Saturday, December 31, 2011

Christmas 1B

I rang the doorbell and a young woman answered.

“Hello I’m Pastor Kevin,” I said.

She let me in and we sat down on the couch. The baby was asleep in the crib by the window.

I got straight to the point.

“So, why a baptism?” I asked.

“Well, I think it’s important to have God in my child’s life,” she said.

“What’s the baby’s name?” I asked looking over the crib.

She muttered something I didn’t recognize.

“That’s an interesting name, “ I said. “What’s the story behind that? Is it a family name?” I asked because I hadn’t heard that name before.

“No, it’s not a family name,” she answered.

“Do you know what it means?” I asked.

“No, it doesn’t have any meaning. It’s just a word I made up. I like the way it sounds.”

It wasn’t always this way, and she is an extreme case. And while the young mom had every right to make up a word with which to name her child, I wonder if she missed out on an opportunity. Names can offer a message to who we want our child to be when they grow up.

Most people know what their names mean, or why they were given their name by their parents.

What does your name mean? Most of us have names that mean something. Perhaps they reflect the hopes and dreams parents have for their children. Or they’re carrying a family tradition. Or they name them after a celebrity or important public figure.

My oldest daughter is named “Sophia” because it means “wisdom.” We chose that name to honour Lady Wisdom found in the book of Proverbs. Sophia in proverbs is a feminine expression of God, and her mom and I wanted to recognize aspects of the divine that are sometimes overlooked.

Sophia’s (or “Sophie” – she hates being called “Sophia”) sister is named “Naomi” to remember the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi and the message of faith and commitment that it inspires. It’s a wonderful story of integrity and sacrifice for others. And we wanted our child to embody those virtues.

When my parents named me, I know they struggled for days to find just the word to describe who they saw when they peered into my future. They wanted to place upon me the mantle of my destiny, hoping that I would be a force for good in the world, that I would lead others into a new tomorrow. And so they reached out to the heavens and grabbed with two hands and pulled down the name “Kevin” which means...”handsome.” Or more accurately, “handsome birth.”

And every time I look in mirror I’m absolutely shocked by how prophetic my parents were!

Bible names all mean something. In fact, if you don’t know the meaning of the many of the names you could miss the point of the story.

Mary and Joseph did what they were told and named their son, “Jesus” which means “God rescues” or “God saves.” They were glad to give him this name because they had laid all their hope on him, as one who would save God’s people from their sins, and rescue them from the hands of their enemies.

And so, as required by law, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to Jerusalem to offer the usual sacrifice as a thanksgiving to God.

And they encounter Simeon, the old man who’d been around the temple forever, whose eyes may have given out, but he could see God’s promises being fulfilled in a baby.

And Anna then wants to hold the baby, because she wants to feel in her arms the very power of God.

Both of them may have had a lot more years behind them than in front of them, but they could see God’s bright future being born among them. They could see that everything old was passing away. And that God was doing something new.

It was like there was a flip of the calendar and a new age had begun. And they were glad that they could see it before they closed their earthly eyes.

And at this flip of the calendar what are YOU hoping for? What are YOU looking for God to do?

This is the first new years where it actually feels like a NEW year. It could be because I’m in a very different place physically, emotionally, and spiritually than I’ve ever been. Being in this new environment, and carving out a new life, has forced me to think about what I REALLY want from my life. What I REALLY want my time on earth to be about. How I think God REALLY wants me to use my gifts.

So this flip of the calendar is opportunity for me.

What about you? How do you meet 2012?

Is it just another year, just like the last one, where you go on your day-to-day activities, not thinking of the future or worrying about the past? Just taking life as it presents itself?

Or do you see 2012 as a time pregnant with possibility, and you feel that anything is possible, and you just can’t wait to get in the game, grab the ball, and run to the end zone?

Or are you anxious about 2012, not knowing what’s around the corner, since 2011 has provided unexpected challenges?

Or are you hopeful that this will finally be the year when you get your life together?

Or are you all of the above? A muddle of mixed motivations? A patchwork of expectations?

What about for us here at St. Paul’s? What do you hope for our congregation in 2012? What do you want God to do with us?

