Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: A Sermon

A sermon preached at Christ Church (Tara) and St. Paul’s (Chatsworth)

Texts: Jeremiah 1.4-10; 1 Corinthians 13.1-13; Luke 4.21-30

I.

Being a prophet is thankless, indeed, impossible, work. It is not a job for which people are lining up to volunteer and it’s not a career aspiration parents have for their children. Sure, there will always be those who claim to be prophets and sages with some new spiritual revelation, but in reality they are self-appointed narcissists who peddle little more than feel-good navel-gazing. The easiest way to discern if someone is a prophet is to check their lifestyle and bank account; false prophets are typically motivated by making quick profits.

A true prophet, on the other hand, is a person chosen and sent by God to speak God’s truth. In the biblical witness, true prophets are known by the near universal rejection of their message: ‘It’s too harsh!’ ‘Enough with the fire and brimstone – give us something more cheerful, would you?’ ‘I don’t want to hear about repentance! I’m doing just fine, thank-you!’ Indeed, prophets in the Bible, with the exception of Jonah, typically receive less than a warm welcome: Elijah was forced to live in hiding because of death threats; Jeremiah was attacked by his brothers, beaten by a false prophet, imprisoned by the king, and thrown into a dry cistern; Jesus was driven out of town and nearly hurled off a cliff.

Initially these reactions might seem a bit overblown – why not simply ignore the prophet instead? However, when you consider the fact that prophets are called to speak out not only against those who control power – kings and rulers – but also members of their own faith community, including family members, you can understand why God’s prophets are universally rejected and live under the threat of death. We prefer our prophets to tell us exactly what we want to hear; we want our prophets to tell us everything is going to be fine and that I’m OK and you’re OK just the way we are.

Rather, God’s prophets speak out against the ways in which we participate in and tolerate injustice toward the poor. This proliferation of injustice is, the prophets insist, rooted in the unfaithfulness of God’s people. Time and again, God’s people turn toward idols, forsaking their calling to be a blessing unto the nations, neglecting their mission to be a people that embody God’s reign on earth. The refusal to live according to God’s ways, the prophets insist, leads to injustice and moral chaos. So, God leaves his people to their own devices and desires, seemingly withholding his mercy.

But all is not lost – while the prophets condemn injustice and idolatry, they remind God’s people over and over again that God still loves us and that God remains faithful to his promises. God promises to restore and heal his people if they will turn away from idols and return to him.

However, the call to repentance is too much to bear for people who insist on going their own way and doing their own thing. Our culture tells us that no one should tell us what to do; no one has authority over me. So, one of the ways to ignore the message is to shoot the messenger. This means that a prophet must be willing to entrust their entire lives to God as they fearlessly proclaim the message with which God has entrusted them. Because this message is a matter of life and death, a prophet is willing to give their life in order to fulfill their calling to bring God’s message.

II.

Luke intentionally begins his narration of Jesus’ earthly ministry with Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth. Luke wants to emphasize that Jesus is a prophetic Messiah.[1] This means that the character of Jesus’ earthly ministry is prophetic – he will announce God’s truth; he will call people to repentance; he will proclaim the good news.

The good news is that although each and every one of us is captive to sin, poor in spirit, blind to God’s love, and oppressed by our own desires, God has not abandoned us. Indeed, the good news is that God, through Jesus Christ, is liberating his people from sin. No longer must God’s people worship idols who cannot hear and cannot speak; God has revealed himself through Jesus Christ; the Word speaks to us, coming to earth as one of us to live among us, showing us the reality of God’s Kingdom. The reality of God’s kingdom is good news for the physically poor, sick, and oppressed to because through Christ, God promises to end all suffering and death once and for all. The entirely of Jesus’ earthly ministry, culminating with his death and resurrection, is a prophetic embodiment of God’s promise.

But the message of a prophet is seldom welcomed as good news. This is because in order to hear the gospel as good news we need to accept the fact that we are captives, that we are not the masters of our destiny. Like those in the synagogue of Nazareth who were incensed at Jesus’ words, it is easier to attempt to murder a prophet than it is to heed what he is saying. We would rather accept the cheap sentimentality conveyed by the song ‘All you need is love’, than to accept the radically dangerous love of God shown to us through Jesus Christ. The irony, of course, is that it is in the very murder of Jesus on the cross, that God’s scandalous love is most clearly revealed. And yet, this remains a truth that seem too good to be true; this is a love that is impossible for us to accept.

The reality is that Jesus Christ is the love of which St. Paul famously speaks in 1 Corinthians 13. This is not love enshrined by Hallmark and romantic comedies; it is a love that can only be understood by looking to Christ and him crucified. The message of God’s prophets announce and anticipate Christ; he is the meaning and fulfilment of their message. Indeed, Christ is the fulfilment of the entirely of Scripture; the very meaning of Scripture as a whole is found in and through him. Because Christ is the fulfilment and meaning of Scripture, he alone is the one who will have final domination over all nations and kingdoms; he is the one who will build and plant God’s kingdom.

To hear and accept the prophetic witness of Jesus Christ is to repent. The work of repentance is the means by which we turn towards God’s kingdom. Jesus himself says “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1.15). And yet, repentance is impossible for us to achieve by ourselves; it is not something we can do through sheer will power or through a rational process of thought. Rather, repentance is something more visceral: it is completely abandoning myself to the love and grace of God extended to us in Jesus Christ; it is about allowing the Holy Spirit to transform me into the image and likeness of Christ. Of course, this work of transformation is not automatic; it is the work of an entire life lived in repentance, of continually returning toward the God who will always love us and never forsake us.

As Anglicans, the work of repentance is embodied in our liturgy: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open…” is a prayer of repentance. “Lift up your hearts…” is a prayer of repentance.

III.

As Christ’s earthly body, the Church is called to prophetically embody the love of Christ as it calls itself and the world to repentance through the proclamation of the gospel. This is a difficult task that will almost certainly result in open hostility directed toward the church, even by those who are part of the church. Nevertheless, the church cannot soften its prophetic voice in order to make its message more culturally acceptable. The message with which God entrusts is a matter of life and death; therefore we cannot mince words or use flowery language to soften the impact. The gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be compromised to societal norms or suited to personal taste; the gospel is all or nothing. It speaks about the totality of what God is doing through Jesus Christ; there is no room for niceties or qualification.

Although the gospel is for all people, many refuse to accept it; it simply demands too much. Indeed, we should not be surprised when people reject the gospel. Prior to his crucifixion, Jesus reminds his disciples, both then and now: “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you…if they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15.19, 20b).

This hardly sounds like encouragement or a recipe for church growth. How is this good news? First of all, we must remember, we do not grow the church; all growth comes through the work of the Holy Spirit, beginning with repentance. This frees the church to focus on its mission: going into the world to make baptized disciples. Secondly, the same promise that God gave to Jeremiah, God gives to his church: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jer. 1.4). God entrusts us – and as the reading from Jeremiah reminds us – God commands us (cf. Jer. 1.7) to speak his message, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that God has liberated the cosmos from sin and death. We are either obedient to this command or we ignore it and keep ourselves occupied with church busy-work. When we are obedient, we can be confident that God remains with us, even as we face hostile crowds who want us dead and gone.

