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Nailing down the mountain top

Matthew 17:1-9

…And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Read the whole passage) (Read the whole passage)

We are on the move again. Jesus is taking us to new places, to see new sights. Our journey first began in Advent. We made our way to Bethlehem, to the stable manger, to the Baby Jesus born to a virgin mother. And our journey continued through Epiphany, where the wise man travelled far to see this saviour born to human parents.

Yet, for the last 4 weeks, we paused. We rested. We took a break on the mountain side as we listened to Jesus sermon on the mount that begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” And we listened as Jesus talked about Salt and Light, as Jesus re-interpreted our understanding of the commandments, as Jesus reminded us that we do not save ourselves by our works, but that God alone saves.

Well today, Jesus gathers us up again to go up the mount of Transfiguration. With Peter, James and John, we find ourselves on the mountain top. And we witness something amazing, we witness Jesus transformed. Jesus shows these disciples, and shows us, a glimpse of the glory of God.

And you would think that the disciples would get it. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, they have been struggling to understand who Jesus is and what Jesus is all about. In this moment, as Jesus is surround by Moses and Elijah, the two most important figures of the Old Testament, the disciples should figure it out. They should be able to see that Jesus is that long hoped for Messiah, the one we waited for in Advent, the one we saw born in a manger, the one we saw begin a ministry of teaching, preaching and healing.

Peter, thinks he has it figured it out. Simon who Jesus has re-named Peter or “The Rock” on which he will build the church. If Peter had been alive today, he would have been a salesman type, maybe the top dog at a car dealership, and he would be chair of the council and he would be the biggest giver in the congregation. When Peter spoke, we all would listen.

And Peter does what Church people do best. Once he finds a good place to worship and good place to experience God, he suggests a building project. If you want to get people excited and involved in the church, build something and people will get on board in droves.

Peter knows that when you find something good, you need to get it nailed down, make sure you can keep hold of it as long as you can.

(Pause)

Jim had been a member of the St. David’s property committee for 2 years now. One Saturday a month, he would meet with the committee in the church basement at 7AM. Or least that was the official start time, but the rest of the committee, Jim suspected, was always there long before 7:00, with half finished cups of coffee in hand. At the age of 47, Jim was the youngest member by at least 25 years.

Each month, Simon, the chair of the committee, would call the meeting to order and then read a list of chores that had accumulated over the previous month. Simon was definitely the leader of the group, whatever he decided, was the rule of law for the property committee. After Simon read the list, the committee would spend the morning carrying out their list of tasks. Changing light bulbs, replacing furnace filters, tightening screws and nails anywhere they were loose.

This month however, Simon did not read from his list. This month he passed around a sheet of paper to each member. It was a list of questions. Simon then spoke, “Our worship attendance has been growing. The church is almost full every Sunday and I think it is time we expanded our sanctuary and added some improvements. When I suggested the idea to council, they were not in favour. So we are going to poll the congregation and then show council that this is what everyone wants”. Simon read the list of questions on the survey. Would your worship experience be enhanced by a nicer sanctuary? Would upholstered pews be more comfortable? Would adding a balcony allow more people to attend? Would you be willing to give more offering for a renovation?

Jim felt uneasy about this idea, but Simon had already placed a copy in every member’s mailbox.

(Pause)

We are often like Peter on the mountaintop. When we find something good or that we like, we want to get it nailed down. Peter sees Jesus transfigured and wants to keep him that way. We see God’s glory in some manner and we wish we could control it.

But Jesus has different ideas.

Jesus is merely passing through. Jesus is on the move. Jesus has plans for transformation. Jesus no intention of stopping now.

Jesus invited Peter, James and John up the mountain. And Jesus brought them in order to reveal glimpse of divinity, a glimpse of God. But Jesus is also headed down the mountain. As Jesus reveals himself to these three disciples, Jesus is showing them, not just who he is, but what he is going to do. Or in other words, Jesus is set to show the disciples that God is about do something that will change and transform the whole world. God is putting into motion a new way for creation. God is reversing the direction of travel, and planning a new way for the world, a new path.

Peter’s desire to nail things down, to control this wonderful moment points to a deeper problem within us. Our desire to keep things controlled and unchanging, to make sure we keep a hold of the things we think are good. And this leads us only in one direction. When we nail things down we are headed towards death.

(Pause)

The following month at the St. David’s Property committee meeting, Jim arrived a little late. He joined in the middle of Simon reading, one at a time, the responses to his survey. The responses seemed to neither for nor against renovating. People were somewhat interested but not really enough to want to pay for anything too costly. Simon seemed to be getting more and more frustrated with every response he read.

Simon finally got to the last survey. Simon’s face turned red as he looked at it. He slammed it down on the table… Jim could see that only one question had been answered. Simon hadn’t even read the answer, and instead was fuming in his seat because he had been expecting overwhelming support for his plan.

Jim picked the survey up and began reading the one answer out loud. It was to the question “Would your worship experience be enhanced by a nicer sanctuary”.

“Dear property committee” someone wrote.

“I live in world that is always trying to be or get the newest and best thing. In my job, I have to be constantly looking for more, to be better, to find something that will attract more buyers. I feel like I am always running up a mountain.

That is why I come here. That is why I worship here. At St.David’s I get to come down the mountain. When I see the people around me, when we sing and pray, when we share the peace and drink coffee together, I get to see God. And God isn’t on the mountaintop. God comes down to be with me, with us. God walks with me, and after I worship here each week, I am reminded that Jesus goes with me, that Jesus comes and trudges up my mountain each week and he brings me back down, back to be here with you. Back to the place where I can see God in your faces, and I can hear God’s voice in your voices. That is why I worship here, not because of the building, but because of the people, because of you.”

