December 9, 2018

Luke 3:2-6

During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region of Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

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When I am in a large city and find myself downtown there is one voice I expect to hear. There is always a man holding some large sign and shouting at the top of his lungs, “repent you sinners, turn back to God or else!” I assume these loud men are imitating John the Baptist, they feel they are doing the Lord’s work. A large part of the message offered is one of fear, if you do not repent the consequences are dire. The offer is made to save those like us while there is still time. These men truly believe they are saving souls, rescuing the lost, offering the answer we have all been waiting for.

One afternoon when I was living in Ottawa I asked one of these men who was using a megaphone if I could ask him some questions. I think he was relieved, it’s cold in Ottawa in December and I offered to buy him coffee. Over our hot beverage I asked him what it was we were being saved from and being saved for. He didn’t seem to follow, so I tried again, “assuming we don’t repent what happens and if we do repent what happens then?” He pondered, offered a few verses of scripture, all from the Book of Daniel and Revelations, and then explained that those who did not accept the offer of salvation from God would go to eternal damnation and those who did would be ushered into heaven where they would await Jesus’ return to earth and a holy reunion thereafter.

“Why would God do this?” I asked. I wanted to know the intent of the Creator, why the God of Genesis would bring us and Creation to life, what was the purpose of this offering of life? My loud friend thought the question absurd, the answer obvious, God offered us life but with conditions, live by God’s covenant and inherit eternal life, choose not to live in that way and be sent to Hell for eternity.

I recall another voice, a quieter voice, I heard when I lived in Ottawa, that of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche. A lifelong Roman Catholic, professor of philosophy and decorated veteran, Vanier also had thoughts about repentance. At a public lecture Vanier was asked about the human condition, sin and eternal life. Vanier spoke about the Book of Genesis and its references to God creating life in different forms. Vanier believed God made everything in an effort to build holy relationship and that the first humans were placed in a garden with all the life they would need for happiness. Only when humans chose to depart from the abundance offered, to grasp for more than what God has supplied, did the troubles begin.

Vanier thought the public figure of John the Baptist was a voice calling for a repentance of change, a shift of perspective, a move to accept what God had offered and be happy. Vanier identified Luke’s vision of peace as having its roots in the Hebrew word shalom which also means harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. In other words, our completeness, our sense of finding our true identity comes in our relationship to the God who first gave us life. Peace comes knowing I am loved by my God, being loved by my neighbor, being loved in and through Creation. That is enough. That is plenty. That is sufficient.

But a system or worldview that either finds expression in your own sense of superiority to others or in your sense inferiority to others does not bring lasting peace. How can it? If you believe you must have what others don’t you will strive to take, manipulate and consolidate. If you believe you can’t have what others possess you resign yourself to a life of servitude, surrender and hiding your light under a bushel.

Listen to the themes expressed in Luke’s early chapters. God is suspicious of power and has a preference for the marginalized, a major theme of Mary's song. The angel came to Zechariah, not Herod the Great (1:5). God was with Joseph and Mary, not Caesar and Quirinius (2:1-7). Women are quite prominent (Elizabeth, Mary, Anna) in Luke’s stories. And perhaps the central point of our Gospel story this week is the exhortation of Isaiah, through John the Baptist, to "prepare the way of the Lord." (3:4)

Later, Luke in Acts will tell us--and often--that the early Christians were known as "followers of the way." (Some examples: Acts 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14; 24:22.) This way--the way of God--stands in sharp and antithetical contrast to the ways of worldly power exemplified by Tiberius, Herod, Pilate and all the rest. During the time of Pilate, much of the civil administration of the region was run through the Temple, though Pilate was the one who chose the high priest. The early Christians, of course, would have identified Pilate with the execution of Jesus, as would Christians today. Luke's mention of Pontius Pilate at this early juncture raises the level of tension in the story.

Luke-Acts is not a running political commentary, a call to overthrow one system with another. Rather these texts are a redefinition of peace, to correct and change the stories we tell ourselves, that we find our identity less in the power we yield or the power we serve and more in the enjoyment we find in God’s abundant creation. To find our way back to the original covenant, to reclaim the story of Creation and God’s love for all, this is Luke’s vision embodied in the public figure of John the Baptist.

After Luke runs through this litany of big shots, he says a startling thing: "A word of God came to be upon John”. A "word of God" did not come to any of these powerful, corrupt, pompous, bizarre, rich characters living in high style in elaborate palaces. It came rather to a mere "son of Zechariah" somewhere out in the "wilderness." The "wilderness" held rich associations for Israel. The wilderness had been the place where God had led the slaves of Egypt and supernaturally attended to them. There are no maps or guides to a wilderness. You go in the wilderness and you may never be heard from again. Or you go to the wilderness to find what it is you haven’t been able to locate in your familiar surroundings. If the “norm” of your life only lifts up power and powerlessness perhaps it’s time to go to the wilderness and see who can be heard there.