The prophetic vocation of the church requires that we both speak and embody the self-giving love of Jesus Christ, a fearless and dangerous love that stands with the broken, the poor, and the outcast. The prophetic message of the church is: God loves you just the way you are but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.

This is a message that is for the baptized and the unbaptized alike. Indeed, it is a message that the church must be willing to hear and accept for itself before it is able to proclaim it to the world. We cannot assume like those in the synagogue of Nazareth that we are somehow off the hook assuming that God plays favorites. No; the church must be willing to allow God to break it down and destroy it; the church must be willing to name its own idols and turn away from them in repentance. It is only in so doing will the church open itself up to God’s promised growth.

Could it be that the current numerical decline of the church in North America is actually a good thing, a way of calling the church to return to its first love? Could it be that dwindling numbers are God’s way of waking us up from our cultural slumber and reminding us of our prophetic vocation?  Could it be that God’s promised growth comes insofar as the church is faithful to her calling?

The planting and building of God’s kingdom is God’s prerogative; it takes place within God’s timeframe; we cannot force immediate growth through strategic planning or clever programming. However, we can go fearlessly into the world to proclaim the dangerous and life-giving love of Christ, knowing that he goes with us along the way.

Amen.

[1] Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, Luke (Sacra Pagina), 81.

Second Sunday after Epiphany (C): A Sermon

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s (Southampton) on Sunday January 17, 2016.

Texts: Isaiah 62.1-5; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11; John 2.1-11

I.

“The wine dries up, the vine languishes, all the merry-hearted sigh…No more do they drink wine with singing…There is an outcry in the streets for lack of wine; all joy has reached its eventide, the gladness of the earth is banished” (Isaiah 24:7, 9, 11).

This is hardly the jubilant celebration of a wedding feast. Rather, it is from the book of Isaiah in which the prophet describes the God’s impending judgment on the earth. This is hardly good news, that the earth will dry up, languish and wither (cf. 24.4). This impending doom is because, as the prophet explains, the people “have broken the everlasting covenant”, the covenant God made with his people at Mount Sinai, the covenant that God would be their God if the people remained faithful through keeping Torah. Nevertheless, as the Old Testament reminds us, the people were perpetually unfaithful, turning time and again away from God as they sought the wealth and wisdom of the world.

Despite their unfaithfulness, God remained patiently faithful. The doom and gloom of the prophet’s vision concludes on a note of hope, recalling the covenant on Sinai and anticipating a future of blessing and feasting: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. And he 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 for ever. 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” (Isaiah 25.6-8).

The first vision of the future described by the prophet is one of the world left to its own deformed desires and devices; the second vision of the future is one in which God intervenes to liberate, restore, and bless the whole of creation, bringing an end to all suffering and death, and inviting everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike, to feast at the messianic banquet.

Isaiah’s second vision for the future is precisely what John has in mind as he narrates miracle at Cana.[1]

II.

John intentionally chooses the miracle at Cana as the first of Jesus’ miracles. While the miracle is remarkable, the importance is less on the miracle itself and the potent symbolism the whole scene evokes. Like each of the Gospel writers, John is primarily focused on answering the questions: who is Jesus of Nazareth and why does he matter? Moreover, the purpose of John’s Gospel is so that those who read his account will “come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20.31). It is with this purpose in mind that we read John’s Gospel.

The first chapter of John opens with what is essentially a re-telling of Genesis 1 with the focus on establishing that Jesus is the Logos, the Word-made-Flesh, who came to earth for us and for our salvation. Following this poetic introduction, we hear of John the Baptizer’s claim that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”(John 1.29, 35). Following this revelation, Jesus calls his first disciples and shortly the group is at a wedding feast in Cana.

As I’ve said, John intentionally frames his narrative with his purpose in mind. That the wedding takes place “three days later” (John 2.1) foreshadows Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday, the morning when God’s promised future dawns upon the entire world. Moreover, John’s account of Jesus’ first miracle takes place at a Jewish wedding.

That the wedding is Jewish is clear from the presence of the six ceremonial jars that were used for ritual washing by the bride. However, as Mary is quick to point out, there is a problem: the wine has run out. At this point, the words of the prophet Isaiah should be echoing in our ears: “The wine dries up, the vine languishes, all the merry-hearted sigh”. Without wine, the celebration is effectively ended. At this point, John’s intended symbolism becomes increasingly explicit: Mary is not simply asking Jesus to create more wine; she is also “asking that Jesus provide the sacrificial and supernatural wine of salvation spoken of by the prophet Isaiah and long awaited by the Jewish people”.[2]

In performing the miracle of turning water into wine, Jesus is revealing his identity as the Messiah; not only does give the best wine, he gives it abundantly – 681 litres, which amounts to over 900 bottles of wine, more than could possibly be consumed at the wedding, even considering that first century wedding parties in Palestine lasted nearly a week and the wedding in Cana is only on its third day of celebration. Jesus brings God’s richest blessings and he does so superabundantly. Indeed, according to Jewish tradition, the Messiah’s arrival would be marked with a “miraculous abundance of wine”.[3]

The bridegroom was responsible for providing the wine; if there is a problem with the wine, the host is the person with whom to speak. However, Mary speaks to Jesus and in doing so she “places him in the role of the bridegroom”.[4] Recall our reading from Isaiah 62 where God identifies himself as the Bridegroom: at the wedding in Cana we see the promised Bridegroom in the flesh; Jesus is the Bridegroom of God’s people, the Messiah, the Son of God. He is the one who will usher in God’s eternal feast. The one who is “the true vine” will not only provide the wine for the feast, he will ensure that those who abide in him will bear much fruit” (John 15.1, 5).

Following the wedding at Cana, John the Baptizer remarks that “he who has the bride is the bridegroom” (John 3.29). This raises the question: if Jesus is single and celibate, who is his bride?

III.

Nuptial metaphors are one of the most prevalent descriptions of God’s relationship with God’s people throughout Scripture. Jesus’ bride are all those who believe that he is God’s Son, the Messiah, the Bridegroom. Therefore, Jesus’ bride is the Church[5], the multitude of disciples throughout all the ages who faithfully follow Christ. Jesus is the bridegroom who has the bride, the Church.

To say that Jesus has the church is to underline the depth of this relationship in the same way that a wife can be said to have her husband and vice-versa; it is the language of intimacy. Within the covenant promises of marriage, she is his and he is hers. In other words, life-long fidelity is the foundation of the relationship. There is a mutual promise to remain with and for the other in a permanent union.

Of course, this is a hard notion for a culture with a disposable view of relationships to accept. However, this makes it all the more good news that people need to hear: that in and through Jesus Christ, God choses to be with us and for us and that nothing will change God’s faithfulness.