Jim set the paper down. For the first time Jim had ever seen, the group was silent. Most were just staring into their coffee. Simon was just staring at Jim.

Jim then said to the committee, “That was my survey”.

Simon simply nodded and said, “Well, I guess that is that. Let’s get back to work”. And off the committee went attending to their regular monthly chores.

(Pause)

As Church people, even we can forget what Jesus is doing in our world, what Jesus is doing right here among us. Today, we are reminded of who Jesus is, we glimpse the glory of God and then Jesus brings us down the mountain, despite Peter’s desire to nail things down.

We are descending into Lent. We on our way with Jesus into the valley and shadow of death. We will be reminded on Ash Wednesday that we are dust and ash. We will be reminded that we are dead. And journey through Lent will take us to the next the next mountain.

We will go with Jesus to Golgatha.

And on mount Golgatha Jesus will finally be nailed down.

Jesus will hang on a cross.

What Peter wanted to preserve on the mount of Transfiguration today, humanity will want to kill on Good Friday.

But that is what God has come to show us. Not that Jesus can be transformed, but that Jesus is going to do the transforming. Jesus is going stare death right in the face and change it. Move it. Transform it. Re-make it.

Death will no longer be death. We will no longer be dead.

Death will become life. We will be made alive.

Alive in Christ. Alive to move and change and be different. Alive to go with Jesus up and down the mountains. Alive with Jesus to see God in people around us and to be reminded that we are not alone but that we are on the journey together.

To whom do we belong

GOSPEL: Matthew 5:21-37

[Jesus said to the disciples:] 21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Read the whole passage)

Ouch, that was a bit rough. Jesus isn’t taking it easy on us. The sermon on the mount that began so gently with “blessed are the poor in spirit,” sure seems to take a turn towards some hard truths today. It is our 3rd week in a row of listening to that familiar sermon from Jesus, and the tone has changed a lot from when we began.

We are on the final green Sunday before we turn towards Transfiguration, Ash Wednesday and Lent. And this season following the Epiphany, the day on which the magi came to honour the Christ-child feels like it was lifetime ago. We have since then watched a grown up Jesus get baptized in the Jordan, meet his first disciples and call them from their fishing boats and now preach this 3 weeks long sermon on the mount.

And this list of things that Jesus talks about today is not so friendly: Murder, judgment, hell, adultery, lust, divorce, sin and swearing falsely. A bunch of things that would make for a really easy opportunity to preach a hell-fire and brimstone, turn-or-burn kind of sermon. You know, one of those sermon that your grandma used you warn you about hearing from the pastor. And to be sure, this part of the sermon on the mount has been used for that kind of preaching, and used to condemn and shame people.

Yet, we haven’t forgotten was Jesus was talking about for the past couple of weeks, the beatitudes followed by salt and light – things that are not so easy to turn into condemnation. It seems strange that within the same sermon, Jesus would go from promising God’s blessing for the poor in spirit, the mourning and meek, the peacemakers and persecuted to condemning people who don’t measure up.

And so of course, we know that this isn’t really about the threat of hell and condemnation that it appears to be on the surface.

So what is Jesus getting at?

After three weeks in the sermon on the mount, there is a theme beginning to emerge in Jesus’ preaching. A theme that only make sense when we unpack the world of the crowds sitting on the mountain listening to what Jesus had to say.

For the people of Israel, religion was a complicated system of keeping righteous, keeping in God’s good books. Follow the law, the laws handed on by Moses to the people escaping slavery in Egypt and wandering in the desert, and you will be righteous. And you will know you are righteous because you will be blessed. Blessed with health, wealth and status. You will be what God has deemed us to be, salty salt, light shining for all to see.

Except that most people weren’t blessed, most people weren’t salty sal or bright shining lights. Most people couldn’t keep the laws and remain righteous.

And so these unrighteous, unclean crowds had to find hope in other places. Hope in the desert listening to hermit preachers like John the Baptist. Hope on the mountainside listening to wandering rabbis like this Jesus of Nazareth.

And right off the bat, Jesus undercuts this system of keeping righteous. Blessed are poor in spirit, the meek and the mourning, the peacemakers and the persecuted. The blessings that you thought were signs of righteous are not in fact blessings — God’s presence is with the people you least expect.

And don’t strive for holiness and righteousness, strive to be what God called you to. If God has you to be salt, you are salt. If God has made you to be light, you are light.

Finally today, Jesus gets into the nitty gritty of the 10 commandments, the very core of the rules that if followed will lead to righteousness. And Jesus begins turning them on their heads too. These commandments aren’t checkboxes that if filled gain entry into heaven. Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie or bear false witness or steal. Simply not killing, or cheating or not telling an untruth or not slandering your neighbour is not enough. Each step of the way, Jesus elaborates and explains that these commands are also about loving our neighbour. About maintaining good relationships and caring for the people around us, not just limits on certain behaviours.

And when added up, Jesus’ message is: You are not as righteous or unrighteous as you thought, you are not as holy and perfect are you thought, and you haven’t kept the law as you thought. But more importantly, you are not earning your own salvation like you thought.

Of course, things are little different for us in our world. We don’t operate by quite such a rigid and structured a system as the people of Israel. Salvation and righteousness aren’t understood in such a clear cut path in our world.

In fact, knowing whether or not we are righteous really isn’t the right question for us as it was for the people sitting on the mountain listening to Jesus preach. For us, the question is more a matter of how… how do we attain righteousness and salvation. And our world has a plethora of answers. If you follow the rules, if you pray hard enough, if you are a good person, if you are enlightened enough, if you buy the next magic solution that someone is selling, if you are secure, protected and powerful enough… You too can be righteous and saved. All for one low cost, all for following the latest trend or fad, all for a little easy work in 20 minutes a day, all for following the simple steps, all for having the right relationships and network.

