Sunday, December 25, 2005

Dec 25, 2005 - Christmas Day

John 1:1-14

Who here can remember the last time they saw a sunrise? How would you describe it? I'm more of a night person than a morning person, although these days I'm neither, so I don't see the sunrise very often, but I love those moments in a movie when they show a fast-motion shot of the sun coming up over the horizon, all shimmering, and then they track it getting higher and higher in the sky, and they show the shadows on the buildings disappearing until everything is all bright. Of course, the thing with sunrises, and with the sun in general, is that you can't actually look directly at it. It's too bright - there's just no way to face it directly. But we can all appreciate the beauty of the sun by looking at it indirectly - by seeing what it does for the world - bringing light, getting rid of the darkness and shadows, making us feel warm, making plants grow. Even in the middle of the winter, there's nothing like the feeling of the sun on your face. But like I said, we can never look at it directly.

The same is true of God. We could never, in a million years, face God directly or ever see God as God really is. Nobody ever has - Moses asked, before God sent him off to Egypt - and God only showed him the divine backside. Elijah tried, and God came to him as silence. God has come to us in pillars of fire, or in awesome silences, or in thundering voices, but never directly. But that's for our own safety, because we couldn't handle it. God is too different, too glorious, too much like the sun - bright and powerful - for us to stand it. I imagine that if we were in the direct presence of God, we would probably spontaneously combust, like a space vehicle that gets too close to the sun.

But that does pose a bit of a dilemma for God and for us. After all, what kind of relationship can you have with someone who can't actually be with you? Sure, there's respect, and awe, and even a distant kind of love, but that's it. You can't touch the sun, or hug it, or feel its hand on your shoulder when you're upset. And that's how it is with God - we can't touch God, or hug God, or feel the divine hand on our shoulder. While God can and does love us, we have a hard time feeling that love in any real way, since we have never experienced God in any real way. We have a hard time believing that God is really with us, or for us, or even among us.

Well, our Gospel reading for today tells us what God did about this problem. God sent the light into the world so that we could see who God really is. The Word became light as a reflection of God's light, so that we could see God's glory and all the wonderful things that God does for us - but, and here's the key thing - God sent the light into the world as a human. "The Word became flesh and lived among us."

I want to take a minute and just reflect on what that means, that the Word became flesh. Take a look at your hand. What do you notice? Can you see the veins running underneath the skin? Does anybody have blisters? Paper cuts? What about calluses? I have one on my right hand, on my middle finger where the pen rests when I'm writing. What about hangnails? Scars? I have a scar where a wart was burned off when I was a kid. Our hands are probably the most human part of us, and when we talk about the Word becoming flesh, we're talking about the Word, the light of God, becoming someone with hands. God became Christ who had hands - probably blistered and cut, probably scarred and with hangnails. No doubt, as a carpenter, Jesus had banged his thumb more than once with the hammer, or sliced himself with a plane. Perfectly normal for a human, although not very dignified for a god.

So why would God do this? Why would God send Christ to become flesh among us? Why would God want the light that reflects the divine to become solid and able to be damaged? The first reason is that it's the only way to limit the divine light so that we can look at it. When God's light becomes contained in human flesh, then we can look directly at it, and see how amazing it is face-to-face. We aren't stuck watching the side effects anymore - we don't have to watch the disappearing shadows or the scenery getting brighter. We can look straight at the Son and see the light directly. It's true it's dimmed, like looking at the sun through welder's glass, but it does help us to see God directly. That's one reason God did this miraculous thing.

The second reason is because in Christ, in the Word made flesh, the world can finally touch and see and be held by God. We can finally experience God in a very real way, and know how much God loves us by how God is with us as one of us. God, in Christ, sat down and ate with people, went fishing with them, danced with them at weddings, cried with them at funerals. The Word made flesh touched them, walked side by side with them - small things really, but the things that we do with the people we love, the things that make a difference. It's amazing really, that God would go to all this trouble just so we would know that God loves us, and so that we could see God for ourselves, but that's God.

Now, you might say that's all well and good, but Jesus isn't around anymore. We can't see and touch and hug Christ anymore. We can't see the divine light before us anymore. Well, yes and no. It's true - nobody has walked with Christ for generations. On the other hand, though, the miracle that Christ became flesh at Christmas isn't over. It's continuing as Christ comes to be in us - as God makes us the flesh that shows God's love to the world, and as God makes us the ones to reflect God's light into the world. Our hands, our scarred and earthly hands, are made to become the hands of God, reaching out to others, to one another, to touch and hug and offer comfort. It's remarkable that God would come to be a human at all, but that God would become so humble and limited as to come to be in us - living in us, never leaving us, never abandoning us, that is why Christmas still has meaning for us today.

It's a little bit weird that God would dim his own light just so that we could see him, or show his greatest act of divine power by becoming human. That's not how gods usually operate. But that's how our God operates, coming to us in humility and vulnerability and love, so that we would know that God is truly Emmanuel - God-with-us - and God for us and God among us. Amen.

Dec 24, 2005 - Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

I wonder if Mary expected things to turn out a little differently. From the moment the angel Gabriel came to her to announce that she would be giving birth to the Son of God, I imagine that the birth scenario she had pictured in her head was a little different from what actually happened. Mary probably expected to give birth in Nazareth, at her home, helped by female friends and relatives, like her cousin Elizabeth, comforted by the familiarity of faces and surroundings. Those would have been reasonable expectations for her, especially seeing as how this was her first child.

But, boy, did things happen differently than Mary expected, or even than we would have expected. For one thing, Mary was nowhere near her home when it happened. She wasn't even in a house - she was in a stable, for goodness sake! Talk about not meeting your expectations - I mean, really, who expects to give birth in what is essentially a barn? And on top of that, the family support that Mary expected wasn't there - no mother, or sister, or aunt, or neighbour - only Joseph, who had probably never seen a woman give birth in his life. Mary was essentially on her own for this birth, and I'm pretty sure that's not what she expected.

And of course, if she had had any other expectations because this particular baby was Jesus, the Son of the Most High - you know, like maybe there would be angels to welcome the baby, or maybe even Gabriel might show up and say, "Good job, Mary," since he was the once who was there at the beginning, well if she had had any of those expectations, and they would have been reasonable, to be sure, well then she would have been disappointed then, too. Sure, there were angels, but they came to the smelly shepherds in the field, not to Mary who had laboured so hard to bring forth God's Son. They showed God's glory to some guys who hadn't done anything - Mary and Joseph only got to see the cows and donkeys that were in the stable with them. Some birth of the Saviour of Israel! The whole thing must have been a bit of a let- down for May, and I think it's safe to say that that very first Christmas didn't live up to expectations.

We sometimes find that to be true for our Christmases, too. Christmas is a time of expectation for us. We spend the four weeks of Advent getting ready for it religiously speaking, and even longer shopping and putting up decorations and making plans. Although most of us haven't spent nine months getting ready, like Mary did, we still come to this day with a lot of energy invested in certain hopes and desires for what the holiday will be like. In our heads, we all have a picture of what Christmas is supposed to look like - families gathered lovingly around the Christmas tree, waiting patiently to open presents, children gratefully thanking their parents for whatever they've gotten, feelings of love and warmth and peace filling our homes. And we expect, or at least hope, that after all our hard work, our Christmas will look something like that picture.

But Christmas doesn't alway happen that way, and for some people it never does. We can feel let down at this time of year, we can feel that the season doesn't live up to our expectations. Where we might remember our childhood Christmases as being times of unparalleled joy, where every present brought happiness, except for maybe the socks, sometimes we find now that Christmas has lost the magic it once had. Presents need to be more elaborate and more expensive than past years in order to elicit the same grateful response. The joy we expected to get from the gifts is diminished.

Where we might remember past Christmases as times when the family got together and everyone was happy and the house was filled with love and warmth, sometimes we find now that that's no longer the case. Sometimes people aren't there who used to be - they've passed away, or families have split up, or they're too far away or too busy to travel. Sometimes we see with adult eyes what we missed as kids - that despite smiling profusely, Mom and Aunt Betsy really can't stand each other, that jolly Uncle Rory is actually an alcoholic, or that Grandma and Grandpa are getting older and this might be their last Christmas. The love and fulfillment we expect to get from our family gatherings isn't always there the way we thought it would be.

Even the Christmas Eve service doesn't always bring the peace we expect it to. Sometimes the beautiful carols aren't enough to take us away from all the things we have to finish before tomorrow, from the problems that we know will face us again in the New Year. Sometimes the Christmas story just doesn't hit home the way it used to. And again, our expectations aren't met.

We're disappointed when that happens, just as Mary must have been a little disappointed by the way her son came into the world. Now, Christmas isn't always like that - sometimes Christmas really is magical and full of love and warmth. But everybody, at some time or another, has had a Christmas that's been a let-down. And when that happens, we can find ourselves wondering, where is God in all of this? After all, this isn't just any holiday - this is a religious holiday, and we expect to feel the presence of God somehow, whether it's in the family gathered together, the holiness of the Christmas Eve service, or the joy of thoughtful gifts. But when Christmas doesn't live up to our expectations, when we feel disappointed somehow in the holiday, we start to lose hope. We start wondering if God has somehow opted out of this one, or, more seriously, if we're doing something to keep God out, if maybe we've been too busy meeting our own expectations at Christmas to truly feel Christ.

Part of me wants to say, yes, that's it. That when we get so preoccupied with gifts and cooking and family, it makes sense that we would be too preoccupied for God, and that God has sent Christ elsewhere, to people who can appreciate him. It makes sense that God would only be with those who expect their happiness to rest solely with Christ, and not with the perfectly trimmed tree or the present they've been waiting for all year. It makes sense that God, in fact, might be disappointed in us, that we have failed God's expectations, and so has stayed away.