But this is also a hard notion for God’s people to accept given our embarrassing tendency toward unfaithfulness. This is the essence of sin: disordered love, love that goes outside of the covenantal bond, love that refuses to put God first and foremost, replacing it with a myriad of cheap substitutes. However, the Church remains Christ’s holy and beloved bride; it is in her, in us, that God rejoices and delights (cf. Is. 62.4). Despite our unfaithfulness, God remains faithful and calls us to return to him. This makes the journey of repentance good news: we know that Christ waits for us with open arms.

The relationship between Christ and the Church is such that we cannot love the Bride apart from loving the Bridegroom and we cannot love the Bridegroom apart from loving the Bride. To claim to love the Church, the institution and the aesthetics, reduces the church to a charitable organization; to claim to love Jesus but not the church is to reduce Jesus to a spiritual sage. Christ and his Church form an indissoluble whole, a relationship that exists for the blessing of the whole of creation. To love Christ is to love his Church; to love the Church is to love Christ.

We show our love for the Bridegroom and the Bride through our worship and our witness. As we gather around God’s holy table, we are both preparing for an anticipating the heavenly wedding banquet. Through communion, we taste and see God’s promised future; through communion, Christ unites himself to us as our Bridegroom through the Holy Spirit; through communion, the Holy Spirit makes us into the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, the Bride of Christ.

The love that unites a man and woman as husband and wife bears much fruit, primarily children. The love that unites Christ to his Church also bears much fruit: those born of the Holy Spirit, disciples who trust in Christ and, like those gathered at the wedding in Cana, “believed in him” (2.11). The bridegroom calls us, his beloved bride, to go into the world to tell others of the upcoming marriage celebration. The marriage of Christ and the Church is one that brings life for the whole of creation: here and now through transformed, forgiven, and reconciled lives, but also in the future when Christ returns to claim his bride so that the whole world can rejoice and delight in what God has done in and through Jesus Christ.

Let the party begin!

Amen

[1] Cf. the discussion in Brant Pitre, Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Lovestory Ever Told, 28-54.

[2] Pitre, 42.

[3] Pitre, 43.

[4] Pitre, 45.

[5] The image of the Church as bride comes to poignant fulfilment in Rev. 21.2, a passage that directly draws on Isaiah 25.

The Baptism of the Lord: A Sermon (C)

A sermon preached on Sunday January 10, 2016 at St. Paul’s (Southampton) and St. John’s (Port Elgin).

Texts: Isaiah 41:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17; 21-22.

I.

Remember your baptism.

Remember your baptism.

For those of us baptized as infants, this is a strange statement: how can we possibly remember our baptism? My parents have pictures of my baptism at one-month old and the congregation in which I was baptized has a record of my baptism, but this hardly constitutes a direct memory of my baptism.

Perhaps some of you were baptized as teenagers and adults, so the memory of your baptism is not relegated to time immemorial.

Either way, because baptisms, unlike the Eucharist, are not celebrated every week, it is easy for us to forget our baptism and overlook the centrality of baptism to the life of Christian discipleship. In other words, we have a tendency to take baptism for granted. We assume it is a ritual with little practical relevance once the water is sprinkled, and so we put the obtrusive font away until it is needed again. The event lives on in family photos, quietly tucked away in an album.

And yet, despite our ritual and pragmatic neglect, baptism remains central to the life of the Church. Indeed, we are to remember our baptism every time we enter and exit the church and every time we approach the altar.

So, why is baptism central to the Church? The answer to this question lies in Jesus’ baptism.

II.

St. Luke’s Gospel is full of historical references and he frequently names eyewitnesses to the events he describes in order to lend credibility to his account. However, the details Luke offers about Jesus’ baptism are sparse. Until this point in his narrative, Luke offers significant detail, but when he arrives at what is arguably the most significant event that underlines Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, he remains surprisingly reserved.

Luke’s focus in the first three chapters is on Jesus’ humanity: he is born as a human baby into the chaos of human history. Upon his baptism where God’s voice is heard and God’s presence is manifest in “bodily form”[1] as a dove, the same presence that will be manifest as tongues of fire at Pentecost, Luke seems relatively uninterested, immediately following this divine encounter by offering us a genealogical account of Jesus’ ancestry through his father Joseph’s lineage all the way back to Adam.

However, Luke’s intent is not simply to emphasize Jesus’ humanity over and against his divinity, but rather to emphasize the way in which Jesus embodies and represents the entirety of humanity as both God’s Son and as the Second Adam. Luke is patiently building a narrative in these first three chapters to show us that Jesus is the promised Messiah, God’s own Son, who stands on behalf of all humanity.

You will recall that John the Baptizer proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. That Jesus, the one who “knew no sin”, would be baptized for the forgiveness of sins seems rather odd, until we realize that Jesus’ baptism is a symbol that “he did not disdain to bear the sins of others”.[2] Simply put, Jesus’ baptism is on behalf of all humanity and anticipates his atoning sacrifice on the cross and glorious resurrection. Jesus’ baptism is our baptism. Therefore, to remember Jesus’ baptism is to remember our baptism.

There is only one baptism, and that is Jesus’ baptism; our baptisms are an extension of Christ’s baptism; when we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ, into his life, death, and resurrection. Through baptism, we put on Christ and begin a journey of growing into “the fullness and stature”[3] of Christ, a journey that is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

As baptized disciples, we participate in all that is Christ’s because Christ participates in all that is ours. Through his Incarnation, his taking on human flesh, Christ opens the way for the redemption of humanity and restores communion between God and humanity. We participate in this redemption and renewed humanity through the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.

Baptism, like the Eucharist, is not about what we do; it is about what “God has done for us in Jesus Christ, in whom he has bound himself to us and bound us to himself, before ever we could respond to him. But [baptism] is also the sacrament of what God now does in us by his Spirit, uniting us with Christ in his faithfulness and obedience to the Father and making that the ground of our faith”.[4] Christ’s baptism reminds us that our faith is built upon Christ’s faithfulness and that God makes himself “present to us and binds us creatively to himself in such marvelous ways that not only is faith called forth from us as our own spontaneous response to the grace of God in Christ, but it is undergirded and supported by Christ and enclosed with his own faithfulness”.[5]

The presence of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism is a reminder of the centrality of baptism for the life of discipleship and, as one fourth-century theologian (St. Gregory of Nazianzus) put it, through his baptism, Jesus buries “the old Adam in water”. When we remember our baptism, we remember the new humanity that the Holy Spirit makes possible: the way of life lived in communion with God and neighbor, a way of life that participates in Christ’s own life.

“The voice of the Lord is over the water; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters” (Psalm 29.3). This is the same voice that spoke over the water at Jesus’ baptism, the voice of God the Father. This is the same voice that also speaks without words, the voice of the Holy Spirit who hovered over the waters in the beginning, the same Holy Spirit poured out on the Church at Pentecost, the same Holy Spirit who prompts us toward Christ, transforming us into his likeness.