Righteousness and salvation in our world is about hearing the right voice in the multitude of voices vying for our attention and our dollar, about hearing the right voice long enough to hand over something of enough value to earn our salvation.

Except we know that this is all fake news and false hope too.

And just like the rigid system of rules that Jesus is undermining on the mountain, he is also undermining the multitude of voices in our world that tell us they know the secret to being saved.

Even if our questions are different from the people of Israel, our problem is the same. We are trying to earn our own salvation, trying to be righteous by our own efforts.

It is in the letter to the Corinthians where St. Paul states clearly the issue that Jesus is coming around to.

To whom do we belong? To Paul or Apollos? Will following this guy or that guy, these rules or those rules, this path or path earn you salvation?

No.

No, following neither will make us righteous.

To whom do we belong?

For we are God’s servants working together, you are God’s field, God’s building.

For we are God’s servants

For we are God’s.

To people wondering if they are saved, if they have done enough rule following Jesus says, Don’t worry about that. You belong to God.

To people wondering how to be saved, if we have found the right path, chosen the right thing, Jesus says, Don’t worry about that. You belong to God.

You belong to God.

And it is God who decides if you are blessed, God who comes and searches out the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourning, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted

And it is God who makes you right. God who makes you salty if you are salt, God who makes you shine if you are light.

And it is God who saves, God who makes you righteous. So don’t follow the rules because they make you right with God, but because your neighbour needs your love and care.

God is the one earning our salvation. This is what Jesus has been getting at for 3 weeks.

And this is what Jesus is preparing us to keep at the forefront as we move towards Transfiguration and Lent.

We belong to God, the One who makes us righteous, the One who saves us.

We don’t achieve it ourselves. We don’t find the right path or follow the right rules. We don’t save ourselves.

God does the saving work. And God does it in the one preaching the sermon on the mount, salvation comes to us in the Christ.

You don’t belong to Paul or Apollos. You don’t belong to yourselves.

You belong to God in Christ, the one making you righteous in all the unexpected places, the one making you alive when all there seems to be death.

The One who will meet us on the mountaintop, the One who goes with us into the valley, the One who will be nailed to a cross, and One who is raised from the dead.

You belong to that Christ, you are made righteous and saved by that Christ, and freed to love your neighbour, who is also loved by Christ.

And so on this day, at this end of the sermon on the mount, on the precipice of Lent…

Jesus reminds us one last time… it is not how we follow the rules or how blessed we think we are or how much good we do…

But rather is about to whom we belong.

And we are servants belonging to God, brought to new life in Christ.

#Blessed are…

Matthew 5:1-12

1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

  3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Read the whole passage)

When Peter and Andrew, James and John hopped out of their fishing boats to follow Jesus, to fish for people… I wonder if they thought about changing their minds when they heard Jesus preach the sermon on the mount?

Since Christmas and Epiphany, we have found ourselves on a journey of revelation with Jesus. First it was the heavens opening up with God’s voice thundering over the crowds. And then it was the John’s disciples following this Jesus fellow to see what the fuss was about this. And then it was Jesus walking down the beach calling his first disciples, fishermen of all people, to come and follow.

Three moments early in the ministry of Jesus that reveal to us just who this baby that we were singing carols about only a month ago has grown into.

Today, we hear this first sermon of Jesus’ in the Gospel of Matthew, the familiar sermon of blessings.

Yet, as familiar as these beatitudes are to us, I think there is something uncomfortable about them, at the very least for those first disciples. They had probably expected that following a Rabbi was going to be an upgrade on fishing for a living, a chance to be respected members of the community, to join the upper echelon of religious authorities. And along with this change in their lot in life, the disciples probably expected to become the ones doing the judging rather than the judged. To be the ones measuring others by the rules of Israel rather than always being the ones failing to measure up.

And yet, in Jesus’ first sermon he throws that dream of his disciples out the window. Instead of a sermon on rule following and keeping the law, Jesus dives right into the heart of the human condition.

And when we start listening to the beatitudes, they quickly become a list of things that remind us the messy brokenness of humanity:

Blessed are the poor in spirit… those who mourn… the meek… those who hunger and thrift for righteousness… the merciful who need mercy… the pure in heart… the peacemakers… the persecuted.

In fact, the deeper into the Beatitudes Jesus gets, the less and less the blessings come through. Jesus cuts through the surface stuff, right to the heart of what it means to be a human beings in a broken world. The disciples probably imagined that they would get to ease into this stuff rather than deal with it on day one. They probably wanted to stay at the easy part of religion… how following that rules will earn us salvation… how being a good person will get us into God’s good books.

We certainly get what the disciples were probably feeling. It is much easier to stay in the surface stuff, the manageable and controllable stuff. Rule following and do-gooding.

It isn’t all that enjoyable to be confronted by the hard stuff, to have to think about big questions and hard problems. Isn’t it enough that the news is bombarding with hard and scary things every day. Things like the impeachment trial of the US president and all the political partisanship that comes along with it. Things like the New Coronavirus, something new to terrify us every time we turn on the TV or Radio or open up our phones. Or the othering and demonizing of Chinese people as if they are to blame for the virus. Things like earthquakes in the Caribbean, fires still burning in Australia, Brexit and newborns being removed from their mothers simply because they are Indigenous and considered high-risk.

Isn’t it enough to have to deal with all that stuff during the week? Why does Jesus to have to get into just how broken our world is too… isn’t church supposed to make us feel better? Isn’t Jesus supposed to make that stuff just go away? Especially if we just follow the rules and are good people?

It is easy to just drop the blessing part from the Beatitudes. It is easy to hear just the list of things that remind us our broken world.

