Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Day

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

I understand why we read this passage from John’s gospel every Christmas Day, but, I’m not always happy about. To me, it sounds bloodless, the abstract ruminations of a cloistered philosopher who comprehends the mysteries of the divine, but can’t get a date for Friday night. Maybe I’m missing something but John’s message of the Word made Flesh doesn’t quite make it down to earth. His words to describe The Word betray his message.

After all, we’re here this morning not to theologize about the nature of the incarnation or speculate about the inner-relationship of the Trinity.

We’re here to greet a baby. A tiny creature who cries all night and fills his diapers. We sing songs about mangers and barns, shepherds and angels, sheep and donkeys. And last night we heard stories so earthy that they have dirt on them and made our clothes smell. Today’s reading only leaves us lost in our thoughts.

So I worry about John’s Jesus. I worry that he can’t relate to me. Or to us. Or to anyone with a pulse and who bleeds red. I worry that he might come across as human in name only, that he doesn’t understand the limitations of a mortal life. That he’s comfortably abstract, afraid to touch our skin, uninterested in changing our lives or the world. I worry that he came just to have a really interesting conversation.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word WAS God. The Word was with God in the beginning. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being.”

Hmmm. Upon reading this again, I wonder if John might be up to something here. But I’m not sure what. It appears that he’s asking us to open up our bibles and turn to page one. What’s going on?

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

“And God said...” There were six more times “God SAID...”

Why is John asking us to re-read the creation story? What is John trying to tell us?

Is he somehow connecting Jesus to the creation story? It could be that John is telling a “New Creation” story, with the word that spoke creation into being in the beginning is now speaking something new into existence. Is “in the beginning” now “in a NEW beginning?”

It could be that John is reminding us that words have tremendous creative power, that words create a world, words shape us, words build a life. The words we use tell us who we are. Words fashion a people and form a community.

Maybe John was on to something and I just didn’t see it. He knew the power of the Word to save us. If I was worried about John’s Jesus I had no reason to be. John knew that the Word made flesh did more than just think lofty thoughts. John was saying that the Word of God, the Word that spoke creation into being, speaks into our lives TODAY, shaping them, re-molding them, tearing them down and building them up again, John was saying that Jesus - the Word made flesh through whom all things were made, speaks us into salvation. This is a Word we could not speak for ourselves, but speaks on our behalf. This Word is not our’s, but God’s.

This is why I’m suspicious of attempts to make Christianity intelligible to non-believers. This is were I part ways with the so-called “seeker-sensitive” approach to evangelism, or so-called “emerging church” leaders. They say that our job as Christians is to make it easy for visitors to our church to understand the message. That they shouldn’t have to make an intellectual or cultural commute1 in stepping into our churches and experiencing our worship. They say that we have to use the language of the culture for people to hear our message. That we have to penetrate the cacophony of competing voices to make OUR voice heard. Some suggest that it’s an act radical INhospitality to make non-Christians intellectually or culturally uncomfortable during the liturgy.

And while, yes, we welcome all people the way people welcome guests into our homes. We make sure they have a place to sit, we ask them their name, But there comes a time when there will be a disconnect between where the visitor is and where we are. There will be a gulf, a distance, between what we say and how a non-believer will experience it.

And that’s okay. It’s meant to be like that. After all we preach a message that does not belong to the world. Jesus may be the Word made flesh but even his own people didn’t recognize him, so what makes us think that people today would be any different? The distance between us and the non-believer is where Jesus does his best work. It’s a holy discomfort where we realize that the Jesus’ message of new and everlasting life isn’t something that we create on our own, but it comes from far beyond us, yet also has taken up residence deep inside us.

I’ve heard it said that becoming a Christian is like learning a language. I really like that idea. When you learn a new language you are given a fresh lens in which to see the world. You’re given a whole new vocabulary to describe what you see.

Christmas. The Festival of the Incarnation. The celebration of the Word made Flesh is about God speaking a new world into being. It’s about God giving us a whole new language, a fresh set of eyes through which to see the world. No longer do we see the world in the darkness of sin and death, but God has given us eyes to behold the light of mercy and peace of everlasting life.

And the Word never stops speaking. The Word never stops becoming flesh. In us, as the Body of Christ, the Word speaks it’s message of life and salvation, so we can speak that Word.

In the love we give to the world, in the joy we have in receiving God’s mercy, in the tears we wipe dry, and the compassion we show to the hurting, the Word becomes flesh and lives among us full of grace and truth.

May this Word be always on our lips. May this Word always become flesh and live among us. Amen.

