Guilt, Shame, and the Holy Spirit.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of teaching a man, about my own age, who had been serving as a Pentecostal preacher since the age of 16.  His inquiring mind, his love of scripture, and his yearning to be united to the Body of Christ across time and space led him to Anglicanism, and he was being trained to serve as a US Army chaplain.  One morning at chapel we had heard Acts 19 read, as we have here this morning.  On the walk across campus to breakfast, he ran to catch up. 

“Padre”, he called out, “I got it figured out”. 
“Oh, what have you got figured out now?”.
“I figured out why so many good, church-going folks know all the right answers, know how to pray, know how to read their Bibles, but can’t bring themselves to just trust it, to just live by it, you know?”

“Padre, sure they were baptized, but they were like those disciples in Ephesus.  You can ask them anything, they can tell you the Creed, they can tell you what Jesus taught about forgiveness and sacrifice, but you ask them “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”, and they’re gonna answer just like those disciples: “no sir, we have no even heard that there is a Holy Spirit to be received”.

I think he was on to something.

I am a child of God.

We’ve been speaking about what it means to be a child of God, that glorious truth that, though we aren’t born God’s children by nature, we’re all invited to become God’s children by adoption. 

Last time we spoke about what that means: that when God adopts us out of the broken system of this fallen world, he wants to re-shape us as we patiently (and sometimes painfully) unlearn the self-preservation and defensiveness we’ve picked up along the way; we picked them up as coping mechanisms, but all they accomplish is to cut us off, to drive us further and further away from others, and deeper and deeper into our own little world, where all we can see are the walls we have built with our own pain and pride.  The deepest desire of our loving, perfect Heavenly Father is for us to learn what it means to be his child, to learn to be held, to learn to speak the truth, giving praise to the one to whom it’s due, and being quick to repent when we miss the mark, and to finally learn what it is to be loved, not because of what you do or what you’ve accomplished or what you’ve done, but simply because of who you’ve become: a child of God through faith in Jesus.

And, of course, the way that adoption is done, the outward sign of the spiritual grace of that is given, is baptism, which takes us to our lessons today.

Water and the Holy Spirit

Now it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t invent the general idea of baptism, a ritual washing to mark a turning from sin and a fresh start.  No, after all, it’s one of those perfectly natural signs: water washes away dirt, so it’s the perfect symbol for washing away the dirt we cannot see.

That’s the idea of a ritual bath found across religions and cultures, and it’s also the idea of ritual cleansing in the Old Testament, and the baptism of repentance that John the Baptist preached.  And don’t get me wrong, repentance and the decision to start fresh is definitely a good thing.

But there’s a problem: unless we accept the gift of the Holy Spirit, unless we allow God the Spirit to take up residence in us, to make us His temple, to guide and direct us as we trust – one day at a time, one step at a time – that we can put down our defenses and our instincts, that we can stop clinging to pride and pain, that we can let go of the things that define us and learn to answer instead to the new name we received at our adoption; unless we’re willing to do that, unless we’re willing to accept that new identity, all the ritual washing in the world has one fatal flaw: if we’re trusting in ourselves, then when we come up out of the water, we’re trusting in the same one who failed before.  You can do it a hundred times, you could do it every day, but what changes, if we refuse to let go of the pain, pride, and self-preservation that defines the children of this broken world?

And that’s where Christian baptism changes everything.

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”, Paul asked?
“No, we didn’t even know that there is a Holy Spirit!”.

And that changes everything.

Guilt or Shame?

We drag a lot of dead weight around with us, so much that the world convinces us that it’s a good thing: we’ll call it ‘experience’ or ‘lessons learned’, as we drag a lifetime of pain, guilt, and shame around, weighing down each new opportunity or new relationship with all the “lessons” of the past, and then wondering why we’re so tired, why new opportunities and new beginnings turn out the same way the last ones did.

And I think here is the time to make an important distinction: we’re not just carrying the pain of the past; we’re not just carrying the guilt for what we’ve done or left undone; there’s another heavier load, much harder to shake: shame.

The good news of the Gospel makes it very clear that guilt and shame aren’t the same thing.  They’re very different loads, and unless we’re willing to lay them both down, we’re choosing to go it on our own rather than living into the new identity we have as a new creation, forgiven and loved in spite of our past failings, in spite of our current struggles; forgiven and loved not because of what I’ve accomplished, but because Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, and Christ in me is the hope of glory. 

Let’s be clear: as Christians, we believe guilt is a gift.  Yes, you heard that right.  Guilt, the knowledge or understanding that a thought, a word, an action, or silence, or inaction fell short of what was expected as those who love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and who love your neighbour as yourself, is indeed a gift.  Guilt is that understanding, that acknowledgement that “yeah, I missed the mark there.”  Guilt tells us that we need to repent and be forgiven, to hear the message “your sins have been taken away; go and sin no more”, that next time we’re in that situation, now we know we ought to act differently.

Guilt, in that sense, is wonderfully productive.  It gives us our bearings as we learn patiently to model our lives after Christ, and when we fail – and we will – to repent and return to God.

But, in our everyday speech, we confuse guilt and shame – and it’s deadly.

Shame is a lie.  Shame is deception, leading us further from the truth.  And it sounds like this: shame tells us not to focus on the thing we did or said or didn’t do; no, shame tells us to focus on the one who failed.  Guilt says “you lashed out in anger, you need to apologize”.  Shame says, “what sort of person can’t even control their own emotions?”  Shame says, “you’re a hypocrite”.  Shame says, “what sort of a sister are you?  Why even bother, you failed before, you’ll fail again”.

It’s familiar, but it’s an ancient lie.  God says ‘I love you and I want to be with you, I’ve given you these boundaries for your protection’, and right off the bat the serpent says, ‘huh, I think he’s holding something back, don’t you?’.  And there, right in the first pages of scripture, yes there’s guilt – no question, Adam and Eve did the one thing they were told not to do, there’s guilt and there’s consequences.  But then what happens?  Do they repent, do they return to the Lord humbly and admit their failing?

No – it’s the start of the pattern that plagues us all to this day. What’d they do?  They ran and hid.  And how did they feel?  For the first time, they felt ashamed.  And that shame caused them to try and put up a wall, to clothe themselves with something to cover their true identity; the shame caused them to run from the one who loved them and who would continue to love them and continue to provide for them and who promised to save them from their sin, all because the shame told them the lie that they needed to run and hide rather than repent and return.

Shame is always destructive.  And it’s what makes this broken world go around.  In every generation, we learn shame from our parents, as we learn not just to obey, but to fear hearing that we’re a disappointment.  In school, at work, shame is the quickest and easiest way to put someone in their place and keep them there.  Shame is so darn effective precisely because it takes the focus off of what we’ve done, and shifts the spotlight instead on who we are: “what kind of person, sister, brother, son, daughter would fail like you’ve failed?”  Shame says your worth is defined by your failings.

Have you received The Holy Spirit?

And this is where Paul’s question to those disciples, those students of Jesus, is so important.

We’re all called to repent, to acknowledge our faults and confess them to God and to one another.  And that’s hard enough – shame makes us wants to hide and put on another layer to cover it up.  But, if we confess that failing, shame is there once more, that annoying voice in the back of your mind: “hmm, you’ve confessed that one before, haven’t you?  Didn’t work last time.  Won’t work this time; you’re a failure.”

And, you know what?  If we’re being honest, if we’re talking about our own identity as a person bounced around in a broken world, maybe the shame’s right.

Except, in Christ, we are a new creation.  We are given a new name, a new identity, we’ve been made children of God by adoption.  That Father lovingly and patiently reaches out – but it’s up to us if we’ll finally accept our new home, our new family, or if, in spite of being adopted, in spite of all the love and hope and encouragement given to us, we’ll stubbornly continue to bear the weight, the bumps and bruises and scars, of who we used to be, back when self-preservation and pride were the layers we put on to hide our shame.

