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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.

Preparing for what we have not known or seen

GOSPEL: Matthew 3:1-12

1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This 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.’ ” (Read the whole passage)

Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!

Invariably, every year ahead of the second Sunday in Advent, someone on social media, usually one my pastor friends will post a meme of John the Baptist. A hairy wild hermit prophet looking man who looks like he is shouting at something, with a caption that reads:

Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!

John the Baptist is a striking image during this time of year., if not an out of place one. You don’t find him in any manger scenes or on Christmas cards. He just doesn’t fit with what we normally associate with the Christmas season, and yet he is a central figure of Advent. Two of the four weeks of the season are always devoted to him and to his preaching out in the wilderness.

After we began Advent last week by talking about the end, about the end of time and God’s ends and purposes for us… which seemed like an unusual place to begin the new church year, we find ourselves in an equally unusual place for this second Sunday of Advent, heading out to the river Jordon along with the rest of crowds, going to hear if this wild prophet John the Baptist, Zachariah the temple priest’s son, has anything for us to hold on to.

The banks of the Jordan river provide an odd scene. While John himself dressed in itchy camel hair and eating wild insects off the land would have been a sight, the crowds who went out to hear him were just as interesting.

The people of 1st century Israel were people living in a world on the edge. They were a nation under occupation, the Roman Empire had the world under its thumb, including this backwater province of Israel, full of people who refused to worship in the Roman way. This world was slowly but surely crushing most people. It took everything to provide the basics of life, food, clothing and shelter. Taxes were steep and paid to the temple, the Jewish rulers, the Roman overlords, to the the crooked tax collectors and corrupt soldiers. People were restless and anxious for change, even as they clung to what little they had. And even the Empire itself was facing its own end, even if it would take centuries to crumble.

The people coming to the Jordan river were people under pressure, people being squeezed by a world that was broken and crooked. They were people looking for something to hold on to, for a return to to day when things were easier, to ethereal memories of milk and honey, to a time when they were on top.

And they were going out to John because they hoped that he would be the one to make things right, to Make Judea Great Again. But it wasn’t just the masses hungry for change that went to hear John, it was those who had power too. Those who had exploited the crisis of occupation to gain a little power and influence, to gather a few more table crumbs than their neighbours. Everyone was going to see John hoping that he was the one with the answers.

Even still they knew what he was preaching, it wasn’t as if it was a secret. He was brash and harsh, he called people names and offered scary warnings… and he wasn’t above shaming and scorning his audience. Yet they all went out anyways… they were people desperate for a fix for this world that slowly crushing the life out of them.

And so there the crowds were standing out on the banks of the Jordan, listening to wild prophet say things that no one else was saying, yet that spoke to their world in the ways that no one else was speaking.

Kind of sounds familiar doesn’t it. We have seen something like this story, only two thousand years newer… crowds frustrated with the world flocking to a charismatic speaker, thinking he has the answers.

In 2019, we understand first century Israel in ways that we couldn’t 5 or 10 or 25 years ago. We understand a world under pressure in ways that people haven’t really known for a while. We too are living in a world on the edge, a world being squeezed by broken systems of government, by the choices of foreign emperors or presidents, a world that is getting harder and harder to get by in, harder and harder to make a life in, harder and hard to have faith in.

If John the Baptist were preaching down on the banks of the Red River, we might find ourselves there too, along with the crowds.

And his words would feel like they resonate with us.

Prepare the way of the Lord – yes, we are ready for someone who is going to fix our problems.

Make his paths straight! – yes, this world is crooked and corrupt!

Wrath and repentance, axes and tree stumps, fires and chaff – yes, finally someone who is going to fix our mess.

But John hasn’t come to restore our former glory, to give us a little more of the things we are desperately holding on to, to take us back to when things were better.

You see, the thing about John and about Advent. They both point something, to someone we do not know and have not seen yet.

Of all the seasons of the the church year, Advent is one most focused on hope. On hope rooted in the actions and deeds of God still to come. In the fulfillment of God’s promises that we have yet to experience.

And John is not promising that he is the saviour, nor that he is the one who is coming to set the world right. In fact, he is clear that he is not. John is simply a herald and John is pointing to God’s promise of a new world. John’s announcing the fulfillment of God’s promise of reconciliation, God’s promise of mercy, God’s promise that the world as it is, is not what it will be. John is pointing to the light of Messiah illuminating the dark places and revealing the new thing that God is doing.