Christmas Eve

For those who say that religion and politics don’t mix aren’t paying attention to tonight’s reading from Luke that we just heard. Maybe this passage has become TOO familiar to those who’ve been coming to Christmas Eve services for so many years or been watching endless loops of Linus’ monologue from A Charlie Brown Christmas, that the story has lost its political edge.

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their hometowns to be registered.”

I’m no statistician, but why people had to take time off work to head to their hometowns to fill out a government form is a mystery to me. They could just as easily been counted where they lived and the Roman bureaucrats probably would have gotten better information.

But Luke, in his sneaky sort of way, makes a point in telling us that Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus in the city of the great King David. And anyone listening who knew their history would have known the Augustus fancied himself as the “King of Peace” who was to bring an end to all wars everywhere.

On top of that, Augustus, in a stunning act of hubris, also referred to himself as “Saviour” and encouraged people to worship him like a god. He was the all-powerful, wise, and virtuous leader who would usher in an era of peace and prosperity, whether you wanted his brand of peace and prosperity or not.

This gives the angels’ announcement to the shepherds more of a political spin: “Do not be afraid; for see- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

So Luke presents us with two competing saviours, two kings battling for attention, a contrasting vision of peace. One is Pax Augusta, sustaining a painful peace by force. And one is a Pax Christi, who brings peace through love and sacrifice.

Whether or not Luke’s intention was for Jesus to usurp Caesar’s authority or to merely contrast God’s love with human power is anyone’s guess. Maybe Luke was asking his listeners where their allegiances lie. Perhaps Luke was reminding people that while the saviour brings peace, that peace looks different to every one.

What does peace look like for you?

Is it peace in your heart knowing that you’ve been forgiven of sin and gained entry into eternal life with Christ? Does peace mean “peace with God” in an intimate, personal, relationship?

Or has peace been a long time coming? Does peace mean finally accepting that your life hasn’t turned out the way you wanted it to? That the dreams of your youth have disintegrated under the weight of numerous obligations. Maybe it’s accepting your failures and learning from them. Maybe peace is realizing that your broken marriage will never be healed, that it’s not your fault that your spouse won’t stop drinking. It’s learning to live with the fact that some losses are forever, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Maybe peace for you is learning to walk with a limp after wrestling with God.

Or does peace mean the absence of conflict in your life? That you’ve finally reconciled with those who’ve hurt you? Does peace meaning forgiving others so you don’t have to carry the burden of anger or resentment any longer? Does peace mean knowing that, even though others have hurt you, you will not hurt others?

Or maybe you’re thinking on a grander scale. Peace means “peace on earth” where swords are beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and guns are ground into gardening tools. Where nuclear weapons are disarmed and banned. Where Palestinians and Israelis learn not just to live with each other but to love one another as children of God, progeny of Abraham and Sarah. Where our soldiers in Afghanistan will be relieved of their duty with thanks. Where North and South Korea lay down ancient animosities,and embrace each other as sisters and brothers. Where old historic hostilities between nations and peoples are settled once and for all and a new age of friendship on earth begins.

Or maybe, for you, peace not just reconciliation or the end of conflict, but the beginning of a sustainable prosperity for everyone, where all people live to their fullest potential, where hungry bellies are full, where teary eyes are wiped clean, where all people live and thrive in the joy of knowing they are loved and valued.

What is peace for you?

What do you suppose the angels were singing about that night? “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom God favours.”

It could be that the angels were proclaiming all those kinds of peace we just talked. And other kinds of peace we haven’t thought of.

That’s because the one they were proclaiming was the saviour who came for YOU. As Martin Luther said, “The angel does not simply say: ‘Christ is born!’ but “for YOU he is born.’ What good would it do me, if he were born a thousand times, and if this were sung to me every day with the loveliest of airs, if I should not hear that there was some [message] for me and that it should be my own”1

The saviour comes to bring peace TO you and FOR you. This is the peace the world cannot give and a peace we can’t create on our own. The saviour comes not to enforce peace like Augustus tried, but to create it, to give birth to is as God’s promised future peace resting vulnerably in a manger. The Christ Child, Jesus born in a barn, sleeping in an animal’s food trough, is the peace we are seeking.

On this Christmas Eve, we think about peace, we pray for it, we sing about it, and we bring our longings for it to worship hoping to catch glimpses of peace, perhaps just out the corners of our eyes, so that we can begin again with the dream that - one day - we will have peace in just the way we need, just as Jesus promised.

And when we capture that hint of peace, we join the song of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace among those whom he favours.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Advent 3A

Leap frog a few generations from last week’s reading and you’ll land in this morning’s passage from Isaiah. The past two weeks we were knee-deep in palace intrigue when King Ahaz of Judah buckled, making common cause with the enemy only to find the holy city in ruins.

