Tag Archives: Advent

Mary’s story is our story

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. (Read the whole passage)

Stir up your power Lord Christ and come.

Four Candles are finally lit today, and it isn’t long until that central Christ Candle is lit. Advent, as it always, starts by talking about the end, and then giving us two weeks to hear John the Baptists’s preaching about the coming of Messiah. But isn’t until Advent 4 that we get a story the feels like it belongs to the season… or least it isn’t until this Sunday that we hear a story seems to move forward our desire to roll the calendar over to Christmas.

And with the unusual experience of Advent concluding this morning and Christmas beginning this evening, we get a true mixed experience today.

But before we can bust out the carols and presents, Advent needs to give us our last reminder of what it means to wait for Messiah, a qualifier for our celebration of Christmas.

Just in case we think the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary is a Christmas story, we are reminded today that it is an Advent story. And quite the Advent story it is. We hear this story of Gabriel and Mary and it is easy to imagine a young grade schooler wrapped in a bath robe and shawl, woodenly reading lines as she receives the news that she is pregnant. The pageant version of this story is the one we easily imagine, but certainly unlike the moment when most women find out they are pregnant.

It is easy to imagine the young virgin, meek and mild, humbly and graciously receiving the angel’s news. It is natural to picture the made for TV Christmas movie version of the story, the version where there is no doubt that whatever tension presents itself in the story everything will turn out in the end. The idyllic nativity sets confirm this. The nostalgia laced Christmas greeting cards confirm this.

And yet, the actual story was anything but idyllic.

The story of Gabriel’s annunciation is a story in the real and messy world. A story that is less made for TV movie or Christmas pageant, and more real life stuff that usually happens in the privacy of our personal lives.

When Gabriel told the young Mary that she would conceive and bear a son, it was likely not welcome news. Mary’s life plan was certainly different than this development.

In Mary’s world, women had few options. Marriage and motherhood was the ideal, a woman’s worth was in the ability of her body to give sons to her husband. Sons to carry on their father’s lineage who would also be the retirement plan for most women, someone to care for them once their husband died.

Yet, if a woman couldn’t provide children, or couldn’t reliably provide children that belong to her husband because she wasn’t virgin before marriage… well that likely meant divorce and being tossed onto the streets. Pregnancy outside of marriage meant becoming a single mother living on the streets in the best case, execution by stoning at worst.

And so as Gabriel announces this news to Mary, she is right to be much perplexed. This just about the worst thing that could happen to a young unmarried woman. Hardly the stuff we think about during the Christmas pageant. This is messy and real life. This is the kind of stuff that many of us had to deal with – life altering changes of course,

This is kind of stuff that we know all too well in life. Things that happen to us beyond our control that change the entire course of our lives. Things like job loss, death of a loved one, separation, diagnosis of an illness or unplanned pregnancy…. The most difficult life altering parts of our lives that require all we have just to keep it together.

Mary’s story is a real life story, a story about the messiness of life.

But it also the story of God finding us in the mess, in the struggle, in the realness.

Long before the angel interrupts Mary’s life plan with news of her pregnancy, Mary lived in a world where she was less of a human and more of a piece of property or livestock, where her marriage was likely arranged by her family as they were making a business deal. And of course there was the messiness of her own people and culture that was compounded by the fact that they all lived under Roman occupation.

Yet, when the Angel first greets Mary, the Angel says, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”

Right from the very beginning, God does something new and unexpected with Mary. God determines her worth and value before anything else. Mary is favoured by God. Not because she is a fertile body waiting to be impregnated. Not because she will bear the Messiah. But simply because she is herself.

Greetings favoured one!

And then God gives Mary a purpose, she will be the one who will bear Messiah to the world. In a twist of irony, by choosing Mary to do the one thing that her world values her for, bear children, God takes away her cultural and social value. And instead, God imbues her with divine value. She is favoured because God has said so, and God then gives her a purpose in bearing the Messiah. God establishes her value and then gives her a purpose, opposite of the way her world works – where value is only given if one produces something considered valuable.

Right from the beginning of the story, God is at work doing something new, transforming Mary’s life in unexpected ways.

God is at work in Mary’s real story, her messy, struggled filled story.
And remarkable as Mary’s real life story is, it is not special.
Because Mary’s story is a universal story, it is our story.

God has a way of finding us in the midst of our messy, struggled filled and very real lives too.

God finds us in the middle of real life, and breaks through all the things around us that would tell us our value is based on what we can do in the world…

God breaks through all the things that would tell us we are barely more than things that can be owned and that which is less than human.
God breaks through to us, and declares that we too are favoured.
God breaks through and says that the Lord is with us.

As we gather round the font of baptism, God sends a message to us, given through divine messengers – Angels, you could say – but truly the Church, the body of Christ.

The church, through whom God speaks, to each new member among us:

You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.

And as we welcome the newly baptized among us we say:

We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share:
join us in giving thanks and praise to God
and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.

Join us in bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world, just as Mary, Mary the God bearer did.

Just as the Angel, the divine Messenger, tells Mary that she will bear a son, the son of God – that she will bear the Christ, the Christ who is the Word…

God tells us the same.

God declares that we are favoured, that we are marked with the cross.

And that God us will use to bear the word, Christ who is the word, to the whole world.