But God isn't about making sense. Christmas isn't about making sense. In fact, the point of Christmas is that God sidestepped all of our expectations and sent Christ to us in the most disappointing of places and in the most unexpected way. You see, the remarkable thing about Christmas is that God chose to come as a human, the complete opposite of a god, someone who was born and who would, shockingly for a god, die, someone who would feel love, but also pain, who would be vulnerable in ways that God was not expected to be, who was on the same level as the paltry humans who worshipped the divine. Even more unexpected, God chose to make the Son of God not a great high king, or a mighty military ruler, but, disappointingly to some, an ordinary joe - one of us. The world expected God to come as someone great and grandiose - the world did not expect God to come as a poor baby born in a barn with no fanfare whatsoever, and yet that is what God chose to do. God chose to come at a time when no preparations could be made, when the city and country was in chaos because of the imperial registration, to a couple whom the world didn't even know existed. God chose to be with us in Christ in a way that none of us would - or did - expect.

And so I'm sure Mary wasn't disappointed for long. After all, the baby she had carried for nine months was born alive and healthy - a miracle in itself at that time. The angels did appear to sing of her son's birth - a whole host of them, even if they were in a field in the middle of nowhere. And Mary was reunited with her friends and family who helped her to care for the new infant. But even more, despite the unexpected birth situation, the baby did grow up to be the Saviour of the world - and not in a pop-star, Canadian Idol way. Christ brought life to the world not through power and greatness, through hob-nobbing with the celebrities, or brunching with heads-of-state. Christ brought life as the healer of the sick, the companion of the outcast, as the agent of God's forgiveness for all. God's promises to Mary at Jesus' conception did indeed come true - not, again, the way we would have expected, but, then, we know now that's not how God works. God doesn't come in grand ways, or in conventional ways, but in small and humble, unexpected ways.

Why? So that we would be comforted in our disappointments and failed expectations, because it's in those moments that we find God with us. You see, Christmas wasn't one day two thousand years ago and now it's over. God continues to send Christ to us in unexpected ways. Yes, Christ may very well come to us in the joy of presents and food, in the warmth of festivities and family - that's why they're so meaningful to us at this time of year. But, more importantly, Christ comes to us disguised in those moments of failed expectations and disappointments. Christ comes to us when we can't keep our family together, when the kids fight over the presents, when we're alone on Christmas Eve. Most importantly, Christ comes to us when we wonder where God is in all of the holiday disappointments, when we feel our most human and most disillusioned by our expectations, when we look for angels and see only barnyard animals, in others and in ourselves. God will come to you in this way. Christ will be with you this Christmas in this way. So don't lose heart when Christmas celebrations don't turn out the way you expect, when things are far from perfect, when they look nothing like you had hoped. Instead, take heart that God is working in unexpected ways in the world, sending Christ to you in the midst of your disappointments, tonight, tomorrow, and always. Glory to God in the highest heaven! Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Advent 4 - God Uses the Losers

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:47-55
Luke 1:26-38

"Great things come from great people." That's one of the keys to "Seven Steps to Greatness," according to internet columnist Daryl Gibson. Great things come from great people. That's the key to success in the world, isn't it? That if you want to do accomplish something great, you ask a great person to do it? When we're looking for someone to fill the new management position, we look for someone who has been doing a great job in their current place. When we're looking for someone to represent us in court, we look for a lawyer who has won all his cases. When we're looking for a doctor to perform surgery on us, we look for someone who has had successful surgeries and recoveries. When we want to accomplish the near impossible, we look for people who are winners, who are great. And we avoid those people we consider to be losers. We wouldn't hire somebody who has been fired from their last three jobs. We wouldn't hire a lawyer who has lost all his cases. We wouldn't put ourselves in the care of a surgeon whose patients have died. It's pretty simple, really. If we want to accomplish great things, we use great people. We don't use losers.

To a certain extent, that's what we see in the Bible, too. Now, you wouldn't think so at first glance. After all, we have a great many stories where God turns the underdog into the hero of the story. The youngest son, Isaac, gets the birthright from his older brother Esau. The youngest brother, Joseph, becomes right-hand man to the Pharoah and saves his family from starvation. The scrawny shepherd boy, David, becomes the king of Israel and the founder of a royal house that will last for generations. Even Jesus, the illegitimate son of a poor family, becomes the Lord and saviour of the world. So when I say that, by and large, our Bible stories don't concern themselves with losers, it would seem that I'm wrong.

But what we often overlook is that of the two groups of people represented in our Bible, one group is far and away more consistently lifted up than the other. One group appears to be the constant focus of God's attention while the other is barely mentioned. One group is considered to be "great" enough for God to use, while the other is considered too lowly for God's attention. Or at least, when God does use this lowly group, hardly anybody seems to notice, and almost nobody seems to have written it down.

Which means that when we do see God using this lowly group in the Bible, we have to sit up and take notice, because the story must have been exceptional for it to make it in the Bible. And today, we have one such exceptional story. It is a story about women. Yes, the two groups that people get divided into in the Bible are men and women. And, for the most part, it is men who are seen as agents of God's grace, as the ones bringing God's Word into the world. David, John the Baptist, Jesus - they are all men. Great men - I'm not denying that for a second, but men. Not women. The women who appear in the Bible are few and far between, and while it is sad, it shouldn't surprise us all that much. After all, the writers of the Bible lived in a time when women were the lowest of the low, when they were seen as unclean, unworthy, unacceptable, and completely unfit to be graced with God's presence. So, like I said, when we see stories about women in the Bible, we sit up and take notice, because here is God doing something absolutely remarkable - here is God turning the usual way of operating - to accomplish great things you use great people - on its head and here we see God using the lowest of the low to accomplish some of the greatest things ever.

Our story for today - the Gospel reading - is remarkable at the very least because it actually brings us to think about four women, not just one, and it draws both the Old and New Testament into the picture. And the first woman in our story that I want to lift up is Elizabeth. Now, although she doesn't show up until the end of our reading today, she is actually the first woman mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. Elizabeth was the wife of Zechariah, a priest, and was herself a descendant of Aaron, Moses' brother. As far as women went, she actually had quite a bit of status in her community. Or, she would have, if she wasn't barren. Even today, the inability to have children can cause women to feel bad about themselves, but back then, it was even worse. The ability to bear children was the reason men married women - they expected the women to give them children so that their name would be carried on. Without children, the men were considered almost worthless, and their wives even more so. So a woman who couldn't bear children, and who was "getting on in years" as Luke describes it, was a disgrace to her community. Like Elizabeth. She couldn't have children and she was getting old. (And just as a side-note, here we have the second reference to a woman, because here we are meant to think of Sarah, Abraham's wife, who was also old and childless, and ended up being the mother of the nation of Israel.)

But God took no account of Elizabeth's disgraceful state, and in fact seems to have favoured her because of it. We know this because God sends an angel to Elizabeth's husband, not, sadly, to Elizabeth herself, but to her husband Zechariah and tells him that Elizabeth is going to have a son, John. And not just any son. John will be "great in the sight of the Lord," as the Gospel tells it, and "will be filled with the Holy Spirit.. . . With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before [the Lord God], to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Pretty remarkable, eh? God uses Elizabeth, a woman, a barren woman, the lowest of the low, a loser - if you will, to bring forth God's Word in John the Baptist, the second holiest man in the Gospels. God uses a lowly person to accomplish something truly great.

But as great as Elizabeth's story is, it is nothing compared to the story of Mary. Or rather, to the story of God using Mary. Because let's be clear, here. Mary's story isn't great because it's about Mary, because she was the mild-mannered virgin who happily said yes to what God had planned. Mary's story is great because it's about God, how God used Mary to accomplish the greatest thing of all. The remarkable thing about the story of Mary is that God chose to use a teenage girl from an invaded people, who lived in an obscure town that nobody had heard of, who was nothing in herself, who was special only because of who she was engaged to. God used this lowly servant to bring forth God's Word incarnate, the promised messiah, the heir to the throne of David. In the story of Mary, we see God taking a nobody and making her the Mother of God, the greatest of all humans, men and women, through whom the Saviour of the world comes into the world.

Now, Mary herself acknowledges that what God is doing isn't about her when she sings her magnificat, our psalm for today. (And just as another side-note, here we have a reference to the fourth woman in our story. Mary's song is based on the song that Hannah sang, when she prayed in the Temple for God to send her a baby boy, one who ended up being Samuel, the great prophet whom God used to anoint David as king.) In both Mary's and Hannah's songs, they praise God for lifting up the lowly, for choosing the humble to do great things, for showing favour to the poor and hungry and oppressed. They praise God for showing forth God's Word in losers, as it were.

But that is something that we can count on God to do. We can count on God to use people like Mary and Elizabeth, women who counted for nothing in their time, because that is the epitome of God's grace. God takes people who, according to the world, least deserve it, who have done nothing to warrant it, who are totally unworthy and unacceptable, and God showers them with forgiveness and mercy and favour. That is grace. God "chose," as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, "what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who become for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption." That is grace - God choosing losers to accomplish great things.

And the ultimate show of God's undeserved grace, that begins at Christmas, well, it's not only Mary's story and Elizabeth's story, but it is your story, as well. That is, it is the story of all the lowly today, of the people in the world considered to be losers. The people who've been fired from their last three jobs, the lawyer who can't win a case, the doctor whose patients have died. To these people, and for these people, God came down to earth incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth, to save the world and to be Emmanuel - God-with-us. Through and with these people, God brings God's Word to the world, to demonstrate whom it is that God loves most. Not the winners. Not the great people. But the losers, the useless, the ignored, the despised.