III.

We are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and, as our Anglican liturgy puts it, we are “called to new life through the waters of baptism” and we are brought “to new birth in the family of [God’s] church”.[6] Baptism is an initiation into the life and mission of the church. We are not baptized into membership in a country club or a charitable organization; we are baptized into the very life of Christ, made one with him. As Christians, our very identity is a baptismal identity; we are marked by water and born of the fire of the Holy Spirit to be Christ’s earthly body, chosen and set apart to be his ambassadors. To remember our baptism is to remember the purpose to which God calls us.

Maybe this is why baptism is so often overlooked and forgotten in the church: baptism is a stark reminder that we do not exist for ourselves and that our attempts at religiosity, piety, and morality do nothing to curry favor with God. Baptism is a stark reminder that we, the Church are a re-created humanity, that we must be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to burn away the chaff in our lives so that we are a people impassioned and enflamed by the gospel of God’s self-giving love. Baptism is a stark reminder that God extends his grace to all humanity through Jesus Christ and calls his church to proclaim this message of salvation to all people, inviting them to participate in the new life Christ offers through baptism.

Therefore, let us return our baptismal fonts to the central place they once occupied, reminding us our baptisms; reminding us of Christ’s baptism for us. Let us fill them with water, reminding us that we are born of water and Spirit. Let us celebrate our baptisms and regularly recommit ourselves to a baptismal life.

Finally, as we approach this year’s vestry meetings, let us remember our baptisms so that we can remember the life and purpose to which God calls us. As a priest friend of mine remarked, “the Church should have no greater desire than to welcome members into the Body of Christ through the waters of baptism”.[7] As those who are baptized, Christ himself commissions us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them” everything Jesus taught.[8] This is our baptismal vocation.

Remember your baptism.

Remember your baptism.

Amen.

[1] Luke 3.23.
[2] St. Cyprian of Carthage as quoted in David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke, 63.
[3] Eph. 4.13.
[4] T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconciliation.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The Book of Alternative Services, 157.
[7] The Rev. Keith Voets.
[8] Matt. 28.19, 20a.

First Sunday of Christmas: A Sermon

A sermon preached on December 27, 2015, at Christ Church (Tara).

I.

It’s every parents’ nightmare – to have a child go missing. Even for the briefest of moments when a child is off the parental radar seem like an eternity of panic. In today’s Gospel reading, St. Luke moves us from the emotional high of Christmas to the sheer terror experienced by parents when a child goes missing. You can imagine the added terror experienced by Mary and Joseph – we’ve lost God’s Son! This seems like a rather strange way for Luke to follow up the joy of the nativity story and the tenderness of Jesus’ presentation in the temple where he is blessed by Simeon and Anna. Both the Gospels of Mark and John completely omit the nativity and Matthew focuses on Joseph and Mary’s flight into Egypt to protect Jesus from King Herod’s order to massacre all boys under the age of 2. The Bible certainly is not as neat and nice as we want it to be sometimes.

II.

Like all the authors of the other Gospels, Luke is primarily focused on answering the question: who is Jesus from Nazareth and why is he important? Although each of the Gospel writers formulate their answers differently, they each come up with the same answer: Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God; he is important because he brings us salvation and shows us God’s kingdom. Luke sets out to answer the ‘who’ and ‘why’ questions about Jesus in what he calls an “orderly account” based on eyewitness testimony (Lk 1.1, 1.3; cf. 1.2). Luke intentionally place his account in historical context and frequently ‘name drops’ in order to underline the reliability of his Gospel.

One of the questions often asked about the Gospels is: why do they not offer us any stories about Jesus’ childhood? Aren’t these stories important too? Why do we have only one story about Jesus as a young boy and why does only one Gospel, in this case that of Luke, include it?

I suspect that had any stories of Jesus’ childhood been included in the Bible, the might seem mundane to the point of belaboring a point that the nativity story already makes poignantly clear: God took on human flesh and came to earth to live among us. The effect of Christ’s living among us is clear only in the context of his earthly ministry, culminating in his death and resurrection. The addition of childhood stories about Jesus would be, from an editorial standpoint, needless filler. Of course, none of this is to suggest that childhood itself is unimportant; we know that Jesus welcomed children as his followers and enjoined his adult disciples to practice childlike faith. The fullness of Christ’s humanity, including his childhood, is best represented by the Christmas story.

Keeping in mind that Luke is offering an answer to the ‘who’ and ‘why’ questions about Jesus, Luke offers the story of Jesus in the temple as a narrative ‘hinge’ between the nativity and Jesus’ adult ministry.

At first glance, the texts seems to paint an unflattering picture of Jesus as a petulant pre-teen. His response to his mother’s frustration and relief sounds like disrespect. We expect that Jesus should know better than to not tell his parents his whereabouts and that he would show a bit more respect to his parents. However, we should not let our expectations cloud our reading of the Bible; when we do, we often end up making the Bible conform to our demands rather than let the God speak to us through the Bible in order to transform us as God intends.

When we look at the structure of text, Luke’s intended meaning becomes clear. Luke is a masterful story teller; every part of the story is intentionally placed for maximum effect.

This episode begins with the journey to Jerusalem and ends with the journey home to Nazareth. The next parallel in the text is between Jesus remaining as his parents depart unaware and Jesus’ parents being unable to understand why he stayed. The next parallel is Jesus’ parents finding him and Jesus’ parents reproaching him.[1]

Each of these three parallels create a structure to the story that is meant to highlight the heart of the text: that Jesus is God’s wisdom in the flesh. The heart of the story is the amazement and astonishment that the teachers of the temple and Jesus’ parents had regarding his knowledge of the Torah. Luke depicts Mary and Joseph as pious Jews who make a yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover (cf. Lk. 2.41) and the piety of the temple leaders is certainly assumed. And yet, here is a twelve-year-old-boy, on the cusp of manhood (at least as it was understood in that time and place), showing knowledge and wisdom beyond his years.

Through the narrative, Luke is offering an answer the ‘who’ and ‘why’ questions about Jesus: Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.

Jesus’ physical and mental growth underlines his full humanity: Jesus grew, as we all do, from babies utterly dependent on our parents for everything, into teenagers who begin to spread their wings, into adults who must take responsibility for their own lives. Indeed, the fact that Jesus was twelve in this story underlines his transition into manhood and all that goes with it, including accepting religious responsibility, which is why he responded to Mary’s question with such seeming flippancy: I am in the temple because I am no longer a little boy; I am taking my mission form my heavenly Father seriously.

To be clear, Jesus’ human development in no way should suggest his limitation of his divinity; Luke includes this story precisely in order to underline the truth of the nativity: God became human. The very fact of the Incarnation is a reminder that Jesus did “not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, bring born in human likeness”, as St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Philippians (2. 6-7).