So you see, Mary’s story is not truly a pageant story or made for TV Christmas story.

It is a real story.

It is our story.

Today, as Advent takes us through the final parts of the story, the ones that lead us to Christmas, we are reminded that this is a real story. A messy story. A story more like our lives than the nostalgia so prevalent this time of year.

And it is real because it is the story of God’s breaking into our lives. Breaking into our mess in order to bring Messiah, the Word, the Son.

In order for Christ to come and take flesh among us.

So, stir up your power Lord Christ and come.

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We are not Messiah

John 1:6-8,19-28

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord,'”  (Read the whole passage)

I am not.
No, not Elijah.
I am not the Messiah.

Three Advent statements on this 3rd Sunday of the season.

We are into the the third week of Advent, the third week of our period of waiting and watching. Of wondering and mystery about the coming of Messiah. Advent began by speaking of the end, speaking about our waiting for the Son of Man to return and bring about the great cosmic setting to right all of creation. Last week Mark introduced us to the coming of Messiah, first in the words of Isaiah who spoke to exiles longing to return home to God’s care and compassion, and then in the words of John the Baptist’s warning of the Messiah coming to offers us a swift kick in the pants!

Today, John is back again. Preaching this time to us from the gospel of John. And John has a curious conversation with the priests and levites – the temple authorities.

They want to know who he is, but the way John tells them seems roundabout, almost backwards.

John identifies himself by who he is not.

Imagine coming to a church for the first time, you might introduce yourself to the first person you meet,

“Hello, my name is Erik.”

“I am not the Pastor.”

“Okay, then what is your name, are you the usher?”

“I am not the usher.”

“Well, then who exactly are you?”

“I am the voice of one crying in the narthex, prepare the bulletins and hymnbooks.”

That would be a pretty weird interaction.

Yet, John isn’t being as strange as it may sound. In fact John is doing something we do often too. As Canadians we often identify ourselves as not being Americans. As Lutherans was have often identified ourselves as not Catholic.

So when John says he is not the Messiah and that he is not Elijah, it means he is identifying himself by who he is not. To know he is not Elijah means to know that he is not the return of the great prophet. To know that he is not the Messiah means he knows that his purpose is to point to the Messiah, to know who the Messiah will be and what the Messiah will do. John knows that he is not the Messiah, but that his identity and his purpose are tied closely to Messiah’s.

I am not.
No, not Elijah.
I am not the Messiah.

John tells the priests and the levites that he is not the Messiah. John hasn’t come to save the world.

What John demonstrates is that the priests and the levites, perhaps obviously, don’t know who the Messiah is. And they wouldn’t know the Messiah if they were to see the Messiah. But shouldn’t they know? As the religious leaders of the people who have been waiting for the signs of Messiah’s coming for generations, shouldn’t they know?

The same could be said of us. As Christians in a long line of people preaching about and waiting for Jesus to return, shouldn’t we be more clear on who the Messiah is?

And yet, because we wonder what God is doing with us and wonder when Messiah is coming, we have become unclear about who we are too. Are we communities of the faithful, gathered around the same core things that have given Christians meaning and purpose for centuries, the Word of God and the Sacraments? Or are we community centres? Social clubs? Culture clubs? Music appreciation societies? Social justice groups?

If we could be a little flashier, a little more attracting of the crowds, if the glory days of old could come again… if we could just go back to being the confident churches we once were, then we could be confident in knowing what God is up to in our world and up to with us.

But we have just as many questions as the priests and levites. Struggling under decline and aging, feeling out of place and irrelevant in our world, waiting for things to change… we have forgotten who we are, and we wouldn’t know if God was working in and through us, even if we saw it.

John the Baptist speaks with clarity and certainty about who he is not. He is not the Messiah, he is not Elijah, he is not the prophet.

And because John knows who he is not, he knows that he is not the one who will save God’s people, nor does he carry that burden.

He knows that he is not the return of Elijah, the embodiment of Israel’s greatest hopes, and he doesn’t have to live up to the impossible standard.

He knows that he is not the prophet, the one calling the people back to God, and he doesn’t need forge a new path for them.

And John knows this because God has given him an identity. John is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’

John is a witness, a preacher, a disciple, a follower. He is not the one coming to save, but the first to admit that he needs saving.

John’s clarity is rooted in the identity that God has given to him. He is not the Messiah, but deeply connected to the Messiah… John is a witness to Messiah, a sinner forgiven by Messiah, the dead one raised by Messiah, the lost one saved by Messiah.

I am not.
No, not Elijah.
I am not the Messiah.

The identity that God has given to John, is the same identity that God has given to us.

Even as we forget and become unclear about who we are, and therefore who God is, the Messiah reminds us again and again where our identity is given.

In the waters of baptism, God names us as God’s own.

Forgiven yet sinners,
made whole yet broken,
reconciled yet estranged,
found yet lost
alive once dead,

God names us in the waters, and reminds us of who we are, week after week as we receive forgiveness and mercy.

God gives us an identity rooted in the stories told here week after week, as we proclaim anew the coming of Messiah into this world.

God joins us together as one, at the table of the Messiah, we become that which we eat, the body of Christ.

And this identity that God gives to us, allows us to know who we are not. Just as the identity that God gave to John, allowed him to clearly know who he was not.