Or rather, it should be easy. Except Jesus keeps coming back to blessing.

It is like he won’t let us forget. Jesus could have just said blessed once. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness…

But Jesus keeps coming back to blessing.

Just in case those listening to his sermon missed it. Just in case his disciples didn’t make the connection that here on this mountain, that this crowd of people, this crowd of the unwashed masses are precisely the people that Jesus was going fishing for.

Jesus keeps coming back to blessing.

9 times he says, “Blessed are…”

And the 10th time he says, Rejoice and be glad.

Blessed are.

Here in this midst of all these examples of the brokenness of the world… blessing.

Here, in this messy and hard struggle called life, is blessing.

We so often think of blessings as good things, so we struggle to understand the beatitudes as blessings. Blessings are health, wealth, happiness, comfort, escape, security, at least to our minds.

Yet, blessings in scripture is not those things. Blessings are not things to possess, not rewards for good behaviour or achievements for excellence.

Blessing is promise.

To bless something, or someone really, is to name the presence of God.

We know this already. We practice it every time we gather. We greet each other in the name of Triune God to begin worship, and we proclaim God’s promise to be with us as go. We bless the word we hear, we ask for God’s blessing as we pray. We bless the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ by declaring that God is present in these gifts.

Blessing is the promise of God to be with us.

And so the Beatitudes are declarations of the places that God is going. The places where God is intending to do God’s work. The people to whom the Messiah is going to bring the good news of the Kingdom.

“Blessed are” Jesus says 9 times.

And it isn’t a list of all the people who are wealthy, healthy, happy, comfortable, and secure.

It is a list showing us real life, real brokenness and suffering, real struggle and hardship.

But also a promise and proclamation of all the places and people that Jesus is coming for. The people that Jesus called his first disciples to help him fish for.

And as hard as it is to be faced again with the reality of our broken world, it is God’s promise to meet us in the brokenness that truly matters. It the only thing that has something to say too all that other stuff we hear throughout the week.

Whether it is broken political systems and governments, or new viruses and a media hellbent on terrifying us, or the accompanying othering of people who we think are responsible, or earthquakes or fires or broken families.

God is with us all of that, and with us.

God is with us in as we die to sin and in new life in the waters of baptism.

God is with us as we hear again the promise of mercy and forgiveness for sinners.

God is with us making us one in the bread and wine we share transforming us into the Body of Christ.

Blessed are Jesus declares today… and yes.. this familiar sermon asks the disciples and us to again face the reality of our broken world.

But the blessings also reveals in Jesus, just where this promised Messiah is going, where this promised Messiah is calling us to go, and to whom this promised Messiah is sent.

Blessed are Jesus says.

Blessed are you for whom I have come and I will always be with.

Amen.

I will MAKE you fish for people

Matthew 4:12-23

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. (read the whole passage)

As modern Christians, there are a few topics that we often choose not to bring up in polite company. Religion and Politics are always named as risky topics of conversation. But even more taboo and controversial are issues of human sexuality. And perhaps the most taboo topic of all — money, is usually only reserved for very serious and sombre moments of discussion. But today, we broach another issue, one that can make us as uncomfortable as religion, politics, sex or money. We come to the issue of Christian calling, specifically evangelism. What is our role in spreading the Kingdom of God? How many souls must we bring to Christ? How many doors must we knock on? How many bible verses do we need to memorize?

(Are you nervous yet?)

There are many reasons that we come and worship Sunday morning. Some might say they like the music, others the teaching, still others might say the morals and values, or the community and friends, or it is simply somewhere to be Sunday morning. But probably none of us would say that the reason we come is that we are given the job of telling others about Jesus.

And if sharing our faith with the world, wasn’t part of this whole church thing, there might be a few more bodies in our pews. If faith was only about following the rules like no stealing or swearing or killing, the promise of heaven might be drawing more people in.

But as we discover, being a Christian, or following Jesus is not really just about following the rules. Instead we discover, along the disciples, that following Jesus is full of surprises.

Peter and Andrew, James and John were all fishermen. But not the hobbyist kind of fisherman. This is not the quaint and serene fishing that is done on a lake or pond with a single fishing rod, nor weekend warriors sitting in ice fishing huts. This is commercial fishing. Fishing in order to make a living.

As these four soon to be disciples set out to fish today, they would be focused on the job at hand. They would know how many fish they need to catch to feed their families, to maintain their boats and repair their nets. This kind of fishing is about risk and reward. And as they prepare for another day of long and hard work, Jesus comes walking down the beach. He simply shows up and calls out from the shore. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people”.

It is laughable. It is insanity. Can any of us truly imagine jumping off the boat and immediately giving up everything to follow Jesus? Certainly not.

Here is this wandering carpenter turned preacher calling gainfully employed men away from their lives and families. Maybe fishing isn’t the most glamorous job, but it puts food on the table and it provides a living. It is safety and security. Have you ever seen a tractor sitting abandoned in the middle of a field during harvest with no one to drive it, or a classroom full of school children in the middle of the year, with no teacher or a half cooked meal in a restaurant waiting to be finished and served but no cook to complete the job? Jumping off the boat is simply not done in our world, and in reality that is not our style of faith. No surprise work-place visits from Jesus, thank you very much. We want our faith to be comfortable, and manageable. Nothing too extreme, especially if it involves giving up security or risking looking foolish.

But the disciples may have seen things differently. The insanity and foolishness of Jesus’s call from the shore may not have been in jumping off the boat. Throughout the Gospels, people often identified Jesus as a Rabbi. And it wasn’t everyday that a Rabbi wandered by and asked to be followed. To the disciples, it might have been like a rock star rolling up in a tour bus and asking for a guitar player, or a politician knocking on the door looking for a campaign manager, or that phone call that every red blooded Canadian boy is waiting for — that call from the local NHL team looking for a player to skate in a pinch.