So if you have ever felt yourself to be the lowest of the low, if you have ever considered yourself to be a complete loser, to be unworthy of attention or love, than take heart because God favours you, and God is using you to show forth God's Word in the world. It may seem hard to believe, especially when the world is constantly telling us that it's only the great who get used, but as Luther wrote in a piece on Mary's Magnificat, ". . . without any wavering or doubt, realize [God's] will toward you and firmly believe that [God] will do great things also to you, and is willing to do so." [Luther's Works Vol 21] That is the story of the Bible, the story of Elizabeth and Mary, the story of Christmas, and the story of Christ's coming kingdom as well. It is what we wait to celebrate, it is why we praise God as we do, and why we proclaim with hope and joy, "Come, Lord Jesus, come!" Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sun, Dec 11, 2005 - The Spirit Is Helping Us

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

So, at the beginning of Advent we learned about how Advent is about waiting. Us waiting not just for Christmas and the celebrations of Christ's birth, but also waiting for Christ to come again, to bring justice to the world and to make God's kingdom a reality on earth. And last week we learned that Advent is not just about us waiting for God, but about God waiting for us. That is, God is waiting for us to get ourselves adequately prepared before sending Christ so that we will be ready for the big day. And so last week I talked a bit about what preparations God expects us to make - how God expects us to "straighten out" - so to speak - so that Christ can come to us more quickly. Well, today I want to reflect a little more on what kind of preparations it is that we're called to make, and how God helps us to actually carry them out.

So to help us out we've got John the Baptist again this week. Last week he was talking about making "straight the way of the Lord" and we found that that meant repentance, and getting rid of the roadblocks, otherwise known as sins, in our own lives so that Christ could come to us. Well, this week the word associated with John is "witness." "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light." John the Baptist came, not to direct people to himself, but to point people to Jesus, who was coming. By John's actions and by what he said, he hoped that the people who saw and heard him would turn to Jesus, the true Messiah. By his actions and words, he was preparing the people to encounter Jesus, and Jesus' own radical actions and words.

And that is what we are called to do as well. I know that so often we think we are called to be like Jesus, but I wonder if we are rather called to be like John - if we are called to be witnesses and by our words and actions to point people to Christ, rather than to ourselves. Certainly in Advent that is what we are called to do - to prepare people not only for Christmas, but to prepare them for Christ coming again. So how do we do that? How do we prepare others to encounter Christ?

Well, I'm going to depart a bit from the traditional evangelism script and suggest that we don't do it by telling people about Jesus Christ. I mean, sure, if somebody asks you flat out about this Jesus person and why Christmas is so important, by all means go ahead and tell them the story. But I would hesitate to bring Jesus up without asking. And there're two reasons I say this. The first is that in the last century, Christians have not been particularly good witnesses for Christ. That is, a lot of nasty things have been done by Christians in the name of Christ, and people, naturally, have come to associate Christianity and Christ with those nasty things. Residential abuse, pedophile priests, dominion over creation, the oppression of women, the murder of gays, pre-emptive war - these things have all been done by Christians claiming to follow Christ. And Christians who don't agree with them, who find their actions horrific, have in fact been astonishingly unprotesting about it all. So whether we as Christians have perpetrated evil ourselves, or just stood by and said nothing about it, either way we have not been very good witnesses for Christ. We have done a very poor job of preparing the world for Christ to come again.

So that's one reason I would hesitate to prepare people by telling them about Christ. The second reason is quite simple - that telling people is not as effective as showing people. In other words, actions speak louder than words. Rather than using our words - which are beginning to mean less and less every day - to prepare people for Christ, it is far more powerful to use our actions. And the actions that best prepare people for Christ's coming again are actions that best witness to Christ, that best testify to who he is. Actions that show his love, his mercy, his compassion for sinners and outcasts, his desire that all be forgiven, his wish for justice.

This is how we witness to Christ, how we make our Advent preparations. Isaiah says it so poetically in our first reading, when he says that Lord has sent him to "bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour, . . . to comfort all who mourn." We are meant to go out into the world and proclaim the goodness of Christ's reign by helping the poor, loving those who have never known love, working for justice, being with those who are lonely and mourning. Things that seem so obvious at Christmas time, but things which I think we so often forget to do in our hurry to get to the malls for the latest Christmas deals, in our rush to cook the perfect Christmas meal.

But maybe I'm being too hard on us Christians. It's true, there is a lot to do during the Christmas season - there's Christmas shopping, getting the decorations up, planning for all the get-togethers, sending out Christmas cards, connecting with family and friends. And spending money on charity instead of gifts, spending time with the poor instead of friends, writing letters to protest injustice instead of writing Christmas cards, well that all seems just a tad unrealistic, wouldn't you say? A bit too much like a fairy tale, like Santa visiting every single house in the world in one night. To witness the way I suggested, to prepare the world for Christ with our actions instead of our words, well even to me that sounds like a bit too much work.

And it would be if we had to do it on our own. The kind of witness God is asking us to do would be impossible - is impossible - to do by ourselves. Nobody, not even John the Baptist or Isaiah the prophet, could do this kind of work alone. We are, sorry to say it, too self-involved, to addicted to our own comfort levels, too afraid of risk to witness to Christ the way God wants us to.

But we aren't being asked, or even expected, to do this on our own. God is fully aware that the only way we can witness and testify to Christ the way John did is through the presence of the Holy Spirit. The only way we can act on issues of love and justice the way Isaiah did is through the presence of the Holy Spirit. That's why when Isaiah talks about all the things God has anointed him to do, he begins by saying, "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me." I know we don't usually talk about the Holy Spirit during Advent and Christmas - we usually reserve that for Pentecost - but it is only through the Holy Spirit that we can carry out the preparations that God is calling us to. The Spirit that moved over the waters of creation, the Spirit that inspired the kings and prophets of the Old Testament, the Spirit that was with the Word in the beginning, the Spirit that came upon Mary when Jesus was conceived, the Spirit that filled Jesus when John baptized him, the Spirit that inspired the early church to spread the good news far and wide, this same Spirit fills us and moves us to carry out the actions that truly testify to Christ as the light coming into the world. This Spirit is what enables us to prepare for Christmas in a way that witnesses not to the consumerism that grips our culture but to what Christ is really all about.

That's not to say that everything suddenly becomes easy. Now that you know that the Spirit is working in you, helping you with your Advent preparations, I don't expect that you'll walk out the church doors, give up your Christmas tree, and spend the next three weeks working at a soup kitchen. But I do suspect that the next two weeks leading up to Christmas will be a little different for you than before - that the Spirit of the Lord will move you, whether you're aware of it or not, to "witness to Christ's coming and prepare his way." And so in small but very real ways, the preparations will take place, the kingdom of the Lord will come closer, and we will know that our prayer is being heard: "Come, Lord Jesus, come." Amen.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sun, Dec 4, 2005 - Advent 2 - The Lord is Waiting For Us

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

So, Advent is about waiting. And last week, I talked about what we're waiting for. During the four weeks of Advent - three weeks now - we're waiting not only for Christmas to come, when we celebrate that the Son of God deigned to come into the world as a vulnerable baby, as one of us, but we're also waiting for the Son of God to come again. We're waiting for that day when Christ will make his unmistakable presence known to the world, when all wrongs will be righted, when the oppressed will be freed, and the marginalized welcome. We're waiting for God to fix the world - for the hungry to all be fed, for the sick to all be healed, for the naked to all be clothed. We're waiting, in short, for the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven. That's what Advent is about.

But you have to admit, we've been waiting a long time. When Jesus came onto the scene, healing the sick and feeding the hungry, he proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven had come near, that the kingdom of God was at hand. And, indeed, with all the miracles he was working, it really seemed like it. To the people who followed Jesus, every day was a glimpse into the kingdom that was to come. Their faith was shaken a bit when Jesus was ignominiously crucified, but it was restored and strengthened when he was raised from the dead three days later. And during the heady days of the early church, when the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples in Jerusalem during Pentecost and over three thousand people were baptized on the spot, when Peter and John repeated the very same healing miracles that Jesus had, well then it was easy to believe that every day, the kingdom of heaven was coming closer to fulfillment.

But that was two thousand years ago. The Spirit doesn't seem to move so obviously in the world anymore, sometimes it even seems as if every day the kingdom is getting farther away instead of closer. Yes, we still have hope, but the continued delay in Christ's coming again leaves us wondering. Is the day really coming? Is there really a point in our Advent waiting?

It's a concern that the author of the second letter of Peter addresses. His audience is obviously wondering the same thing, and so he (or she) writes, "Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance." It may have been two thousand years for us, but not for God. We may think God is taking too long about all of this, but not God. You see, while we've been waiting for God to bring all of this about, while we've been wondering what's taking God so long, it turns out that God is actually waiting for us.

You see, it turns out that as impatient as we are for the kingdom of heaven to come, the truth is that we're not ready for it. I know that we've been waiting for a long time, but just because we've been waiting doesn't mean that we've been preparing. Waiting and preparing are not the same thing. It is entirely possible to wait for something without preparing for it. Say, for example, you have a project at work that is due to be finished on a certain date. And so you're waiting for that day to come, when you can hand in your project. But if you haven't prepared for that day - that is, if you've spent your time waiting by surfing the internet or playing solitaire on your computer - then you're not going to be ready when the boss wants your project. But if you've been preparing - that is, if you've spent your time waiting by researching what you need to do and fulfilling all the requirements - then it won't be a problem when the boss comes to see what you've done. You can wait for the deadline without preparing for it. And that's pretty much how the situation is for us when it comes our Advent waiting. Sure, we've been waiting for two thousand years, but we haven't really been preparing.