But John is also proclaiming that what is coming is something new and not yet seen, that Messiah is on the way to change the world in ways we cannot imagine.

That even as God has made the covenant with Abraham,

even as God as rescued God’s people from slavery in Egypt, even as

God sent the judges to protect and lead the people,

even as that God has given the Israelites King David and the Kingdom, even as God has sent the prophets in times of trouble,

even as God has returned them home from exile…

Even with all that God has already done, John proclaims that what God is now doing in the promised Messiah will transform all creation.

There is no going back, there is return to former glory, no holding onto to what little they have in this broken world.

This is not the path to salvation.

Messiah is coming to make the crooked and broken world straight and right. Messiah coming to cut down and away the old. Messiah is coming to burn away the chaff and gather up his wheat. Messiah is coming to baptize God’s poeple with the Holy Spirit joining them once again to the one who created them and all things.

This is what John is announcing down in the river banks to all the people of Judea and to us.

Messiah is coming to fulfill the promises of God in ways that we have not seen and do not know.

And even though it is not what the people of Judea expected to hear, nor fixing the crooked and broken thing of this world that we so desperately cling to…

The promise of Messiah is the promise we need.

It the promise proclaimed in the waters of baptism that join us once again to the Father who made us.

It is the promise given in bread and wine that transform us into the body of Christ.

It is the promise announced in the good news word spoken in our midst.

The promise of Messiah’s coming is the central promise of Advent, the promise that lays the foundation of this story of Jesus that have begun to to tell again. The promise that John the Baptist preached to those desperate crowds gathered on the river banks.

The promise that John preaches to us today.

That the crooked and broken paths and ways of this world will be made straight because the promised Messiah is on the way.

Advent begins with the ending

Matthew 24:36-44

[Jesus said to the disciples,] 36“About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

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).

Today, we are resetting 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 Advent always begins in a peculiar way. It begins by talking about the end. About the end of time, about God’s end for us and for all of creation.

Now last week on Christ the King Sunday, we talked about ending and beginnings. We heard that what we usually see and know to be endings, God has a habit of transforming into beginnings. The cross should have been the end of the story, yet God transformed the ending of death into new life. And today, on the first Sunday of the New Year, on this beginning Sunday, we start by going to end of these story, the promise of God to make all things right and new. And there is a reason for revealing the end of the story at the beginning and it isn’t about telling the the story out of order. Rather it is the lens through which to see the Jesus story. This grand story that the church is now beginning to tell over again, from Advent to Christmas, to Epiphany, to Lent, to Holy Week, to Easter, to Pentecost… it is all rooted and founded on this promise of God to make all creation right and new in the end. The promise is made from the beginning of time and kept at the end. God’s promised ending colours every other moment of the story.

And yet, keeping the ending in mind is difficult.

As Jesus implores his disciples to keep awake, he is doing so because he reminding of them of what promised end of the story will be. He is reminding them in the days after he rode into Jerusalem hailed as a king and before his arrest, trial and execution. They are in the middle of the Holy Week chaos, the city sitting on a knife’s edge of tension. Remember the promised ending in the middle of the chaos doesn’t come naturally.

And of course we get it. Here on December 1st, two days after Black Friday and 25 shopping days, 25 baking days, 25 cleaning, Christmas concert going, Christmas party having days until Christmas… we get it. Keeping awake to the end of the story is hard in the middle of the chaos even when you know how much time you have.

Keeping awake to the end of the story when you have no idea when the end is coming… well that is just not how we human beings operate. We cannot help but fall asleep, we cannot help but be unready.

To underscored his point of wakefulness, Jesus gives some examples. Examples that sound like they are about people failing to live up to the boy scout motto – always be prepared. Noah and his family who build an ark while everyone else is swept away in the flood. One worker in the field is taken, one worker in the mill. And the rich man’s house is robbed while he sleeps. And yet, these aren’t examples and counter examples, one way to be ready and one way to not be ready.

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 simply says keep awake.

Or in other words, remember that it isn’t all about the chaos, it ins’t all about the present moment, all about whatever is right in front of you. Maybe as we are about to begin Advent with 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. About seeing a world that needs to be reminded of the end of the story, to hear the promise of God to make all things right. And this means 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 a community feeling unsafe in stores and public places, to those speaking out against abuse and racism hidden from the public for too long, to the suffering of the planet as we consume more and more, to protests and violence happening all over the world as nations and municipalities deal with citizens feeling unheard and exploited.