We are not the ones called to fix everything, we are not Messiah.

We are not the ones called to restore the glory days, we are not Elijah.

We are not the ones called to point out everyone else’s flaws, we are not the prophet.

We are not.
No, not Elijah.
We are not the Messiah.

We are the baptized, God’s children made alive through water and the word.

And because the identity given to us in the waters of baptism tells us who we are, it also allows us to know and to see the Messiah coming amongst us.

The Messiah who is the one, coming to forge a new way and a new path for God’s people.

The Messiah who is the one who embodies our greatest hopes, but also who brings to fulfillment God’s hope for us.

And the Messiah who is the one coming to save. The one in whom children of God, the sinners and broken ones, the broken and estranged ones, the lost and dead ones… the Messiah in whom people waiting for light and life discover who God has named them to be.

The Lord Christ is coming – The Messiah has always been here

Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Read the whole passage)

 

It would probably be a safe bet that no one attended a rocking new year’s eve party last night.

Advent, and the beginning of a new church year is pretty understated as far as New Years goes. Never the less, we are taking the first step of a new church year today. And as always, we begin with Advent.

Advent is the season of waiting and watching. We drape the sanctuary with blue, a colour representing hopeful anticipation. We light candles to symbolize the light of Christ coming into the world. We hear stories of the waiting of Israel for Messiah, and then Jesus’ own words about the end of the world.

And we do all of these somewhat odd things while the rest of world is frantic with Christmas fever, the lights and decorations having been out long enough to be gathering dust, and the music has gone stale on the radio and over mall speakers.

As is often the case, we find that the church tends to do the opposite of the world.

And so today, we slow down to light our lamps and watch for the signs of the coming Messiah.

As we hear Jesus begin our advent season, the thing he is talking about is the end. He gives us a prophecy, a glimpse of the end of the world. Signs found in darkened celestial bodies, and the coming of the Son of Man in glory.

And Jesus is speaking to an audience that has been waiting for Messiah for generations. The people of Israel had been waiting for a long time for God to send the one who would free them from oppression, release them from their suffering and re-establish a divine rule by one of God’s appointed kings, and not foreign occupiers like the Romans.

The Israelites had been waiting since the time that Isaiah prophesied Messiah’s coming, hundreds of years before Jesus’ day. And during that time life had not been easy. Israel had constantly been surrounded by enemy nations, there had been constant destruction and ruin. But despite this, the promise they clung to was that God was sending a promised Messiah, a saviour who would come to free them.

By Jesus’ day the Israelites were growing restless… but they could also see the signs. King Herod had killed all the children in the holy town of Bethlehem around the time of Jesus’s birth, and John the Baptist decades later had begun preaching in the desert. And now here was the one, the wandering preacher and healer, telling them of the coming Messiah.

The people could feel that it was close, that Messiah was in the air. The signs were there, and here was the one whom many thought to be Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and he was telling them of God’s plans to restore creation and set the world to right.

Finally, Messiah was close at hand.

2000 years down the road, we might not be living with that same kind of imminent sense of Messiah’s coming. While we hear the stories and read of Messiah’s impending coming, we do so year after year, decade after decade, lifetime after lifetime. And the stories written with such urgency take on a different meaning and we hear them in different ways.

And these days, as so many of us wonder about churches and the future of the faith in our part of the world, we feel less like the crowds listening expectantly to Jesus the Messiah in flesh announce God’s plans to restore creation, more like those who had been waiting generations before. We feel more like those who heard Isaiah’s words:

We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

Isaiah has us pegged.

The grand visions of Jesus in Mark are not the clear and blinding signs for us that they were for the people of Jesus’ day. For us, they are hazy and hard to make out. The cosmic re-ordering that God is about to undertake feels more abstract and far off, than immediate and close at hand.

We faded leaves know the struggle. We know what it is to be tired and to wait, to feel thinned out and week. It is hard to keep the faith these days. Hard to keep showing up to hand out bulletins and sing God’s praises. Hard to volunteer to vacuum the church and receive forgiveness. Hard to look at budget statements and council reports AND pray without ceasing.

Jesus’ exhortation to ‘Keep Awake’ is hard enough to do during the sermon, let alone to keep vigil day after day, week after week, year after year.

But the Church has known this. Christians have known that waiting for the Messiah is both a long and a short game. Even as Mark was setting down his gospel only 30 years after Jesus rose from the dead, the early church was wondering when Jesus would return. Those first witnesses to the resurrection were getting old and beginning to die off.

And ever since, the church has lived with the sense of the now and not yet. The sense that God’s Kingdom is here NOW among us. And that God’s grand future plans to restore all creation have NOT YET come to fruition.

So we live with this dual reality. The reality that Jesus proclaims, the coming Son of Man and the reality of Isiah, that we are fading leaves waiting to be blown away in the wind.

Each Advent we begin by acknowledging this reality with the words of the collect or prayer of the day. While most begin by praising God, in Advent we begin with a petition, a request. And we direct it not to God the Father, but straight to the long awaited Messiah.

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

We pray knowing that we need, ever so desperately the stirring up of Messiah’s power.

And we pray knowing that the Messiah, the one sent to save us is finally now, after our long waiting is stirring up power like a pot boiling over.