Which is why, the author of 2 Peter implies, God has delayed in bringing about the promised day. Because God knows that we're not ready. God knows that if the deadline were today we would be judged failures, God knows that our attempts are far from perfect, and so God has granted us an extension on the deadline. Rather than seeing us fail, rather than having to punish us, God is giving us extra time. God is hoping that this extension will give us the time we need to actually prepare for Christ coming again.

So how do we prepare? What is the project God has given us to work on during Advent while we wait for Christ to come again? Well, both Isaiah and John the Baptist make it pretty clear. The project is to "prepare the way of the Lord" by "straightening out" the path that the Lord takes to get to us. In the old days, when the king would go out into the wilderness to visit his people, which wasn't very often, the people would build a straight, flat road, leveling out any bumps and filling in any holes, so that the king would have a smooth journey. Of course, the king could, and would, travel on a rough road if he had to, but why would the people want that? Why not make the journey for the king as quick and as easy as possible? After all, he was giving them the privilege of going to see them, rather than making them come to see him. So of course the people would do whatever they could to make king's journey smooth.

And the same is true of us - we want to make it as easy and smooth as possible for Christ to come to us. Now, straightening out the path for Christ to return to us means, according to John the Baptist, repentance - pure and simple. And if you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. If you imagine that Christ is coming to us along a physical road, it is easy enough to see that our sins and deliberate wrong-doings create potholes and speed-bumps that slow Christ down. They don't stop him, mind you - none of our sins can ever stop Christ from coming to us - but they can seriously slow him down. And so repentance is the way we fill in those potholes and smooth out the speed-bumps. When we repent of the actions we know to be wrong - bad- mouthing co-workers, disrespecting family members, judging those around us - when we turn away from those actions, we are straightening out the road so Christ can get to us sooner. Like I said, Christ will come whether we straighten out or not, but properly preparing the way means Christ's return happens sooner.

Now here's the thing. This is a group effort we're talking about. Our Advent waiting and preparations are personal things, yes, but the end result is not personal. If we're talking about Christ returning to the world, bringing the kingdom of heaven to the world, if we're talking about this on a global scale, which we are, then that means that we're also talking about repenting of our actions on a global scale - and as privileged North Americans, there's a lot of them to repent of. We're talking about straightening out on a global scale. We're talking about turning away from things like over-consumption, abusing the environment, propping up our own consumer lifestyles at the expense of under-paid, poverty stricken workers overseas. The road Christ is taking to come to the whole world is so full of potholes and speed-bumps that it makes the 401 look as smooth as a hockey rink. And so God is looking to us to prepare the way and make the paths straight.

Because doing this hastens the coming of the day of God, as we hear in 2 Peter. The neat trick about all of our Advent repentance and preparation is that not only are we making straight the road, but we're also actually participating in making the kingdom of heaven a reality. When we turn from those actions of ours that abuse others, when we take steps to right the wrongs that we've committed in the world, when we strive to rebuild the relationships between us and our global neighbours that we've broken, when we help heal the sick, feed the hungry, free the oppressed, and welcome the marginalized, then guess what? We are helping to continue the work that Jesus began, to bring about the kingdom of heaven. We are actually making Christ's return smoother and easier than before.

So, with all the preparations that we have to make, it turns out that our Advent waiting is not so long after all. Two thousand years doesn't seem to have been nearly long enough for us to prepare properly for Christ's return. How blessed we are, then, that God is in fact waiting for us to complete our preparations before bringing about that day. Nevertheless, while this is work we can begin, it is not work that we can finish. We can't bring about the fullness of the kingdom of heaven on our own, and so we cry out, with Advent repentance and expectation in our hearts, "Come, Lord Jesus, come!" Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Sun, Nov 27, 2005 - Advent 1 - Waiting for the Lord

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Cor. 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Well, it's here. Advent, that is - not Christmas. Although if you believe the advertising we're bombarded with these days, you'd think that Christmas was happening tomorrow and that you better get your shopping done Right Now. But, no, it's not Christmas yet - it's only the first Sunday in Advent, and that means that for church-goers like us, we are about to embark on a tension-filled four weeks.

Now why would I say tension-filled? Well, for one thing, Advent is one of the only times when we as a church are so completely at odds with the culture around us. Here we are, making preparations for Christmas, reflecting on the life-changing event of the Messiah's birth two thousand years ago, looking forward to the coming again of the Messiah, getting ready for the big day while, as I already mentioned, culture is telling us that that day is already here; Christmas is upon us now. While we are busy singing Advent hymns, lighting our Advent wreath, opening our Advent calendars and steadfastly trying not to rush towards Christmas too soon, we are bombarded with Christmas messages, Christmas hymns, and yes, Christmas decorations. So we are in Advent on one hand, while society around us is already in Christmas, having no idea that there is even an Advent. There is reason that there is some tension.

But it's there for another reason, too. And that is the tension between looking back and looking forward that we experience in Advent and also in Lent. You see, Advent is not just about preparing to celebrate the coming of our Lord two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. It is partly about that, which is why we have partly filled in nativity scenes, and calendars that open finally on the 24th with pictures of the baby Jesus. But if Advent and Christmas are only about the past, we would be celebrating a dead religion, where we do not expect God to make any changes in our lives now. But Advent is also about looking forward to the coming of the Lord in the future, the coming of the kingdom of God fully on this earth. Advent is about Christ coming again, into our hearts, into the world, and changing things in a very real way. So, again, on the one hand we have the celebration of the past, while on the other hand we have the anticipation of the future. There, again, is reason that Advent carries some tension.

And finally, there is the tension that comes from the fact that we are waiting for the promised kingdom to come - we are told to stay awake for it - and yet we have no idea when it's actually coming. We are in a perpetual state of waiting - two thousand years now, and we don't know when it's going to happen. So, naturally, talking about this great day that's coming, focussing on it, getting ready for it - and having no earthly clue when it will be - we have some tension.

Because this is a big day that's coming - the day of the coming of the Lord. It's a day that echoes throughout our entire Bible, Old and New Testaments - and it has a profound influence on almost every single Biblical writer. In Isaiah, the day of the Lord is a day when God will come down with all power and might, causing the earth to shake and the nations to tremble - poetically speaking, of course - but more important than that, it is a day when God will come down and right all wrongs. God will carry out the justice that is long overdue, rescue the victims of oppression, bring the people of Israel home from their exile, and make the world the way it is meant to be. Although mountains quaking and heavens tearing open sounds frightening, for the listeners of Isaiah, the day is something to be looked forward to, something to yearn for, because it means that nobody will suffer any longer under the hands of someone else. It means that people will finally be rewarded for their good deeds, and not laughed at and scorned by the people around them. For the people of Israel at Isaiah's time, this day is a good day.

It is, as our Psalm says, a day of restoration with God. The long, painful, tear-flooded days of alienation from the Lord will be over, and we will be reunited the God who is our light and life. If you've ever been separated from someone you love and who loves you for a long period of time, you'll have experienced the anticipation and yearning for their return that the Israelites felt as they thought about the return of their Lord. That day is nothing about a good day.

And then, of course, there's the day of the Lord according to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Again, poetically speaking, it is described as a day of awesome natural display - the very cosmos - the sun, moon, and stars, will be affected by the Son of Man coming again. The world will see how truly glorious he is, and with the power of God, he will send for his angels to bring the faithful together in his care. For the faithful, that is for us, it will be a good day.

But - but Jesus warns us, as Isaiah and the Psalmist and Paul in his letter to the Corinthians already know, there is no way of knowing when that day will be. Not even Jesus knows - a line that has, admittedly, been a source of great confusion for people. This isn't like Y2K, or Christmas Eve always falling on the 24th of December, or when taxes are due. The fact is that we don't know when this day is coming. The Bible writers didn't know when the day was coming. They made guesses - the writer of Mark thought it would be soon, Paul initially thought it would be in his lifetime but then had doubts when that didn't seem to be happening. Throughout history people have thought the day was coming when it wasn't. Martin Luther thought it would be in his lifetime, influential Christians called Millenialists thought it would happen at the turn of the last century - in 1900. But they were all wrong. For two thousand years they have been wrong. And that makes us all a little anxious.

Because the secret thought that lurks in the back of people's minds - the thought that they worry about but would never admit - is what if that day never comes at all? What if God has abandoned us? What if God is so disgusted with our behaviour that all deals are off and we are left to our own devices? It's a terrible thing to think - because we all know what the world would look like if God left us to ourselves - but it has been thought, by faithful people, for as long as this day hasn't come. The people of Isaiah's and the Psalmist's day, the faithful children of Israel, really were concerned that God would abandon them in exile in Babylon and not return for them because they were so sinful. And so they cried out to God to remember them, and to forgive them, and not to leave them to die.

We might wonder the same thing - is the Lord returning? Will we really have justice on this earth, will the oppressed really be free, will the marginalized really be welcome, will the hungry really be fed? Will our Advent hope for Christ's return be fulfilled?

Well, all we have to rely on that that will happen is the past acts of God and Christ's promise to return. It doesn't sound like much to people who have been waiting for two thousand years, but that's actually all we need. Because the past acts of God and Christ's promise to return are pretty darn overwhelming, too much in fact to go over all of it now. But I will highlight two moments in particular.