Indeed, the heart of today’s Gospel reading serves to underline Jesus’ divine nature. There is no what that the teachers of the temple would have even allowed a twelve-year-old-boy to sit among them, let alone grant him an audience or even let him speak to them. They would not let them do this, unless it was patently evident that he was special. That Jesus made this impression on them is clear. Moreover, it brings to mind the story of Jesus’ appearance to two travellers on the road to Emmaus where he opened the Scriptures to them. Both on that road and in the temple in today’s reading, Luke is suggesting that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Torah; all the Scriptures point to him as the Messiah, the Christ, the promised deliverer who will inaugurate a new Passover and a new Exodus.

However, as often is the case in the Gospel stories, the crowds, the religious leaders, and even those closest to Jesus – his disciples and his parents – either cannot understand who Jesus is and why he has come or, like the Israelites in the Old Testament, they constantly forget. This is why Mary’s actions are so important. Like Mary, we must treasure the Scriptural stories about Jesus in our hearts, lest we forget who he is and why he came.

III.

God’s people have an embarrassing tendency to forget God’s promises, which is why God is constantly reminding his people to turn back to him – to repent. Following the story of Jesus in the temple, Luke tells how John the Baptist went about “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3.3). Caught up in our own anxieties about the future of the church, our religious piety, and our discomfort with the seeming antiquatedness of the Bible, we forget both God’s faithfulness and our baptismal vocation to proclaim the gospel.

We are “God’s chosen one, holy and beloved” (Col. 3.12). Our mission in and for the world is to embody Christ in everything we do and say as a community of Christ-followers. We are called to remember who Jesus is and why he came and then put those very things into practice. We are to extend patience, forgiveness, love, and peace to each other. We are to practice gratitude, study the Scriptures, sing and pray together. We are to follow the self-giving example of Jesus Christ who emptied himself for our sake. It is when we gather to receive God’s wisdom in Word and Sacrament that we remember Christ and our calling as a Church.

The church’s witness to the world is wrapped up in the way that Christians within the church act together as a community – from their worship to the way they deal with conflict among ourselves. We worship the Triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and we practice the way of forgiveness and gratitude.

These are the very core of our being and mission as a church; and these are the very things that our world so desperately needs to know. In a world where the worship of Me, Myself, and I is central and where the desire for revenge is normal, the church is called to stand as an alternative, ambassadors of a different way of life rooted in Jesus Christ.

This Christmas, let us remember who Jesus is and why he came so that we can be a community that treasures Christ’s words in our hearts and lives as his presence in a world starved for grace.

Amen.

[1] John Carroll, Luke, 85.

Christmas Sermon

A sermon delivered on Christmas Eve, 2015, at Christ Church, Tara, and St. Paul’s, Southampton.

I.

Every family has Christmas traditions; they are part of what makes the celebration so special and meaningful.

Growing up, one of my family’s Christmas traditions was watching the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. For those who haven’t seen it, the movie is a hilarious send-up of what the main character, Clark Griswold, calls “a good ole fashioned family Christmas”. However, despite his best efforts to create his ideal Christmas, Clark fails at every turn. Clark’s antics and the growing number of dysfunctional relatives who show up to stay in his increasingly cramped house only add to the chaos. Clark takes all the noise, mishaps and pandemonium in stride, because, after all, bigger is always better, right? The chaos increases throughout the movie until, at the very end, a SWAT team is breaking through every door and window of the house, destroying what little is left of Clark’s numerous Christmas decorations. A good ole fashioned family Christmas this is not.

You see, Clark is blinded by nostalgia. He tries to fabricate something that is simply not attainable: the perfect Christmas from an imagined past. However, he keeps being interrupted by the realities of everyday life and the messiness of human relationships. He is so fixated on what could be that he completely misses what is going on around him. Indeed, Clark’s attempts to make the perfect Christmas amplifies the chaos around him and yet, because of his idealism, he remains deaf. It seems that Clark’s motivation is to escape the chaos around him; indeed, the louder the chaos grows, the more unwilling and unable Clark is to face what is going on around him.

While his confusion, frustration and detachment is played to hilarious effect, I think the movie offers us a profound reminder that Christmas is not a season of nostalgia as often depicted by holiday songs and movies. It is easy to get caught up in the hustle-and-bustle as we prepare for Christmas; for some people, the noisiness and busyness of the season is what makes special and exciting.

Now before I get accused of being Scrooge or the Grinch, please hear me out. Yes, there is space for the excitement that Christmas brings. However, if our excitement is entirely focused on buying presents, visiting family members, preparing Christmas dinner, and creating a wonderful picturesque Christmastime, the chaos will deafen us to what God is doing in and through Christmas. Christmas is “not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice place”.[1] Rather, as Bishop N.T. Wright suggests, Christmas is a reminder that “the world is a shocking bad place”.[2] We need only consider the news of the past few months to remind ourselves of this.

Now, some of you might be ready to run me out of town for wrecking your Christmas; how dare I suggest that Christmas is a reminder of our world’s brokenness! Christmas is supposed to be a happy time full of good cheer and goodwill! The suggestion that Christmas is a reminder that our world is messed up is rather shocking. However, if we, like Clark Griswold, attempt to use Christmas as a way to ignore the chaos of our world, we will be unable and unwilling to accept what is going on around us and we will be unable to see and hear what God has done and is doing in our midst.

II.

The first Christmas some 2,000 years ago was not the idealized scene we often see memorialized in crèches and paintings.  Rather, it took place right in the thick of human history. St. Luke intentionally sets the nativity in historical context to underline this. We read of an imperial decree enacted by Caesar himself in order to determine how much money he will be able to raise through the taxation of nations under his rule. One does not have the option of ignoring an imperial decree; you can imagine the chaos this created within the Roman Empire. In the midst of this, Joseph is simply one man among hundreds of thousands following a command under the threat of punishment; they are all cogs in the machinery of the empire.

In a few short verses, St. Luke masterfully creates a background that describes the messiness of human history, a history written by the rich and powerful, but borne on the backs of the weak and powerless. Here we are reminded that the Israelites are a subjected people, conquered by military invasion. They have no autonomy; any rebellion will be quashed by Roman might. However, St. Luke is setting the stage for events that will create a revolution.

This is precisely why Advent is a time of preparation. We are not preparing by wrapping gifts and backing shortbread. In Advent, we are preparing for a revolution.[3] We are preparing for an event that will completely undermine and undo all earthly power, an event that will fundamentally change the course of human history, an event that exposes, interrupts, and overturns the chaos of our world. In Advent we are preparing for the unexpected and unfathomable arrival of God amidst the chaos of the world. This is God’s revolution.

God enters into our history as one of us. But God does not come as a warlord in command of an army; he comes as an infant, utterly dependant on his human parents. And despite this helplessness, there is, as a friend once put it, “danger in the manger”.[4] He is the one who will bring God’s kingdom, a kingdom that will overturn all human kingdoms, not by the violence of the sword but by what Archbishop Oscar Romero called “the violence of love”. This is God’s revolution.