But the great solution to shame is found right there in the baptismal promises.  Think about it: will you repent and return?  Will you love your neighbour as yourself?  Will you trust in God?  What’s the response?  Not “I will”.  No.  The whole point is that I’m no longer on my own, I’m learning to be loved and to trust in one who won’t let me down.  What’s the response?  I will, with God’s help.

In baptism we don’t just symbolically wash away our failings.  No, we are a new creation, made a son or daughter of God, and God the Holy Spirit comes to dwell with and in us. 

Whatever we’ve done, whatever our struggles, whatever the real hurt or pain or scars that we bear, the same God who wanted to be present with Adam and Eve at creation comes to be present with us, making us, even our crippled and wrinkled bodies a temple of the Holy Spirit. 

Does it change our guilt when we fail?  No – in fact, it should make us all the more aware, urging us towards love of God and neighbour.  But, if we can just accept that gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, the lie of shame begins to melt away.

Shame says “What kind of a person would do that”.  The Spirit says you are a child of God, that even while we were yet sinners, Christ died to save you from your sin.

Shame says, “you’re a failure”.  The Spirit says to rejoice even in our failings, because Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, and God the Father will work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.

Shame says, “who do you think you are?  You deserve the pain”.  The Spirit says you are loved; Christ calls out “come to me all who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest”.  And deep within our broken, bruised, and scarred bodies, the Spirit cries out – ‘God is faithful!  You are a temple of the Holy Spirit!  You are a child of God.  What we shall be has not yet been revealed, but what we do know is that, by God’s grace, we shall be like Christ, and we shall see him as he is.  (1 John 3:1-2).

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?

God is faithful – He’s sent us his free gift.  Our task is just to accept it, and begin, perhaps for the first time, listening to that voice of truth. 

To God be the glory, now and forever more.

Children by Adoption: learning to be loved.

God the Father destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.

I speak to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This morning we hear once again this important, even central idea that we are adopted as God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ, expressed in the waters of baptism and the desire to live a new life following the commandments of God, and following the path of Christ, our Saviour.

It’s such an important idea that the Church in its’ wisdom has had us hear the first chapter of John’s gospel no less than 3 times – 4 if you include morning prayer – in just the past 3 weeks.  I think that should tell us that it’s worth unpacking, that there’s more here than meets the eye.

Who are God’s Children?

The first thing these lessons make clear is, admittedly, a little uncomfortable for us to think about.  It’s certainly not one of those warm, comfortable words that we like to live by, and it’s probably not the sort of thing you want to adopt for a church motto, but that doesn’t make it any less true, or any less important for understanding our mission and ministry in the world.  That uncomfortable truth that we’re faced with in these lessons is that, in spite of popular sentiments left over from the 60s, we are not all God’s children.

And let’s be clear – this is not about judging anyone, and we must be quick to acknowledge that only God can know the sincerity of a person’s faith.  But it really confuses the good news of the Gospel – in fact, the whole of scripture just doesn’t make sense – if we’ve picked up that non-Christian notion that everybody, by default, is a child of God. 

God the Father is the source of all life, the maker of all things in heaven and earth; but scripture teaches that when we are born, we are his creatures, made in his Image and for his glory; but you and I are not born sons and daughters of God.  No, he makes us, like a potter makes a vessel out of clay, like an artist pouring their love into a painting, we’re told he knits us together in the womb. 

And this is important.  No, not just important: this is central to who we are as the Church, called to work in the world.

If people were born “children of God”, if we were all God’s children, we wouldn’t need a Saviour who offers for us to share in his eternal life; we wouldn’t need a loving guide who offers to lead the way and share his resurrection power with us, we’d already know the way and have the power – and if you look at the world around us, it’s pretty clear we don’t know the way, we don’t have the power within us to choose what’s right… we don’t even have the power on our own to give up the thoughts and actions and habits that we want to stop.  If we were all born children of God, we would not need to decide to follow Jesus, baptism would serve no purpose, we would not need nourishment from God’s word and sacraments, we would not need to learn the life of prayer – we’d have it all by birth.

And most of all, this confusion – this lie – that we are all God’s children means that there is no good news to share; it’s the lie that tells us that we already have all the power we need within us, if we’re born as children of God, or the universe, or whatever higher power people like to talk about.  And if we buy into that, if we let ourselves think that our wandering neighbours, our anxious children, our hurting friends already have the fullness of God’s power within them, then either this god is extraordinarily weak, or we just need to try a little harder: and that’s the biggest, more dangerous lie that is consuming our society, chewing people up and spitting them out, exhausted, bitter, angry, and calloused.

So we say: No!  There’s more to life than this.  We aren’t born with all we need to succeed; we can’t place our hope in ourselves, neither in life nor death.  You and I and our children and our neighbours aren’t born children of God.  The good news is that we are invited to become children of God. 

“The true light, which enlightens everyone… was in the world; yet the world did not know him.  He came to his own, but his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God”; children who were not born by blood or the will of the flesh or of man – not children by nature – but by the will of God, by adoption.

And the whole point of adoption is to become that which you were not. 

You had one heritage, you had one identity, you had one inheritance, if it was one at all.  But the whole point of adoption is that you have become something new; you are made part of something bigger than yourself, you have a new identity, a new home, a new inheritance; you have a new relationship – a secure and enduring one – that gives you the rights of a son or daughter, not a guest.

Living as Adopted Children

If we believe in Jesus, if we’ve been baptized and have confessed our faith, then God is faithful, He has adopted us and will adopt as many as turn to Him.

The challenge, then, is for us to live as those adopted sons and daughters.

As many of you know, my family has been involved in foster care most of my adult life.  My parents had the blessing of working especially with young children who were coming out of group homes to be placed for adoption.

And it’s absolutely amazing, shocking even, how even a young mind learns to relate to the world around them.  A toddler is absolutely dependent on an adult for just about everything; in a healthy family, they learn long before they can talk that they can count on their family; they learn, in a healthy family, to feel safe and secure, as that bond to parents and siblings becomes the strength in which they explore and relate to the world.

And as vitally important as foster care is, it doesn’t take much for our minds to adapt, to try and become self-sufficient.  I remember one boy, raised in rented wing of an old hotel in Newfoundland by workers on 8-hour shifts, who had finally been paired with his forever family, when he came to live with mom and dad to adapt to life in a home.  If he was hurt or scared, he didn’t cry, at 4 years old he had learned to suck it up.  The word “love”, let alone the expression of that, the giving of yourself for the good of another person and the hope and longing to see them grow and thrive, simply wasn’t part of his vocabulary – it’s not a word that shift workers use.  The comfort of being held, or the joy of being tickled on the floor, were brand new ideas, that, after just a few years in the system built for his benefit, had to be slowly and carefully taught from scratch.  And, one thing I will never forget, is the real shock that he could count on the same person being there when he woke up; Dad worked offshore, and it took real time to learn that, just because you couldn’t see a person, they weren’t gone, and they still loved you and cared for you. 

My friends, we aren’t born as children of God.  That’s a lie.

God adopts us as his children, invites us to call him Our Father, if we accept his offer.

But we’re like those children in foster care.

The world has taught us to be self-sufficient.  The world has taught us that no one cares when you cry, so suck it up.  The world has taught us to cling tightly to the little that we have.  We have a hard time believing that love could be so lasting, that forgiveness could be so free.  We haven’t learned what it is to be held when we’re hurting.  We haven’t learned what it is to rest in the joy of a loving father.  We haven’t learned to trust that, though we can’t see someone, that bond of love endures… and if they say they love you and they’re coming back, they mean it.

We are God’s children by adoption, and as you see written on everything I print for this church, it’s not enough just to worship on Sunday.  We need to Heal all those wounds of self-sufficiency, we need to heal our relationships, we have to learn what it means to trust and to love and to be loved, not as wanderers bounced around the broken system of this world, but welcomed to your forever family as a beloved son or daughter. 