We talked about our future during Adult Forum for a few weeks last month and we came up with some good ideas. I really enjoyed going through that exercise with you. Not just because I believe it’s vitally important to have your input in the future direction of the congregation.

But that exercise was also a test of sorts. Don’t worry, you all passed! You get an A+. The test was to see how you thought about the future. I wanted to see how you envisioned our church’s challenges.

Were you anxious about our future? Were you angry that this congregation isn’t what it once was? Did you have any anticipation that things were going to get any better?

What I saw was a group of people who are see the church’s challenges with sober realism, but also who are hopeful and excited about future possibilities for growth. And that is a powerful starting place for us to begin to rebuild a church that has always met its challenges head on. That’s because St. Paul’s is a church that still believes that Jesus – the message that God rescues and saves - is still being born within and among us.

No matter where you are in your life. No matter the challenges, expectations, quandaries, or possibilities, we trust in a God who was born in the middle of all of this, blessed us in our confusion and our hopes, so that we can rise to meet God’s future with open hands.

For you are a people who have seen salvation, which has been prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Day

Most of the travel guide books I’ve read before coming to Japan say that most people under the age of 40 will understand and speak at least a little bit of English. Especially in Tokyo, they say. So, an English speaker shouldn’t have any trouble getting his or her point across.

Having been here for almost two months I can now say without equivocation that this is absolutely NOT true!

I may have told you this story before, but bear with me. About a month ago I was at a Tully’s Coffee shop and I tried to order a large decaf coffee. The young university-aged barista looked at me puzzled and pointed to the small cup. I shook my head “No” and pointed to the large cup. She looked at me with the same puzzled gaze and help up the small cup. I again, shook my head “No” and tapped the large cup. She shrugged her shoulders and made my coffee.

She said something to the other barista who then looked in my direction with the same puzzled look her co-worker had, but with a glint of amusement in her eye. The barista smiled as she handed me my coffee. I peeled off the lid to smell the coffee like I usually do (the aroma is half the coffee experience).

And I noticed a little foam floating on the dark liquid. I smelled it, tasted it, and realized that she TOTALLY misunderstood what I was looking for. Instead of a large decaf, she made me a triple espresso! Pretty much the OPPOSITE of what I was looking for!

I had to laugh because I realized that I hadn’t communicated my order well enough. It wasn’t the barista’s fault that I couldn’t order in Japanese in a Japanese coffee shop. The language created a gulf that no amount of hand signals or slow english nouns could bridge.

And when I talk with some Japanese people they often say “Sorry” for their limited English. And what I always want to say back is “No, you’re not the one who should apologize for your limited English. I should apologize to YOU for my infinitesimally small amount of Japanese. After all, I’m in YOUR country! I should be adjusting to YOU. You shouldn’t have to accommodate ME!”

Which is why, in the new year, I plan to make a more concentrated effort to learn Japanese.

I want to learn Japanese NOT just because it will help me get my order right at the coffee shop and make my experience here much more rich.

But I want to learn Japanese because words and language create a universe. They shape our view of reality. They form the lens through which we see the world. That’s why the words we use are important. Learning Japanese will help me learn more about the culture, and how Japanese people see the world.

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

It’s common to talk about the bible as God’s Word, but here John is telling us that JESUS is God’s Word. Jesus is the mouthpiece through which God speaks.

Words create a world. It’s not just the words we proclaim that create, but the words of prayer we offer in tears, through clenched teeth, and even through mindless rote repeating over and over and over again, that mold us into who God wants us to be.

We believe in a God who, with a word, created something out of nothing. We believe in a God who shows us that words have tremendous creative power; and who also shows us that words that have devastating power to destroy. We believe in a God whose word is written on our hearts. We believe in a God who saves us through the Word that was made flesh.

That’s why we’re careful about the words we use in church. I know I am. Although some of you might not think so. But when I craft the liturgies and compose my sermons, I linger over every word. I try to be colloquial and parochial, hitting the balance between common language and sacred speech, between earthy nattering and heavenly declarations. It’s in the connection between those two realms that God lives in Jesus.

I try to link life and faith, connecting to where we say God is and where we haven’t thought about God being. In the words I offer you, and words I ask you to pray, I try to shape how you think about God in your life and in the world, because I believe in a God who creates a world with a word.