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 tells 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 seeing 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 fear violence.

Messiah’s light grows as people all over the world begin standing in solidarity with each other and against corruption and abuse.

Messiah’s light multiplies as friends and neighbours stand up and speak out against racism, sexism, violence and hate.

Messiah’s light shows up in friends and neighbours supporting and caring for each other, even when they disagree or do things differently.

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 still when we fall asleep,

when we can’t be help but focus on the chaos,

when we can’t help be consumed with the present moment.

Messiah still comes. In our dark world,

Messiah’s light is born.

Messiah’s light grows.

Messiah’s light brings us Advent.

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., allowing us to see the big picture behind it all.

Messiah is God’s promise ending of the story.

So 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.

Reign of Christ – The Beginning is Near

Luke 23:33-43

35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” (Read the whole passage)

When I was 11 years old and just beginning confirmation, someone in the congregation I grew up in (our parents? The pastor?) decided that all of us first year confirmation students should learn how to usher.

Bob and Lorna had been ushering every Sunday at our church for decades. Always in a suit and Sunday dress, they faithfully showed early each week to attend to things that needed to be done for worship: put up the hymn numbers, water glasses for worship leaders, mic checks, tidying hymnals and on and on. They along with the other ushers welcomed worshippers with a smile and took them to their pews and handed out bulletins.

Bob and Lorna attended to us confirmands just like they attended to everyone else. They taught us to give two bulletins to couples who both wore glasses because they probably held the bulletin at different readings distances. They taught us to notice where people regularly sat. How to direct people forward for communion, but to keep the line up short enough that people weren’t standing and waiting for too long. They taught us to stagger the hymn numbers on the hymn board for a little elegance and to make them more readable.

For them ushering wasn’t about the all the little jobs that keep ushers busy, it was about caring for people. For Bob and Lorna, ushering was an expression of their faith. It was a way to embody Christ, to show God’s love to their neighbour, to pass on something of what it meant to be faithful to some misbehaved 11-year-olds. And learning to usher taught me how to see the people of our congregation differently, to put others first, to consider what my neighbour might need in order to hear the gospel and meet Jesus week after week.

Today, we worship at the end. The end of the liturgical year, with Advent just around the corner. We finish the telling of the story of Jesus only to start it all over again, as if it is brand new and unknown for us.

We also worship today in the shadow of another end – the end of all things when God will bring about the a new creation under the reign of Christ. The cosmic end of the world we know, the world of suffering, sin and death with the promised new world of healing, wholeness and life on the horizon.

And here on this end of days, it is all too easy to find ourselves focused more on the ending of what is, than the new beginning promised and just around the corner. In fact, endings are pretty comfortable places for us to be. We are people predisposed to the status quo, and there is nothing more more certain than the nearing end of the story, the nearing end of the journey. Its no wonder the best part of most movies is the climax, the moment near the end when the outcome to the story is assured. Its also no wonder that while death and funerals often turn families inside out trying to figure out how to live after the end has come for a loved one, we all instinctively know how to attend to and care for a loved on their death bed. But it is not just movies and death beds that we know well, it is endings of all kinds. It is more comfortable to remain in a relationship that isn’t working than to strike out and start fresh, more comfortable to continue with a job we cant’t stand than begin something new, more comfortable to endure that chronic health issue than see a doctor and start a new health plan.

Even churches will choose the comfortable and familiar status quo of being on the way to the end, rather than fully walking through the doorway of the end and new beginning. These days, many churches are more settled into dying, lamenting what they once were or what they thought they would be, rather than seeing through to God’s future, faithfully moving towards God’s promise of new life on the other side of the end, on the other side of death.

_______

The town of Teulon is a pretty typical rural community. Young people have been leaving for the city for years, public services have been closing or moving to larger centres, the community aging while struggling to get along in this new world. The Lutheran and Anglican Church have joined together in order to hope for a modest average worship attendance of a dozen, maybe more on a good Sunday. They are the definition of a church living in their end time.

I began leading services there as a part of the rotation of Interlake Regional Shared ministry services. One Sunday a few months into the trial, it was going to be the first Sunday that I brought my daughter Maeve to worship with me. And I was nervous about how things would go. Maeve has always been attending places where there were established caregivers, people who had volunteered to sit with her in worship and to sit with all the things that come with sitting in church with nearly 2-year-old.

During the 45 minute drive out, I anxiously wondered who I could prevail upon to sit with her. Would I have to sit with her? What if she wanted her dad during my sermon or in the middle of communion? I didn’t know the people well enough yet to know whom I might ask.