And once we start to heal, we need to Grow, as we learn what it means to grow into the image and likeness Christ, as we learn how to be a good brother or sister to those who are still hurting. 

And then, by God’s grace, we’re invited into the family business with a full share.  We become those sent to Reach Out with the invitation that yes, whoever is thirsty, whoever is hungry, whoever is weary or worn and sad is also invited to become a son or daughter of God, to become our brother or sister by adoption; all it takes is receiving Christ by faith, entering the fellowship of the faithful, and taking that first step on the lifelong journey to worship, heal, grow, and reach out as we learn what it means to be loved by God.

My brothers and sisters, as we take seriously God’s invitation to welcome us by adoption, let’s take seriously the need to share this good news with others.  No, our neighbours, our friends, our children don’t have within themselves all the power they need to be all they can be.  No, trying a little harder will never be good enough.  What they need – what all of us need – is to learn what it means to be held by the God who never forsakes us, to trust in the one who will never abandon us, to take off our armour, lay down our baggage, and learn what it is to be loved by the one who loved us first.

We are not all God’s children… but we all can be God’s children. 

And that’s good news.

God pitches his tent among us.

If there’s one thing for us to remember in this season of Advent, this season of “coming”, it’s this: the Lord will establish his Kingdom.

We often get caught up or even led astray with all sorts of ideas or perceptions or philosophies about God.  I think some of us, perhaps those who have seen and felt humanity at its worst, those who know real hardship and pain, just can’t imagine a God so merciful, a God so supremely generous that He would reach out, time and time again, to share His eternal life with messy, messed-up people like us. 

Too many of us know well the pain and even anger that goes with being betrayed by those who should have been closest to us, and our instinct is to build a wall, to cut ourselves off, and we just can’t imagine a God so faithful, so steadfast and unchanging that He would keep reaching out, that he would lay aside all the glory of heaven to come and be among us, knowing full well that even we, who claim to be his followers and friends, would betray and deny Him.

And yet, that is our message; that is the Gospel truth: the Lord will establish his Kingdom.  The Almighty Lord – who lacks nothing – desires to share his abundant life with people like you and me.  The Almighty Lord – who creates with nothing more than a word – wills to fill his Kingdom not with perfect angelic beings, but with fallen, broken people like us, perfectly restored and adopted as His sons and daughters, heirs of eternal life.

That’s the entirety of the story – cover to cover – though we seem to want nothing more than to turn our backs on the rightful King and proclaim ourselves as lord and master of our own lives; though we take whatever gifts he sends and stubbornly claim them as our own; though we ourselves are utterly and wholly dependant on the mercy of the one who laid aside his glory to suffer on our behalf, but we stubbornly refuse to offer mercy even to those nearest and dearest to us, yet the Lord will establish his Kingdom – and wants us to share in it with Him!

God in a Tent

One of the great scripture readings of Christmas is that weird and wonderful reading from the opening of John’s Gospel.  Every year, it’s the reading assigned for Christmas Day, and then for the last 102 years it’s been the last reading at the service of Lessons and Carols, and then it comes back again as the Gospel on the second Sunday after Christmas – that’s 3 times in 10 days!  You know the one I’m talking about: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God”.  It goes on to say that God came to his own, “and the world was made by him, but the world would not receive him; but as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the sons of God.”  And you know how that reading ends: “and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”.

That’s the whole message of Christmas, the first Advent, the first coming of Christ.  The Greek original says that he, the Eternal Word through whom all things were made “tabernacled”, he “pitched his tent” among us.    God pitched his tent.

That’s the glory of the gospel.  It’s not that we have to aspire to clean ourselves up enough, to make ourselves presentable enough to climb up to the Lord’s holy mountain.  No.  God shared our flesh and came down from on high.  We could never make the climb up, so the king of glory pitched his tent… here.  With people like us.  He left the unceasing worship of angels so that he could share our hunger and our thirst, so that he could share our pain, and share our burdens.  God is not far off; He pitches his tent, he moves in, right here with us.[1]

…but people have a hard time accepting that.

In 2nd Samuel we see just how backward we get it.[2] 

The amazing reality of God choosing Israel to be his people was that God desired to be with them!  From the time God appeared to Moses, the message was that God’s presence would be among them, mighty to save.  As God’s chosen people wandered through the wilderness – as we wander through the wilderness – God wasn’t far away, but his very presence and glory moved from camp to camp with them in the tent, the tabernacle.  The God of Heaven took up dwelling in a tent, to be near those whom He had chosen, and who had chosen to follow Him.

But by the time of King David, the king isn’t living in a tent anymore.  David’s built himself an impressive fortress; a strong, sturdy building he can depend on, with a wall around it to fend off any threats.  And what’s the human instinct?  The great message of God is that He desires to be near us, present with his people… but as soon as we can, we want to ship God off to a “better” dwelling place.  God wants to be with us, near us, part of the everyday life of his people; but we want to lock him up in a temple.  It’s more fitting, we say; “see” said the king, “I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent”; but what are we really saying?  Sure, I used to depend on God when I was in a tent in the wilderness, but now that I can count on what I’ve built up, now that I have these strong walls up around me, the presence of God is a bit of an eyesore; let’s get God out of everyday life and box Him up somewhere a little more seemly.

…and we even convince ourselves it’s for God’s glory!

It happens to the best of us – like the embarrassment we might feel when someone who was down and out, at the end of their rope, overcomes incredible odds and speaks boldly about how God lifted them out of addiction and despair: “yes dear, that’s nice, but let’s not get carried away”. 

And yet: even when His chosen people try to box Him up, what does God do? 
He becomes flesh and pitches his tent. 

The Lord is establishing his Kingdom.

An Invitation

God is not deterred by our stubbornness, even though we can’t even imagine being that forgiving, as those who would rather build walls to cut ourselves off and grip tightly onto the chains that hold us down.

That’s the beauty of God in a tent – when we run away, when we wander off into the wilderness, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God pitches His tent.  We never have to find God; he pursues us.  We just have to stop running.

As the Lord wills to establish his Kingdom, for us to be a part of that, all we have to do is claim him as Lord and King.  It’s not about special words to say; it’s about taking ourselves off the throne, quitting this foolish running away and building of walls that so many waste their life on, and simply surrender.  Let the God who pursues you claim you as his own. 

The coming of Christ – whenever that might be – or our own meeting Christ in our own of death is only a thing to be feared if we’re still running away.  If we surrender, claim him as Lord, allow Him to claim the throne, and accept his presence right here with us, right here in the mess and pain of life, we have nothing to fear; we can finally find rest, we can finally have the peace that passes understanding.

“How can this be?”

The Lord will establish his Kingdom; and he wants us to be a part of that.  But He won’t force us.  It doesn’t work that way.  If we refuse, He’ll keep reaching out, over and over again, but it’s like so much in life; you can have all the help in the world available to you, but you have to want to be helped before it’ll do you any good.

And lets be clear: surrendering is scary stuff.

Think of Mary in today’s Gospel lesson:[3] a young girl, scared speechless as God’s plan is revealed.  Her first response is like our own: how can this even be true?  It’s impossible! 

Yet, yet, God doesn’t expect us to have all the answers; he doesn’t expect us to find the strength to carry out his plan.  All He expects from us is a simple “Here I am”. 

It seems impossible that God could do what he has planned; it seems impossible that he could want us, it seems absolutely impossible that he would want to share in the very pain and hurt that we try so hard to run away from.  But, the God who pitches his tent, the God who pursues us just wants us to stop running and say, simply, “here I am; you caught me, I’m yours”.

And that’s when we find more than we could ask or imagine.  That’s when we’re healed and nursed back to health after our time in the wilderness.  That’s when we’re taught to extend forgiveness and mercy, even as we ourselves learn to receive the forgiveness offered to us.  And that’s when we’re able to accept God’s presence in our own messy lives, and finally start to live for his glory.

The Lord will establish his Kingdom, and he wants to start with you and me.