This fundamentally challenges the traditional view of the serene pastoral setting of that first Christmas. Indeed, the silence of the night is broken by the noise of animals, the groans of childbirth, the cries of new life, and the choir of angels, praising and proclaiming that the baby born in manger is dangerous because he is “the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). He comes as an ordinary human to save ordinary people like you and me. This is God’s revolution.

I suppose it is possible that there was silence when the shepherds came to visit, a collective silence as all of creation holds its breath in holy reverence. But this silence is quickly punctuated by the joyful witness of the shepherds who “made known” to everyone who would listen about what they saw (cf. Lk. 2.20). They were so overjoyed were they that they went out into the sleepy village, waking any and all with in their proclamation of the gospel. And rather than be angry at being awoken to the mundane news that a baby was born that night, they “were amazed at what the shepherds told them” (Lk. 2.20): that this baby is the long-awaited Messiah! This is God’s revolution!

III.

We today should be no less amazed at the Christmas story: that the God who created the universe entered the chaos of human history in order to set us free. One of the things that our culture likes to tell us is that we should not put God into a box; we should not pretend to know about God or to make any definitive claims about God; that all claims about God, regardless of religion, are, in the end, all the same. However, the Christmas story reminds us that God put himself in a box and that this changes everything and challenges all our assumptions about who God is.

Like the shepherds, the witness of seeing God as a baby in a box should drive us into the world to proclaim that we have seen God and his name is Jesus. Jesus Christ is God’s body language; he is God in the flesh. The shepherds stand as a figure of the church; they anticipate the church’s mission: to go into the world telling everyone what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ, to tell everyone who will listen that God’s heavenly kingdom of peace and love will overcome earthly empires of death and suffering, to share the good news that Christ will bring an end to all earthly chaos and invites us to join his movement of love and reconciliation.

However, this good news can be difficult to hear amidst the noise of the season, amidst the sadness that many of us experience at Christmas. This good news impossible to proclaim if we are not prepared for God’s revolution, a revolution that beings in our hearts when he hear and accept the voice of the Holy Spirit. There is danger in the manger, but it can be easy to miss if we assume a noiseless Christmas removed from the messiness of human history, if we insist on a picture perfect Christmas celebration.

So, where does this leave us this Christmas Eve? Does this spoil our attempts to create a “good ole fashioned family Christmas”? The good news is that nothing can spoil Christmas because Christmas is not something that we can somehow make ‘perfect’. Not even the chaos and messiness of human history can interfere with what God is doing precisely because at the first Christmas God entered into the chaos and messiness in order to redeem it and to bring us a new way of being in the world. Christmas is already perfect because Jesus Christ took on human flesh and sets us free. This is the root of our Christmas joy; this is the reason for our celebration! “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness”.[5]

O come, let us adore the God in the box, the baby in the manger, who is Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1] N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth, p.2.

[2] N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth, p.2. Wright continues: “Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don’t light a candle in a room that’s already full of sunlight. You light a candle in a room that’s so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are. The light shine in the darkness, says St. John, and the darkness has not overcome it”.

[3] A point made by Bishop Robert Barron in one of his videos.

[4] Kudos to The Rev. Ian Martin.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God in the Manger.

Fouth Sunday of Advent (C): A Sermon

A sermon preached at Christ Church, Tara and St. Paul’s, Chatwsowth, on Sunday Dec. 20, 2015

Texts: Micha 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

I.

Although I have four children, this hardly makes me an expert about pregnancy. I witnessed the physical changes and the process of giving birth, but my experience of pregnancy remains second-hand. I simply do not and cannot know what it means to be pregnant – to grow a human life inside me, a life that is physically dependant on me and a genetic extension of me. Nevertheless, for men and women alike, a pregnant belly swollen with life inspires a sense of awe at the wonder of the female body and evokes images of tender intimacy between mother and child.

Pregnancy is also a time of waiting. While the first months are filled with excitement and anticipation, the final weeks seem like an eternity of waiting for the baby to finally make its exit from the cramped womb and enter into the world: when will this baby finally come out?! Pregnancy is, I think, an apt metaphor for the Advent season in which we are waiting for the arrival of Jesus. Yes, we await the coming of the baby in the manger and the joyful celebrations with family and friends. But in a world torn apart by warfare and suffering, by hunger and addiction, we also await the coming of the risen and ascended Lord to reconcile and renew all things. Waiting for Christmas is like the excited anticipation of early pregnancy; waiting for Christ’s return in our broken world is like the agonizing discomfort of late pregnancy: when will he finally return?

II.

            The scene of today’s gospel reading is an encounter captured in numerous paintings throughout history. The joyful affection shared between these two pregnant women offers a stirring portrait of familial intimacy. But more than that, this scene remains a turning point in human history. The mundane and the miraculous are beautifully intertwined demonstrating God’s sovereign care in his interactions in human history. Not only is Elizabeth post-menopausal, even when she was able to have children, her womb remained barren. Like Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah, Elizabeth, once unable to have children, now finds herself six months pregnant with a child promised to her by God. Then there is Mary, an un-wed teenager coming to help an older relative “negotiate the last trimester of an entirely unanticipated pregnancy”.[1] Without any indication offered in the text that Elizabeth even knows about Mary’s pregnancy, which is in the earliest stages, she nevertheless knows about the life developing in Mary’s womb. Elizabeth does not chastise Mary for sexual immorality as an unwed mother; rather, “filled with the Holy Spirit”, Elizabeth exclaims “with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’” (Lk. 1.42).

Two women: one getting on in years (cf. Lk. 1.7) and one just entering womanhood. Two women: both miraculously pregnant by the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that hovered over the face of the deep in the beginning and gave birth to creation (cf. Gen.1).

Indeed, the work of the Holy Spirit pervades the entire scene, from Elizabeth’s greeting, to John’s in utero somersaults, to Mary’s song of praise; the presence of the Holy Spirit transforms the mundane into the miraculous.

It is only through the Holy Spirit that Elizabeth is able to identify Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (Lk. 1.43; cf. 1. Cor. 12.3b). Even before Jesus is born, he is identified as Lord. That the baby in Mary’s womb is the promised Messiah is underlined by John’s joyful movements. Already John, who will become John the Baptizer, is preparing the way for the coming of the Lord and pointing to him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (cf. John 1.29).

It is through the Holy Spirit that Mary magnifies the Lord, telling of what God has done and will do through the child she bears.

It is through the Holy Spirit that, in the words of Ephrem the Syrian, a 4th century theologian that “Our Lord prepared his herald in a dead womb, to show that he came after a dead Adam. He vivified Elizabeth’s womb first, and the vivified the soil of Adam through his body”. God is in the business of creating life and restoring life. Adam stands as a figure of all humanity, ensnared as it is in sin. But God does not abhor human flesh; he sent himself as the Second Adam (cf. Rom. 5.12-21), took on human flesh and was born of a woman, in order to liberate human flesh, indeed all of created reality, through his very birth, death, and resurrection. The Holy Spirit works within humans, in all our physicality, to birth new life.