The insanity and the foolishness of Jesus’ call is truly about something more than our first reaction to this story, of our hesitation at dropping everything and following Jesus.

The disciples are willing to follow because they should have never been picked in the first place. Any other Rabbi would only choose the best of the best. The best student, the best debater, the disciples who had memorized the Torah, the Talmud and the Mishnah. But these 4 fisherman are not the best students. While the best candidates for discipleship have been studying the faith, these men have been studying the art of fishing.

The insanity isn’t jumping off the boat, the insanity is who Jesus picks to be disciples. Jesus picks the least likely, the ones without the skills or talents that a normal Rabbi would be looking for. And it forces us to ask that deeper question. Not the question of whether we would drop everything and follow, but the question of “Is God really calling me?” The craziness of leaving everything behind shields us from the truth. It shields us from admitting to ourselves and to the world, that if God were to come knocking and calling out to us, that we would have nothing to offer. “What can I say about God? Won’t my family and my neighbours think I am crazy? Who am I to pretend that I have any words worth hearing?”.

But we are who God chooses. We are the ones into whose lives Jesus walks. We are the ones who are called and it is not because we have something to give or to offer as disciples. We are picked because God is the one doing the calling, no application forms, no pre-requisites, no interviews.

This is the way God works in the world.The ideas and possibilities that we imagine as successful — God avoids and ignores. The ideas and possibilities for which we can only see failure — God uses those to work in the world.

God gives up power to be born as a baby in order to save the world.

God preaches to and teaches crowds who do not listen and disciples who do not understand in order to show us the way.

God suffers and dies on cross in order to bring New Life and a New Creation into being.

God calls the least likely and most ill equipped to be proclaimers of the Good News.

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people”.

It is not a command to knock on doors, or to memorize the bible or convert our neighbour. When Jesus calls the disciples, and when Jesus calls us, it is a declaration of who we are — we are God’s chosen. Jesus chooses us — no questions asked. Jesus picks us without reservation, without hesitation. Jesus grabs hold of us whether we have the skills, or gifts or talents or not.

And then Jesus promises that he will make us fish for people. Jesus will not teach us, not show us, not suggest to us.

Jesus will Make us.

That is the insanity.

We have been chosen to follow Jesus. Chosen to be the ones that God works in and through. How and when will this happen? That is up to God. That is part of the promise. Jesus will do the making, we are the ones simply being made, shaped and formed.

And maybe that is the scariest part of all. Maybe that is why we don’t like to talk about evangelism. Because being called by Jesus means we will jump from boat and it won’t seem crazy. Because being chosen by God means we are changed and transformed. God makes us into disciples, followers, into fishers for people.

What are we looking for from Jesus?

John 1:29-42

…When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” (Read the whole passage)

John the Baptist just won’t go away. He showed up for a couple weeks in Advent, took a break over Christmas and then showed back up last week. John, is here today and he receives a brief mention next week too. And the whole time, John is pointing to Jesus, and proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. John steals the show, with his flowery words and big sermons.

With all John’s bombast and puffery today, with his front and centre kind of attitude, Jesus’ subtle actions pass by hardly being noticed. What John rambles on and on about, Jesus expresses in only a few words and it all begins with a strange and humorous conversations with the disciples.

As Jesus walks by John and John’s disciples, John reminds all who can hear, that this is the Lamb of God, the Messiah. And two of John’s disciples decide to check Jesus out, presumably they are looking to see what the fuss is. Jesus notices their interest. So he stops to ask them, “What are you looking for?” It is an open ended question.

Maybe the disciples simply want to know what all the fuss is about or to see a show in case Jesus decides to perform a miracle. Or maybe this question has deeper meaning.

“What are you looking for?”

Perhaps we should consider the asker. Jesus, the one whom John has proclaimed to be the Messiah, the Lamb of God is asking. Jesus, the one who we believe to be God, the second person of the Trinity is asking. And where one person is, so the other two are also. So the God and King of the universe, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is asking, “What are you looking for?”

So, what is there to answer? What would you say? Happiness and Wealth? Love and family? A Long life? Peace in a violent and sinful world? Food for starving children? Cures for cancer, AIDS, Leprosy, yellow fever and heart disease? An upgrade on your room in heaven?

Maybe we would ask Jesus to keep passenger planes from being shot down by countries posturing at war. Maybe we would ask Jesus to keep more people from dying of the flu in our city. Maybe at Sherwood Park we would just ask Jesus to keep people from dying.

Well, the disciples don’t ask for any thing like that. Instead they are stumped. So they mumble something, anything that comes to mind. Not a brilliant question that provides food for thought but something mundane, maybe even ridiculous. Something that if we were asked in our modern way of speaking might sound like, “So, uh, where are you staying man?”

(Pause)

St. David’s was an old church, a big beautiful stone building inside and out. Every few years, someone asked to use the building for commercial purposes. Sometimes orchestras recorded music there, a couple fashion magazines had done photo shoots, even some TV shows had filmed there. Now, a movie studio wanted to do some filming in the church. The congregation was asked to come on a Saturday to be extras, to just sit in the pews all day long with pretend worship services. Marlena and her friend Alice had been among the first to volunteer, they loved the idea of being in a movie.

The Saturday of the shoot, the two were very excited, they giggled like school girls the whole drive to the church. They didn’t know who the movie stars were, but they hoped they might see someone famous. They arrived, showed their ID to security guards, and entered the front doors. The narthex was full of the film crew, movie shoot equipment, and food tables. As they made their way through the chaos, they came up to Father Angelo and another man standing chatting by the door of the sanctuary. Alice suddenly grabbed Marlena’s arm and froze.