As we got unpacked in the church office and I prepared myself to make an awkward request, in walked Barry, one of the faithful Teulon folks.

“Well Good morning!” he said, “This must be Maeve! Would you like to sit with me? My granddaughters are here with me!” and then he reached out and took Maeve by the hand to the pew where they were all sitting.

And all of sudden, it was the same feeling I had walking into my church growing up, being greeted by Bob and Lorna. I was being welcomed as I was, before. And now my daughter was being cared for and welcomed with the same faithfulness, being given the things she needed hear the gospel and to meet Jesus. She was given a place to belong, a place she has found in many churches since.

And so here is the thing about the endings that we get stuck in, the endings that we get comfortable with… God isn’t comfortable with the status quo of being on the way to death. God has other things in mind for us, God promises new beginnings. New beginnings that terrify us, that we cannot imagine. Even as Christ the mocked and ridiculed King hangs on the cross of death, God has new life in store, empty tombs on the way, new beginnings that will transform us and all creation.

In fact the endings that we get stuck in are sometimes not endings at all for God. Even as churches grey and shrink, struggle and lament their loss, God is at work in the Bobs and Lornas and Barrys among us. Because for those who to whom the faith will be passed on to today, the church has always been shrinking and greying, struggling to make budgets and fill committees… and this church that we so often feel is a shadow of what it once was or could have been… this is the church that God is using to do the things that God in Christ has always been about.

Churches near the end are the ones that welcomed me as an 11 year old and then my daughter into faith. What seems like the end to us, is often the beginning for others.

God has this inconvenient habit of turning our endings into beginnings, this habit of pushing us out of the comfortable and familiar towards the true ends we need. Towards the true beginnings we need. God has the inconvenient habit of dragging us from the comfort of suffering, of sin and dying, and leads us into new life, into new chapters of our stories, new ways for the Kingdom of God to take shape among us.

Today we worship at the end. Or at least what feels like to us is the end. What we are certain is our ending.

Yet endings are never what they seem for God. In Christ, Good Friday crosses become kingly thrones and lead to empty tombs. The Reign of Christ Sunday, the Sunday on which we proclaim that Christ’s Kingdom is here and now makes way for waiting for Advent. For Advent and waiting for Messiah with desert hermit preachers and pregnant unwed teenagers.

And still in the midst of all of our endings and God’s beginnings, God is doing what God has always been doing. God is welcoming and bringing us into communities of faith, teaching us how to hear again the Gospel. Making room for us to meet Jesus again and again here in this place, in this community, this church. Giving us the good news of seeing each other, seeing what we each need to hear the Gospel, seeing that we need to keep meeting Jesus especially when we think we are dying…

and seeing that this is not really our ending today, but God’s beginning.

All Saints – The way the world should be

Luke 6:20-31

20Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said:

 “Blessed are you who are poor,

  for yours is the kingdom of God. (Read the whole passage)

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.

Words that begin one of Jesus’ most famous sermons. Famous because we are not quiet sure what to do with them. The beatitudes or blessings and woes describe a grand reversal of the normal order to the world, and depending on how you see yourself, they are very hope filled words or very scary words.

Either way, the Beatitudes stick in our mind not because they describe the world as we know, but rather a world so very different than our own. And so very different from the world of the first hearers of the sermon, the one who Jesus was looking towards as he preached these words.

The people of 1st century Israel would have heard them as the same kind of radical reversal of the order of things that we do. Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God. And to be sure, these are not the spiritualized versions of Matthew’s gospel, these are not “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke’s Blessings are for those who do not not have enough to live on, a roof over their heads, enough clean clothes to wear. And Jesus goes on from there. Blessed are the hungry, the weeping, the hated.

It is the specific nature of the beatitudes that are the point. But not to say how it is we can be blessed, rather to undo and deconstruct the normal ways that we define blessing. It is almost as if Jesus is saying to his audience that anything that they can imagine being a curse is instead a blessing, and anything they they imagine a blessing is in fact a curse.

And once all the categories that we normally live by are undone, we might wonder, what is left? How does Jesus mean for us to understand a world where blessings are curses and curses and blessings?

And today in particular, we wonder what does all of this blessings and woes talk have to do with All Saints and remembering those who have gone before us in faith.