For Luke, the people needed a "turning" from the way of power and powerlessness. Indeed, John's purpose was precisely to call people to God's new path: "He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God (1:16)." For Luke, repentance and "turning" are God's work (Acts 5:31). The word we generally translate as "forgiveness" means "release," "deliverance," "remission," "setting free." This change brings release from these, and any other, forms of bondage. It means "fresh start." Imagine spending all of your life feeling powerless and worthless and suddenly those crooked paths get straightened and God’s love lifts you up and you feel connected to that covenant love God offered in Genesis.

Or imagine spending your whole life feeling powerful and successful and feeling the only reason people love you has to do with your status. Imagine how hard you will try to keep that appearance up, to maintain that privilege. It is exhausting and often at the end, when the power begins to diminish, people of privilege experience deep malaise and sadness. Then suddenly those rough ways are made smooth, and there emerges a tenderness to relationship, a compassion to one’s life and no longer are you striving for something that can’t last.

And then we hear those magical words, "All flesh shall see the salvation of God". Luke places John in the context of the prophetic tradition of Israel--specifically, the great prophet Isaiah. The Isaiah text (40:3-5) is about the return of the Lord to Zion. When a ruler visited a city, the people were to repair the road of approach and decorate it to herald that ruler. In the case of Isaiah, the ruler is God, and the landscape is to be radically and utterly transformed--low places filled, high places made low, the crooked made straight, the rough made smooth. In our case the birth of a Saviour occasions a promise to reorient our lives to a new vision, a covenant based on relationship, community and the power of exercising our God-given gifts.

The mission of God came through the Hebrew people, but its scope is all of humanity.  Striking a strongly universal note, Luke says that everyone "will see the salvation of God." May all of us, all of us, know how gifted and loved we are. May all of us, all of us, know how abundant God’s love is for us. And may all of us, all of us, know that same love, that same abundance, is for the powerful, the powerless, anyone and everyone. Peace be with you! Amen.

December 2, 2018

What difference does Advent make to you? Be honest, every year we decorate this church, we place these candles up front by the Communion table and we plan ahead for events like Old Fashion Christmas, the Living Nativity and of course the Christmas Eve celebrations. And then…it all comes down. I am no cynic, I know there are moments of grace, when God’s presence is overwhelming and real to you. When I ask people about their most spiritual experiences many will refer back to a Christmas Eve gathering and how warm, secure and affectionate they felt about…everything…everyone and they wish they could feel that way all the time. But if that is the extent of our winter spiritual highlights why do we as a church go to all trouble to experience the four weeks of Advent, the season of waiting and anticipation?

The ecclesiastic planners of the Revised Common Lectionary have inserted this apocalyptic reference to Jesus’ return into our selections this morning. Note these words: Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.

Once again Jesus uses an agricultural reference to tell us a story about ourselves. Remember the vast majority of people in Jesus’ time lived intimately attached to the land. So when Jesus says that a fruit tree that sprouts leaves is giving us a sign he means that when things are coming to life the Spirit of the living God is present. Further, note that in Jesus’ time there would no sense of genetically manipulating a living thing to be anything other than it has always been. A farmer in Jesus’ time would not consider him/herself the essential agent of growth. Rather the farmer would consider her/himself more of a secondary player, someone who watches the miracle happen and then distributes the miracle to and with others.

That is how we know the kingdom is near, the Spirit of God is actively working in our midst, when we see things coming to life.

Note the second portion of this Gospel story, that this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Those who witnessed to Jesus’ resurrection believed in their hearts that he would not only return to the women at the tomb and to the disciples breaking bread at Emmaus but also to them. Thus these texts were specifically about waiting for Jesus’ return, when the kingdom would take greater shape and form and replace the world as it was. Such hope kept the early church alive and moving forward.

But alas it was not to be. Not then, not now. I run into people all the time who point to these passages of scripture and tell me that Jesus is coming soon. My response is simple. They may be right but what would make a believer today so sure it would happen now? All of the calamities that the scriptures point to as signs of the return are in fact events that have happened throughout human history. When I was a boy I would watch some of the TV preachers who would suggest that these were “the last times” and suggest they knew this because of the coming battle between good and evil, between the United States and Israel and… Over time the beast, 666, the evil one, changed from the Soviet Union, to Iran, Iraq, to…

I believe there is always a crisis somewhere. What remains unique and arresting for Christians are those signs of new life, like leaves sprouting from a fruit tree, when God is doing something new and life-giving in front of us, and our response must surely be to give thanks and participate by sharing the abundance of new life that has been offered. Offered, by the way, as a free act of grace, unconditionally, a gift, for us and others to share.

Karoline Lewis, a Biblical scholar at Luther Seminary says of this text, “This passage is profoundly relevant, profoundly timely, not because it proves Jesus’ ability to point to our future, but because from it and through it we hear the truth of our human brokenness. In this kind of instance, the Bible creates its own relevancy, when we realize that it gives witness to the sin of the world -- the kind of sin that maligns the other for the sake of a cause, that generalizes the acts of the few, the nature of sin that insists on blame. In other words, this is one of those texts that once read will resonate with present reality because it gives us a vocabulary to articulate what we see as opposite of what God wants.”