“That’s Brad Pitt!” she hissed. “Brad. Pitt.” she repeated.

Marlena’s jaw dropped.

Father Angelo looked over and smiled, he obviously had no idea who he was talking to.

“Marlena, Alice, what are you looking for?” he asked.

The two women stood there frozen, gawking at Brad.

Brad then smiled too, “What can I do for you?” he said.

Alice couldn’t say thing.

Marlena racked her brain for something to say

“Umm… uh… which pew will you be sitting in?”

(Pause)

We never know when that question is coming. The question that lands on our chest like a ton of bricks. Maybe we are too focused on something else to know what is really being asked, or maybe we do not want to imagine what the answer might be.

For whatever reason, the disciple’s answer Jesus’ question with their own strange question. Whether they are ashamed to admit that they have been following Jesus around to see the spectacle, or whether they really don’t know what to say to the Messiah who has asked them what they are looking for, the feeling they probably had is one we all know.

All of Advent we waited for Messiah. At Christmas we rejoiced at Messiah’s coming. In Epiphany the Messiah, the Christ, God in flesh was revealed to us. But now that Messiah is here, we don’t really know what to do with him. Like the disciples, we find it hard to grasp the magnitude of the Messiah, of Christ being with us, here and now. It is one thing to wait for the guest of honour to arrive, but is another to know what to do once the dinner party is over and the guest is still hanging around.

Even more so, it hard for us to know what to do with God in our lives. Hard to know what this faith business means on Monday morning to Saturday night. What does that mean for us? What do we say? Where do we go? How do we respond?

If John the Baptist had heard the disciples answer to Jesus’ question he might have shamed them not getting it. But that is not Jesus’ way. Instead of correcting or condemning, Jesus gives a simple answer. “Come and See”.

(Pause)

“Umm.. uh.. which pew will you sitting in?”

Marlena couldn’t believe her silly answer. She waited for the movie star to laugh at her.

Brad Pitt just smiled his trademark smile.

Father Angelo, with a twinkle in his eye, simply said,

“Come and see”

And all of sudden, Marlena and Alice felt themselves following after Father Angelo and Brad into the church, without even thinking about it.

(Pause)

Come and See.

Jesus gives an invitation that is more than invitation. Jesus grabs us and brings us close. Jesus pulls us into the story of Messiah, Jesus opens our eyes to the new thing that God is doing in our world, in our lives.

Jesus knows what the disciples are looking for. Jesus knows that they are not really wondering where he is staying, but are wondering about the Messiah.

And Jesus knows what we are looking for. That we are looking for meaning, for healing and wholeness, for answers. Jesus knows that we do not always know what to do next, that we don’t always know what to do with this God business.

Jesus’s words are not condemning or forcing. They are words that carry us. Come, I will take you and I will hold you. They are words that show us God. See, here I am with open arms, here giving all that I AM to you.

Come and See. Jesus promises us that as we journey with him, as he goes with us, that we will see the world changed.

Jesus speaks to us, speaks directly to you and me. Through our shame, through our fear, through our confusion. And Jesus comes to us, seeing us as we are. Not as the unworthy sinners that we see in ourselves, but as the beloved children of God, who Jesus the Christ has named as his own. Jesus doesn’t really need to hear our answer to the question “What are you looking for?” Jesus already knows. And more importantly, Jesus already knows who he is looking for and who he has already found.

So, Come and See.

Amen.

Not a safe or harmless baptism

GOSPEL: Matthew 3:13-17

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It wasn’t that long ago that it felt like we were painstakingly waiting for Messiah. Counting down each week of Advent, lighting one more candle until we reached Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. And then for 12 days we lingered at the manger. We heard the familiar stories from Luke [In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…] and from John [In the beginning was the word].

Yet, hear we are today, and it is like 30 years has gone by in the blink of an eye. That little baby we were watching and waiting for is now a grown man. (There is probably a parenting metaphor there). A grown man travelling the countryside, coming to the River Jordan to be baptized in front of expectant crowds.

And with that vanishing 30 years, we flip another page on the seasons of the church year. The waiting and watching of Advent led us to Christmas. Christmas then made way for Epiphany and the season after. A portion of the church year that always begins with the Baptism of Jesus.

Yet, the story of Messiah makes a bigger shift than just the change of seasons. Our focus shifts from waiting for Messiah’s coming to now watching how Jesus of Nazareth is revealed as God’s chosen one, sent to save. Advent and Christmas tell us the story of incarnation, of God’s coming in flesh. Epiphany to Transfiguration tell us of Christ being revealed as the divine Son of God.

So after having just been gathering around the manger, only a few days ago, we find ourselves back on the banks of the Jordan river with John the Baptist (as we were in Advent). But John is not preaching today, rather putting on a show out in the wilderness. A show that riles up the religious establishment just the same.

It is here that Jesus enters the scene. He asks John to Baptize him, yet John doesn’t like that idea. He would rather be baptized himself by Jesus. But Jesus insists.

So John dunks Jesus into the waters of the river Jordan, and when Jesus comes up and out of the waters, the heavens open up and the spirit descends on Jesus. The voice of God thunders over the crowds, so that the whole world could hear. “This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased.”

(Pause)

When I was in high school and university, I played the cello in the orchestra in musical production called Love According to John, an annual Easter tradition in Edmonton. Over its 30-year-history, the musical had grown big enough to take over the main concert hall in town with four sold-out performances every Holy Week.

