings have rarely been satisfied with this answer. Some, believing that the person continues to live in some sense after death, have left tools and articles of clothing in the grave to help the dead person in the next life. Some people have tried to contact the dead, and others believe that the dead have contacted them. Some people have been afraid of what comes after death and have paid money for masses to be said for the safety of their souls. Some have believed that when we die we go to a better place. Others have been skeptical: we just die, and that’s the end of that.

The Christian faith is firmly on record as teaching that there is life after death. As we’ve been going through this Advent season we’ve been looking at some of the phrases from the Nicene Creed that touch on our Advent hope. Today I want to consider the last sentence with you: ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. What does this mean? What do we actually believe about life after death?

Not surprisingly, the early Christians had these questions as well. Two of the earliest books of the New Testament to be written were Paul’s first and second letters to the Thessalonians; scholars think they were written around 50 A.D., some twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Christians in Thessalonica were worried about what had happened to their fellow-Christians who had died; were they all right? Yes, says, Paul; there’s no need for you to grieve as if you had no hope. We believe that just as Jesus died and rose again, so God will raise the dead with Jesus. We who are alive when the Lord comes again, he says, won’t precede those who have died; when the last trumpet sounds, they will be raised, and we’ll all meet the Lord, and we’ll live with him forever. So encourage each other – build each other up – with these words.

Now that’s an odd answer, don’t you think? Nowadays if Christians were feeling doubtful about life after death, we’d expect their pastors to talk to them about heaven, that lovely place where those who love the Lord will live with him forever. but Paul doesn’t mention heaven at all; he talks about being raised from the dead at the sound of the last trumpet. What’s that all about?

Well, it’s helpful to speculate as to what the question was that the Thessalonian Christians were asking. Because when you read Paul’s answer, it doesn’t seem as if the question was, ‘Is there life after death?’ No – the question seems to have been something like this: ‘Paul, you taught us that even though Jesus’ rule over all things is hidden right now, one day it’s going to be plain to everyone; every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, and his kingdom will come in all its fullness. But some of our fellow-Christians have died without seeing this. What’s going to happen to them? Are they going to miss out on seeing the Kingdom of God?’

Let’s look a little more closely at how Paul answers that question. What about these Thessalonian Christians who have died? Where are they now? And what’s going to happen to them in the future?

Where are they now? 1 Thessalonians 4:13 says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. Or at least, that’s how the New Revised Standard Version puts it. But there’s a little footnote that tells us that the NRSV has made a little change in the translation, presumably to make Paul’s meaning clear. You see, Paul didn’t actually say, ‘died’, he said, ‘fallen asleep’; “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep”. And in fact this is a very common New Testament metaphor for death: falling asleep in Christ. It comes from the late Old Testament period, from the book of Daniel, where we read these words:
But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:1b-2).

Why do these authors use these ‘sleep’ metaphors? For a couple of reasons. Firstly, from the point of view of the observer, there are some similarities. The sleeper is usually lying down; their eyes are often closed; there’s no activity going on. And the same is true of the dead. But the second reason is the more important one: sleep is a temporary state. Even teenagers sleeping in on Saturday mornings get up eventually! The sleepers are going to wake! And that’s what’s going to happen to those who sleep in death, too: one day they are going to wake up. They are going to be raised from the dead.

From the perspective of the observer it looks as if the dead are asleep; what does it look like from the perspective of the ‘sleeper’? Do they experience ‘dying and going to heaven?’ Do they see a great light and go through a tunnel and all that?

We have to be very careful here, because a lot of what we think is Christian teaching isn’t actually Christian at all; it comes from the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato taught that the physical life we live in this present world is a very inferior life, full of imperfection. He used the illustration of a cave at night, with a fire burning and people sitting around it. The fire would cast shadows on the wall of the cave, and that, said Plato, is what this life is like – our present existence is like shadows on the wall of a cave. But our future life will be the reality to which the shadows were pointing. In the future, after we die, we’ll live in the world of ideals. We will get rid of this physical existence completely, and be pure spirits; that’s when we’ll find perfection. In other words, we die and go to a better place where we won’t have to bother with all this messy matter; we’ll be pure disembodied spirits.