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

And as the Israelites waited and waited for the coming of Messiah, even as they faded like leaves blowing in the wind.

And as the crowds heard Messiah himself preach the coming of God in power, even as they could feel Messiah in the air.

And as we grow tired waiting for something to happen among us, even as it is hard to keep up the faith.

And as the church of today sits at a moment of tremendous change, even as we don’t want to see it.

The Lord Christ is coming.
The Messiah has always been here.

The Lord Christ is coming, even when we find it hard to believe, even though it feels painfully slow. The Lord Christ is coming to bring an end to suffering, to make our upside down world right, reconcile all creation to God, to restore us all to what God intended us to be. It just has NOT YET come fully.

And the Messiah has always been here, already among us, here NOW, giving us mercy, forgiving our sins, showing us resurrection and new life.

The Messiah has always been here, present in the word of God, made manifest in the words that sound from our lips and in our midsts.

The Lord Christ is always coming to us from the waters of baptism, pulling us into a not yet future, where our sin and selfishness are no more, where we die and rise to new life.

The Messiah Lord Christ is here and yet coming to us in the bread and wine, body and blood, where God meets us, where God binds and joins us to Christ, the now risen and still coming one.

Even as we wait, even as we grow tired. Even as the story is told over and over again from the people of Israel to now…. God is bringing us from the end to the beginning.

From Advent and its promises of the great cosmic plan of God, to the beginning, to the beginning of God’s new creation born within us that first Easter.

Sure, there probably no new year’s eve parties last night.

But that is because God’s great and never ending party, starts here today.

Mary and Joseph of Aleppo

Matthew 1:18-25

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Read the whole passage)

The 4th Sunday of Advent is one that rolls is over to Christmas. While, this year we are in the unusual circumstance that there will be a full week between Advent 4 and Christmas Day. Next year for example, the 4th Sunday of Advent is Christmas Eve morning!

Advent then is a long as it can be with 28 days this year. And with still a week to go before Christmas, we get to sit with the story that we alway hear on the 4th Sunday a little longer than usual. The last Sunday in Advent is always the chance to hear the story of Mary’s pregnancy, and Mary and Joseph’s response to this life-changing news.

The announcement of Mary’s pregnancy by the messenger angels is always a turn from the preceding weeks of Advent, from the warnings about the end of time, from John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and then questioning the legitimacy of the Messiah from prison. It is also movement within our Advent theme of light in the darkness, taking us from a the grand size of God’s plan to bring the Messiah into the world, into the cosmos, to come like a thief in the night, to straighten out the crooked paths, to cure the sick and raise the dead… Advent 4 is movement way from those big things, to the small space of Mary’s body, to the intimate relationship of Mary and Joseph’s engagement.

The story of Mary’s conception is a familiar one, although the version we hear today is less familiar. Rather than the Luke birth story, the beloved one we hear each Christmas that begins “in those days a decree went out from emperor Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be registered”, we hear Matthew’s version. Brief and to the point. There are no angels who appear to Mary today, but instead to Joseph. There is no visit to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, but just a dream and a command to faithfulness.

And if you caught it at it the end, Jesus is born in Matthew’s version of the story. No shepherds or angels. No stable or manger, no pondering of Mary. No animals or drummer boy, although those aren’t in Luke’s version either. Matthew just gives us what we need to know and then picks up the expanded story with the magi, which we hear at Epiphany.

This doesn’t really sound like the story that we know, or that the carols sing about or that the made-for-TV-movies tell. It is a version of a familiar story told in an unfamiliar way. It opens our eyes anew to something we thought we knew well.

In our final advent weeks, our eyes have been opened anew to the dark places of the world. The theme of light in the darkness has reminded us that seeing the dark places is the first step in seeing the light.

One dark place more than others has been revealed to us this week. As the war in Syria intensifies, we bore witness in the news this week to the siege of Aleppo. The hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the middle have been telling their stories on social media, even giving their final goodbyes with bombs exploding in the background. Human rights organizations and NGOs have called upon the warring factions and the global community to action. And even after ceasefires are called, they are promptly broken. It is a complex and messy conflict between factions where there are no clear good guys or bad guys. Where both sides are using civilians and civilians casualties as negotiating chips.

Now after years of civil war in Syria, reports of violent conflict, millions of refugees flowing into surrounding nations and then into Europe, the rise of the Islamic State and now the indiscriminate bombings and summary execution of civilians, Syria has become the great humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century.

So what does the darkest place in our time have to do with an unmarried couple receiving news of an unexpected pregnancy 2000 years ago.

Well the world of Joseph and Mary was not that different than ours. And no, not our Canadian countryside where we imagine the holy family showing up in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen on Christmas Eve. Rather, Nazareth where Joseph decides to remains faithful to Mary despite her pregnancy is only 593 kilometres from Aleppo. The distance between here and Regina, or even closer than the distance to Minneapolis.

And like the trapped citizens of Aleppo, Mary and Joseph were ruled by a ruthless despot in King Herod, a puppet installed by virtue of his birth, much like Bashir Al Assad.  Their home had been invaded by a foreign empire in Rome, much like occupying Russians. Their world was one drawn regularly into conflict as religious zealots tried again and again to spur violent uprisings in order to overthrow the the ruling powers, much like the rebels. All too often these uprisings only result in needless civilian death. Mary and Joseph almost certainly knew what it was like to exist between violently conflicting forces, never knowing when the chaos might erupt around them.