Let’s stop running.  Surrender.  And this Christmas, let’s accept the coming of the one who became flesh and dwelt among us; the one who came into the world he made, though the world did not receive him; yet, if we will receive him, he will give us the power to become the sons and daughters of God, and heirs of eternal life.

[1] Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 1:14 as “he moved into our neighbourhood”.

[2] 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

[3] Luke 1:26-38

Choose to rejoice!

Rejoice in the Lord always!  And again, I say: Rejoice!

We find ourselves here today at the mid-point of Advent, heading into the longest and darkest nights of the year, just as the weather is dropping off – the windchill was -37o when I put the dog out to do her business this morning – and at a time when, for many, the stress of the Christmas season is mounting.  This year in particular, we’re all exhausted, really exhausted from this marathon year of social distancing and cancelled events, adding a new and different sense of waiting to this Advent season, as we prepare for a simpler, quieter, and yes, perhaps even lonelier Christmas than most. 

And in the midst of all that, the Church down through the ages chooses this Sunday to cry “Rejoice!” out through the darkness. 

It’s a reminder we all need to hear sometimes, isn’t it?

There’s a lot of words that can be used to describe the Christian life: we’re blessed, we’re forgiven.  We’re called to go forth in Christ’s name.  We’re equipped by the Holy Spirit to face the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  We’re generous, we trust in God rather than money or strength.  We’re obedient and, when we’re not, we’re repentant.  And, above all, we strive to be people who, in every aspect of our life, are willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

But, if we’re being faithful to scripture, one of the words that we simply can’t ignore is “joy”.  Joy fills the pages of scripture!  ‘Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands: serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song!’ (Psalm 100).  “The joy of the Lord” – the Lord’s own joy – “is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).  “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy” (Psalm 42).  Isaiah writes, “shout aloud and sing for joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel” (12:6).  Paul writes “the God of hope fills you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). 

…but it doesn’t end there.  We’re not talking about brief flashes of happiness, a joy that comes and goes with the weather.  No!  This is a joy that goes much deeper than our present circumstances, our little successes or victories or mountain-top experiences.  God’s plan for us is that we would have a life marked by joy, in spite of whatever fleeting situation we find ourselves in.  “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you on my account”, says the Lord; when that happens, ‘rejoice and be glad… they’re treating you as they treated the prophets before you’ (Matthew 5:11-12).  Or James, beginning his letter to the Church, decides to start with this great opening line: “consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2).  Just imagine the glory of knowing that sort of deep and unwavering joy, that when we face trials, when we face the wounds and hurts and hang-ups of this broken world, when we face struggles and illness and broken relationships and seasons of pain and exhaustion, we’re so sure that our only hope is Christ, we’re so sure the “weeping lasts for the night, but joy comes with the morning”, we’re so sure that our hope is built on nothing less than the sure foundation which is Jesus Christ, we’re so sure that even though I walk through the dark valley and the shadow of death itself, the Lord is with me and will fill my cup to overflowing (Psalm 23), that no matter what unimaginable and unspeakable struggle we face, the Lord will work all things together for good for those who fear him and are called according to his name (Romans 8:28), so that, no matter what we face, we face it with joy.  Just imagine.

But here’s the thing:  It’s not just your imagination. 

Our message for the world – no, even more than that – the Church’s message for you today is to rejoice and be glad.  The “good news” is good news.  The Lord will free the oppressed, he will bind up the broken-hearted, he will comfort those who mourn, he will release those bound as prisoners to whatever chains we find ourselves in, and he will put things right: he will display his glory, he will rebuild the ancient ruins, he will drive out those who oppress and steal and profit from the pain of others, and he will deliver justice, the true justice where all who try to stand on their own strength will be exposed, but those who put on the free garment of salvation, the free robe of righteousness, will be welcomed in to the feast.

Comfort, Comfort Ye

Throughout Advent we hear, from both Isaiah and John the Baptist, the call to joyful repentance.  And we have to remember that it is good news.

I think life trains us to get it backwards.  Even if, deep down, we know better, we’re led to believe that repentance is failure.  Saying “sorry” is a last resort.  Admitting guilt is something we only do after we’re tried all the other excuses.  Our broken instincts would even have us throw away relationships before admitting defeat; think about it – how many times have you thought “well maybe I was wrong, but I’m not going to give him, I’m not going to give her, the satisfaction of hearing me say it”.  We’d rather block someone out than repent. 

…but here’s the surprising part.  We’re not really blocking them out.  When we refuse to repent, we’re blocking ourselves out, we’re cutting ourselves off from the joy that should be ours as those who take comfort knowing that the only reliable foundation, the only sure and certain hope, the only one who can stand when the world is crumbling is the one through whom it was made, Jesus Christ the Lord.

In Advent each year we hear “comfort, comfort ye my people”, the Lord is building a highway, right?  What’s he doing to the valleys? Lifting them up. What’s he doing to the hills?  Knocking them down.  What’s he doing to the rough places?  Making them a plain.

Now, that all sounds nice enough, but think about that metaphor.  This isn’t a kid playing in a sandbox.  No, the message of the prophets – the message of the Church – is clear: the Lord is coming with all the might of his kingdom to reconnect the city that has been cut off. It’s a massive earth-moving project.  The very things we think are immovable – high mountains and deep valleys – are going to be tamed.  Think about that – “comfort, my people”, there’s a highway coming through; that mountain that cuts us off from the rest of the world?  We’re going to blast it down.  That deep, dark valley, that one where you have to be careful about getting too close to the edge because you might fall over the cliff as the ground beneath you gives way?  That one where we’ve tried to build bridges, but the rushing water carries them away?  He’s going to fill it in.

This is major, major work. 

And we’re to take comfort in that massive – and entirely free – project.  We’re to rejoice that he’s going to tear down that mountain, he’s going to tear down what we thought were the strongest highpoints of the world around us, and as he tears it down, he’s going to use that rubble to fill in the chasm that we could never cross. 

…but that’s only comforting if we’re willing to climb down from whatever high places we’ve perched ourselves on.  That same message of comfort for those in the rough places, waiting for the valley to be filled in, is, at the same time, a dire warning for those stubbornly standing on the mountain, isn’t it?

It’s the same thing with the message of freedom for captives and release for those who are bounds in chains of guilt or shame.  It’s the most incredible tidings of comfort and joy to those crying out for release; but that same message is an incredible warning to those of us who are holding those chains around the hands, feet, and necks of others as we refuse to forgive the wrongs they have done and stop dragging those chains along with us.

Where’s the Joy?

Rejoice in the Lord always.

This is good news.  No, this is the good news!  It doesn’t get any better!

And we’re to be people of joy – joy, no matter what sin we’ve finally asked to be forgiven, no matter what struggle we’ve finally handed over to Jesus, no matter what deep hurt and pain done to us that we’ve finally said we’re willing to forgive.

Joy is a mark of Christian life.

…but what if you’re not feeling it?  What if you’re not seeing the joy in your life?

This is something we easily get wrong.  We confuse joy and happiness.

If we go back to the scriptures, there’s something we need to notice.  In all those verses, there’s something in common.  Not one of them says “I’m joyful because I’m happy about my present situation”. 

No.  Joy is an attitude.  Rejoicing is an action.  It’s not something that happens to us. 

Scripture doesn’t say, “I’m rejoicing right now because I’m experiencing something that gives me joy”.  This isn’t Marie Kondo picking up items around your house and deciding if they give you joy or not.

No. My favourite shirt or a picture of my grandparents isn’t going to give me joy that sees me through pain and affliction.  No, we choose joy.  We choose joy when we decide to see things through  God’s big picture rather than our little obstructed view.  We choose joy when we put our hope in that one and only sure and certain cornerstone, that sure foundation on which we can stand on level ground, Jesus our Lord.

…how else can we say “consider it joy when you’re persecuted”?  How else can we say “blessed are those who mourn”?  How else can we say “rejoice when you suffer”? 