Does that sound like Christian teaching to you? Floating on clouds and playing harps? If it does, that just goes to show how Plato’s ideas took over the church in the Christendom era. But in fact, the New Testament doesn’t have a lot to say about heaven at all. In fact, you can make a very good argument from the New Testament for two different positions. One would be a variation on the ‘heaven’ idea: we die, we go to be with Jesus in Paradise, and we wait there with him until the day of resurrection when we will resume our physical existence in a renewed heaven and earth. The other idea would be that when we die, we simply fall asleep. And you know how it is when you’ve had a really good sleep: you don’t remember a thing about it. The next thing you know, you’re waking up and it seems as if no time has passed at all, except that you feel refreshed. That will be us: we will fall asleep in Jesus, and it will seem to us that the next thing we know is resurrection day!

To tell you the truth, I don’t really know which of these views is the right one. And I really don’t care, because the one thing they both have in common is that what happens immediately after death is only temporary. The really important thing – what Tom Wright calls ‘Life after life after death’ – is the coming resurrection.

So back to 1 Thessalonians 4.
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever (4:16-17).

It’s easy to get distracted by the strange mythical language of these verses: the trumpet sound, the clouds, the air and so on. Some Christians have taken them literally, and have produced wonderful bluegrass tunes like “I’ll Fly Away’ to celebrate them. But in fact the early Christians didn’t think that; they understood that they were using the language of Jewish apocalyptic, which was full of symbolism. The trumpet, the clouds, the air and so on were all coronation language; the believers, dead and living, we being invited to be present at a coronation ceremony for the Lord of heaven and earth. They were being invited to be present at the final consummation of the Kingdom of God.

That in fact was how Jewish people like Daniel began to think in terms of the resurrection of the dead in the first place. Suffering people looked forward to a time when God would set them free, a time when there would be an end to oppression and injustice and violence, a time when God would establish justice and peace forever. What a blessing it would be for people to be alive at such a time! But how unlucky to have died before it happened, and never to see it! Surely a God of justice would not allow that to happen! And so you get the beginning of the idea that when the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness, God will raise the dead to life again – a physical life – so that all can share together in the blessings of God’s new world.

And that’s why the Nicene Creed ties together these two ideas: ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. Our Christian hope isn’t a selfish one: it’s not just about ‘what will happen to me after I die’. It’s about the future of God’s entire creation. All the material things we know with our senses – the taste of food, the feel of the sun on your skin on a warm day, the caress of a lover – these are good things made by a good and loving God. When the last day comes God isn’t going to abandon matter as a bad idea and opt for a purely ‘spiritual’ world, as Plato taught. No – the Bible tells us that what God is going to do is ‘make all things new’ – to renew them, like an old book that you take to a bookbinder to be made new and strong again – the same book, but with a new lease of life. God is going to heal the wounds of creation and restore it to his original dream. And he’s going to raise his people from the dead so that they can enjoy life as he originally conceived it, before evil entered his world.

Of course, this raises many questions that we haven’t been given answers to. In the time of Jesus, the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection. Jesus once had a dispute about it with them, because they assumed that if you believed in the resurrection, that meant you had to believe that everyone would go on being married and having kids and so on, but Jesus cautioned them about that; it’s going to be very different, he said. And I’ve sometimes been asked where we’re going to put everyone! After all, a lot of people – billions, presumably – have died and gone before us. If they’re all going to be raised, where are we going to find room for them all on this little earth? The answer is that we don’t know; there are a lot of things that God hasn’t told us about his future plans, and it would be foolish of me to speculate.

What’s our resurrection body going to be like? In 1 Corinthians chapter 15 Paul deals with this issue, and again he grasps at metaphors. You sow a seed in the ground he says, and it springs up into a plant. The plant obviously has a connection with the seed – barley seed doesn’t spring up into flax – but the plant is also different from the seed. The present body is like the seed; the resurrected body will be like the plant that springs from it.