The first is the return of the Israelites from exile. Aside from the saving of Noah and his family from the flood, aside from the rescue of the Israelites from Egypt, two very well-known stories, we also have the rescue of the Israelites from Babylon. Isaiah did indeed cry out to God on behalf of the exiles, begging that God would remember them and return them to their home and to their temple, and God responded. God brought them back, restored them to the land God had given them, and rebuilt the relationship with them that they had broken. God did indeed act, as God promised, coming to God's people through Cyrus of Persia who liberated them, giving them a glimpse into the kingdom of the Lord.

The second moment is one of pivotal importance to us Christians - and that was the moment two thousand years ago when a baby was born in a stable in Bethlehem. I won't get into the story because, of course, we all know it, and I don't want to pre-empt Christmas Eve, but here again we have God's promised act fulfilled - to come to us, to be with us, in the flesh, undeniably God-among-us. It didn't happen the way it was expected to happen, or involve the people one might expect to be involved, but it happened nevertheless - the fulfillment of God's promise, and the beginning of the coming of the day of the Lord.

But it's not just moments in the past that convince us that God is trustworthy and that Christ will come again. While it's true that we're waiting for one big day, for the day, it's also important that we not overlook the small, yet still meaningful, ways that Christ comes to us today, and tomorrow, and every day of our lives. In quiet, humble ways, the Lord comes to us in our baptism, blessing the vulnerable, fragile bodies of infants. The Lord comes to us in Communion, in those brief few seconds of receiving the undeserved gifts of bread and wine, body and blood. And the Lord comes to us in the acts of graciousness and mercy that take place everyday in the community of believers. In those moments when you forgive someone without them asking, or are forgiven yourself, the Lord has come. In those moments when you donate money or food or clothing to charity or a person in need, the Lord has come. In those moments when you reach out to the stranger across from you and offer a smile, the Lord has come. Just as he promised he would.

Now, we are still waiting for the unmistakable arrival of the Lord, and while we wait we live in the tensions that Advent brings. We celebrate the past and look to the future. And we wait without knowing for how long. But we have seen God fulfill God's promises, and we know that we do not wait in vain. So we live with the tension, and we proclaim with hope the anthem of Advent, "Come, Lord Jesus." Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sun, Nov 13, 2005 - How Will You Live?

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

"For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ." Well, that’s a nice way to start out the day, isn’t it, what with all the verses in our first reading about the day of the Lord being at hand, being a day of wrath, and the second reading talking about it coming like a thief in the night. It’s nice to know that God is looking out for us and that, when the day of sudden destruction comes, God has already planned for us to be saved from obliteration.

At least, that’s what Paul’s letter tells us, but how can we be so sure that he’s right? It’s pretty serious stuff he’s talking about - the end of the world and our very existence - so we want to be darn sure that he’s right about all this, that God’s wrath won’t fall on us. After all, knowing where we stand when the end comes makes a big difference to the way we live our life in the here and now.

Well, Paul reassures his listeners by reminding them that they are "children of light and children of the day." Now, the Thessalonians to whom Paul was writing may or may not have known the opening to the Gospel of John, but we certainly do, and Paul’s use of the word "light" brings back for us "what has come into being through [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it." For us, when Paul calls the Thessalonians children of light and children of the day, we know that he is, intentionally or not, calling them children of Jesus Christ, the light of the world. And certainly, the light of the world would never destroy light’s own children.

We are these children, too, because of our relationship with Christ. Or maybe I should say because of Christ’s relationship with us. Just as Jesus died for Paul and the Thessalonians, he also died for us, and in our baptism we are made sisters and brothers of Jesus, children of light - yes, I know the exact relationship is a little fuzzy - and we live and die and will one day live again in Christ. As Paul indeed said, God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Which is a darn good thing, because none of us know when the day of the Lord is coming. Zephaniah tells us that the day of the Lord is near, at hand, even. Paul says that it comes like a thief in the night without any warning whatsoever, or like unescapable labour pains, which personally doesn’t make me feel too happy. Jesus describes it as a master who went away on a journey and suddenly returned to settle accounts with his slaves. It’s true, none of these references are particularly date-specific, and in fact, we’ve been hearing them for almost two thousand years, so we do wonder how near it is, but whenever the actual date all of our readings warn us that there’s no way for us to know when that will actually be. There’s no way to stop it from happening, and we better get used to it happening when we least expect it.

But that is something we’re used to living with, actually. I suspect that not many of us worry about when the day of the Lord is coming, but I know that more than a few of us wonder when our day is coming - that is, we wonder when our last day is coming. After all, none of us know when we might die. Sure, we can make predictions based on our health and our lifestyle, on our weight and our eating habits. But there’s no way to know for sure what might happen - we have no way to predict accidents - no way of knowing for sure when our time is going to run out. So, like I said, it’s a good thing that God is looking out for us.

So, since we don’t know when we’ll die, even though we’ll be in good hands when we do, how do we live? How do we go through each day, never knowing if it will be our last?

Well, one way is to live carefully, fearfully even, hiding away from the unavoidable day. That’s how the third slave in Jesus’ story lived. He knew that one day his master would return wanting to know what he had done with his time, whether he had been industrious with the money entrusted to him, and he was afraid. He was afraid that when his master came, when the judgement was made on how he had spent his time, it would go badly. And so the slave avoided all possible risks, he hid his money in the ground, he lived his days in fear, waiting for the end to come, waiting for the wrath of his master to fall.

Some of us live that way - we play it safe, we choose the path that has the least amount of risk, we hide from anything that might take us out of our comfort zone, that might challenge us. Rather than risk loss, and incurring the master’s wrath, we hide ourselves, and what the master has given us, away. We look at what the master has given us, our lives, our abilities, our possessions, our family, and afraid of losing it all, afraid that the master will come and take it away, we bundle them all up and hide them in a hole in the ground. We don’t risk them by following a dream, we don’t endanger them by following a path our heart says is right even though our head questions it, we don’t run the chance of losing them by answering some radical, inconceivable call God’s made to us. We’re too afraid of God’s wrath if we fail.

But living that way shows a lack of trust that God really does mean us for salvation and not wrath. When we doubt God’s intentions for us, we live in fear, like the slave, and we hide away what God has given us to use. And if anything’s going to make God unhappy, it’s not failure and risk-taking, it’s that we are afraid to use what God has given us, that we’re afraid to live out the life God has given us, that ultimately we’re afraid to trust God and God’s promises of salvation. There is no entering into the joy of the master if we’re too afraid to trust God.

But, God has a different way of living in mind for us, one built on trusting that God is a God of salvation and not of wrath, one where we take full advantage of what God has given us, one that does bring us joy instead of fear. Now I didn’t know this until I did some research, but apparently the only way for the first two slaves in Jesus’ story to have doubled the money they were given was to gamble with it - the parable says they traded with it, but that means gambling. Surprising, I know, that a parable of Jesus would highlight gambling as model behaviour, but the point is that the only way for the slave to double five talents - which, by the way, was 75 years’ worth of wages - was to do something risky with it. The slave had to put aside his fear of losing it all, he had to trust that the master wouldn’t punish or even kill him if he made a bad investment decision, and he had to go ahead and take bold action. And he was rewarded.

We are encouraged to live that way as well. To live without fear of wrath or death, not so that we’ll live lives of irresponsibility and selfishness, and not so that we’ll take unhealthy and life-endangering risks, but so that we can fully believe in God’s goodness towards us. The end is coming, sooner or later, but how we live in the meantime determines whether or not we enter in the joy of our master - that is, whether we live lives fearing our future with God, with the result that God is unhappy because of our lack of trust, or whether we live lives trusting in God’s promise of salvation, with the result that God, and we, are joyful because of it.

So what is it that you’ve been afraid to do? What gift or ability is God calling you to use that until now you’ve been shy of using? What path is God calling you to that until now you’ve thought was too risky to walk? What hope has God instilled in you that until now you’ve been afraid to count on? These are the "talents" you are called to gamble with. God is encouraging you to risk using that gift, to risk following that path, to risk acting in that hope. To risk trusting God.

So be bold, trust God, and step forward. We don’t know how long we have, or when the day might come when we will come face-to-face with the Lord, but we do know that we are destined not for wrath but for salvation, and so we can live joyfully, using the many gifts God has given us, trusting in God’s good will towards us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Sun, Oct 30, 2005 - Reformation Sunday

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Well, Joshua and Trevor are being confirmed today. Who here remembers their own confirmation? How do you feel about it? I know that when I remember my own confirmation, it’s always with a mix of pride and guilt. I’m proud that I was confirmed, but at the same time, I feel a little guilty about the whole thing. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I took my confirmation as seriously as I could have, or even should have. I didn’t really know what the big deal was. My family was excited, and I got presents, and we all went out for a nice lunch afterwards, but the whole faith thing, well, I was a little bit iffy about that. I didn’t know for sure whether or not I believed that God created the world; I didn’t really understand what it meant that Jesus died to free us from our sins. I had a few misgivings about getting up in front of the whole congregation and pretending that I was making some grand choice to follow Christ when in fact I was just doing it to make my family happy. I kind of wish that I had done confirmation a few years later, when I understood more, and when I knew more.

I sometimes feel the same way about being baptized as a baby. Once when I was about 20, I was on a bus and the guy sitting next to me asked me if had been "born again." I knew what he was asking - he was asking if I had "made a personal decision to follow Jesus as my Lord and Saviour" and so I felt a little inadequate when I had to say, "Well, I was baptized as a baby." That answer just didn’t seem as powerful or mean as much as saying, "Yes, I made that personal choice. I chose Jesus." But I couldn’t say that at any point in my life I actually had made that choice, or said those words. Even now, there are times when I kind of wish I had been baptized as an adult, in the river Jordan or something, where I could say, "Yes, I chose to do that. I chose to do something righteous." Sometimes my infant baptism and my half-hearted teenage confirmation seem somewhat inadequate. They seem to somehow fall short of what Christian righteousness is all about. They seem to "fall short of the glory of God."