In the midst of this brokenness, of this state of human society in decay and sin, where we are maligning one another, generalizing about one another and blaming one another come those sprouting leaves in places we least expected, in ways only God knows we need it, in people we would never expect to birth new life.

The world in which our listeners live will say, “see, Jesus was right.” It will testify, Christianity is right, therefore. You can’t justify some idea of a Christianity “I told you so.” And you can’t claim the opposite -- that Jesus is not speaking to our time and place. Jesus is, not to our specific circumstances, but into the ways in which powers of the world can take hold, how it seems that the power of God has been compromised, and the sense that what we know and what we trust seem to be crumbling around us. Yes, Jesus speaks the truth, not about our future, but about our condition, the world’s condition, that never really changes. The church has far, far too much baggage, too much sin that was preached as righteousness, to be taken at its word. We dare not say, “there is the sign” and now all of you get on your knees and pay homage to it. If we do that we will be viewed as just another institution that mistook its privilege for God’s favor.

No, the only place for the church in these times is one of humility and yet conviction, a manner of speech and witness that is both prophetic and confessional. We can say, we must say, there is a sign of our living God, there is a sign of new life, there is a sign that our God lives and straightens out our crooked spaces. And so therefore, we must then preach a hope that is grounded not in an empire, but in the truth that God knows, that is, and that we can choose to live -- a truth that chooses hope instead of fear; that believes in divine righteousness instead of self-justification; that knows God is our justice, our righteousness because God shows us that the way of righteousness is not for the sake of the self but for the sake of the other.

I have to believe that in saying these words, Jesus was not predicting our future but stating the truth of life as we know it. In that I take comfort and peace. The promise is that God created a different life for us, which is why we have an Advent. This is where the liturgical season can come to your aid, where the liturgical season makes so much sense. Advent is full of the present and not yet of God’s kingdom and the signposts along the way. Advent speaks to the noise and confusion between our reality and God’s sprouting new life. Advent helps us to wait but wait with open eyes and open hearts for what God is doing right here, right now.

The signs will be obvious. You won’t be able to miss them. Whether with extraordinary or ordinary signs, we should be attentive to the signs of divine presence. When we don’t prepare ourselves properly, fear and despair will take hold. When we aren’t aware of our surroundings and the resources God provides then we put ourselves in a position to be manipulated and used. We shut our hearts and minds to the needs and concerns of others.  We become insular. But when we’re able to look at the world through the eyes of God we can weather the storms and embrace our calling.

I have praying all week about this text and the signs that are around us. Back in Jesus’ times one way to determine who belonged where was the Table. Those of privilege and power sat together, those who were considered “other” didn’t. They didn’t belong. One reason Jesus was considered such a disrupter was the company he kept, the people he ate and drank with. (The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ – Luke 7:34) God’s sign to the people of Jesus time and the people of the early church was whom ate with whom. And the people were paying attention.

Over these last several weeks our church has been filling up with new faces. All of us arrive here with different needs, different stories and different expressions of faith. Have you taken the time to meet one of these new folks? In our culture there is not the same hierarchy expressed in our common meals BUT in our time there remains a strong sense of being with those who are like us, those we know. In our lonely times one sign of new life, of God’s presence, is a new face, a new set of hands, a new story. Around this Table on this Communion Sunday please be aware of the sign God is sending us. S/he is standing right beside you. S/he is a sign. S/he is a gift. The kingdom of God is indeed very near. Amen.

November 25, 2018

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November 11, 2018

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November 4, 2018

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October 21, 2018

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October 14, 2018

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October 7, 2018

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September 30, 2018

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September 16, 2018

Jesus asked his disciples, “And you—what are you saying about me? Who am I?” Peter gave the answer: “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” He then began explaining things to them: “It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive...

September 9, 2018

Sandra Hack Polaski, Professor of New Testament at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Virginia, shares this insight about our James reading this morning, “Nearly every one of us who sits on a platform or in a choir loft during the worship service has at some point seen a stranger entering the service late...

August 5, 2018

About ten years ago I was asked to attend a gathering in Toronto of United Church congregations that were experiencing significant numerical growth. I was out in the suburbs at that time and our church had begun to focus its considerable gifts and enthusiasm around the mission of outreach...

June 17, 2018

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June 10, 2018

A good friend of mine recently conducted a survey of churches in his small city. He called all of the churches, big and small, all denominations, and he called late at night so no one would be in the office. My friend wanted to hear all of the voicemails, and he did...

June 3, 2018

In our lesson from Samuel, we hear about a boy called to fill the vacuum left by priests who had so thoroughly abandoned their calling that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (1 Sam. 3:1). The sons of Eli were blaspheming God by using their position to fleece people who were just trying to worship God...