Paul spells out some of the differences for us: ‘What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power (1 Corinthians 15:42-43). Obviously the resurrection life is not simply going to be a rerun of this present life, only lasting forever. Our future existence will be physical, but on a whole different level than the life we live at present. Exactly what that means, we just don’t know.

What we do know is that the Advent hope is about the renewal of this world. It tells us that the future of this world is in the hands of God and not of the forces of evil and destruction; that the last word will be God’s word and not the words of tyrants or mass murderers. The symbolic language of the book of Revelation tells us that the day will come when the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth, when God will make his home among us and live with us forever, when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more; the time when God will say, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:2-5).

That’s our hope, and so we can face death with a different attitude. We laugh at Woody Allen’s jokes about death, because he voices the fears we so often feel but are afraid to put into words. But the scriptures encourage us to lay those fears aside. They don’t pretend that death isn’t a huge blow; Paul doesn’t tell his friends in Thessalonica not to grieve for those who have died. What he says is that they do not need to grieve ‘as others do who have no hope’ (4:13). We will grieve, yes, but only as I might grieve if I was going to be separated from my loved ones for a very long trip in which I would be unable to contact them at all. The unbeliever grieves because death is a final separation. But we Christians are encouraged to trust that beyond that separation there will be a great reunion, on that bright morning when God renews his whole creation, when Jesus is acknowledged by all as Lord of heaven and earth, and when the human family finally finds the peace and justice we’ve been longing for, for as long as we can remember.

You and I will see that day. We’ve got reserved seats at the coronation. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sermon for December 9th: 'Kingdom'

Advent Sermon Series #2: ‘And His Kingdom Will Have No End’

Today we continue our series of sermons on phrases from the Nicene Creed that relate to the theme of Advent. Last week we thought about the words, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’. Today we’re going to go on to consider the phrase, ‘and his kingdom will have no end’.

I’m a great fan of the Brother Cadfael detective novels by Ellis Peters, some of which have been made into TV movies starring Derek Jacobi. In the stories, Brother Cadfael is a Benedictine monk who came to the cloister late in life after a career as a soldier in the crusades; he has great knowledge of herbs and medicines and so is very useful to the monastery. But he’s also a bit headstrong and difficult to discipline, and the prior of the monastery always has a hard time getting him to do as he’s told – especially when it comes to assisting his pal Hugh Beringar, the local under-sheriff, in solving murder mysteries!

The stories are set in the twelfth century, in a time when England was going through a civil war. Two contestants were claiming the throne: King Stephen, and the Empress Maud or Matilda. The war between these two and their supporters lasted for several years, and some parts of the country were first taken by the one side, then retaken by the other side, then retaken again, and so on and so on. Of course, whenever a town was taken all the supporters of the other side were declared traitors and executed, so it was a bit tricky deciding which side to support! The trick was to figure out who was going to be the victor in the long run. Even if your candidate appeared to be the better one, that wouldn’t help you much if his or her kingdom only lasted a few months. Once they were gone and the other one was on the throne, you’d be in big trouble.

Kings and rulers come and go, and we all wish the good ones would last longer and the bad ones would be gone sooner. ‘May the king live forever’ was a common greeting for kings in the ancient world, but of course much of the time the people who said it weren’t sincere. In fact, quite frequently the people who said it were plotting to overthrow the king themselves! But every now and again, when a nation was enjoying the reign of a just and merciful king, I suspect people really would sigh and say, “If only he could live forever! His kids aren’t up to much, are they?”

Curiously enough, in the writings of one of the prophets of Israel, there is mention of a king who will live forever; in Daniel 7 we read:
And I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed (7:13-14).
This language is taken up in the New Testament in the Book of Revelation, in words made famous in Handel’s Messiah:
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever (11:15).

People have suffered for centuries under oppressive rulers – emperors, dictators, military tyrants, and even duly elected presidents and prime ministers. ‘Why can’t we get someone decent to rule over us?’ they ask; ‘Where have all the good guys gone? Why can’t we hang on to them?’ In the time of Jesus it was as true as ever; the Roman emperor held the Mediterranean world in an iron grip, enforced by the power of the best-trained army the world had ever seen. In Galilee, Herod Antipas ruled as a puppet king under the power of Caesar, and in Judea the Romans ruled directly through their procurator, Pontius Pilate, a bad-tempered man with a nasty sadistic streak about him. The Old Testament was full of prophecies about how the Lord was going to overthrow rulers like them, and bring in his kingdom of justice and peace. And at the beginning of his own ministry Jesus came into Galilee and said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:14-15).