That shouldn’t be a surprise, though. Of course they do. As Paul reminds us in today’s letter, everything we do falls short of the glory of God. Our baptism as babies or our baptism as adults, whether we’re confirmed knowing exactly what we’re going into or whether we’re just going through the motions, it all falls short. Although we like to think we get credit for trying our best, even our best falls short of what God demands of us: perfection. And don’t we know it? Sure, we go to church, and we attend Bible study, and we pray regularly - when anybody asks us if we’re good Christians, we say, "Well, yes, I think so." We’re the descendants of Abraham, so to speak. Most of us have come from a long heritage of Christians - naturally we expect to get credit for our Christian background. And yet despite all of those efforts, all of those advantages, there’s that nagging feeling that we’re not measuring up. That somehow we’re inadequate. We know, rightfully, that we’re not good enough. As Paul so eloquently puts it, we know that "no human being will be justified in God’s sight."

How lucky we are, then, that Paul follows that up with, "since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." We’re more than lucky, actually. We’re graced, we’re gifted, we’re justified, we’re redeemed. We finally measure up to the law that God "has placed in our hearts," as Jeremiah puts it, not by any of our own sincere efforts or informed choices or well-meaning actions, but solely because of Christ. Only because his efforts were enough, his choices perfect, only because his actions actually measured up is God able to overlook our shortcomings. Only because God sent Jesus Christ to die for us, only because the Holy Spirit brought us to be baptized, as infants or adults, are we able to share in that death, and the resurrection that followed, making us able to claim the righteousness and perfection and forgiveness that belongs to Christ alone.

So, in fact, being confirmed as a teenager when you don’t quite get it, standing up and professing your faith when you’re not sure if you should be, shows a good deal more faith than you would think. Allowing yourself to be content with your baptism as a baby and not claiming personal responsibility for being "born again" shows a good deal more faith than you would think. You see, it takes a good deal of faith to throw yourself on the mercy of God and to trust that it really is Christ who saves you and not the strength of your decisions or the conviction of your promises. That it is, in fact, God who has brought you to be confirmed as unprepared as you are, or to be baptized as immature as you are. That it is the Holy Spirit who stands beside you and makes those confirmation promises with you, who enters you and makes that baptismal commitment for you. It takes a good deal of faith to agree with Paul’s words - "What becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By the law of works? No, but by the law of faith."

So it’s an interesting twist, isn’t it, that those who seem to be weakest in their faith, because they didn’t fully believe in their confirmation or because the decision to be baptized was made for them, should end up being the ones who are actually strongest in their faith. That’s not to say that those who were baptized as adults have weak faith - the Holy Spirit brought them to make that decision just as the Holy Spirit brought the baby’s parents to bring their baby to baptism. But it’s interesting that those who end up being the strongest in their faith have done the least to deserve it. But that’s the point - because the ones who deserve it the least are the ones who need most to rely on Christ. "For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law." And that’s what God wants. God wants us to rely on - to put our faith in Christ - not in ourselves. That, in a nutshell, is what Luther struggled to remind the Christians around him of. That’s why we baptize people when they’re incapable infants. That’s why we ask uncertain teenagers to go through confirmation.

So, please, have no regrets if you were baptized as a baby, or if you went through - or are about to go through - confirmation without really getting it. Have no regrets about having made decisions that turned out to be imperfect. These things serve to drive you to Christ, who achieves your perfection, who secures your righteousness, and who brings you all measured up before God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Cat Bag Out

The announcement on Sunday:
Some of you may have noticed that I haven't been my usual energetic self that past while. I've seen the doctors, and not to worry, they assure me that it's a completely normal side effect of being pregnant.

Some reactions:
It took you long enough!
Good for you! (My personal favourite - after all, we set goals, tried hard, and achieved what we set out to.)

Sun, Oct 23, 2005 - Holy Neighbours

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 1
1 Thess 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

So, we’ve got a couple of things going on in our readings today and there’s two of them that I particularly want to look at. The first is the great commandment as given to us by Jesus, "Love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself," and the second is the whole idea of God telling God’s people, "You shall be holy." Although it’s not obvious, the two are connected, and we have a visible reminder of how connected they are every time we celebrate Communion.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, the great commandment. Jesus is asked by the Pharisees, faithful Jews who know their Torah, their law from God, backwards and forwards, what is the greatest commandment in the law. Now, this is a bit of a trick question, because according to the strictest Jewish understanding of the law, no one law is greater than any other. There’s no hierarchy of law - you shall not murder is not a greater law than you shall not eat pork. So how it is possible that there can be one law greater than all the others? The Pharisees, like the Sadducees before them, are trying to trip Jesus up.

But Jesus is not about to be tricked. So he says that the greatest and first commandment is, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." Sounds good, makes sense. Even if all laws are equal, some are more equal than others, to quote George Orwell, and obviously, the law about loving God is the greatest. But then Jesus plays a trick of his own, he says that there is a second commandment and that it’s like the first. "You shall love your neighbour as yourself."

Now wait a minute here, what’s going on? How can the second commandment be like the first if it’s the second and not the first? How can loving your neighbour as yourself be like loving God with every fibre of your being? My neighbour isn’t God. I’m not God. What is Jesus getting at? Isn’t just loving God enough?

Well, no, it’s not. It’s not enough to follow only the first commandment - to love only God - for two reasons. The first is because none of us are hermits living out in the desert all by ourselves. None of us here, and none of the people Jesus was addressing, were recluses. We’re not like St. Jerome, a Catholic from the 4th century who lived in the desert and in monasteries while he translated the Old Testament into Latin. We don’t live in such a way that our only conversation partner is God. We live in community. Which means that we live in the midst of neighbours. We’re surround by people at work, at home, on the bus. Even if you live alone, you know that it’s impossible to step out your front door and get down the street without seeing somebody. Without encountering a neighbour. And that means that we can’t possibly live as if we need love only God, as if God is the only one in our lives. There’s also our neighbour, the living, breathing human being who we come across in our day. And so we have to love them, too. That’s one reason.

The second reason that it’s not enough to follow only the first commandment is more compelling. It has to do with what I talked about last week about everything, and in particular everyone, being made in the image of God. You see, we are told to love God, which is the greatest thing we can do, but how are we to love the one we cannot see or touch or physically hear? Yes, the people of the first century had the Son of God to see and touch and hear, but Jesus is no longer physically present with us. Right? Well, not exactly. After all, we do have Jesus promise that he would be with us always, and more importantly, we have Jesus’ words that when we visit the sick, or give water to the thirsty, or food to the hungry, or when we clothe the naked and visit those in prison, we are doing all those things to and for him, for Christ.

You see, the Son of God, and by extension God, is present to us in our neighbour. Christ comes to us in the people around us - in our family members, in our co-workers, in the stranger we pass on the street. I know that’s not how we usually view those people, but maybe that’s why Jesus is so emphatic that the second commandment, the one that is so like the first, is that we love our neighbour. When we come to see that Christ is present to us in our neighbour, only then can we love them, following the second commandment, and only then can we truly love God, and follow the first.

Which brings me to the second idea in our readings, God telling God’s people that "you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." Now, it’s interesting, this grammatical choice we have going on here - you shall be holy. It’s not, you should be holy, for God is holy. Or you better be holy, for God is holy, kind of like "you better clean your room for I’m the parent and I say so." No, it’s not like that. "Shall" in this case is more like "will." You will be holy, because I’m holy. It’s like saying to a baby, "you will walk and talk when you’re older, because I walked and talked when I got older." The people of God don’t really have a choice about whether or not they’re going to be holy. They’re going to be, because their God is. You shall be holy, because your God is holy.

But how can that be? I know that I never feel particularly holy, no matter how holy my God might be. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a person can go through their entire life and not once feel holy. Our inner monologue tends not to tell us stuff like that. Our inner monologue tends to say things more like, "You’re such an idiot." Or, if we’re having a good day, "You’re pretty good." But "You’re holy"? How many of you hear that?

Well, you should. You should hear that you’re holy, because you are. And you are holy, not only because your God is holy, but also because of one very important thing. I said earlier that Christ is present in our neighbours. Which means that Christ is present in you. You are, after all, somebody’s neighbour, right? You’re all my neighbour - Christ is present to me in all of you. When I look at you, and talk to you, and pray with and for you, I am looking at and talking to and praying with Christ, the Son of God. Christ is there, present in you. Which means that you are holy. I know, I know, it’s not something you’re used to hearing, thinking that you’re holy is not a customary thing for most people. But you have to agree, we all profess that we carry Christ in our hearts, we all profess that the Holy Spirit comes to live in us when we are baptized, and so we must all confess that God is present in us. You have to admit that you are holy, because the Lord your God is holy.

So - what does all this have to do with Communion that I mentioned at the beginning? Well, some of you may remember a time when Communion was celebrated with the altar against the front wall of the church, and with the pastor’s back to the congregation. In fact, in some churches, Communion is still done this way. The pastor would stand in front of the altar, with his - because at that time it was almost always a he - with his back to the people, and then would mutter some mysterious words and do some mysterious things with his hands that nobody could see because he was in the way. Now, obviously, he didn’t turn his back to the congregation so they couldn’t see what he was doing. He did it because he had to turn his face to where God was, to what was holy.