And today we celebrate the fact that God NOT stop speaking creation into being. Today we celebrate that God’s Word is still speaking life into the world. Today we celebrate because God has spoken the Word in YOU. God’s has spoken God’s New Creation story of Jesus in YOU. God has put the word of prayer on your tongue and the word of praise on your lips.

Now YOUR life becomes a Word - God’s Word. Your LIFE is the prayer Jesus prays. Your LIFE is the gospel message through which God proclaims. Your LIFE is the song through which God sings. Your word has been joined to God’s Word, so together all may know the love and forgiveness God has spoken in Jesus.

It’s a Word of healing you speak to all who are sick.
It’s a Word of comfort you speak to all who are grieving.
It’s a Word of peace you speak to all who are anxious.
It’s a Word of life you speak to all who are dying.

And in return you speak the world’s word back to God in prayer. You lift up the pains, the tragedies, the conflicts, the illnesses, the injustices of this troubled life to the One who promises to make all things new.

You are the one who calls upon God to make good on God’s promises.

You are the translation between the world’s word and God’s Word.

You are the Word through whom God is still creating the universe.

You are the message that tells the world, that there is forgiveness and freedom in Jesus.

You are the Word that gives others a glimpse into the heart and mind of God, which is filled to overflowing with love and mercy.

“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.”

That Word is still speaking. Just look to the person on your left. Now look to the person on your right. Look to the person in front of you. Now look to the person behind you.

What do you see?

I see God’s Word being spoken so loudly that it’s almost overwhelming. I see God’s love and mercy being proclaimed with great passion and joy. I see the Word-still-being-made-flesh.

I see Christmas.

May this be so among us. Amen!

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Christmas Eve

This being my first Christmas in Japan, one of the things I’ve found refreshing is that I don’t have to worry about people whining about the so-called “War on Christmas.”

If you follow the western news you might notice that every December a few commentators, pundits, bloggers, and blowhards decry the fact that some people offer the seasonal greeting by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of the more traditional “Merry Christmas.”

This makes some people’s heads explode. They’re worried that by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” Christ is being taken out of Christmas, thereby being denied his rightful place in our December celebrations.

But I won’t comment on the fact that Christmas doesn’t start when Costco decides to put up their decorations, or when the radio stations start playing Christmas muzak.

I won’t point out that Christmas actually starts tomorrow, December 25, the day when we actually celebrate Jesus’ birth.
I won’t mention that the song The 12 Days of Christmas alludes to the fact that Christmas runs from December 25 to January 5.

What I WILL say is that demanding that people bow down to the cultic consumer idol that Christmas has become, they are pushing people further away from what gives the Christmas story -the story of Jesus’ birth - it’s power.

They want Jesus at the centre of society. But they forget that Jesus wasn’t given a celebrity birth. Yes there were angels celebrating and singing in the sky. But Jesus was born in a barn far away from home to impoverished parents. He slept in a feeding trough surrounded by smelly animals, while a crowd gathered outside and visitors came and went. I can’t think of a less dignified birth.

So, for me, it’s, again, refreshing to be in a country that doesn’t have the cultural memory of Christmas. Japan is inventing Christmas for itself. And yes, it looks a lot like the Wal*Mart version of Christmas, which has more to do with Santa than Jesus. But Christians know that Christmas is so much more than what Tobu provides.

Christmas is about God inserting God’s self into history by being born as a first century, Mediterranean, Jewish peasant.

Christmas is about God making the whole world sacred by sharing the best and the worst of humanity.

Christmas is about God’s ongoing commitment to life by being born to a world obsessed with death.

Christmas is about God reaching out and gathering the whole world to God.

If this story is new to you, don’t worry. It’s new to many people. And it was new to most of those who gathered at the stable after the angel announced Jesus’ birth.

Most of those who were summoned to the manger were those who had been shut out of the halls of economic, religious, and political power. They were the 99%. They muddled through their days hoping that their lives would get better, even though they didn’t expect that they would.

They heard over and over and over again that they were insignificant little nothings, whose existence would never be remembered, much less celebrated. They were told that they had no direct access to God.