This is precisely why Mary is such an important figure in Christianity. While some Christians protest that others make too much of a fuss over Mary, the reality is that Mary stands as a powerful reminder of Jesus’ humanity; we cannot think of Mary apart from Jesus. Moreover, Mary stands as the culmination of the entire Old Testament. In her song, she summarizes God’s actions through the Old Testament and the new thing that God is doing through Jesus Christ. Through her very body, Mary carries and births the Word-made-flesh, the one who is the very fulfilment of the Law and Prophets. Mary stands as a representative of both Israel and the new community birthed by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

Mary’s faithfulness to God is key to understanding her centrality. Elizabeth, the older of the two, shows deference to Mary, her younger relation because of what God is doing through her. Both Mary and Elizabeth exhibit a radical trust of God, a trust that is clearly on display in today’s gospel reading. Mary’s song echoes the worship of her ancestors and anticipates the worship of the Church. Indeed, the Magnificat is still said or sung as part of Evening Prayer in the Anglican tradition. Mary’s song of faith is an expression of the Church’s faith. Therefore, the Church echoes Elizabeth’s exuberant greeting of Mary – “blessed are you among women” (Lk. 1.42).

Mary accepts God’s promises that she will bear and give birth to the Messiah; Mary trusts that “nothing is impossible with God” (Lk. 1.37). Mary’s faith stands in stark contrast to that of Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, whose faith faltered when the angel told him his barren and aged wife would bear and give birth to a son. The one whose name means “God has again remembered” (Jeffrey, 22), has completely forgotten that God has done and continues to do the impossible.

You see, faith is born of trusting in God’s promises without qualification. Although Mary was initially perplexed when Gabriel announced to Mary what was to come, her response is born of faith: “Let it be with me, according to your word” (Lk. 1.38). Mary accepts God’s word at face value; her faith opens her to giving birth to the Word itself. Her faith sings about God’s faithfulness to his promise, the promise she now bears in her womb. Mary’s ‘yes’ to God, her acceptance of her role as God’s servant, her willingness to participate in the new thing God was doing, was the beginning of new life for the entirety of creation. Mary’s ‘yes’ to God gave birth to God’s ‘yes’ to humanity some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.[2] Mary’s ‘yes’ ensured the means by which Christ was born as a human baby into human history.

III.

The first two chapters of Luke open with two miraculous births, that of John and Jesus. Moreover, the opening chapters of Luke are full of worship – the songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon in the temple – and witnesses to Christ – Elizabeth’s greeting, the shepherd’s sharing what they saw in the manger, and the prophetess Anna’s recognition of Jesus as the promised Messiah. In first century Palestine, the testimony of women was inadmissible in court (Jeffrey, 19). However, in today’s gospel reading, the worship and witness of the women is brought to life by the Holy Spirit. The same is true of the testimony of the Shepherd’s on Christmas. The testimony of shepherds was, like that of women, inadmissible in court. And yet, Luke tells of how the shepherds, following their encounter with Jesus in the manger, went out and “made known what they had been told them about this child” (Lk. 2.17): that this new born baby is the Savior of the world. . St. Luke’s point is perfectly clear: the Holy Spirit makes our worship of and witness to Jesus Christ possible and it is precisely because of the work of the Holy Spirit that all testimony about Jesus Christ as the Messiah is equally valid regardless of the social status of the one who testifies.

The Holy Spirit stirs up our worship and propels us to witness to what God is doing in our midst. Through eyes of faith, we will see God birthing new life in impossible ways and in impossible situations; we will see God working the miraculous through the seemingly mundane. We do not need to look far to see God at work; if we, like Mary, say ‘yes’ to God, opening ourselves to his plan for us, we will begin to see signs of new life and rich fruit being born in our lives.

The Church is a community of people chosen and called by God to be those who give birth to Christ in the world and to prepare the world for his second Advent. In a world where death reigns, we are called to be a people who bear witness to the new life that God makes possible. This requires the kind of faith exhibited by Mary, a faith that does not get caught up in the limitations of what might be possible for God or calculates the potential risks, but a faith that trusts in God’s faithfulness to remain in our midst.

God is in the business of bringing new life. As we both celebrate Christ’s birth and yearn for his second coming, let us renew our faith in God and reflect upon the ways in which we can say ‘yes’ to God in our lives.

Where are you, right now, ignoring or resisting God’s call on your life? Where do you need to make room for God to bring you his new life? Where do you see evidence of God working in your life? How are we as Christ’s earthly body witnessing to and embodying the new life made possible by the Holy Spirit? Where do we see the fruit of this new life?

This Advent and Christmas season, may we discern the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our midst as it moves among us that we might be a people who faithfully proclaim to all the world the good news that because of Jesus Christ, new life is possible, even in impossible situations. Amen.

[1] David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke, Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012, 32.

[2] To be clear, I am not suggesting that the possibility of the Incarnation hinged upon Mary’s ‘yes’; the Incarnation was part of God’s plan from the outset of creation (i.e.pre-Fall). Jesus’ birth was according to and a fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.

The Second Sunday in Advent (C): A Sermon

A sermon preached on Dec. 6, 2015 at St. Paul’s (Southampton) at a joint service of the Anglican Regional Ministry of Saugeen Shores, Tara & Chatsworth

Texts: Malachi 3.1-4; Philppians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6

 

I.

The human lot in life is one of perpetual waiting. There is not a time in our lives when we are not waiting for something, whether it is for the meal to arrive or for the sermon to end. Indeed, the whole of humanity has been waiting for what seems like an eternity for liberation from suffering, and death. We need only consider the wreckage of history as a clear testimony to humanity’s bondage to sin. The news of the past month alone is enough to confirm our brokenness.

Where are we to find hope in the darkness of our suffering? Is hope even possible or is hope merely the result of delusional thinking in the face of the inevitable?

Despair and cynicism are, it seems, the only options we have. Of course, optimism is a possibility, but such the power of positive thinking often rings hollow, even for the perpetually cheerful in the face of darkness.

Despair, cynicism, and optimism are all, in their own ways, coping mechanisms born of the assumption that humans are simply left to their own devices in the world; we are left with the choice to either try to make something of ourselves, be it through our cunning or resources, or to accept our fate that life is short and we are all going to die. We can either face our future with stoic resignation or sunny optimism while we watch those we love die and as the world around us burns.

And yet, there is a quiet yet insistent voice that speaks of promise and hope, if we have ears to hear it.

It is an ancient yet urgent voice that continues to sound throughout the cacophony of our modern world, if we are willing to listen.

It is a voice that echoes through the ages, the voice of God himself, promising that suffering and death do not get the final say; a voice that speaks of hope and life amidst darkness and depair.