If Mary and Joseph were to be found today, we might imagine it would be in a barn on the prairies, or a back alley in New York, or sleepy neighbourhood in Sweden or an apartment block in Beijing. But perhaps today, Mary and Joseph are in Aleppo (Jesus was born hardly a stone’s throw away after all). The unborn Christ child would be dodging bombs and bullets in a war zone.

But it isn’t just the physical location, it is location within the human condition. If we listened to the Christmas carols and made-or-TV-movies, Mary and Joseph would exist in sentiment and nostalgia. They would be characters that we play in pageants or that we put up in nativity scenes. They wouldn’t be real, they would be nice ideas or warm fuzzy feelings.

Except Mary and Joseph aren’t characters in a pageant. They are the real people chosen by the God of light who shows up in dark places. Mary is a real pregnant woman, with expanding body, morning sickness and cankles. Joseph is a real fiancé whose beloved wife-to-be is pregnant with another’s child. The holy couple are real parents simply trying to survive in an unbelievably dangerous world.

But most importantly, the promised child, the light that is placed in Mary’s womb, is a real baby, kicking and turning, readying mother and father for the reality that they will soon be responsible for a life other than their own, in a world where life is disregarded like piece of garbage.

And this is all God’s point.

This is all God’s work, to send a real baby, born to real parents, in a dark and very real place in the world…in order to be our real Messiah. Because our real sins need real saving.

Only a real Messiah can bring light to our real condition, to the sin and death of the dark places around us. While the nostalgia of carols and movies, of nativity scenes and pageants, sometimes help us to tell the story, they are not what our Advent waiting needs. They are not the version of Messiah we need.

God sends a real Messiah because our real wars and real violence and real disregard for each other needs real light. God comes into the darkest places because our detachment and avoidance of the dark places needs to be revealed. God comes into real bodies, born to real parents because this is how we all enter into the world, because the danger of life is the real risk of death. The Messiah comes in order to join with creation in the starkest, realest ways there are. To be born like we are born, to live like we live, to die like we die. All that so we can rise like Messiah’s rises.

Our dark world is not much different than the one of Mary and Joseph. We need the light as much as ever. And so that is why hear the story of God’s coming again today, and we hear it anew.

God is coming not only to a surprised couple in Nazareth, but God is coming into this world, here and now.

Coming to a prairie barn, far away from places that matter.

God is coming to the back alleys in New York.

God is coming to the sleepy suburbs of Sweden.

God is coming to apartment blocks in Beijing.

And God is coming to civilians hiding out in Aleppo.

God is coming to bring light to our dark world, Messiah is on the way to show us that war, and violence and suffering do not define us. Messiah is coming to save us from sin and death.

Today, we are about to roll over from Advent into Christ, and yet there is still a week of Advent darkness and waiting left to do. And in the darkness of our world, of places like Aleppo or closer to home, especially when things seem darker than ever… Messiah is coming with the light.

 

Lying awake in the Advent darkness

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Read the whole passage)

The darkness persists today. We are 3 Sundays into Advent and we have been exploring the dark places of our world. Two weeks ago, Jesus implored us to Keep Awake. Keep Awake watching for the Son of Man might come like a thief in the night. Keep Awake and let your eyes adjust to the dark places of our world.

Last week, we went into the wilderness with John the Baptist, we left the lights of the city behind, the lights of society with all its problems, to go to the stark and empty wilderness. And there John preached about the coming of Messiah to straightened crooked paths. 

Today, we emerge with the followers of John the Baptist from the darkness of prison, to ask about who really is the Messiah. 

The darkness of advent that we encounter these days is not just the dark winter nights and short winter days. It is the darkness that exists all around us, the suffering and difficult places of the world. It is the darkness that seems to be falling as the world is gripped by fear and foreboding about the future. And the darkness is also the same one that we encounter when we lie awake at night and ponder the deep questions of life. The preparation and making ready of Advent has less to do with decorating trees and putting out wreaths, than with spending time in the dark to consider the deeper parts of life that are often only thought of in the darkness.

The questions that keep us up at night are often questions of identity. Who am I? What do I believe? Where am I going? Does what I am doing with my life have any meaning?

For us, as we ponder who we are and who it is that we follow and what it is that we actually believe, we are left to wonder just what it means to be members of this congregation. to be Lutherans, to be Christians, to be members of the body of Christ. 

Does believing in God and the bible and virgin births and resurrections from the dead mean that we also have to agree with those Christians with condescending and judgemental on TV? Or is it okay to have a quiet faith where we just come to church on Sunday and mind our own business the rest of the week? Should we be serving the homeless more? Knocking on neighbours doors to ask them about their Lord and Saviour? Praying more? Reading the bible more?

Confronting the darkness and the questions of Advent are the means of preparing for Messiah to come. And as our eyes adjust to the darkness, as the distractions of the light are stripped away and we see ourselves more clearly, we are left to ask questions about who we are.