A few kings later, and God’s people find themselves conquered and enslaved by the Babylonians. This has been their recurring national nightmare. Those who’ve seen the movie know that God’s people were enslaved in Egypt. Then they wandered lost in the wilderness for 40 years before finding the land that God promised them.

And, like last time, the people called to the prophet Isaiah for a word from the Lord. When will they be rescued from slavery?

This Isaiah, which many scholars call “second Isaiah” doesn’t have any inside information for his people. He doesn’t know the “when” or the “how.” He can’t tell them at what time they’re supposed to pack their bags. He only brings large promises. When first Isaiah brought grand visions for the history of the world, this second Isaiah has a word that is more personal than that of his ancestor in name.

This Isaiah talks about how the land and the people will be transformed. Deserts will have swimming pools. Arthritic hands will be like vice-grips, those with bad knees will throw away their walkers, blind folks will paint murals, and deaf people will update their CD collections.

In other words, the physical consequences of slavery will disappear, and they and everything around them will be made new again.

Then, Isaiah says, a highway shall be there and it shall be called the Holy Way...”

A highway? Really? Did he have to say highway? They knew about highways. They were the ones who went from place to place for 40 years looking for a spot to start over. They were dragged down the highways to Babylon to live as slaves. They built highways for their oppressors’ pagan festivals. A highway was something that they didn’t want. No matter how holy it was. All they wanted was to finally sit down and rest.

But a highway was promised. It was the only way out of slavery and into freedom. The highway kept them moving, despite their aching muscles and blistered feet. The highway kept them in motion, so they would not become complacent. The highway was their teacher, giving them the wisdom of the road. At least the highway was familiar to them. For better or worse, the highway - the Holy Way - made them who they were.

It’s been said that mobility is a sign of 21st life. That we are a people on the move. I know that’s true for me. I’ve lived in three provinces, numerous cities, countless apartments, and have logged hundreds of thousands of kilometres on too many cars, down far too many highways.

But that doesn’t make me any different from many people of my generation. We move around a lot. In fact, I’m surprised when I meet someone who’s lived in the same town their whole lives. Very few people do that anymore. Especially here in Alberta. Most come from somewhere else for work or to retire. I’ve met very few adults in Lethbridge who say they were born and raised here.

Some say that we lose a sense of place by our wanderings. They say that we are deprived of a sense of collective identity and shared history by going from place to place to place. They say that we lack a rootedness that comes from being committed to a community. They say that we’ve lost a sense of “home.”

And so, they say, we grieve this loss of “home.” And we’re always trying to find it again.

I think they’re right. But that doesn’t mean that we wander around lost in the world. But we do feel the loss. And we’re forever trying to recover it. From country western songs waxing nostalgic about the times in our lives when we felt free and secure, or retro-radio stations that play tunes that remind us of when we may have known a place called “home” to high school reunions to re-visit the time before we set out in life’s highway to make our place in the world, we’re afraid that we’ll never find “home” again.

And we probably won’t. Not in the way we want.

When the captives in Babylon took their exit off the highway and found their way to what they thought was home, they were deeply disappointed. They didn’t find what they were looking for. They didn’t find freedom and security waiting for them there. Only new sorrows and fresh oppressions. The highway didn’t lead them to where they longed to go.

So back on the road they went. Still searching for “home,” still hoping to find a cure for their restlessness, but probably knowing in the backs of their minds, that they’d never find what they were looking for, they’d never stop wandering, they’d never settle into one place forever. God wanted them on the move.

But as they would find out, they would return home. Not to place. But as a people. Their home was their relationship to each other and to God. They would recover who they were. They would remember the stories that shaped them, they would re-learn the prayers that brought them to God, they would be restored into that deep fellowship of knowing who they were. That knowledge, the knowledge of their history and the knowledge of their God would be their home.

All that was taken from them would be returned. Their time in exile would be over. They would be strong. They would be God’s free people again. They would, once again, be a light to the nations, bearing witness to God’s love and power, and then all the nations would assemble at the mountain of the Lord singing praises to the One who rules over heaven and earth.

They learned that home is not WHERE you are, but WHO you are, and WHO you BELONG to.

And we may never feel the security and freedom of “home” in the way a place does, but we do have a home together, when we gather as God’s people, receiving God’s love and giving it away. Our time of exile may be over, but we are a people on the move, returning to the Lord with singing; everlasting joy on our heads, where sorrow and sighing flee away.