Despite the stories of exile, chaos, and destruction throughout Scripture, this voice remains constant: God will intervene, decisively and completely, to undo the power of sin and death, to restore creation to its original goodness.

And yet, we, like the ancient Israelites, wait for the fruition and fulfilment of the promises of this voice. We, like the ancient Israelites, so easily tune out this voice when the brutality of reality roars in our ears. We have been waiting so long, the voice must be wrong or, even worse, lying. The world is so dark, the voice must be unable to do what it promises. Bait taken, the trap of despair and cynicism snaps shut.

After all, how long can one wait for the improbable, let alone, the impossible? Hope is for the naïve.

II.

The book of Malachi stands at the end of the Old Testament. God’s people are still waiting for the promised and long-awaited Messiah. Tired of waiting, God’s people turn away from God, time and again, in the attempt to manufacture reality to their liking, assuming they are left to their own devices, worshipping idols and flirting with the aspirations of human empires. The result is always the same: in their unfaithfulness to the covenant, God’s people find themselves caught up in the machinations of the world where the innocent and powerless bear the scars of brutality and suffering. God’s people would rather live life according to their own devices and desires rather than under God’s caring sovereignty and promised faithfulness because these seem to take too long.

Despite their unfaithfulness, God remains faithful to his people, a faithfulness evidenced by God’s steadfast promise to deliver his people from their self-imposed bondage, a promise that is repeated over and over again throughout Scripture. The diversity of voices in Scripture intone the same promise: God will send a deliverer, a Messiah. And so God waits patiently for his people to hear his voice and return to him.

God’s patient waiting requires that God’s people patiently wait for the fruition and fulfilment of God’s promise. And waiting is so hard to do, particularly in a culture where there are a myriad of voices demanding our attention: the ring of the telephone, the blare of advertising, the most recent e-mail, the latest scandal in the news. So caught up in the false urgency of our culture, we fall yet again into a cycle of unfaithfulness, cynicism and despair. We become anxious about the future, striving to bend it to our demands, desperate to keep the darkness at bay and to avoid the inevitable. We simply do not have the time to attend to God’s voice or the inclination to trust his promises. Life is short, so we must get on with it while we can. Who has time to wait?

And yet, our lives are defined by waiting. Moreover, our lives are affected by the manner in which we wait; we wait either impatiently or patiently.

Frustrated with the reality that the world does not operate on our preferred timeline, we become impatient. This impatience, in turn, often breeds hopelessness and cynicism as we become aware that we cannot bend time according to our will. Impatience is ultimately born of the selfish demand that the world unfold in the way that I want it.

Patience, on the other hand, “is the virtue of waiting. It involves waiting for all things to reach their end: waiting for others, as well as for ourselves, to take the time they need, and above all waiting for God to fulfil his purposes in his own good time. Patience is the virtue which encounters frustration with a calm and steady frame, waiting steadfastly for time to be fulfilled” (John Webster, The Grace of Truth, 243). Patience is born of the realization that God will use whatever befalls us, whether good or ill, for his good purposes; patience and perseverance go hand-in-hand.

As Christians, patience is “trustful confidence about our lives” (Webster, 246). This patience is born of the confidence that “he who began a good world in [us] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1.6). Christian patience is rooted in the trust and hope that “time has a telos, a goal” (Webster, 246); the goal of time is the first and second Advent of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Church is always ready and willing to wait patiently. The Church does so because it rests in the assurance that time itself belongs to God.

As God’s people, we are called to witness to the telos of time. The prophetic purpose of the Church is to proclaim that despite all seeming evidence to the contrary, that the world is and will always be “the place of God’s compassion and mercy” (Webster, 247).  This proclamation is not born of frenzied urgency and it does not require that we attempt to shout above the noise of the world. Born of the confidence that God is faithful to God’s promises, our proclamation echoes the quiet yet insistent voice of those who’ve gone before us; our proclamation harmoniously reverberates with the prophets and apostles, the melody of which is the voice of God himself, Jesus Christ.

Therefore, Christian waiting is not a passive resignation to our fate, but it is an active and joyful anticipation of God’s promised future. Indeed, amidst the darkness of the world, the Church celebrates as if the fulfilment of time were already a fait accompli. Indeed, with the first Advent of Christ, we have the assurance that God’s promised future is already moving toward us. Through Scripture and Sacrament we are both reminded of and participate in this future.

The first Advent of Christ also means that the waiting of the Church is undergirded by the expectation of the unexpected. The fact that God would come to earth as a baby as the promised Messiah is utterly unexpected. That God would call an assortment of misfits, rejects, ne’er-do-wells, and sinners to proclaim his message of liberation is utterly unexpected. That God would call someone as strange as John the Baptizer to prepare the way for the coming of Christ is utterly unexpected. And so the Church patiently waits for the Second Advent, expecting the unexpected as harbingers and signs of God’s promised future breaking into our present.

Prophets and spiritual sages have and will continue to come and go throughout human history, each claiming a new revelation, a new form of enlightenment. The Church can continue to expect prophets who claim to speak on behalf of God, offering the latest in spiritual innovation in some seemingly unexpected ways. However, if the patient proclamation of the Church is to remain faithful to the one who sends it, the Church must always point to Christ.

In the early 16th century, German artist Matthias Grünewald painted a famous work known as the ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’ depicting Jesus’ crucifixion. One of the most noticeable things about the painting is the finger of John the Baptist. John stands on the right side of the painting holding a Bible with his index finger pointing to Christ on the cross. The message is unmistakeable: the message of John the Baptizer and of the entirety of Scripture point to Jesus Christ.

crucifixion Grunewald

If the Church is to remain faithful to its calling to patiently proclaim the gospel, it must clearly echo the shared testimony of the prophets and apostles as attested by Scripture. Only in pointing to the scandal and mystery of the manger and the glory of the cross, is the Church able to fulfil its purpose to prepare the way of the Lord

III.

Like John the Baptizer before us, the Church is called to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Like John the Baptizer, we are called to be a voice crying out in the wilderness of our culture, a culture marked by despair and cynicism. We proclaim that the forgiveness of sins is possible and that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk. 3.6), the God who came to earth and took on the flesh of a human baby; the God who will come again to renew and reconcile all things.

The question is: in a world scarred by brokenness, are we ready to patiently wait for Christ’s Second Advent with the confidence that God will remain faithful to his promise?

In a culture marked by both despair and false optimism, are we willing to wait with hopefully anticipation, joyfully proclaiming the good news that Jesus Christ is the fruition and fulfilment of time?

Come, let us wait with patience and perseverance, celebrating all that God has done and will do and let us share with all the world the hope that is in us because of Jesus Christ.

Let us pray.

Father in heaven, we confess that amidst the brokenness of our world that it is easy for us to lose hope. Despair and cynicism are constantly waiting in the shadows. When the chaos of the world and the noise of our anxiety deafen us, help us to hear your voice. Grant us patience and perseverance that we may rest in your promises and proclaim to the world the life and hope that you offer. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.