What was in the minds of his Jewish hearers when they first heard that announcement? Well, something like our Old Testament reading for today, Isaiah 11:1-9. This passage speaks of a new king from the royal house of David who will be anointed by the Holy Spirit to give him wisdom and understanding, knowledge and the fear of the Lord. This king would be a just and wise judge, investigating cases carefully and not simply judging by first appearances; he would protect the poor and needy rather than always favouring his rich cronies, the old boys’ network, the ones who went to fancy private schools with him. He would be known for his personal integrity – his righteousness and faithfulness. Under him natural enemies – in the time of Isaiah, Israelites and Babylonians - would be reconciled; there would be no hurting or destroying any more, and the earth would be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

In the minds of the people, Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom would come across as a political message, you see. It would not be heard as if he was saying, “I’ve got good news about how you can get away from this sinful world and go to heaven after you die”. No – the good news of the kingdom was good news about this world – about peace and justice, mercy and reconciliation. The Greek word that Mark uses for ‘good news’ or ‘gospel’ was a well-known one in the Roman world. In the Roman Empire, when a new emperor came to the throne, there’d obviously been a time of uncertainty. The old emperor had just died; was there going to be chaos? Was society going to collapse? Were they going to have pirates ruling the seas? Were the people going to have no food to eat? And so the announcement would go around the empire: “Good news! We have a new emperor and his name is Augustus! So, we’re going to have justice and peace and prosperity and we’re all going to be happy forever; isn’t that great?!” Now, of course, most people in the Roman Empire knew that was rubbish; the new emperor was just another tyrannical aristocrat who was going to do the same things the old ones had done. But that was the way the announcement was worded.

So now Jesus comes on the scene, and he says, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand’, and in many of his stories about the kingdom he himself is obviously the central character, God’s anointed king: God was going to rule his people through Jesus. And if God was truly going to rule, then God’s justice, God’s righteousness, God’s peace were going to transform the world.

But how? Because, of course, we can’t avoid the question, ‘If the Kingdom is at hand, where is it?’ If Jesus is God’s King he can’t be a very strong one, can he? Because we still have murderous dictators and mass genocide; the richest 20% of the world’s population still have 80% of the world’s wealth; the world is still divided on racial lines, and has anyone noticed that terrorists don’t seem to be going away? So if this is the kingdom of God, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, is it?

We can’t get away from the fact that although Jesus took his inspiration from these old Messianic prophecies, he radically re-interpreted them in a way that took many of his contemporaries by surprise. The obvious interpretation – that God would send a political/military ruler who would be powerful enough to overthrow the Romans and rule with an iron hand to enforce righteousness and protect the poor –that was the sort of Messiah his contemporaries were expecting. But Jesus intentionally rejected that model. He said to Pontius Pilate at his trial, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). Notice that he does not say, “My kingdom is not in this world”. A lot of people have interpreted it to mean, ‘My kingdom is in another place, in heaven’, but that’s not what Jesus says; he says, ‘My kingdom is not from this world’, or in some translations, ‘not of this world’. In other words, ‘It doesn’t have the character of a worldly kingdom; it takes its inspiration and pattern from somewhere else’.

In this kingdom followers do not defend the king with force, because it is a peaceable kingdom in which violence is rejected and love for enemies is practiced. In this kingdom people are not compelled to submit to the king against their will; rather, he invites them to follow him and respects their decision to accept or reject him. He does this because he knows that no lasting change can take place unless people’s hearts are transformed; people who obey out of compulsion are people whose obedience will not last. In this kingdom the king washes the feet of his followers and calls them to do the same thing – serving one another out of love with no thought for their own glory or reputation. And this kingdom is not based on a common ethnic origin or confined by national boundaries; America is not God’s chosen people, nor Canada nor Britain nor any other nation in the world. Rather, God is drawing together a kingdom from every tribe and nation under heaven, a kingdom of people united by their allegiance to Jesus, God’s anointed king. And in this kingdom, the governing principle is not the love of power, but the power of love.

