Tag Archives: Sermon

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.

A Christmas Story – Mary and Joseph

As Mary watched the rocky road pass by underneath her, she noticed that she could no longer see her feet over her growing belly. Despite having having known lots of pregnant women in her short life, and seeing how big they got, it was different, very different when it was your body. She put her hand down to feel the baby within her.

And then she bounced. She was sitting in back of a fabric merchant’s donkey cart. The folded cloths and furs she was sitting on provided some cushion, but the road was rough and the cart was stiff.

She looked over at her husband Joseph walking beside the cart. Joseph used some of the little money he had to pay for Mary’s seat, she had only been able to walk for a couple of hours before it became clear that she would not be making the trip on her own power.

Mary watched Joseph as he walked. He was tired but he easily kept pace with the cart. The days of travel behind them hadn’t slowed him down. Jospeh was preoccupied… he had a lot on his mind. This long journey, their recent wedding, Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. Mary knew that her new husband was still sorting it all out.

She was too. This was not how she thought her life would turn out. Well, the pregnancy part. She knew that she was destined for marriage and motherhood… that was her lot in life. But despite her unplanned pregnancy, announced to her in an extraordinary way, things could have been much worse. Joseph could have walked away from her, but he didn’t. But they still had this child between them… and neither knew what that was going to mean for their future.

Mary looked past Jospeh and around her. The highway that they traveled down was busy. The two of them were among the many pilgrims criss-crossing the Judean country side going to their home cities and towns to be registered. The Roman occupiers had order it, and now the whole world seemed to be in chaos with people having to travel all over.

Joseph had to return to Bethlehem from Nazareth. Af first, he wanted to make the trip alone, but Mary had insisted on coming along, despite being very pregnant. She didn’t want to have her baby without him… he was the only one who knew the whole story.

______________________________

Bethlehem was bustling full of people returning home for the census. It was a small town outside of Jerusalem, and it was here that the mighty King David had grown up. His battle with Goliath had been not too far from here. Joseph was born into the prestigious tribe of David, not that it seemed to help him much, as he still had to work as hard as any other carpenter.

Joseph and Mary were hoping to stay with Joseph’s relatives. He still had cousins here. But even as he stopped at each home of relatives that he could remember from his childhood, he could see that this plan wouldn’t work for they were already full of family coming home for the census. Joseph seemed lost. Mary suggested they try the local Inn. It wasn’t much more than someone’s home. The owner told them he was full too.

Then he saw Mary’s large belly and told the couple to wait.

He took them around back… behind this section of the city was large outcropping of rocks. There was a cave just behind the Inn, some livestock milled about the cave entrance. Joseph stopped and proudly shook his head, he wasn’t going to sleep with the animals. But Mary waddled over to a spot that looked comfortable enough in the straw and sat down, her feet hurt. She wasn’t going any further, so Joseph swallowed his pride. They would have to make due here.

It wasn’t long after falling asleep that Mary woke up to the pain of a contraction. Her clothes were wet, as her water had broken. She shook Joseph awake, he wanted to go and get the Innkeeper’s wife, but Mary wouldn’t let go of him.

So throughout the night, the two stayed together. Mary leaned against her husband for what felt like days and days. The contractions came regularly and often. Early in the morning, when the Innkeepr came to water the animals he found the two in the midst of Mary’s end stages of labour. He ran and got his wife.

She came with swaddling cloths and hot stones. The Innkeeper’s wife checked to see if Mary was ready, she told Mary it was soon time to begin pushing.

Mary was exhausted, but like so many woman before her, she found the strength when she needed it. She held on to Joseph, his body serving as pillow, arm rests and head board.

The Innkeeper’s wife told Mary that one more big push was needed.

And then, just like that a newborn baby’s cries pierced the dark night.

The squirming wiggling crying newborn came gushing into the world. The Innkeepr picked up the baby boy, looked into his eyes and smiled. She handed the baby to Mary, who was overwhelmed with joy. She received her little boy against her body, who snuggled up to her knowing right away that this was his mother.

Mary gazed at her son, this child that had part of her body for the past 9 months who was now out in the real world. She was amazed at this sight, this child now here with them. Joseph looked down over her shoulder. He was transfixed. The uncertain look on his face from their long journey was gone. Joseph looked like a proud father. The new family of three sat together, finally having a moment to relax for the first time in days.

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Joseph woke up to the sounds of voices come from over the hills. Mary and the baby slept snuggled together, the baby was now wrapped in swaddling cloths. The Innkeeper’s wife must have cleaned and wrap the baby while Mary and Joseph slept.

The voices were shepherds coming in from the fields to the animals pens. Joseph stood up to watch the shepherd and flocks in the early dawn. As the sheep crowded into the pen, a few of the shepherds came right to the cave.

Joseph wasn’t sure what they would want… maybe he and Mary would have to move. He got set to plead their case, but the shepherds stopped before coming into the cave. They simply knelt at the cave entrance… almost as if they were praying.

Joseph stood there in wonder, how did these shepherds know?

As the baby squirmed against her body, Mary woke to the voices coming near to the cave. She slowly and carefully pulled herself off of the ground. The voices were coming closer. Carefully and deliberately she made her way to the entrance… there she could see a group of shepherds kneeling in prayer. She brushed past Joseph.

As she carried the baby, out into the open night, a few of the shepherd’s gasped.

“Its true! They child is here.”

One by one the shepherds came and knelt before her and the baby. And then without another word they quietly left and following the night sky back into the fields.

As Mary watched them go, Joseph finally came out of the cave. He came and wrapped Mary and the baby in his arms. As the first signs of sun light danced across the sky, he could see the face of this little baby that his and Mary’s life had been centred around for months now.

Their son looked like any other baby they had known… even though it wasn’t his, Jospeh knew that he would be this child’s father.

But as Mary gazed into the eyes of her newborn son, she whispered his name for the first time.

“Jesus”

She looked at Jospeh,

“His name is Jesus.”

And somewhere in this wiggling gurgling creature, in those newborn eyes and ears, in his wrinkly nose and soft newborn skin… the divine was present. Just as the Angel had promised.

A baby who carried the divine in flesh. A baby who bridged the gap between creator and creation. A baby who united a world longing for salvation with the one who was sent to save. A baby who was the promise of God embodied, the promise of God fulfilled.

It was hard to fathom. When Mary looked at her son she saw just a baby in one moment, and in the next it felt like she could see all things, all creation contained in flesh.

She remembered the stories the Torah, that usually when human beings gazed upon God they died because they could not stand something so holy. And yet here she was, holding God in her arms. God who had grown and been born of her body.

A little helpless child containing God in a human body. The God of Israel, the God of all creation. The Messiah promised for generations upon generations. Here in Mary’s arms. Here in this forgotten place that hardly anyone knew was the one who had come to save the world.

Here was Jesus – God with us.

Glory to God in the highest indeed.

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.

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.

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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.