May this be so among us.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Advent 2A

Against Isaiah’s counsel, King Ahaz of Judah rejected the calls for an alliance with the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Arameans to rebel against the Assyrian empire. And such a decision came with terrible consequences. The northern kingdom was destroyed. And Samaria soon followed. King Ahaz kept his crown, but his reign was effectively over. He lost his peoples’ trust. And so they turned their gaze to young Hezekiah, the heir apparent, who might be the righteous ruler they all longed for.

And this righteous ruler had quite the job description. If Hezekiah was the One, he had huge expectations on his shoulders.

A shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse. Jesse, as they would have known, was David’s father. And the news couldn’t have been better.

But “stump” isn’t quite right. “Base’ is more true to the original. From the base of the tree of Jesse a shoot will come out, and a branch shall grow out of its roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge, and the awe of the Lord...”

This leader will rule not according to his own ambitions, but from God’s Spirit. He shall be wise and humble, righteous and fair, strong and just. He shall be everything God’s people needed in a king. He would lead their people back into their glorious past which would become their future.

God’s people had a long and weighty memory. The stories about King David nestled snuggly in their DNA. Those were Israel’s glory years when the kingdom was united and expanding. Their enemies feared them. Their lives overflowed with abundance. The world was their’s to win.

And most importantly, they remembered their God. They remembered what God had done for them. They worshipped as a forgiven and free people. Ahaz may have lead them to ruin, but Hezekiah - they hoped - would return them to their former glory when David was king.

Whether or not Hezekiah was this man of destiny was anybody’s guess. Isaiah knew that Hezekiah was Judah’s last, best hope. So, if not him, then who?

It turns out that Hezekiah’s reign was more successful than his dad’s. While he oversaw a religious reformation, finally got tough with the Assyrians, and built a vast aqueduct to deal with the on-going water shortage1, he just wasn’t the messiah his people were hoping for. While life was better under Hezekiah, it wasn’t Isaiah’s vision of a new and better world.

The people knew what they wanted. They just didn’t know how to get it. So again, they cried out to God for a Messiah - an anointed one - to give them the life and the world they couldn’t create on their own.

They wanted a king who would judge their disputes according to God’s wisdom, who would defend the vulnerable, and protect them from their enemies. They wanted a king who would bring final peace.

We Christians usually connect this king with Jesus, the branch of Jesse, who is the one Isaiah prophesied. We see Jesus as the answers to their cries and in the promises Isaiah made.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

This child who leads them, we say, is Jesus, vulnerable in human form, leading by gentleness, “new, bright, undefended, and free”2, immersing himself in the life of the world, transforming it from the inside out.

But for those paying attention the first part of this passage might sound familiar. We use this promise as a blessing in Holy Baptism. When I lay my hands on the one being baptized, I pray this prayer:

We give you thanks, O God. that through water and the Holy Spirit you give your daughters and sons new birth, cleanse them from sin, and raise them to eternal life. Sustain [this child] with the gift of your Holy Spirit; the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the awe of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever. Amen.

While the people of Judah were waiting for a king, one man to lead them into glory and to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity, God created a people. Instead of one magnificently righteous ruler to reign over a re-established kingdom, God provided a family of nations gathered together as one body. Instead of one divinely anointed Leader of leaders called to inaugurate God’s new world, God appointed YOU.

In the waters of holy baptism YOU were crowned to reign over all creation, anointed by the Holy Spirit to rule with justice and peace. You are the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. You are the answer to God’s promise. You are the shoot that came from the base of Jesse’s family tree, you are the branch that grew from his roots. You are the answer to the cries of God’s people.

Your reign is Jesus’ reign, a reign where pain and conflict are replaced with peace and friendship, where grief and struggle are replaced with delight and rest, where violence and death are replaced with newness of life. Life-long wounds are healed. Age-old grudges are reconciled. Enemies become family. Tears become joy.

A tall order isn’t it? But not for God. We serve a God who rescued Israel from Egypt. We serve a God who raised Jesus from the dead. A God who defeated the power of sin and death. A God who desires above all else, that the world might have life today and life eternal.

The spirit of the Lord has rested upon YOU. Each one of you here. Everyone who has been died in the waters of baptism and raised to new life in Jesus. The spirit of wisdom and understand, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge, and the awe of the Lord, the spirit of joy in his presence has rested on YOU. YOU are the answer to prayer. YOU are the one the world is waiting for. This is YOUR time. Because Jesus and his life-giving Spirit has rested upon YOU.

The cries of God’s people have been answered. And we’re it. It is God’s presence in us, the spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus, who calls us into this life. It is not our doing, but God’s spirit working within and through us, who blesses us for what God wants us to do.

May this be so among us. Amen.