It’s not joy because you’re persecuted.  It’s not blessedness because you mourn.  It’s not rejoicing because you’re suffering. 

It’s choosing to live in the sure and certain hope that, no matter what this life throws at you, you belong to God; you share in the risen life of Christ; your sins – though they are many – have been washed away, and no matter what comes our way: trials, temptation, pain, sickness, life, death, height, depth, nor any other thing in all creation can ever separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

…But it is a choice.

We don’t need to find joy to start rejoicing.  But when we start rejoicing, we’ll find joy.

Remember the man whose son was dying when he came to Jesus?  He cried out “Lord, I believe… help my unbelief”.  Remember ‘doubting Thomas’?  If he was just waiting for proof, we don’t know, he might still be waiting.  But he asked for proof, and those who ask receive.

My friends, joy is a mark of a Christian life.  But if we’re waiting to find some joy, I’m afraid we’re going to be waiting a long time.  No… instead, we need to make a choice. 

“Lord, I choose to be joyful… heal my bitterness.”
“Lord, I choose to be joyful… heal my anger.”
“Lord, I choose to be joyful… take away my pain.”

Take comfort, for the Lord is coming.  Take comfort, for the Lord will set things right, and will work all things together for good.  Take comfort – and, in all things, again I say: rejoice!

The Deep Darkness of Advent

Advent always begins in the dark.[1]

The world around us is quick to throw up lights, isn’t it?  The day after Halloween, even before Remembrance Day, the artificial glow of Christmas lights began to appear.

As the nights start earlier, the sun rises later, and the cold sets in it’s no surprise that we’re quick to search for something – anything, really – to brighten that darkness.  And if we think back 30 or 50 years ago, without even noticing it, that searching, that yearning for a bit of garland, for the comfort of the warm glow from the tree has become so much more intense, hasn’t it?

For so many people, for centuries, the tree would come into the house just in time for Christmas – often on Christmas Eve! – and brighten the home with cheer for the 12 days of celebration, just as the days begin to lighten and the hope of the New Year is around the corner.  Now – in spite of all the comforts and improvements the modern world was supposed to bring us – it seems we want to wish away the last two months of the year as we string up artificial light in an attempt to drive out the deep darkness that so easily crowds in on our lives.

Now, don’t get me wrong – my own Christmas Tree is up… or seeing as Christmas is still almost 4 weeks away, I suppose you could call it an “Advent Bush”, or as one of my friends said on Facebook, it’s an “Anti-Depression Serotonin Shrub”!

But think about it – is that not how the world operates? 
There’s a real darkness; a real weight; a real longing; perhaps even a real and deep dis-ease with how things are (or appear to be).  But the world’s response, time after time, is to string up artificial lights!  “If December is dark, string up lights, think positive thoughts, try to forget the hear and now, and pretend it’s already Christmas”.  “If November’s dark, string up some lights, and pretend that’s Christmas too”.

I love Christmas lights, but I believe we have to ask: are we preparing our hearts and homes for the coming of our Lord and King?  That’s a good and holy thing – something we should do all year long.  Or… and only you can know the answer to this – is the world around you inviting you, in the face of all the concern, anxiety, and darkness of today, to pretend it isn’t there, string up artificial lights, and instead of living in and working through the here and now, to let our anxiety simmer under that warm artificial glow, and add tomorrow’s worries and anxieties on top of today’s?

The Season of Advent

It’s become popular to think of Advent as a season for preparation for Christmas.  It’s easy to see how we got that idea – after all, this is the secular season of pretending the darkness isn’t real, and focussing, even obsessing over romanticized, unobtainable visions of what Christmas is supposed to be.

But that’s not what Advent has been for the Church.  Yes, Advent is a season of preparation, but Christmas – the Lord’s birth – happened over 2000 years ago.  How can you possibly prepare for something that has already taken place?  That’s insane!  You can’t prepare for something 2000 years ago, can you?

No, Advent is a time of preparation, but not for Christmas.  The word “advent” means “coming”.  And what do we say in the Creed every time we gather?  (What is it?)

On  the third day he rose again… he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father… and he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

The Nicene Creed (the Apostles’ Creed omits “in glory”)

My friends, don’t let the artificial lights in my living room fool you – that right there, that line of the creed, is Advent!  That is the coming from which this season gets it’s name.

And, no matter how many lights we plug in, no matter how many candles we light, no matter how many hours we spend sitting with a happy light, no matter how many Hallmark movies we watch, or how many times we watch The Grinch, or how many times I play Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Once Upon a Christmas”, it does no good to pretend that the darkness that we feel, and even the deep darkness of a world of guilt and shame and hurt and crushed dreams and oppression is anything less than real.

Advent isn’t about preparing for something long ago in the past.  Advent, this season shrouded by the real darkness of the world around us, is preparation in sure and certain hope that, just as He came once as a helpless babe, bearing the full weight of the world’s oppression and violence, even making himself the willing, innocent victim of death, he will come again, with all the power, and majesty, and awe, and terror of the rightful King who returns to overthrow and finally cast out the powers of death and sin and – though we say this with the humility of those who ourselves will be judged – he comes to call to account both those who heard his voice and worked against the enemy, reflecting his glorious light, keeping those lights burning as beacons on the hills calling lost wanderers in, as well as those who instead chose to follow the propaganda, pretend the darkness isn’t real, and allow their friends and neighbours to stumble, fall, and even be crushed as the weight and shame of yesterday’s failures and tomorrow’s anxiety strip away all hope for today.

That’s Advent.  That’s the Coming.  And this is the season of preparation.

The God who Hides… for our benefit

In Isaiah 64 – like elsewhere in scripture – we read, perhaps surprisingly, of God hiding himself.  Now, of course, we know, fundamentally, that God is active in every time and every place; just think about that – nothing, nothing you’ve done or I’ve done, nothing that has ever taken place is a surprise to God; He’s already seen it all first hand, for nothing exists without him.

Yet, as we know from scripture, God’s desire is to be really present with us in a way that we can recognize; He desires to be present so that we can know him fully and He can know us. 

Yet, He is a holy God.  Before him is a consuming fire.[2] Darkness cannot exist in the presence of light; cold cannot exist in the presence of heat; unholiness cannot exist in the presence of God.

And so, at various times and places, as we read this morning, God has hidden his face.  As we heard today “We all have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth … this is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you, for you hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (see Isaiah 64:1-9).  Let’s be clear – it’s not that God abandons us.  It’s the opposite — look at the world around us: if he were to show forth His glory, ‘oh Lord, who could stand?’

So on the one hand, the church cries out in the darkness of Advent, “O Lord, come quickly!”.  Really, you might say that we’ve been in Advent since March this year, crying out for a deliverer, stumbling in the darkness, praying that God would display his power and set things right.

I would say all of us hope for that new tomorrow, all of us yearn for that coming day with the new creation, when we will be reunited with those we love, when sorrow and sighing and death are no more. 

But at the same time, if the Lord came in his glory with his angels, the heavens torn open and the mountains quake as the consuming fire of God comes among us, are we ready?

Yes, “Lord, come quickly”, but as St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “yes, I want to be with the Lord, which will be far better indeed”, but there is still work to be done, it is more necessary that we remain and proclaim the Gospel so that at his coming, Christ will be glorified (Philippians 1:23-28).

Like Abraham pleading for the great city, like the message of Jonah warning Ninevah of the need to repent, like the prophets calling Israel to repent and return to the Lord, we’ve been commissioned to carry that eternal, in-dwelling light out to a world that is content to string up artificial lights and pretend that all is well, pressing down, hiding away the real darkness and pain, and escaping reality with Christmas movies, scrolling stories on Facebook and Instagram, racing home to make invisible online friends based on a carefully-crafted profile, layer after layer offered by the world to avoid actually dealing with the root problems of isolation and shame and inadequacy that crowd in like deep darkness and slowly make us brittle as the life-sapping cold seeps in.