So, they had to pay the priests with money they didn’t have to gain forgiveness from a God they barely knew.

The system was broken. The deck was stacked against them. They had hope, but little expectation that anything would ever change.

I wonder if we see the same thing today.

People muddle through their lives directionless, devoid of purpose other than paying the bills and crashing in front of the TV. Work can be a meaningless slog up a slippery hill. Relationships break. Families fall apart.

And when people seek after God they often find even more troubles and burdens from those who claim to speak for God.

There’s so much religion out there whose chief aim is to make you feel badly about yourself. There’s so much religion out there who makes money off of YOUR guilt.

There’s so much religion out there that demands perfect moral behaviour from you, that trades on your shame, that requires that you hide those parts of your life that need healing but that others would judge you on.

There’s so much religion out there that tries to strip you of your humanity, denying your failures, your grief, your regrets, proclaiming a false victory in your life. There’s so much religion out there that asks you to ignore your pain in order to fit their tiny view of God.

But the Christmas story tells us something very different. The Christmas story tells us that God dropped Jesus down right in the middle of the world’s pain. God dropped Jesus down in the middle of YOUR pain. YOUR shame. YOUR sin. YOUR Death. By dropping Jesus right down in the middle of your aching failures God is saying to YOU:

‘You don’t have to hide anything from from me because I know everything about you. You don’t have to hide your shame. Your grief. Your loneliness. Your addictions.

‘You don’t have to hide your resentments and discouragement. You don’t have to hide your fear, your lack of faith, or doubts.

‘You don’t have to hide those moments when you wonder if life is worth living at all. In fact I will share them with you. I will take those burdens from you.

“Others may reject you. But I embrace you.
Others may point out your faults. But I celebrate your gifts.
Others may hold a grudge. But I forgive you for everything wrong you’ve done.
Others may demand that you stay locked in place, weighed down by social expectations. But I will give you wings so you can fly.

“I will wipe your tears. I will heal your pain. I will die your death so that you can rise to new and everlasting life as the beloved child of God that I made you to be.”

Today Jesus is saying from the manger,

“If you want to know who God is, just look at me, hear my words and feel my embrace.

‘When you’re longing to see a better tomorrow keep your eyes wide open because the future is as bright as a resurrection morning.

‘If you want to know eternal life, trust that I know what to do with you after you’ve closed your eyes.”

Jesus came so that YOU may have abundant life.
Jesus came so that YOU can live in the freedom and joy of being God’s child.
Jesus came so that YOU can be forgiven and set on a new path.
Jesus came so that your past will NOT dictate the future that God has for you.

Because of Jesus you have a new chance at life.
Because of Jesus you can know that your tomorrow will be better than today.
Because of Jesus you can know that the God who created the universe holds you in the palm of his hand.

So now you can go back out into the world carrying Jesus with you, giving birth to life and hope wherever you go.

You can go out into the world spreading peace and joy to you meet.

You can go out into the world shining God’s light in life’s dark corner’s.

You can go back out into the world singing the song of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace and goodwill to all the world!”

That’s Christmas. That’s why we celebrate.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Advent 3B

If you think you’re having a deja vu experience, don’t worry, you are. For some reason, the lectionary gives us John the Baptist two Sundays in a row during Advent. Why they think we need two doses of the wilderness preacher is a mystery to me.

But here we are with John’s version of, umm, John. “John” must have been a popular name back then because it takes an accountant to keep track of them all in the bible. So John, the writing evangelist, tells us about John the Baptist as someone who plays a specific role in the salvation story. The Baptist howls in the wilderness, preparing people to receive God’s anointed one.

The Baptist wasn’t like anyone else they’d ever heard. Which is why John had to make sure that people didn’t mistake the Baptist for “The Light.” John emphasized that the Baptist was simply “...a voice crying out in the wilderness...”

“A voice crying out in the wilderness...”

I don’t know what your experience has been with this expression, but, for me, there’s always been a kind of romance to this saying. The romance of adventure, the romance of passion, of fighting the good fight, of challenging the status quo, of siding with the oppressed, of battling injustice, of speaking uncomfortable truths to power.