Wondering about identity is at the heart of the question that John’s disciples ask today. John’s wilderness sermons have made him popular, and many have begun to follow him as if he is the Messiah, despite John’s pointing to another. But John’s wilderness preaching has also made him a threat to those in power. So King Herod has John jailed. And now in prison John is perhaps wondering if all the bold preaching he did on the banks of the river Jordan is still true from the his dark prison cell. Or perhaps his followers are wondering who they should follow now. Whether Jesus is the really the one who is come.

And while it sounds like John’s followers are asking about Jesus’ identity, their question is one about their own. Wondering about who Jesus is, is actually a question about who they are, about what they believe and about who they believe in. And like John’s followers, in the Advent darkness, with all the busyness of the life hidden from view, we can lose confidence in our identity. In the midst of darkness and uncertainty all around us, we can find it hard to see our selves as people who really believe that Jesus is the one.

And so with John followers we ask our Advent question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Is the Jesus the Messiah who is actually going to do something about the suffering of our world? About the people around us and in our community who are suffering. About the fear that is seeping into people around the globe. Is Jesus the one who is going to end wars, feed the hungry, reconcile the divided, calm the fearful and bring hope to the nations.

These days, it is hard to get behind those things.
It is hard to feel that Jesus is actually going to do any of that.

And so we wonder, who are we if we cannot see or believe that the one we follow is the one to come.

And then, just as Jesus answers John’s followers, Jesus speaks to us.

“Its not about you” Jesus says.

“It is not about whether you can believe, even in the dark”

“It is about me. It is about light that I will show you.”

Jesus says that our identity is not ours to sort out. It is not up to us to figure it out in the dark.

But rather, out of the darkness comes a light. A light born into the world from the divine. A light rooted in the Messiah. Messiah who determines our identity.

Whether Jesus is the one or not, is not the question.

But rather whether we belong to Messiah is.

And Jesus the Messiah says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see”

That the faithful gather here even in the Advent darkness.

That the word of life is spoken not just in quiet whispers, but in confession and prayer, in song and praise, in reading and preaching.

That the mercy of God is given and received, offered to all who come.

That the waters of rebirth are crashing over us day after day as we are reminded of who we are as baptized children of God.

That the bread and wine of salvation is served and shared with wild abandon, making a place for any and all at the table.

“Its not about you.” Jesus says, ‘Yet, it is all about you.”

Because just when we cannot see who we are in the darkness, God comes and enters into our very flesh, God joins with creation so that our identity is no longer found in the dark, but in the light. Because God has taken on our created-ness, we take a new identity in the Body of Christ.

And all those things that worry and nag at us from the darkness, the suffering and struggles of our neighbours, the fear and divisions of our nations, the wars and conflict of our globe…. all those things begin to be transformed by the light of Messiah.

The crooked paths are straightened, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lepers cleaned and the good news is preached to the poor all because God has become us.

The darkness of Advent is where we must begin each year. Lying awake in the dark, wondering and watching for who we are and what this all means. Asking if Jesus is the one to come, or must we wait for another.

Because it is in the darkness of Advent that light it stirred up. It is only from the darkness that we will clearly see the light, that our advent questions will lead us to One who has been here all along.

And so today, from Advent’s dark and wild places, Messiah’s coming is proclaimed… and Jesus reminds us above all,
that the light is on its way.

John the Baptist, Rejecting Society and Honest Preaching

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him… (Read the whole passage)

As we journey deeper into the Advent season we hear from John the Baptist. John gets to make his appearance each year on the second Sunday in Advent, preaching to us from the wilderness about the coming to the Messiah.

John’s place in the arc of Advent comes after we started with the end of time last week, as Jesus implored the disciples to Keep Awake, as the Son of Man was near. While John the Baptist appears at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we tell his story as the prelude to the story of Jesus’ birth. And that John always comes after warnings about the end of time isn’t coincidence. John’s preaching serves to re-orient us from the end times talk to the new thing about to happen with Messiah’s coming.

John is framing the beginning of the story. John is setting the stage for us. John helps us to see the world as it is and our need for Messiah to come.

The figure that John strikes is definitely that of a unique character. John is a hermit living in wilderness, living and eating off the land. The details of his clothing and food might sound funny or interesting, but they tell us something deeper about John and what he is about. John is a hermit certainly, but why? Probably because he has walked from society and the problems he sees with it. John was not always a hermit preaching in the desert, rather he was born into the priestly cast, his father Zechariah being a priest in the temple. If John had followed the plan as he was born into, he would have served in the temple making sacrifice and administrating God’s righteousness to the masses. The temple was the centre of Israel’s power and influence, the priests who served were people in positions of power. John was born into power.

But instead John walks away from all of that. And John doesn’t reject the power he inherited in birth. John could have chosen a route like his cousin Jesus who choose to hang out with the poor, sinners and tax collectors over the rich and powerful. But John walks away from it all, from rich and poor, from righteous and sinner.

John chooses the great empty wilderness instead.

And yet in a twist of irony, as John tries to leave the centres of power and privilege behind, he goes into the wilderness and finds the very people he is trying to avoid. John finds himself preaching to the masses looking for salvation, and to the religious authorities watching his every move. Despite walking away from his priestly duties in the temple, John finds himself filling the same role in the wilderness. He is leading rituals that help make people righteous – baptisms. And he is preaching from the law the prophets.