The opening scene shows John the Baptist preaching on the banks of the River Jordan as Jesus joins a line-up of people waiting to be baptized. When it comes to Jesus’ turn, lightning and thunder erupt from the stage. The stage lights flash and thunder booms from the sound system. A prop dove on strings then lowers down into the scene. A voice echoes from heaven, “This is my son, the Beloved…”

Now, Love According to John is mostly based on the Gospel of John, but the writers also filled in the gaps with the other Gospels, and with a lot of creative liberty. For example, John’s Gospel doesn’t actually include Jesus’ baptism. Regardless… for some reason, the musical’s writers decided to embellish the moment and give some lines to extras. Lines that are not in the bible.

The crowd of extras reacts to the voice from heaven by saying, “It was thunder!” “No, it was a voice like thunder!”

Sitting down in the orchestra pit, it always struck me that quibbling about the voice from heaven missed the point – the guy who had just been identified as the Son of God, and on whom the spirit of God descended was standing right there!

And yet, like in the gospels, the moment comes and goes. No one seems to be truly affected by the thundering voice and everyone more or less keeps treating Jesus the same as before.

Despite my objection to the embellished lines… I think there might actually be an unintentional yet truthful commentary about human beings in that scene, even though it was certainly not what the writers planned.

There is something about hearing the voice of God and then arguing over what was actually heard, that is so human. You would think that in the cacophony of voices in our world that claim to be the truth, that God’s voice would cut right through them all. But the problem isn’t the multitude of voices…. it is us, the hearers. We cannot help but spin the message, to hear what we want to hear, to miss the point.

The hermit preacher out in the wilderness is a spectacle to behold, but mostly harmless. The Christmas carols and pageants that give us warm and nostalgic feelings are easily put back in the box for when we are ready to haul them out again. We like a good show, but we also like being in control of the story.

Yet, a voice from heaven… that’s not safe and harmless. The voice of God, telling us, showing us the Messiah right in front of our eyes… well, that is downright terrifying. It’s no wonder that 2000 years later, even people putting on a musical about this moment want to get hung up on what the sound from the heavens actually was. That is a way to hold onto control, to be the ones defining the message and writing the story.

Yet, this is not what the Baptism of Jesus is about.

John the Baptist knows it, the crowds know it and we know it.

Because when we slow down for a moment, we can feel in our bones that God has just changed the game. The cute cuddly Messiah of the manger is not the mostly harmless incarnate God we hoped for.

As God the Father opens the heavens, as the spirit of God descends upon Jesus, and as Christ the Son of God comes up and out of the water… God pulls back the curtain on creation, and reveals the One who has been there since the beginning of all things.

Just as the spirit hovered over the waters of creation while God set the world into motion by speaking the words, “Let there be light…,” The spirit that hovers over the waters of the Jordan, and the voice that speaks into that world sets into motion a new creation, a new creation born in the One who first comes up and out of the waters.

There is a new creation coming into being in Christ Jesus, and that is a scary and terrifying thing for us. Because it reminds us that we are not in control of this world like we thought we were, we are not authors of our story. The voice from heaven that announces this new creation isn’t a harmless prophet preaching out in the wilderness, nor a voice that can be hauled out once a year for a special holiday and then packed away again.

This voice that proclaims Jesus as the Father’s beloved son and ushers into our a world a new creation is the same voice heard in the waters of this font, and same voice that speaks in this bread and wine.

Just as the voice named Jesus the Son of God, the Messiah, the one who was sent to save all creation… this voice names and claims us too. Names and claims us in our baptism, and each day afterwards. The voice re-creates us anew in the waters, names us as daughters and sons – beloved children of God.

And that is scary. Terrifying.

We are not control of our new names. We are not the ones who choose how God feels about us. We do not get to choose what kind of new creations we will be. We are not the authors of our story.

And yet, this new creation revealed in the waters of Baptism, this Son of God in whose image we are created, this Messiah we have been waiting for… this is the One who writes for us a new story. Who changes our fate of sin and death, to God’s new story of mercy, grace and new life.

It might be in our nature to do everything we can do to ignore that voice from heaven, to argue about whether it might be thunder or a voice like thunder… missing what God is really up to. Yet God puts Messiah, the Son of God, right front of us. Right in front of us in the Holy Words, Holy Baths and Holy Meals that we share here, week after week.

And in those things, God re-writes our story. God makes us new creations. God proclaims that in this baptized One who first died and rose again, we too are named and claimed by God. And God’s voice thunders over us bringing us from death to life. God names us Children of God – Beloved and Pleasing to the One who makes all things new.

Not the sweet Christmas story we remember

Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Read the whole passage)

I want to do a short survey with you. So please, raise you hand if you have seen or experienced any of the following in the past month. As we go through, look around and take notice of the amount of hands that you see up. As we get ready for Christmas, has anyone seen:

– Throngs of people in shopping malls or other stores?

– Someone returning home from being away?

– Frustrated parents and misbehaving kids?

– People enjoying Christmas music at a concert, in store, in their car, at home or at church?

– Tired faces pushing grocery carts loaded up with food?

– A person that you could tell would be in need of basic necessities this month, or who probably cannot afford presents, or food or anything else that goes with Christmas?

– A made for TV cheesy Christmas movie that warmed your heart anyways?

– A pregnant woman?

– A starry night, snow falling, and a nice arrangement of Christmas lights?

Now, these are all fairly common experiences for this time of year. There is the mixture of stress and hard work, joy at hearing a beloved carol again, grief and sadness because a loved one is not here for Christmas, anticipation and excitement as the day gets closer.

It is the last Sunday of Advent, and we still have the blues of the season up, the Advent wreath still has one candle unlit. But the signs are showing up that Christmas is close. Music is being made ready, the poinsettias are out, and after weeks of hearing bible readings about the end of the world, or about John the Baptist, we get to finally hear about some central Christmas figures.

The experience of Christmas seems to come, with more and more pressure, each year. Often, many of us spend a month or more preparing for just a few hours of gift giving, a few meals with family and friends, a few days that are supposed to fill us with enough joy to last an entire year. We work very hard to make the Christmas experience perfect.