But to many unbelieving ears, saying that we are “ a voice crying out in the wilderness...” is akin to Don Quixote “tilting at windmills...” but proud of it.

And as churches are declining in the west, and we face our own challenges at St. Paul’s, we may be tempted to see ourselves simply as “a voice crying out in the wilderness” because it gives us comfort when we don’t see our church bearing the kind of fruit that it once did. We get used to being marginalized, justifying our diminished state.

We are a voice crying out in the wilderness, although we are in the city centre, we are spiritually hours away from the power centres, far from the rushing crowds, hidden amongst the trees, and miles off the main road. To find us you have to look for us. In fact, people walk by us not even realizing we are here.

So, some Christians are tempted to take heart in withdrawing from the mainstream and opting out of society. We celebrate how different we are, as if “different” somehow means “better.”

If you want to hear what we say, you really have to listen, you really have to want to hear it. We are a voice crying out in the wilderness, you have to stop what you’re doing and unplug your iPod to make out our words.

To prepare for my ministry with and among you I read a series of books on small churches, and how they’re different from large churches. Many of the authors noted that many small churches function like they’re large churches. Especially if they’re part of a denomination that requires them to have certain core programming. They rightly note that when small churches mimic the programming, staffing, and worship of larger churches, resources are stressed to the snapping point. Members burn out. Bank accounts get emptied. And morale plummets.

And that’s true.

So, one guy - a small church pastor - in an effort to combat this phenomenon used a baseball analogy to help small churches getter a better perspective on their place in the world.

He said to think of the large church like Major League Baseball. The large church is the New York Yankees, with their inflated budgets and high batting averages, and enough resources to try to snap up Japanese players. These are the big boys.

Small churches, by contrast, are like little league, where everyone gets together on weekends and has fun. There are few home runs, but no one makes the hall of fame. Friendships are built and everyone goes home smiling.

I almost threw the book across the room when I read that. Unless I totally missed his point, he seemed to be saying that large churches are the experts, the ones REALLY good at what they do. These are the pros from which the rest of us learn, to whom we can aspire, and for whom we can cheer.

And WE - the small churches - are the amateurs, the children, who are still learning how to be church, and perhaps, someday make it to the big leagues. But really - let’s not kid ourselves - the best we can do is play beer ball on Saturday evenings.

Although I’ve only been here just over a month, I can say with absolute certainty, that while St. Paul’s is a small church, you are NOT amateurs. You are NOT spiritual children. This church is NOT little league. Your hard work, dedication, and faithfulness are NOT worth less than a large downtown church. You are a people with unique strengths and talents that can make a powerful impact where you are.

I’m guessing that the guy who used that baseball analogy didn’t thoroughly think through the consequences of that comparison. Other than it being untrue and insulting, it also lets small churches off the missional hook. It allows small churches to think, “We’re small, we’re not as a good as the big church down the street, so what can we do?”

Spiritual and missional inadequacy is a disease that plagues small churches. And it’s often nurtured by leaders, who, worn out after years of fighting uphill battles to make the church grow, convince themselves that their losses are victories.

Some theologians have taken this a step further saying that large churches sell out to consumer culture while small churches remain true to God’s mustard seed vision of the church. That they are the voice crying out in the wilderness, away from the world’s power centres, and siding with the world’s forgotten.

I would agree with this, except that many theologians and small church pastors who proudly proclaim the purity of the small church’s faithfulness against the ecclesiastical Wal-Marts, are often the first ones to run to their Facebook pages to announce the “full church [they] had to today.” Everyone craves significance. And in our consumer culture, size presumes impact.

And those who who blithely say that “size doesn’t matter” are often the large church pastors for whom resources are not a problem. Or they’re small church leaders who are intentionally blind to their church’s financial reality.

So, instead of baseball to compare the size and importance of churches, I prefer to use a musical analogy. I like to think of the big church as a symphony. It requires massive resources to keep it functioning. Some music is specifically written for them, simply because of its make up. And when it’s performed well, the results can be stunningly transcendent. The symphony is its own unique form.

A small church is like a chamber ensemble. Much fewer resources are needed to keep them playing. The players need lots of eye contact and body signals to keep them in sync. There’s an intimacy that’s lost on the symphony, both among they musicians and the listener. And composers write music specifically for this small group. And, again, the chamber ensemble is its own unique form.