But you’ll notice now that it’s different. Pastors no longer face the front wall. Instead, we face the congregation. And it’s not because we want you to see what we’re doing - that’s just a nice side effect. It’s because we’re learning that God is in the people, in our neighbours, that what’s holy is you. And so we face you. You’re not God, I’m not saying that at all. But God is there with you, Christ is present in you, the Holy Spirit is moving in you. And so when I face what’s holy during the celebration of Communion, when I face where God is, I face my neighbour. I face you.

So, how will you live this week as a holy person? Well, I don’t have any specific recommendations to you. I’m thinking that this is more of a change to your way of thinking, which takes time, than an immediate go out and to do this or that. It would be great if you walked out these doors and immediately started seeing Christ in everybody you met. But change goes deeper than superficial actions, and you have to see yourself as holy before you can see your neighbour that way. Love your neighbour as yourself, it says. So maybe you’ll have to start with "the man in the mirror" as the Michael Jackson song goes - or the woman. When you get up in the morning and look in the mirror, try reminding yourself to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and your neighbour as yourself, and remember that you and your neighbour are holy, as the Lord your God is holy. Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Sun, Oct 16, 2005 - What Belongs to God

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-13
1 Thess 1:1-10
Matt 22:15-22

"Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." Well, that's our famous verse for today. Even people who aren't Christian or have never read the Bible have probably heard this verse, or its more popular variation - "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." It has been at the basis of countless arguments over the question of separation between church and state, it has been used by people in favour of paying taxes, and by people who are against paying taxes. Oddly enough - and this is just an aside - it is rarely used by people to figure out how much money to give to the church.

In any case, we hear these words of Jesus, and our initial reaction is to look at our things and start dividing them up into piles. Okay, this part belongs to the government, and this part belongs to God, and this part belongs to me. And then the trouble begins. How much of a part belongs to the government? They would say anywhere from 30-50%, and they claim it in taxes. And how much belongs to God? Well, the Bible says we should tithe 10% - that our offering on Sundays should be one tenth of our income. But is that before or after the government takes its share? The Bible doesn't tell us that. And then there's the part that belongs to us - between 40- 60% - and we all know that most of that money doesn't really belong to us - it belongs to the credit card companies, and the utility companies, and the grocery store, and the mechanic's, and the insurance companies, and the dentist. The piles get smaller and smaller, and sometimes we end up taking from one pile to put in another pile, and it seems like there isn't enough for all the piles.

But that's not what Jesus intended for us to do when he spoke his famous line. Because Jesus, as we all know, was a clever guy, and the things he said were never as obvious or as simple as they first appear. You see, if you'll remember, Jesus introduced his "give to people the things that are their's" line by asking the onlookers whose image - whose head and title - were on the coin. And when the people said, "oh well, the emperor's," then Jesus made his point. But you'll notice, he didn't actually say, "pay your taxes to the emperor," which would have enraged the Jews around him. And he didn't actually say, "don't pay God's money to the emperor in taxes," which would have enraged the Roman authorities around him. He basically just told the people to see whose image, whose stamp, appeared on the things around them, and to put those things in their proper piles. And that was why people were so amazed at him.

You see, good Jews are brought up to believe, as are we, that everything around us bears the image of God, our Creator. We do, obviously, being made in the image of God, but so does all of creation - animals, trees, mountains, oceans, fields of wheat, ranges of cattle, mines of metals, reserves of oil and natural gas. Everything that exists, even those things we make ourselves, like cars and houses, bears the stamp of God - belongs to God. Even our money, which, yes, bears the image of the Queen, is really the property of our Creator, God.

Which is bad news for us here today, living in North America at the beginning of the 21stcentury. Because we're all about ownership, we're all about entitlement. We've worked hard for the things we have, they're ours. Nobody's going to tell me what to do with my things, or how to live my life, or how to spend my money. I have the right to do what I want, to live how I want, to spend how I want. How dare anybody tell me that I should be giving x amount of dollars to the church? How dare anybody tell me that I should quit smoking, or quit eating cheeseburgers, or quit drinking so much pop? How dare anybody tell me how to drive my car or heat my home? There are all my things, and I decide what to do with them.

Except that they're not. They're not mine. They're not yours. They're not even ours. They're God's. That car you've worked so hard for - it's God's. That house you've sacrificed to pay the mortgage for - it's God's. That body that you have a right to decide what to do with - it's God's. Which of course, makes it kind of ludicrous that we sit dividing up our belongings into piles for the government, piles for God, and piles for ourselves. When everything belongs to God, who of course graciously directs us to share it with others in the form of taxes and to even spend some on ourselves so we can live, but when everything belongs to God, that means that our sense of ownership, our sense of entitlement over our things is misplaced. When it comes to God, we are neither entitled nor do we have the right to anything. Sorry tp be the one to tell you the bad news - but that's how it is.

This is good news, though, for people who have had everything taken away from them. People like the ones living in El Salvador, where their land has been stolen from them by developers or the government, where their houses have been torn down to make way for shopping malls and highways. This is good new for people living in the countries of Africa, where the farmland that used to sustain them has been replaced by coffee plantations, where the food that they used to put on the dinner table has been taken away and replaced by coffee beans that they are forced to sell at cut-rate prices, so that we can have our morning cappucino while they starve. This is good news for the people in China whose lands and homes have been swept away by rising lakes formed by hydro-electric dams. This is good news because the land that has been taken away from them, the livelihood that has been sacrificed for the convenience of others actually belongs to God. That is God's land that is being bulldozed for malls, God's land that is being used for luxury coffee, God's land that is flooded to provide energy for televisions and microwaves and energy-sucking conveniences. And God, who loaned that land to the poor for their survival, who gave us what we have with the expectation that we would share it generously with those in need, well, God is not happy.

But God leaves it to us to make things right. We are the ones, after all, who are charged with taking care of the things that God has graciously given us. And that means that it's up to us to take all of God's things that we have and return them to God - by sharing them with the poor and needy, by being responsible in the ways we buy and consume, by returning God's money to the church where it can be used, by living our lives in ways that bring God's abundance to others. We are called to follow the example of Jesus, the Son of God, who renounced his claim on land and home, who shared his power with the sick and poor who needed it most, who shared his food with the hungry, who shared his life with those dying from sin. That is how we give to God the things that are God's - by sharing our power, our food, our life, our home, our money, everything that God has first given us.

Of course, yes, we don't do a very good job of sharing. But God isn't going to punish us by taking away our things, by starving us or by making our lives miserable. God created the heavens and the earth and all the things we need to live whether we are good caretakers of it or not. But God wants us to get it right, so God is going to keep on giving us these things until we do.

So, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." And as it turns out, we know now that Jesus means for us to think of everything as God's, including ourselves. And when we think about it that way, things like how much belongs to the government and how much belongs to us seem kind of inconsequential. We share it out as God shows us need and in doing so, find that we have more than enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sun, Oct 9, 2005 - From Worry to Thanksgiving

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 23:1-13

"Do not worry, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." Apparently, this verse has great meaning to me, although I’m not sure why. As I was sitting at my computer early this week, getting ready to work on this sermon, I realized that I had written "Philippians 4:6" - the verse that I just read to you - on a post-it note and stuck it to my computer screen a while ago. Now, I have a lot of post-it notes on surrounding my computer screen, with all kinds of cryptic messages on them - important phone numbers, email addresses, that kind of thing. But why I have Philippians 4:6 up there, I have no idea. I don’t remember writing it down, or even having read the phrase before, but there it is.

It is appropriate, though, because I’m a big worrier. I inherited it from my mother, I think. She was a big worrier when we were kids - so much so that one year my dad gave her a plaque that said "Worrying is about as useful as sawing sawdust" and another year I remember giving her worry dolls, those tiny little handmade yarn dolls that you tell your worries to before you go to bed, and they supposedly worry for you so you can go to sleep. So, I definitely inherited some kind of worrying gene from my mother.

But then again, pretty much everybody today worries about something or another. It pervades our culture. We all have moments when we can’t sleep at night, or can’t focus at work, because we’re too anxious about something or another. We worry about the ill health of our parents, or about what kind of lives our kids are leading. We worry about having enough money to pay the bills, or whether there’s going to be a fight at the family Thanksgiving meal this weekend. We worry about school, our jobs, not having enough time to do the chores at home. We worry about our health, about the environment, about the government, some people even worry about whether or not the Leafs are going to have a good season, given their loss last night. Some of these worries aren’t so serious, but some of them gnaw at our stomachs and weigh on our minds until we walk around like zombies, obsessed and exhausted.

But every once in a while, immersed in our worries as we are, we run across somebody who doesn’t worry the way we do. Somebody who, despite all the hardships and difficulties facing them, nevertheless manages to maintain a positive outlook on life, who sleeps well at night, and who is constantly giving thanks to God. We look at them and wonder if they’re all there, if maybe they’re too positive, when things are falling down around their ears and they’re saying hallelujahs, but that doesn’t stop them. They live out the verse, "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving..." I remember meeting people like that in rural Carolina, where people were so poor they lived literally hand-to-mouth, surviving off the shrimp and fish they got in the nearby river. They had nothing, people looked down on them like they were nothing, and yet every Sunday morning, there they were in church, praising God and giving thanks for the mere fact that they woke up that morning. When you asked them how they were doing, they didn’t respond with a litany about how all their bones ached, which they did, or about how their house was falling apart, which it really was, or about how they were victims of societal racism, which they were. Instead, they would tell you how wonderful they felt, praise the Lord, how good God was to them, thanks be to God, and about how, glory hallelujah, they were blessed with a fine day. And they meant it. Now, don’t get me wrong - they weren’t all like that, some of them would complain instead for hours, but there were some of them who lived lives of joy and thanksgiving despite all the problems in their lives.