So you see, we Christians are part of the gospel, the good news. God’s kingdom grows as God’s people live it out in their daily lives. The apostle Peter wrote about this in his first letter, which we find toward the end of the New Testament; in chapter 2, verses 9-10 he says:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Peter says that we are ‘a holy nation’; to him, our primary citizenship is not Canadian but Christian. Our primary allegiance is not to a Queen or a president or prime minister, but to God’s anointed king, Jesus. As we live out that allegiance in obedience to the teaching of our King, we act as salt and light in the world, spreading the light of Jesus and furthering his kingdom.

Listen to these words from a letter written by Diognetus, a Christian writer from the second century A.D.:
Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life . . . Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each one's lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as resident aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure every thing as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their food with each other, but not their marriage bed . . . They love all people, and by all are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich . . . They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect . . . To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world.
That’s an early Christian statement about what it meant to them to live as a holy nation, God’s people, loyal to their own king, Jesus.

The scriptures promise us that the day will come when Jesus’ rule will be acknowledged by everyone: Paul says that God gave Jesus the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).

On that day the values of the Kingdom of God will be the values of the whole world; the law of love will be followed gladly by every human being, and God’s dream for his world will come true. On that day, as we read in Revelation earlier, the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever; his kingdom will have no end.

Our call as Christians is to live as citizens of that kingdom now, even though the rule of Jesus is not acknowledged by the world at large. Sometimes this puts us at odds with the world around us; that’s part of taking up our cross and following Jesus, and we accept that. But we also rejoice in the promise that it will not always be this way; we look forward to the day when the rule of our King will be acknowledged from one end of the universe to the other. May God give us strength by his Spirit to be faithful to our King, so that on the day of his appearing we may stand before him with gladness and joy.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Christmas Concert at St. Margaret's, December 2nd 2007: UPDATED

Last night we had our Christmas concert at the church, capably organised as usual by Eva Thompson. The object (as well as enjoying the music!) was to raise money for our World Vision Water Well project, and we did quite well; by the end of the evening Doug Schindel told me we had raised $3790. That means we're almost half way to our second well (we had raised the $15,000 for the first one by mid-October).

If anyone else who was there has any good pictures, please email them to me and I'll put them up. I especially need one of Mark and Erica's piano duet, and one of Eva playing the piano.

UPDATE: Stan has sent me some pictures now - the first three posted below. The first one is of the spread of food in the basement after the show!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sermon for December 2nd (Advent 1)

‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’

So, have you started to ‘give like Santa and save like Scrooge’ yet?

At this time of year the Christian church – or at least, the parts of it that follow the ancient calendar of the church year – are at odds with the culture around us. To put the difference bluntly, in the secular world Christmas has already started, but in the Christian calendar we’re just starting Advent.

This orientation was brought home to me a few years ago when I realised that in the secular world, the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is assumed to be about the twelve shopping days before Christmas. Is that what you thought too? Well, it’s not! ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ refers to the fact that in the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ starts on December 25th and runs for twelve days until January 6th, which is the Feast of Epiphany. So the secular calendar starts Christmas before December 25th, but in the church the celebration starts on December 25th and runs for the twelve days afterwards.

Mind you, the secular calendar and the Christian calendar have this in common – they’re both about hope. The difference, of course, is that we’re not hoping for the same thing! The secular calendar is driven by the retail industry, which is looking forward to its most profitable time of year. In the retail industry, Christmas starts the day after Hallowe’en, because they need two months to persuade you to buy into the kind of ‘hope’ they have on offer – the hope of the most impressive looking gifts at the lowest possible price – ‘Only $999.99’ – hence, ‘giving like Santa and saving like Scrooge’. But in the church, we’re hoping for something much more important – the fulfillment of God’s promises for the coming of his kingdom, an end to war and injustice, oppression and greed, and the establishment of a world of justice and love, community and peace. Those promises are found in the Old Testament prophecies, and some of them are fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. But there is obviously a future fulfillment as well, so we think not only of Jesus’ first coming at Christmas, but his second coming ‘to judge the living and the dead’.