So, is a chamber ensemble “little league” and the symphony “big league”? The Tokyo String Quartet would certainly have an answer to that question.

And like a chamber ensemble, every part is needed to make the music come alive. In a symphony, if a violist scratches her nose, the music isn’t affected because there are other violists playing the same part.

But in a brass trio, if the trombone player sneezes, he blows a hole in the music, and people notice.

That’s like us here at St. Paul’s. When your part isn’t being played, people notice. Here, at St. Paul’s, we need YOU to make our little chamber ensemble play the music that God has put in front of us. St. Paul’s needs YOU to play the music of our mission, our mission to live and proclaim God’s love and mercy in the world. The mission of God’s Kingdom come to earth in Jesus. The mission of sharing God’s justice, grace, peace, and joy to everyone who walks through or past our doors.

St. Paul’s needs YOU and the powerful gifts that YOU have. YOU have an important and unique part to play in the chamber ensemble that is St. Paul’s. St. Paul’s can’t function without YOU. When YOU aren’t here, there’s a hole in our music. When you ARE here, we come together in joyful harmony. And together, we make music to the praise of God.

St. Paul’s may be a voice crying out in the wilderness. But you are a MIGHTY voice, preparing the world to receive its saviour, making a path for Jesus to enter peoples’ lives, shining God’s light in the dark corners of the world.

As we move forward in mission, as we discern together the future that God has for us, please know that YOU are a part of that future. God has put you HERE to do great and wonderful things for God. YOU have a part to play in God’s salvation song.

May this be so among us. Amen!

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Saturday, December 03, 2011

Advent 2B

“Prepare the way of the Lord! Make the Lord’s path straight!” says John the Baptist.

I know what he means. In my first week here in Tokyo I decided to go for a walk, to get to know the area a little bit better. It’s hard to get to know a place from a subway car or from a seat on a train.

Still in Alberta mode, where the streets are a grid, I wandered from the office to, what I assumed was the area of the Tokyo Dome. It didn’t look that far on the map, so I charted my route, thinking that it was just a quick north east from the front door of the church.

Well, I kept walking, and walking, and walking, and walking. And walking. And no Tokyo Dome anywhere in sight. I looked on my map and none of the street names were listed.

Since I had a general idea of where I was I tapped on the compass on my iPhone, and I knew I had to go south west to get to where I wanted to be. So I followed the compass for quite a few blocks.

After walking for another hour or so, I thought to myself, “This is crazy. I really gotta figure out where I am.”

So I stepped into a 7-11 and asked the clerk, “Tokyo Dome?”

She looked at me funny as if to say, “Really?”

So I asked again, “Tokyo Dome”?

She looked at me quizzically and pointed. I looked in the direction she was pointing, and THERE it was staring down at me! I didn’t see it because I was concentrating on the streets and not the buildings.

I tried to figure out how I could have gotten so far from my mark. After all I had stayed on one street. But then I realized that the streets weren’t straight. And apparently they weren’t MEANT to be straight. I’ve been told that the streets here in Tokyo were built in such a way as to confuse the enemy.

And I say, Job well done! While I hope I’m not the enemy, the streets sufficiently confused me. And still do. I still get lost trying to find places. And it doesn’t help that the streets were designed for people to get lost in them.

You have to be from here to really get the streets. Or at least you have to be here a long time to understand how to get around without getting lost.

I wonder if that’s what it’s like to be Christian here in Japan. After all, Christians are a VERY small part of the population. Christianity isn’t indigenous to Japan and hasn’t been here very long historically. Christianity is still trying to find its way around the streets, and not get lost searching for its final destination.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” the John the Baptist says, “Make the Lord’s path straight.”

The people of God known as Israel knew what it was like to try to navigate the streets in a strange land.

Some have said that the road John was talking about was the road they were required to build while in exile in Babylon. John, they say, was evoking a common memory. He was asking them to recall a time when the people of God know as “Israel” were captured and forced into slavey. And as slaves they were ordered to build a road each each year so that a procession honouring the pagan God Marduk could be celebrated.

The road would only be used once. It’s job was done. Then a new road for next year’s procession would have to be built.