All Saints goes back to the early centuries of Christianity. Within a few generations of the first followers of Jesus, the Church had begun to remember and pray for those who had gone before in faith. Those who were the first witnesses of Christ. Those who were early leaders and faithful followers of the fledgling Christian community. The faithful who had passed on their faith in Jesus to successive generations.

The most important Saints received their own feast days or commemorations. The feast of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Saint John the Baptist, St. James, St. Micheal and all Angels. And that list of saints and figures of the faith that we remember on particular days has grown to include Martin Luther and his wife Katie, Martin Luther King Jr and Mother Theresa. Yet, for the myriad of saints who don’t get their own commemoration, and for all the faithful witnesses to the faith in our lives who have gone before us, we have the Feast of All Saints.

And as Lutherans who boldly claim the title of Sinner and Saint, as a way of reminding ourselves of God’s mighty deeds of salvation done for us, “All the Saints” is an expansive and inclusive list. We remember all those who have gone before us, and in particular we remember those loved ones who have died and especially those who have died over the course of the past year.

So along with a remembrance of the Saints, All Saints brings with it a sense of grief and loss. Today, we bring the individual experiences of grief that we usually bear alone, to this community and this gathering for worship. And we recognize that even as the ones we grieve may be different and varied, we all carry grief and loss with us in some way. Whether we are grieving a spouse, or family member or friend. Or grieving the loss of a relationship, community, or vocation. Or simply change in general. Grief infiltrates our lives in so many ways… and today we are reminded that we are not grieving alone.

And if there is anything that grief does to us, it turns our lives upside down. All of a sudden the things that were blessings: love and companionship, relationships and community, become curses and woes… the loves that filed our lives before become the things that hurt the most.

Kind of the way Jesus flips things around and calls curses blessings and blessings curses in the beatitudes.

The beatitudes that show us a world order that we don’t know yet that we understand deep down. We understand that they are the way the world *should* be.

The beatitudes show us the way that the Kingdom of God is.

The Kingdom that is breaking into our world.

The Kingdom where God makes all things right and new.

The Kingdom that is far more open and welcoming than we can imagine.

The Kingdom that is for those who are poor and hungry and weeping and hated.

The Kingdom that is for those rich and full and laughing and well liked.

The Kingdom that we glimpse today on the feast of All Saints.

All Saints is not an only about ritualizing our memory and grief, about giving meaning to the hurts and pains that we experience in life as we lose so much.

All Saints gives us also a glimpse of that Kingdom, a glimpse of the end of time, a vision of God’s Kingdom breaking into and transforming the orders of this world, making us all and all things new. The promise of All Saints is not just a memory of the Saints, but a joining with the saints of all times and all places. A moment where the veil between heaven and earth becomes thin enough to see that the Kingdom of God is nearer than we know.

All Saints points us to the coming end of the liturgical year and also points us to the end of time and all things. All Saints points us to the grand upending of our world that is coming, and to establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth… To the Kingdom that is already coming into focus now, but not fully here yet.

And so as Jesus declares blessings and woes on All Saints, he does so to expand our vision of Kingdom. To know that we are not alone, not alone in our grief but joined together in it, with all the blessings and curses that we bear.

And Jesus declares that this upside down version of the world that we don’t quite understand is in fact, the Kingdom of All Saints – to which we belong.

Reformation 502 – You will be made free?

GOSPEL: John 8:31-36

31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

400 years ago not too far from the shores of Church Hill, Manitoba, the first Lutheran pastor in North America presided over the first Lutheran communion service on this continent. Rasmus Jensen, was a Danish Lutheran Pastor sailing with Danish explorers who were searching for the Northwest Passage.

Of course, that is somewhat relevant to us here a Sherwood Park because nearly a hundred years ago, the original incarnation of this congregation was started by Danish Lutherans in the north end of Winnipeg, and they called it First Danish Lutheran Church.

It is strange to imagine that just about 100 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 these to the door of the church in Wittenberg sparking the beginning of the Reformation, that a Lutheran pastor to whom this congregation could trace a common lineage, was presiding at communion on Manitoban soil.

400 years of history for us to stand on is a pretty big deal.

And they said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

I hadn’t been in my first call long before people started asking me if I was of German descent. The congregation I served was part of a cluster of the oldest Lutheran churches in Alberta, a community of descendants of German immigrants that had been farming the land for over 100 years.

“No” I would respond. “I come from Norwegian Lutherans.”

A response that often made made eyes glaze over.