Yes, “Lord, come quickly”, yet, as we sang not long ago, we face a task unfinished that must and should drive us to our knees before the Lord.  When the advent – the coming for which we deeply long – finally appears, at that day and hour that no one knows, but for which we must always be ready, are we, commissioned messengers of that Good News, ready to stand and give an account for our work? 

As one called to carry the light out into the darkness, I eagerly await the dawning of that great and terrible day, but at the same time, Lord have mercy.  The world is a mess.  Good Lord, deliver us.  But our churches, and Christians, have done as much to harm the message of that Good News as we have done to spread it; oppression, violence, segregation, and slothful ease as Christians everywhere rest content while souls around us stumble forth into the night while we’ve hid our lamps under bushel baskets, or put shades up to the window lest the wandering, weary traveller might actually come in, for which we must cry, simply, spare us, good Lord. 

There’s Work to be Done.
Spare us, good Lord!

Yes, the Lord is King.  Yes, the King is Coming.  Yes, we’re the messengers of the good news.  And it’s a message so important precisely because the darkness is real

No amount of happy thoughts, no amount of cheap garland or flashing artificial lights can drive it out, not if we start in November, or put them up at Halloween, not even if we kept them up all year.  The only solution is that sure and certain hope, that deep gift of faith in the core of your being that knows that Christ is King, as you yourself become a beacon of Christ’s light, as we begin to decrease so it’s not about us, but about Christ in me – the hope of glory, as nations stream to that light, and kings to the brightness of that dawning.

My friends, this is a season of preparation… but don’t be fooled.  We’re not preparing for Christmas; we’re preparing for the advent, the coming of Christ among us, when he comes to judge the living and the dead, yet as one who shares our humanity, born humbly, oppressed, becoming victim to death and worldly power, returning to finally conquer those rebellious forces and, as the world is consumed before the fire of God’s presence, it becomes evident if we’ve been clinging to the world’s power as it is cast away, or if, in the face of sin, darkness, despair, and our own weakness, we stand firm in Christ alone, as all the other ground of sinking sand passes away around us.

And, by God’s grace, as we stand in him alone, we will have brought with us family – husbands, wives, children, grandchildren – friends, neighbours stumbling in the world’s darkness, even strangers crushed by the weight of the world.

…but we don’t know when the Lord will come.  We don’t know when each of us will breathe our last. And so, this is a season of preparation. 

O come, O come Emmanuel.  Spare us, good Lord.  Amen.

[1] This is a beloved line and idea borrowed from Fleming Rutledge.

[2] Psalm 97:3, Deuteronomy 4:24 and 9:3, Hebrews 12:29

Who is on the Lord’s side?

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep; I will seek them out.  Ezekiel 34:11

Today the Church throughout the world is called to remember, celebrate, and live into the fact that, no matter how things may appear in the world around us, Christ is the King.[1]

And, of course, all of us know – we sing or hum along with glorious words that proclaim that Jesus, the one through whom all things were made, is the Lord and King of all creation.  All of us know, and recite each week in the Creed, that Christ will come in his glory, and that he will bring with him the undeniable Kingdom which he taught us to pray would come, “on earth, as it is in heaven”, as every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of God the Father.

But this celebration is important because it reminds us that our faith is not wishful thinking, or a fairy tale, or a distant hope that Christ will come someday, long after we’re gone.

No, my friends, the reality is that right now, even as we sit here, even as human politicians struggle to win against an invisible germ, even as the best-laid economic plans and financial empires corrode and waste away, even as this world seems to get itself caught up in one struggle after another as kingdoms and philosophies rise and wane, even as the dark and cold join together with the darker and colder experiences of isolation, shame, anxiety, and addiction, yet – yet – even now, as we speak, Christ is on the throne.  Like watchmen on the towers before dawn, we know that the Son of Man and his angels will come in his glory, and as the rightful King comes, the false powers of darkness will scatter before his path, only to be gathered up, convicted of their treason, and condemned, excluded from sharing in the glory of that restored kingdom of mercy, grace, and peace.

That’s what we believe.  Not that Christ will one day be King.  No.  Right here, right now, in spite of how it may look to those who have bought into the rhetoric of the occupying forces, in spite of how it may look when we fail to realize that all our present struggles are the death throes of a world that has rebelliously attempted to rule itself, in spite of the pain, grief, poverty, weakness, death and decay experienced by we who are caught up, and born into this great rebellion against our Creator,it does not change the fact that the Lord is King, God is on the throne right now, and we know that the palaces and headquarters of those clinging to power will simply pass away when He returns in power and declares “it is finished”, as the same voice that spoke the spark of the Big Bang speaks once more, with echoes that reverberate through all of space and time.

That’s what we mean when we say “Christ is King”.  In spite of how it looks to us born and raised in enemy-occupied territory, the rightful king is even now making preparations just across the horizon, and will return to claim the throne.

The Shepherd King

Our readings today speak of this glorious return – but only if we allow ourselves to read them as they were written.  If you look with me to Ezekiel 34 or Matthew 25, we hear of Christ’s return with the familiar imagery of a shepherd and sheep.

But we need to be careful – the comforts of modern life, coupled with stained glass images and the cute images of Christmas pageant shepherds in bathrobes herding cotton-ball sheep actually gets in the way of understanding the great message God is giving us in his word.

There’s more to shepherding than lounging in a field, whistling or playing some nice Celtic tunes on a pennywhistle in the lovely, lush, green countryside.

Shepherding is messy work.  Sheep, left to their own devices, are dirty, smelly animals.  Sheep are led by their bellies – they’ll go where there’s food and, without even lifting their heads, they’ll take step after step in the direction of something to fill their bellies, not even noticing the thorns or mud or pits around them.  And here’s the remarkable thing – as far back as 8000 years ago, with sheep being bred for farming, they were bred – created – to produce wool; wild mountain rams and ewes didn’t need a shepherd to shear them, but once they were moved to the pastures and bred to produce thicker and thicker wool, they needed a shepherd.  Sheep, left to their own devices, will die.  Their fleece will grow and grow and grow until it is so matted together that it cuts off circulation to their legs and they become weak and crippled.  And sheep, if confined to an area, will eat the grass right down to the root, destroying the very thing that they depend on.

Let’s be clear – it’s no compliment when scripture, dozens of times, compares us to sheep!  But it’s accurate: left to our own devices we’ll follow our appetites to our own destruction; we’ll use and abuse the good things meant to sustain us until they’re gone, or our lack of self-control has turned a blessing into a curse; and following our instincts, our fleece – the wool we pull over our own eyes – will grow and grow until it is matted and crusted together to the point that it cuts off our lifeblood and we become weakened and crippled, and there is literally nothing that we, as sheep, can do to shear ourselves, since we were bred – we were created – to have a Shepherd.

If we’re reading the scriptures clearly, we find that we’re sheep locked in a land dispute.  We belong to the Good Shepherd, the one who owns the flocks on a thousand hills, as the Psalms say.  But, because of disobedience, because of treason, the land doesn’t recognize it’s rightful King.  But he’s not one to write us off – He will seek us out, He will rescue us, he will judge between the sheep, fattening the ones who were down-trodden and lean, while casting out the ones who were headstrong and butted their way to the top of the flock.  And, all those who are ready to hear his voice will be welcomed into the good pasture they were created to inherit.  Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24.

Where are we now?

Christ, the Word who spoke at creation, is the rightful King, but we were born into this disputed, rebellious territory.  What does that mean for us?

Well, the other aspect of this day that celebrates the Reign of Christ is that we proclaim our allegiance to the King, not the occupying forces of the world around us.

In Baptism, and again at Confirmation, and again every time we repent and return to the Lord, we take the Oath of Citizenship of the Kingdom of God, as we become dual citizens or, as Paul says, resident aliens, as those living in the world, but not belonging to, not pledging any allegiance to it.