And so when we hear Joseph’s story today, the contrast he and Mary present does not match the ubiquitous nativity scenes and holiday playlists that pervade this time of year.

In fact, Joseph’s story is much more like all the other parts of life that we pretend don’t exist at Christmas time. The parts we don’t like or that we struggle with. The parts that are hard and frustrating, that are disappointing and painful.

Joseph isn’t the first boyfriend to find out that his girlfriend is having a baby, and Mary isn’t the first woman to find out that she is pregnant when she has no plans to be. And they will not be the last unmarried couple that will have to deal with this problem. This story is much more like real life than it is one of those Christmas movies. In fact, this story really is inconvenient for our Christmas image. Christmas should be about the cutest couple you have ever seen giving birth to most beautiful baby in the most suitable of barn stalls. It is not about poor unwed mothers, and potentially adulterous unplanned pregnancies.

And only to add to the disconnect between what we imagine Christmas to be and what Joseph’s story actually says, when Joseph finds out that Mary was pregnant, his options included stoning his wife, because she was like damaged property which must be destroyed. Another option to stay with Mary was not possible either. Joseph would either be known as the guy who got his wife pregnant before they married, or the guy whose son is not really his.

But Joseph did not choose to go that route, instead choose a more humane option. He would dismiss her quietly, which probably meant that Mary would be returned to her father, and hopefully he could get the father of Mary’s baby to pay her dowry and marry her if possible. If not, than Mary’s father would have the option to stoning Mary himself, selling her into slavery, selling her baby into slavery or if he was rich enough –which he probably wasn’t — pay for her upkeep for the rest of her life.

Not the sweet Christmas story we remember.

(Pause)

Nelly had volunteered to direct the Christmas pageant at St. David’s, or rather she was the only one who hadn’t immediately said no when asked by Father Angelo. Nelly was busy enough this Christmas, but she decided that if she was going to do it, she would do the pageant right and put forward her best effort.

On the day of the first practice, she only had half the number of people she hoped for. But she decided to make due.

To the men she gave the roles of shepherds and magi. The women would be the angels. The little kids would be the animals. But for Mary and Joseph she only had one option for each. There was gangly teenage boy named Josh who simply didn’t seem like a magi or shepherd and quiet teenage girl named Grace who was dressed like an emo goth punk. The two could not look more out of place and uncomfortable in a church.

“This will not do at all” Nelly told herself. “Maybe I can find a better looking Mary and Joseph before next week”. For that first day however, Nelly dressed up these two out of place teens, and put them next to the manger. Josh could hardly see his lines because his hair was in his eyes, and Grace’s black eyeliner was so distracting, that the angels and shepherds giggled and whispered with each other every time she spoke.

At the end of the practice, Nelly was determined that she was not going to let these unsuitable kids ruin her pageant.

(Pause)

In many ways, the story of Joseph that we hear today, unravels and upsets our vision of the Christmas story. We don’t want Christmas to be like real life, it supposed to something different, or least that is what we are told to buy each December. All the commercials and ads promise the perfect Christmas, and each year, the world opens up their wallets in the hopes that if we buy enough and work enough, this Christmas will be perfect.

But our version of Christmas is NOT God’s.

God is telling a different story at this time of year. God is telling a real story, about real people. About people who have big problems, and no easy way out. It is about poverty, about unmarried parents, about unwanted babies, about judgment and the threat of death.

(Pause)

After four weeks of practices, and lots of begging and hoping and nagging, Nelly just couldn’t get anyone else to be Mary and Joseph. Josh and Grace were going to have to be it.

The night of the pageant came, and all the cast was gathered together after the dress rehearsal. The pageant was as polished as it was going to get. The little kids were running around pretending to be the animals they were dressed as. The shepherds and Angels were drinking coffee. Josh and Grace were standing by themselves, looking a little lonely… lost even. Nelly was still frustrated about them, they read their lines woodenly, and never loud enough. And Grace refused to off her black eye liner, and Josh’s hair still covered his eyes.

It was soon showtime. Nelly announced that there was five minutes until curtain up. As Nelly stood up to go and check on the crowd, she glanced over at Josh and Grace. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Josh reached down and grabbed Grace’s hand just for a moment, he squeezed it once and let it go. Grace looked at him and smiled. They were in this together. Josh and Grace against the world.

Nelly almost dropped her stage notes. She began to realize, that Josh and Grace were just like the real Mary and Joseph. All they had was each other, they weren’t perfect, or well suited for the role they were to play in God’s mission in the world, but they were all that God needed to work miracles.

(Pause)

Our perfect version of Christmas has never existed. As we stress and worry and prepare for the perfect Christmas, God is sending divine messengers to unmarried teens living in poverty. While we try to create perfect memories with seemingly perfect families, God is discarding the rules about pregnancy before marriage in order to send us a messiah.

God does not wait for the perfect moment to begin the work of the incarnation, the work of taking on our flesh and becoming like us. God starts in the most unexpected of places, with the most unexpected of people. With Mary and Joseph, with Josh and Grace, with you and me.

The story of Joseph shoves aside our idyllic nativity scenes, and our perfect Christmas pageant visions, in favour of a real story about real people. A story about shame, and danger and betrayal. But also a story about mercy, and compassion and grace.

For when Mary and Joseph get past the shame of pregnancy before marriage, when they get past the possibility of death for adultery, they become guardians of God’s promise.

God’s promise that cannot be re-created no matter how much shopping or baking or decorating or cheesy Christmas movie watching we do. It is God’s promise given to imperfect people, to imperfect us.

A promise whose name is God with us — Emmanuel. A promise whose name is God Saves — Jesus.

Amen.