The first few times I tried to explain… my grandfather was a pastor, who had served congregations in Saskatchewan and Alberta. His brother was also a pastor who had served in Alberta. My grandfather’s brother in law, my great-uncle had been president or national bishop of the church. People all across the country knew my family, we had relatives and family friends in every synod, connections all over the place. When I started seminary, all the professors knew who I was because we had a scholarship named after our family.

Just because I wasn’t German, didn’t mean I wasn’t important! It was a sentiment that didn’t seem to matter much to anyone but me.

And they said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

As Jesus speaks to his followers, he declares that if they follow him, they will know the truth. And the truth will set them free.

Yet they balk at the idea. Not at the idea of following Jesus, the one whom they think is the promised Messiah. And not at the idea that Jesus will reveal to them truth. No, they balk at that idea that they aren’t free.

“We are descendants of Abraham,” they protest. They are part of the chosen in-group, part of inheritors of God’s covenant of blessing for the Israelites. They have never been slaves… well other than that time in Egypt and God used Moses to recuse them, and that time they were carted off to captivity by the Babylonians, oh and the Romans who were currently occupying Israel and taxing the place the death… other than those times they have always been free. Oh, and also when the Philistines, Persians and Assyrians conquered Israel… other, than those times they have never been in captivity or slavery to anyone!

Jesus promises truth and freedom, yet even his own followers are too proud to imagine that they needed to be set free.

And whether we like to admit it or not, we kind know this indignant attitude well. We are taught often by our world to assert our noble independence, our freedom from the burden of obligation anyone or anything. Whether it is political leaders who will say anything for a vote or a contribution regardless of the facts. Or people commenting on social media about whatever the rage inducing issue of the day is. Or media and marketing that tell us we are in charge of our own destiny, as long as we buy the right products. Or social divisions based on nationality, language, skin colour, religious belief, political partisanship, sexual orientation, occupation, age or any other number of arbitrary categories where being part of the in-groups means finding fault and blame with “those people,” or “others.”

And of course the church is guilty of promoting this attitude too. Christians have been all too good at believing that we are part of the in crowd, and that the problems we face are to be blamed on people outside of our in-group, on the world around us. Non-believers, people who have fallen away from church, people of other faiths… they are the ones who are the problem. Why do we need to be set free?

And [we] said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

Today, on this Reformation Day, it might be hard to imagine the desperation that the average person felt in 1517. Desperation to avoid sin and death, to avoid eternal punishment and hell. Part of what drove Martin Luther to speak out against the church was seeing how the Pope and the Church were exploiting this desperation, rather than giving people the truth. The truth that God’s grace and mercy were freely given.

Like those first followers of Jesus, we don’t know that fear of hell and condemnation. Rather we hold onto what we perceive as our birthright as though it is the sign of our salvation. “We are descendants of Abraham. I was baptized, or confirmed, or married in this church. I have been attending here my whole life. I was born and raised in this country. I am a well respected member of my community.”

Jesus offers the truth. Jesus offers freedom. And we are loathe to accept it because it might mean that we weren’t free in the first place.

And [we] said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

It is a hard truth to accept. That being descendants of Abraham, that being the home of the first Lutherans in Manitoba, that coming from big Lutheran families… that being a noble, independent 21st century master of our own fate and future… that none of these things are what matters about us to God.

Jesus gives us the unvarnished truth. We are sinners. Sinners in need of saving.

But the truth of Christ doesn’t end there.

We are sinners who are forgiven

Sinners who are shown mercy.

Sinners who are given grace and love.

And it is Christ who forgives. Christ who shows mercy. Christ who gives grace and love.

And that is Good News indeed. Because deep down, we know that all those other things that we get indignant about don’t truly matter. Because being a descendant of Abraham won’t save us in times of trouble. That who we are related to, the name of the church that we were baptized at, the job title on our business cards, the party that we vote for, the team that we cheer for… that none of those things will save us when we are broken down by sin, when we are facing death and the grave.

There is but one thing, there is but one person who saves.

And they said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

On this reformation Sunday, as we remember our heritage and history, as we give thanks for those who have gone before us… we are also reminded about the truth of the matter. The truth that Martin Luther rekindled among the faithful, the truth that Jesus came to preach good news to God’s people.

The truth that we declare every time we gather, the truth revealed in holy baths and holy meals.

That God’s grace is given for us, not because we of who we are, but because of who God is.

And that it is the God of grace and mercy who has come for those who are enslave to sin and death.

And even when we think we don’t need saving, that the God of New Life who has come to save us.