And though we live in the world, we know the rightful King will come over the horizon, and we who have pledged our allegiance are called to be the Resistance, preparing the way, sabotaging worldly powers of greed, injustice, and corruption at every opportunity, and willing to serve – even lay down our lives – to spread the news of the conquering King, so that, when He comes in glory, he finds citizens ready to welcome Him as Lord as the supposed glory of this world is cast out.

Like the French Resistance under the occupying forces of the Hitler’s Third Reich, our task as those who remain loyal to the rightful ruler is to stand firm, to proclaim and broadcast the message of hope and freedom, to sabotage the enemies’ actions, and to make our friends and neighbours ready to join us on that day when the liberating forces come in their glory.

…And we say, “Lord, how do we do that?”  Matthew 25:31-46

And the King answers – if there’s an empty belly, fill it.  If there’s a parched mouth, offer a drink from your overflowing cup, so that loosened tongue can proclaim God’s praise.  If a stranger is lost and bewildered by the ways of the world, welcome them in.  If the world has eaten someone up and spat them out, naked and afraid, clothe them with grace and dignity in my name.  If the sin of the world has weakened a sickened soul, lovingly nurse them back to health and wholeness.  And if the world catches on and oppresses someone in Christ’s name, visit and support them.  And any services rendered to the very least of these will be accounted as service to the King himself.

Who is on the Lord’s side?

Christ is King.  He reigns even now, though the darkness, grief, and sin of this occupied territory are still grasping at illusions of power.  And we, who have pledged allegiance to the King are called to be his messengers, the resistance, earnestly and eagerly making way for his Kingdom to come and his Will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

And so the question is, when he comes, and the rebellious forces of the world are rounded up, where will we be?  Will we stand with the Lord and his angels as those who assisted in the effort, as those who prepared the way, who stood firm, and conquered in the fight?

Or will we be accounted as those who colluded with the enemy, those who profited from the occupying forces of greed, injustice, and the illusion of power?

Those on the Lord’s side are welcomed in as the world against which we struggled is gloriously restored as the dwelling place of God’s presence.

Those on the world’s side will be cast away like the corrupt world which they loved so much.

Christ is the King.  This morning, this week, ask yourself – whose side am I on?  If our lives profit from worldly power, we betray ourselves as those who claimed Christ in Baptism.  No, rather, every action, every thought, every moment of every day should be an act of resistance, an act of sabotage as we seek to overthrow hunger, oppression, greed, anxiety, and the illusions of control as we prepare for Christ’s Kingdom to come.

May God strengthen us for that task.  May God convict us and call us to repent when we’ve sat quietly by.  And to God alone be the glory, now and forever more.  Amen.

[1] This goes right back to the heart of this Feast, first added to the calendar by Roman Catholics in the early 1900s in response to increasing secularism.

29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Matthew 25.

The lessons today sure are dark, aren’t they? 

In Matthew 25 we’re told very clearly that the Lord will return and expect an accounting of what he’s entrusted to us, and the strong rebuke that just chugging along, holding our own, giving back what we’ve received doesn’t cut it.  “No”, the master says, “you should have at least put it in a savings account so there’d be a little interest!”.

Just think about that.  God expects that whatever he gives us will not just be well-cared for; no, He expects it to grow!

And if we have our perspective right, as hard as it might be, it really only makes sense.

If we say that everything we have is from God – our health, our strength, our lives born into a land of peace and prosperity, perhaps that means that they aren’t ours to use as we’d like.   No. Why were we created?

If I asked that question at the 10am service, we’d hear a wonderful chorus of little voices respond: “God created us male and female in his own image to glorify him!”

We’re created to glorify God.  If God created us with that purpose, then the gifts he gives us, the opportunities and strengths and blessings he gives us must also be for His glory. 

And so the strong words in the Gospel today make it clear: perhaps the word “gift” as we’ve come to understand it in these days really misses the point, and perhaps even trips us up as we think about God’s blessings.  In our world of comfort and overabundance, a gift is something over-the-top, something that we can tuck away for a luxury or something fun – to buy that third pair of dress boots, or that extra watch, or that new side-by-side, or that new Xbox.  That’s how we think about gifts.  As we approach Christmas, I’d bet most of us as already thinking about what to get that special someone; something they’d really appreciate but would never get for themselves.

But if we think back even 100 years, that’s not how the average person thought about gifts.  No, gifts were something that you didn’t earn or necessarily even deserve, but which you could use to improve your life.  A warm sweater to work through the winter months; a new set of shoes for the family; a first suit and tie for the first son to move from the farm to take a job in the city; a new sewing machine so a mother can clothe her family; a graduation gift to pay for that first semester of nursing school or teacher’s college; some money to help with the down-payment on an old truck or boat or plane to start a business to feed your young family.  They’re gifts… with a purpose.

Yes, times have changed – but the way we think about gifts has changed too.  When we hear “gift”, we think “luxury”.  But, for most of human history, when you say “gift”, you mean investment.

An investment in the future of the person receiving the gift.
That little something above what they earned that has the potential to change their future, to make them something better than they could be on their own.

And the lessons today, while certainly dark, take on a new light when we approach them with the right perspective.

We are created for God’s glory, and the gifts that God gives aren’t 21st-century acts of luxury; no, God’s gifts, whether we’re talking about health or wealth or peace, or the spiritual gifts like compassion, mercy, hospitality, leadership, the ability to teach or serve, are more like what we would call investments.

God gives us something we haven’t earned, but which has the potential to make our own lives, and the lives of our families and communities better than they could have been otherwise.  It’s that sort of a gift.  God’s gifts are given with a purpose – the same purpose for which we were created – to give Him glory.  They’re an investment which makes the Lord proud to see them bear fruit.

God’s Return on Investment

We read in Matthew – and throughout God’s Word – that the Master will return and ask for an accounting of what the servants have done with the investments God made. 

And the big change of mindset here is that we really can’t think of whatever God has given us as a gift like the birthday card from great-aunt Susan with $50 to spend however we like. 

If that were the case, we could let ourselves off the hook quite easily.  If the $50 was ours to use however we wanted, then we could go to the store, spend $45 on a new pair of gloves, throw the $5 change into the collection bin for the Christmas Toy and Food Drive and say “wow, I’m generous today.  There’s my good deed done”.

But God doesn’t give gifts like that.  God makes investments.  And God expects not just 100% of the investment back – no, He expects it back with interest!

It’s more like this: a student gets $5000 in financial aid – that’s an investment.  And the choice is: do I use it to pay my tuition, my rent, a food and clothes for my kids, or do I buy that new TV, put a down payment on a new ski-doo, and run up a few nice tabs at the bar? 

See, it’s not enough just to pay back the $5000, because that wasn’t it’s purpose.  It was an investment; that $5000, if used properly, gets you your trade, turns into a new career, that translates into hundreds of thousands of dollars and a new future for your family. 

Those are the sorts of investments I believe Jesus is talking about in Matthew, and that’s the sort of understanding that shapes everything we believe and teach about blessings and giving and generosity and trust in God.  Not only does God expect 100% to be used to his glory – He’s looking for the interest.  And if we’re faithful in little, what does scripture say?  We’ll find ourselves entrusted with much.  But if we can’t be faithful with small things, God will call in someone else to do the work, and the little we had will be given elsewhere.

God’s not looking for a little generosity or a few good deeds – he’s looking for a good return on investment; he’s looking for us to be people through whom the world sees his light, for which we say “to God be the glory!”.

Christ’s Return?

I think that right understanding of God’s gifts – God’s investments – also changes how we understand his coming to hold us to account.

If great-aunt Susan gave us $50 to spend however we wanted, then no, it wouldn’t be fair for her to show up and question how you spent it. 

But when a generous investor shows up to check on their investment – that’s a different story.  They made that gift to get us where we could never get ourselves, so that we could accomplish something; and we should want to honour them; as we read in Hebrews, we should earnestly desire to hear “well done”.