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’

Despite John’s best efforts to avoid the world of his day, the structures of power, the inequality and unfairness around him, the powerless and powerful… John finds himself addressing and naming the realities of his world. The crowds have come to him hoping for change, hoping for fixes to their difficult and suffering lives. The religious authorities have come to watch him and make sure he doesn’t cause trouble or threaten their power.

Instead, John preaches what no one wants to hear. He names the dark places of the world. He points to the brokenness and struggles of the world. He preaches that a Messiah is coming to straighten things out… which means that things are crooked. He preaches the need for repentance and forgiveness of sins… which means that people are broken. He preaches that it is not enough to rely on being Children of Abraham or Lutherans, or members of a church… which means that who we think we are will not save us.

And yet John does something unusual for someone in his position. He admits that he is not  the solution. In a turn to honest and authentic preaching and prophetic words, John says that someone else, a Messiah, is coming to straighten the world out… which means that John himself is not the one the crowds are waiting for. What an unusual thing for a popular person to admit in front of a crowd of eager people wanting to throw their devotion to a possible saviour.

John might be preaching to the problems of his day, but he could be just as well be speaking today. Much like John’s world, our world is full of desperate people who are suffering and need a change. People who are looking for the next strong man to show up and smash all the problems and make things the way they are supposed to be. Or like the religious authorities, there are those in the world who are very invested in keeping things as they are, because they are benefitting greatly at the expense of most others.

But John is naming the reality that none of us really wants to admit. And that is that the world is dark and broken and suffering. That there is so much crookedness and self-centredness and injustice that there is no way that we can fix it on our own. And John’s assessment is not a judgmental one, but a realistic one. A statement about how things just aren’t right in the world, that no matter how hard we try, something is off. We know this is not the way the world should be… but we don’t know how to do anything about it.

We can look around and see that the world isn’t as it should be. We see people we know and love being diagnosed with unfair illnesses and disease. We see our children or grandchildren being bullied at school. We see our neighbours getting laid off, or families torn apart in relationship breakups. We see that we just cannot help fighting and misunderstanding and judging and fearing each other. We turn on the news and hear about violence, corruption and tragedy.

We see all of this, and we know that this is not how the world is supposed to be. This isn’t right.  And so we get why John has just left everything behind to go live in the wilderness, a place of emptiness that might be missing the comforts of life, but hopefully is also devoid of the tragedies and suffering and conflict.
But there is something else that John tells us without words or preaching. Something about what God is up to in the dark and empty places.

John, with all his flaws and contradictions and weirdness, is doing God’s work of announcing the Good News. God is using John of all people, to tell crowds who are looking for someone else, and religious authorities who don’t want to listen, that the Messiah is on the way. God is bringing Messiah’s light to the world through John, one of the most unexpected people imaginable.

The fact that God is working in surprising and unexpected ways cannot be understated.

That God chooses flawed and contradiction filled and weird people to announce that the good news is something that we need to be reminded of.

That God is heralding the Messiah’s coming with someone like John the Baptist shows us that God is willing to use people that we might never consider for God’s mission.

That God is sending Messiah to straighten out our crooked places, to Baptize us with the Holy Spirit, to transform us and our world… and that this is happening now is the Good News.

And with this news, that the Messiah is coming to make straight paths, all the dark things that we see in our world, the sick loved ones, the struggle neighbours, the vulnerable children, the conflict and fear…. all these dark things start to have a little less weight. They are pushed back in favour of a new world, in favour of Messiah’s world. A world that we practice bringing about here, just like John in the wilderness. Look around and you will see fellow strange, weird and unique preachers and prophets to the good news. People who confess and forgiven sins. Who sing and praise God, pray and speak the word. People who baptize and are baptized, people who share in the bread and wine of life. People who bring about the Kingdom of Heaven simply by being together. Unlikely people who are God’s hands and feet in the world.

On the second Sunday in Advent, the arc of the advent story takes us from the end of time to the beginning of God’s making all things new. And Messiah cannot come sooner into our dark world. Yet, the way that God draws our eyes and our attention to this new light coming alive in world, is through John the Baptist. John the Baptist who is at one time one of the most important figures of faith and also the least likely prophet and preacher of the good news. In so many ways John the Baptist is very much like us, or we like him. Because we too are the flawed and unlikely preachers and prophets that God is using to announce the coming of the light.

God is using John and using us to speak from the wilderness, from unlikely places, to unlikely listeners, about the light that is coming into the darkness, the Messiah that is to come.

It is no wonder that we began worship today by praying:

Stir up our hearts, Lord, to prepare the way.

Adjusting to the darkness of Advent

Matthew 24:36-44

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (Read the whole passage)

It is time to begin again. Advent is here. The wreath is set out, the colour blue adorns the sanctuary, we are dusting off the advent portion of the hymnbook and we are settling in for 4 weeks of waiting and watching, of “keeping awake” as Jesus would say, for the coming of Messiah. But Advent is not an annoying countdown for Christmas invented by pastors to keep people from singing Christmas Carols in December (although we might be tired of Joy to the World and Silent Night by Christmas Eve if we did).

Advent is a complete idea or season unto itself. Advent reminds us of where we began as Christians, as God’s people waiting for salvation in a dark world. And it is not about what comes at the end of the waiting, but about what waiting means for us. About how waiting for that which is not here, waiting for justice and peace in the world compels us to strive for those things. Advent is about how we wait for God to come to rescue us, and it is about how God is waiting for our eyes adjust to the darkness so that we can see that God is, in fact, bringing light and hope into our world.