That phrase – ‘to judge the living and the dead’ – comes from the Nicene Creed, and over the next three weeks I want to explore with you three phrases from that Creed which sum up the biblical teaching we’re celebrating in Advent. Today we’re going to look at the theme of judgement – ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’. Next week we’ll think about the kingdom – ‘and his kingdom will have no end’. On the third Sunday of Advent we’ll think about our future resurrection – ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come’.

Today, then, we’re starting with the unpopular idea of judgement: ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’. In the Christian world these days there’s a certain reluctance to speak about judgement. In mainline churches we’ve reacted against the excesses of what we refer to as ‘hellfire and brimstone preaching’ – the sort of preaching that talks a lot about the Lake of Fire and the eternal torments of the damned in hell. We don’t see ourselves as that sort of church, and we look down on churches like that, and call them ‘fundamentalist’.

Mind you, I’ve noticed that we’re not entirely consistent here. Paradoxically, there is in our culture a real hunger for some sort of accountability. There’s a common idea that the criminal justice system is too soft on criminals, that jails are a sort of luxury hotel experience, and that we need tougher sentencing to act as a real deterrent to crime. And when we look at the big picture of the global situation, many people long for a time when mass murderers and war criminals could actually be brought to justice. How can it be a just world when people like Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden get away with their heinous crimes without ever being brought to account? Are they going to go unpunished forever? What sort of God would allow that to happen?

We hear this sort of question often in the psalms. Some of the psalms we find the most offensive today – like Psalm 137, which blesses the one who bashes Babylonian babies against rocks – need to be understood against the background of people who had experienced exactly that sort of atrocity from Babylonian armies. The people were crying out to God: ‘Are you going to let them get away with this?’ No, God is not going to let them get away with it. The biblical teaching is quite clear; there is a God of justice, and he will hold people accountable for what they have done.

There’s a popular caricature of the Bible story that goes like this: in the Old Testament we read about a stern God of judgement, but in the New Testament Jesus sets us straight and tells us that God is really a gentle father who wouldn’t hurt a flea. But anyone who has read the Bible knows that this is a caricature. All the sternest warnings about judgement and hell in the Bible come from the mouth of Jesus himself! Jesus is the one who talks about people being ‘cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’.

Jesus is also the one who tells the parable of the sheep and the goats, where he pictures the day when the nations will be gathered before him and be separated into two groups like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. He will say to the sheep ‘Come into the kingdom, because I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, naked or sick or in prison and you helped me’. ‘When did we do that, Lord?’ they will ask, and he will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, when you did it to the least of these members of my family, you did it to me’. But the goats don’t experience such a pleasant surprise; they’re heading for the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, Jesus says, because when they saw Jesus in need, they refused to help him. ‘When, Lord?’ they ask, and Jesus replies, ‘When you refused to help the least of these, it was really me you were refusing to help’.

So it’s not true to say that the God of Jesus is not a God of judgement; the note of judgement is very clear in the teaching of Jesus. And there’s an uncomfortable shift in it; it’s not just about other people, which I would prefer it to be – particularly heinous war criminals, for instance. Bruce Cockburn says in one of his songs, ‘Everyone wants to see justice done – to somebody else!’ But the teaching of Jesus won’t allow me to wriggle out of my own responsibility so easily. The reality is that the human evil in the world is the sum of the acts of evil committed by individual human beings – and I’m one of them. This includes active sins – things like cruelty, violence, betrayal, greed, selfishness and the like – but also passive sins, the times I just can’t be bothered to love my neighbour as myself.