So not only were they captured, taken from their home in Jerusalem and brought to a foreign land. They were enslaved, forced to work their hands raw to build a road celebrating the victories of a false god. They worked all year to build a road that was used only once. Then they started again on a new road. This went on year after year after year after year.

But now the announcement had come. God was bringing them out of exile. They were going home. Their penalty was paid, and their exile was over. So they packed up their stuff and started walking. Their path would not lead to a false god. But their path would led to the God who made heaven and the earth. The God who put the stars in the night. The God who rescued them from slavery and gave them a home. The God who chose them to shine God’s light in an often dark world.

And those standing at the Jordan River, listening to John, knew this story and they knew their place in it. They knew exile. They knew the exile of not being welcome in the halls of official religion. They knew the exile of poverty. They knew the exile of pain. Of disease. Of loneliness. Of grief. Of hunger.

They knew the exile of broken family. They knew the exile of depression. They knew the exile of wondering if their lives have any meaning. They knew the exile of wondering if their death would go ungrieved.

They knew the exile of feeling separated from God.

These were the 99 percent. These were the ones who toiled day after day, scrounging for a scrap that fell from society’s table. These were the ones who thought that God had abandoned them long ago because they couldn’t measure up religion’s impossible demands. These were the ones aching for a God who would touch them, wash them clean, and give them a new life.

So that’s where John appeared. John waist deep in the Jordan River, the river that the people crossed from the wilderness to the Promised Land, gazed out in the crowd, and everyone thought to themselves, “He’s looking straight at me.”

Yes he was. John stood in front of the crowd, and the look in his eye said, he knows you. I mean he REALLY knows you. He hasn’t met you before and doesn’t know your name but he has you all figured out.

He knows what hides in the secret chambers of your heart. He knows what you do when nobody’s looking.

He knows your shame and he knows your pain. He knows all that stuff you’d rather keep quiet and hidden. He can see it in your eyes.

He can see in the way you keep staring at the ground while he’s preaching.

He can see it in the way you walk. He can see it in your phony self-assured strut or with your hunched back, stooped from being beaten down by the world. He knows the secrets you harbour.

He knows your failings. He knows your broken places. He knows those moments of weakness that, if ever came to light, your life would end.

He knows about your cancer. Your failed marriage. The feeling that life is passing you by.

He knows about the grief that tearing your heart into rags.

He knows how you just can’t put down that bottle.

He knows how you just can’t let go of a lifetime of resentment.

He knows that some days you feel so lost and purposeless that you wonder if life is worth living at all.

Yes. He knows ALL of this. That’s why he’s so loved and so feared. But when he looks at you and excavates the buried hurts that lie in deepest alcoves of your soul, his eyes soften and he pleads with you, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his path straight.”

But, instead of scolding you for your moral failings, or telling you to stop blaming others for your troubles, he leads you to the shore of the Jordan River and reminds you that when the people of God were liberated from their slavery in Egypt, they crossed the Jordan which led to the Promised Land.

Then, looking so deeply into your eyes that you’re afraid you’ll melt, he opens his arms and says, “Your exile is over. Enter the water of freedom. God is giving you a fresh start. God is putting you on a straight path. It’s time for you to start over. It’s time for you to begin again.”

The Baptist was giving out second chances. That’s the gift you are given each and every day when you remember the gift of your own baptism. The gift of starting over. The gift of a new beginning. The gift of rising each new day knowing that you are forgiven and free. The gift of knowing that yesterday is behind, and today is full of new, fresh possibilities.

The gift of knowing that you are used by God for great things in this world. The gift of knowing that God is doing something special and loving with your life. The gift of knowing that God’s love shines through you.

The gift of knowing that whenever the world knocks you down, you will rise again to meet whatever challenges come your way.

Even though, as Christians, you are one percent in Japan, you are 100 percent in God. You are a people chosen by God to lead others to the waters of life. You who gather in love and scatter to serve, so that God’s name and God’s love may be known in this part of the world.

Get you up to a high mountain, O St. Paul’s, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O people of God, lift it up, do not fear; say to a world needing a word of grace, “Here is your God!”

May this be so among us! Amen!

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