So how can we do that? How can we be people who are legitimately concerned about the problems in our lives but at the same time rejoice and give thanks as Paul advices us to, and indeed, as Paul did himself? Don’t forget that Paul was someone who had been beaten, whipped, imprisoned, and almost drowned for his faith - his days were torture and yet he was constantly rejoicing and giving thanks. How can we "not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let [our] requests be made known to God?"
Well, the first thing is to remember that "the Lord is near." If you’ll look at the reading for today, you’ll notice that right before Paul says, "Do not worry" in verse six, he says, "The Lord is near." "The Lord is near. Do not worry." It is crucially important to Paul that not worrying is connected with Christ Jesus being at hand. When the Lord, who died and was raised to new life, who brought light to the deepest darkness, who eased the suffering of the sick around him is near, our reasons for worrying seem to lose their power.

The next piece of the puzzle comes from knowing that in the original Greek that Paul wrote in, the word "rejoice" and the word "joy" have at their root the word "chara." And this word "chara" is also at the root of the Greek word for thanksgiving - a word you’ll recognize - "eucharist." But that’s not all. "Chara" is also at the root of the word for grace - "charis." "Chara," "eucharist" and "charis," - joy, thanksgiving, and grace - are all deeply connected in Paul’s mind. "In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God."

In using these words so often, and in reminding us that the Lord is near, Paul is pointing us to a larger context for our concerns, to the bigger picture that helps us to turn our worries over to God and yet still give thanks.

And that bigger context is that by the grace of God, because God has made an eternal covenant with God’s people, God takes care of us and, even in times of loss, provides us with what we need in order to live and to love one another. No matter what the troubles in our lives, God is never far away - the Lord is near. When Abraham was living with Sarah, almost 100 years old, worrying about how the family line would carry on, God gave him Isaac and made him the father of nations. When the Israelites were in slavery in Egypt, concerned for their very existence, God sent them Moses, to bring them out of Egypt and into Canaan. When Assyria and Babylon had invaded Israel and carted the population off into exile, God sent King Cyrus of Persia to restore the people to their land. And when the poor and marginalized of the world were crying under the weight of oppression, God sent Jesus Christ to share his power with them and to restore them to God. We have seen, over and over again, that God takes care of God’s people, and simply for that, we can be joyful and give thanks.

But worrying isn’t just about the past - it’s also about the future. After all, we worry about what might happen, or what could happen - we worry about what is to come. But even then we have God’s promises, based on God’s past deeds, given to us by the grace of God that God will continue to take care of us, to remain true to the covenant God made with us, to be near us. We hear it in our reading from Isaiah - "the Lord God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.. . . This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation." The day is coming when God will take all the things we are worried about and they will disappear and we will be left with only joy. We hear about it in the psalm for today - "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." With those promises lying ahead of us, even in the midst of our concerns for tomorrow, we can be joyful and give thanks.

So, "Do not worry, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." Paul isn’t saying don’t care about things, or don’t be concerned about the people in our lives. Paul is just reminding us of what we already know, that God is taking care of things, and as often as we remember what God has done for us in the past, and what God has promised to do for us in the future, our worries will be eased by the joy we receive in remembering. We really do have so much to give thanks for, not the least of which is a gracious God who is always near. So, as you lift your requests to God with thanksgiving this day and this week, carry Paul’s reassuring words with you, and "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Sun, Oct 2, 2005 - God the Gardener

Isaiah 5:1-5
Psalm 80:7-14
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

It can be dangerous to ascribe human characteristics to God - to describe God as compassionate, or judging, or kind, or angry. It's dangerous because when we give human attributes to God, we risk limiting God with our definitions. We end up turning God into a glorified human, and we fail to recognize that God is so completely different from us that there is no comparison, no point of reference.

On the other hand, it is absolutely impossible to relate to a God who is so different. If God is just "God," with no defining characteristics - if God is just "God," not loving or angry or caring or judging or anything - than how can we love such a God? Or even hate such a God? How can we feel anything whatsoever towards that God? Or, most importantly, know that that God feels anything towards us?

Well, the writer of our Old Testament reading from Isaiah decided to risk the former rather than the latter. That is, the writer of our portion from Isaiah decided that it was better to over-personalize God than to under-personalize, because the writer wanted us to understand how much of a relationship God has with us, and how much of what we do affects God in deeply personal ways.

And so the writer invites us to imagine God as a gardener, as a farmer in love with his vineyard, with us. "Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;" So there we have the very beginning images of what God is doing for the vineyard, for God's chosen people. First the gardener selects the site for the vineyard and then begins the back-breaking work of breaking ground and clearing out the stones. Now, remember, this was before diesel-powered roto-tillers or yard-sized back-hoes. The gardener had only a plow, and a team of oxen to help him pull it, and every couple of feet there would be another huge stone to drag out of the way. Israel is, after all, a very rocky country, and clearing land there is a lot of work. But, after what was probably months of labour-intensive work, finally the gardener could begin to plant.

And so he travelled the area, buying and trading with people for their vine shoots, carefully building up a selection of the perfect vines. And then he planted them, spacing them out carefully, marking out the rows where they would grow, giving them all just a little bit of water and nourishment, clearing out the weeds that would choke them.

And then the gardener with the vineyard waited. Did you know that it takes anywhere from three to eight years for vines to produce grapes that are good enough to press into wine? It doesn't happen right away. This is no instant-gratification project. It takes a long time. But, while the gardener waited, he built a hedge on one side to stop foraging animals from chewing up the vines, and he built a wall on the other, probably from the stones he'd picked out of the ground, to stop the sheep from walking through the rows. And then, he built a watchtower in the middle, so he could climb it and survey his vineyard. And lastly, remember, he still has a couple of years, he built a wine vat, a big tub where he could press the grapes and make wine, where he could reap the rewards of all his work. And he kept weeding and watering and waiting.

Now, after all these years of hard work, of single-minded care and tending of his vineyard, how do you think the gardener felt towards his vines? If you've ever taken care of a garden, or even just a single plant, and nurtured it from a small seedling to a flourishing plant, then you know that a person can get attached to what they're growing. You're proud when you spot a new shoot, you worry when you have to go away and leave it for a while. You attack the weeds with vigour and fret when there's not enough rain. And, like the vineyard grower, like God, you expect to see results for all your hard work.

"He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes." Rotten grapes, actually, is the better Hebrew translation. God expected the vineyard that he had carefully cultivated to produce grapes that were worthy of wine, but instead, the vines put forth grapes that were rotten, that mocked God's hard work, that turned to nothing all the time he had spent on them.

Of course, we know, since the prophet who wrote this told us so, that the vineyard is not just any vineyard, and the vines are not just vines. After all, who can blame plain old vines for the kind of grapes they produce? We know that the vineyard is actually God's chosen people, and that the production of rotten grapes is personal betrayal of the worst kind. After being cared for and nurtured, after being set in the perfect place and protected by walls and watchtowers, the people of God turn their backs on the one who cares for them. Rather than trying to produce fruit in thanks for such care, we produce rot. We put forth words of hate, rather than love. We produce actions that put down others, rather than lift them up. You know what kind of rot we produce on a daily basis. I don't need to tell you.

"And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield rotten grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thrown; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it."

God's reaction is devastating, and can we blame him? We have betrayed God, turned our back on the relationship that God would have with us, scorned the care and protection God offer us. And God reacts by leaving us to ourselves - by removing the protective hedges and walls so that we can fend for ourselves among the wild animals, by abandoning us to the weeds that choke our lives and stop us from seeing the sun, by leaving us to survive without the nourishment and sustenance that God provides. It's not really punishment so much as it is God saying, "Well, if you think you don't need me, then I can't help you. I won't force myself on you - try it on your own for a while."

But leaving a vineyard to itself leads to the death of the vineyard, and that's where our reading from Isaiah ends for today. The vineyard is destroyed, the people of God torn down, and God's heart is broken over the whole matter. We know, after all, what happens when we are left to our own devices, when we are place in a situation with no boundaries at all. We flounder, and fail, and even die. We end up in desperate need of rescuing and the psalm that we sang today says it perfectly, "Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted."

And God does. Death is not the final end of the vineyard or of us. God does not let things end with our destruction, in part because our death is so painful to God. After all, who can abandon a garden they have worked so hard to keep alive? Even when things appear completely dead, there is always hope that something might come back next spring. And so God brings new life out of death and new vines out of the destroyed vineyard. Later in the book of Isaiah, Chapter 27, actually, we read, "On that day: A pleasant vineyard, sing about it! I, the Lord, am its keeper, every moment I water it. I guard it night and day so that no one can harm it; I have no wrath. If it gives me thorns and briers, I will march to battle against it. I will burn it up. Or else let it cling to me for protection, let it make peace with me. . . . In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit." God restores us to what we were meant to be, and in doing so, we become the people God intended. We bear fruit worthy of God.

Now don't think for a minute that this is an easy thing for God to do - giving us new life and restoring us to what we are meant to be. In doing this, God risks being betrayed again, God risks that we will once again bear rotten fruit, God risks that we will crucify his son all over again. But God takes that risk nonetheless, because of a love for us that is great, passionate, and never-ending. And all that we can do in return is to grow good fruit, to reach for the sunlight, to appreciate and give thanks to the gardener who keeps us growing. Thanks be to God. Amen.