Today, we are reseting the church’s cycle of telling the story of Jesus. A cycle that has been continuing in some form or another for nearly 2000 years. And in the 3 year cycle of readings that we follow Sunday after Sunday, today is beginning of year A, the first year of the cycle. Which means, that today we have heard the first 4 readings of the first Sunday of the first year of the cycle.

And isn’t it strange that the first words chosen for us to hear from the bible are passages about the end of time?

Last week on Christ the King Sunday, we ended the church year by going to the middle of the story, the crucifixion. And today, on the first Sunday of the New Year, we start by going to end. Sometimes the church can do things a little backwards.

But there is a reason to start at the end… or at least, as Jesus tells his disciples that no one knows the day nor the hour when the Son of Man will come but the Father, Jesus is trying to get us to see something important. Jesus is trying to tell us something about what it means to be ready for the end of all things.

Now, given that we are in the season of Advent, the season of preparation, the notion that no one knows the day or hour of coming of the son Man has always seemed more of technicality to me. Sure we don’t have the moment marked down in the calendar, but we are ready just the same. Jesus wants us to be prepared, right? The issue here seems to be one about knowing and not knowing the time.

Well, not so fast.

The examples that Jesus gives of unreadiness are more than just about failing to live up to the boy scout motto. It isn’t just that people didn’t know the exact moment of the return of the son of man. The people of Noah’s day had no idea what was coming. The two working in the field were oblivious, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have been working in the fields. The same for the women grinding meal. The owner of the house is robbed because he wasn’t awake.

Jesus doesn’t say be ready because you don’t know the day or hour.

Jesus says keep awake

Or in other words, maybe all of our Advent preparations are not actually not what Jesus is talking about. Maybe as we are about to put a lot of our attention and focus into trips to the mall for gift buying, putting up lights and baking Christmas cookies, filling our calendars with Christmas parties and concerts, getting ready for Messiah by getting ready for the holidays… maybe Jesus is talking about something different.

Keeping awake.

Keeping awake to the world around us is more than a matter of not knowing the exact moment. It is about awareness, about being attentive to the world around us. Letting our eyes adjust to dark places, to the people and circumstances around us who really need light and hope and salvation. Because keeping awake might mean paying attention to the hard stuff, to the suffering of our neighbours. Keeping awake might be opening our eyes to the crisis of fentanyl overdoses that has landed in our province this fall. Keeping awake to the plight of Indigenous people protesting for their water rights at Standing Rock. Keeping awake to the increase in racism, sexism and bigotry and accompanying violence that has erupted in the US and Canada since the election. Keeping awake to the plight of the Syrians living with daily bullets and bombs, children and families with no safe place to go. The more we open our eyes, the farther out into the world we see more suffering.

Keeping awake is hard and painful. We would much rather watch Christmas movies and drink egg nog. It is much easier to be distracted and on auto-pilot with Christmas preparations than it is to sit, rest and be awake in Advent.

Still as Jesus implores us to be awake, the examples he uses are ones where people are still sleeping. The people around Noah did not see the flood coming. The ones working in the field, the ones grinding meal did not know the time was coming. The owner of the house wasn’t expecting to be robbed. They were not awake. They were sleeping at the wheel.

And each time, the Son of Man came anyways.

For you see, Jesus might tell us to keep awake with the disciples and to watch for the coming of Messiah into our world, but Messiah’s coming doesn’t depend on our wakefulness.

In fact, Jesus knows that we will almost certainly be asleep when Messiah comes.

Yet,

Messiah comes because the world needs Messiah.
Messiah comes because we are waiting for salvation.
Messiah comes because we need hope.

Keeping awake isn’t about making Messiah come, but about seeing where Messiah already is.
Keeping awake isn’t just about seeing the bad stuff, but letting us see the light.
Keeping awake is letting our eyes adjust to the dark, so that we begin to see that there is light.

Messiah’s light is appearing as communities rally together to support those affected by addictions.
Messiah’s light grows as people all over the world begin standing with Standing Rock.
Messiah’s light multiplies as friends and neighbours stand up and speak out against racism, sexism, violence and hate.
Messiah’s light shows up wearing white hats in Syria, running to the danger and working to recuse and save victims wherever possible.

And Messiah’s light is born here among us, as we gather to tell the story of Jesus, to pray and sing, to share a meal and to fellowship. As we strive for justice and peace in our communities and the world around us.

The end is coming, the son of man arrives at an unexpected day and hour.

And Jesus says, Keep Awake.

Keep awake for Advent.
Keep awake in a dark world.
Keep awake even though it is hard.

And even though we are sleeping, Messiah comes.

And here in our dark world,

Messiah’s light is born.
Messiah’s light grows.
Messiah’s light is here.

Messiah is the story of Advent, the story that we are beginning over again today. Messiah is the one who is that small light in a dark world, the light that is hard to see until our eyes adjust, but that is there, pushing back the darkness, allowing us to see a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

Keep Awake, Jesus says,

because you do not know on what day your Lord is coming,
but you do know that Messiah in on the way.