God’s judgements on those actions are not arbitrary; in fact, in this life, they often seem to consist of the natural consequences of the choices we make. On the night of his betrayal Jesus told his disciples who wanted to defend him with violence to put away their swords because, he said, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52), and in Romans Paul talks about God ‘giving people over’ to the natural consequences of their acts of rebellion. Live by the code of dog eat dog, and sooner or later you’ll be the dog who gets eaten. Live by the principle of selfishness, and you shouldn’t be surprised if no-one wants to put themselves out to help you when your time of need comes. Live your whole life rejecting God’s company, and you may find yourself spending eternity in isolation from him; as C.S. Lewis once said, hell may well be God’s greatest compliment to our human freedom of choice.

The same principle applies to God’s rewards; they often seem to be the natural consequences of godly choices. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, says Jesus, “for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Mt.5:6-7). So often in life, we find that love is its own reward; people who cultivate love and forgiveness do in fact seem to enjoy their lives more than those who cultivate hatred and bitterness. We shouldn’t be surprised to find that principle extending to eternity as well.

‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead’. Yes, the New Testament teaches us that there will be a day of accountability, when our actions will be produced as evidence for the faith that is in us. But some might object to this emphasis on judgement on the basis of our actions. Doesn’t the New Testament say that we are justified by faith? Haven’t we said over and over again that we don’t have to obey the Law in order to be saved, but simply put our trust in Jesus? Are we going to go back on this now and recreate a religion of fear, in which we obey God because we’re scared of hell?

Absolutely not. What the New Testament is teaching us is that true faith will always show itself in acts of love and compassion – and if it doesn’t, it’s not true faith. Do you remember the story of how Jesus was teaching in a house one day and four men brought him a paralysed friend, lying on a mat, in the hope that Jesus would heal him? The house was full of people, and there was no room for them to bring their friend in, so they ended up digging a hole in the roof of the house and letting their friend down with ropes, right in front of where Jesus was standing.

What happened next? Mark says, ‘When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven”’ (Mark 2:5). But what did Jesus actually see there? You can’t see faith – what you can see are the actions faith produces – in this case, the actions of four men letting their friend down in front of Jesus because they loved him and wanted Jesus to heal him. Jesus saw their actions and rewarded their faith – and that’s what he will do for us as well in the last day. Many other biblical verses support this idea; even Paul, the great teacher of justification by faith, says in 2 Corinthians 5:10 ‘For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil’.

So the question I need to consider is this: If I were to be put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict me? And if I were to ask, ‘Well, what sort of evidence would be admissible?’ all I need to do is go right back to the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where Jesus talks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting those in prison. Or perhaps the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we’re told that anyone in need is our neighbour, so we’re to go through our day with our eyes wide open to human need wherever we find it. Or the parable of the wise man building his house on the rock, who, we’re told, represents those who hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice.

Of course, it’s absolutely impossible for us to live up to this standard apart from the work of Christ in us. That’s part of what faith is all about. It’s like the little boy who’s learning to shoot with a pool cue for the first time. His dad stands behind him, puts his hand on the little boy’s hands, points the cue in the right direction, moves the boy’s hands and makes the shot through him. The cue ball shoots straight and true, connects with the target ball and drops it into the corner pocket with a satisfying ‘plop’, and the little boy is so excited – he’s such a good shot with a pool cue! His dad is just as excited and congratulates him, even though he knows that it’s really his own skill that has put that ball in the pocket.

That’s what the work of Christ in us is like. We have all received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we all have the pattern of Jesus’ life to follow. All it takes on our part is an active choice: ‘Yes, I will put the teaching of Jesus into practice today in such and such a way; Lord, please help me to do it’. With a prayer like that we are able to call on resources far beyond our own strength and ingenuity. We may think we’re the ones holding the cue and making the shot, but in reality the hands that are doing the deed are far stronger than ours.

The earliest Christian confession of faith was the simple statement, ‘Jesus is Lord’. To Paul, this was good news, because it meant that the Roman emperor was not Lord, despite the fact that it was his title – ‘Lord’ - that Paul was giving to Jesus. The Roman emperor might think that all his citizens are ultimately accountable to him, but the Gospel tells us that the one we’re truly accountable to is not some godless tyrant, but the Son of God who loved us and gave his life on the Cross for us. So let us put our faith in him, and let us put that faith into practice in acts of love and compassion, so that by his grace we may stand before him with joy and confidence on the day of his appearing.