The thing is, we’re told in 1st Thessalonians that we need to be ready to give an account at all times.  “Like a thief in the night”, or “like a pregnant woman going into labour”, you don’t know when you’ll be asked to give an account, and when it’s time, you can’t put it off.

This is a challenge for all of us.

When we were living down in the states, whenever Dad was coming to visit, one of the first things on my agenda for the day before I picked him up from the airport was to clean out the car. 

Growing up, he always had a clean car.  As a teenager, he certainly expected me to keep the car clean.  And though, as an adult, he never said “I hope your car is clean”, I knew it was something important to him, something that made him proud, so it was something I wanted to do, to have a clean car and a clean house… at least for that first day he was there!

Now, I was lucky – it took 2-3 flights and a day of travel, so I always knew when he was coming.

But now he lives down the road!  I guess we could say that now he shows up like a thief in the night or labour pains!!  The truth is, there’s no pretending that the van is always clean, or that, a lot of nights, we fall in bed with dishes still in the sink. 

And it’s the same message from scripture – we have to realize that, when God calls us to account for how we honoured his investment, there’s no hiding, there’s no warning so we can spruce things up.  When God says He wants our all, it means we have to think about how we’re giving him glory in every minute – not fooling ourselves into thinking that he’s impressed by the leftover minutes we might put toward good deeds. 

We need to give him glory when we’re at work, when we’re talking with our friends, when we’re biting our tongues to keep from spreading rumors or letting someone have a piece of our mind, when we’re relaxing and taking time for Sabbath rest, and even when we’re feasting with good food and good wine with those whom we love.  In every moment, we need to be ready to give an account not for the dregs, but for 100% — plus the interest God desires.

And that’s a tall order.

But the good news is that God is merciful.  If we try to hide, if we try to puff ourselves up, we know that’s not going to end well.  If we sluff it off like those characters in that first lesson from Zephaniah who said “don’t worry about it!  God doesn’t help us, God won’t hurt us”, then we are in for a rude awakening.

But if we confess our faults, God is merciful.

…last night I was cooking dinner for the whole family, 9 of us.  Dad came up, and sure enough, as I was at the stove, there were some dishes in the sink.

But you know what, he jumped in, he came alongside me, and he washed them as I cooked.

And you know what God does when we’re seeking to give him honour, to bring him a gracious return on his investment?  He comes alongside us in our weaknesses – in fact, his strength is made perfect in our weakness – and he multiplies his blessings, as those who are faithful in little suddenly find ourselves supported by Him as we learn to be faithful with much.

“Holding our own” is burying the investment in the ground.

My brothers and sisters, as this church looks at our ministry in our community, the message is clear:  it’s not enough to just keep going, to dig our inheritance out of the ground and hand it back to God as we found it.  No, God expects more – He expects interest paid to His glory from what He’s given St. John’s!

The good news is that, if we open the little treasure chest of opportunities and potential that is ours, and instead of burying it in the ground, or holding on tight, we invest it in the thousands of souls around us who aren’t living to God’s glory, you know what we’ll find?  Our merciful Father will come alongside us, he’ll give his strength for our many weaknesses, and before we know it, right before our eyes, we’ll find that once we’ve been faithful with a little, he’ll entrust us with more, and he’ll empower us to use it to his glory.

Let’s go all in – the field is ripe, and the time for the investment of our time and energy is now… for we never know when we’ll be called to give an account. 

To God be the glory, now and forever more.  Amen.

Looking back, Worrying Forward.

People everywhere are obsessed with endings.

I think it’s part and parcel of life in this messy world that our focus naturally tends to be on things coming to an end.

As we go through struggles – big and small, as communities and as individuals – our minds and hearts drive us to ask “when will this end?”

Ugh. When will this pandemic be over so life can get back to normal?”  “When will the news finally talk about something besides the election and the virus?”  Or, “with nations so divided on politics, race, and economics, what’s going to happen?  How will this end?

When will our struggles be over?

And it’s not just struggles that cause us to focus on endings. 

When something that is great, something that we’ve enjoyed and has done much good is coming to the end of it’s course, our first instinct is to focus on the ending.  Our gut reaction is to cling on to things until the bitter end, to become defensive or maybe even put on a mask of denial, as we become so focused on preventing the end of a good thing that it’s no longer good anymore.  So often we become so wrapped up in clinging on to good things that they’re no longer enjoyable, and our human instinct turns the victory, the “well done” at the end of a race into a bitter, dreadful defeat instead.

Our human instinct is to focus on endings; our human instinct is to grasp at things, to cling on to things that are passing away.

And sometimes we become so focused on the ending that we miss the blessing right in front of our eyes, like someone with their family gathered around the table, laughing and telling stories over a feast of good food and wine, yet the host is so focused on the end that they can’t help but to get up, rush to the kitchen and do the dishes, rather than enjoy the real blessing of family, friends, and food that is right in front of them.  Focusing on, even worrying about endings always draws us away from the blessings – and opportunities – that God has given us today.  I was going to insert a Bible verse about not being anxious about tomorrow, but there were just too many to choose from – at least 24 times in scripture we are told not to worry about what the future will bring, but to instead focus on being faithful today, here and now.

We like to focus on endings.  But God isn’t the God of endings. 
No, He is the author of new beginnings.

A Lesson from Thessalonians

In First Thessalonians chapter 4, the church there had written to Paul, anxious about endings.  Some of their members had died, their mortal lives had ended, and that was consuming their energy.  They wrote to Paul with great anxiety, consumed by grief, and when they came together, their focus, their conversation, their only concern was thinking about the good old days, and longing for the day when they would see those loved ones again. 

Their obsession with endings became a temptation, as they turned away from the blessings God had given them – and the work they had been given to do – and instead became a people gathered to look back and worry forwards.

And Paul writes to them and says, ‘yes, grieve – absolutely!’  “But don’t grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).  Of course endings are painful, but we’re not a people of endings.  The entire story of Salvation – your Bible, cover to cover – is the story of those who have messed up, who have missed God’s blessings, who have forgotten their God-given task of drawing others in, who have gotten themselves into a situation where the only earthly response is to dig in, put up your defences, and wait for defeat.

But if we read scripture as the message of God presiding over endings, our eyes have been clouded by our human instinct to look back and worry forwards. 

No, “behold, I am making all things new”.  “Even heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word will not pass away”.  Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane, “but the word that proceeds from God’s mouth will not return to Him empty; it will accomplish what God desires, and it will achieve the purpose for which He sent it.”[1]

God gives new beginnings – time and time again.  In every situation we may see an ending, and yes, it may be painful, but if we can focus on the moment in which God has called us – not yesterday’s successes or failings, not grasping on to tomorrow, but trusting God and, most importantly, living faithfully here and now, we will come to see that yes, this sinful world and the consequences of past actions bring endings, but God presents us new opportunities each morning, if we’re willing to change our focus.

…and that proper perspective changes everything.

Even this week, as we celebrate Remembrance Day, there are those who would follow that human gut instinct, and focus on the dwindling number of veterans, on the shrinking number of people who are willing to serve their community in even the smallest ways, let alone answer the call of duty and lay down their lives for their friends.

But when we look to the past, we only become defensive and lose the opportunity God has given us in the present.  Remembrance Day – originally Armistice Day – was never about the end of fighting; it was about the beginning of peace.  We don’t need any help to focus on fighting, but to begin to work for peace – that’s a different matter, and one that calls all of us to put aside past glories and past differences, give up defensiveness about tomorrow, and instead, make a difference today.

The Gospel, God’s story of salvation, is a story of new beginnings, new opportunities every day, with every step as we follow.  But only if we’re willing to re-focus.  As Jesus calls us to scatter seeds and grow his kingdom, he gives a stern warning.  In Luke 9 he says straight up: “anyone who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for service in the kingdom of God” (vs. 62)

Our instinct is to see – and fear – endings, but God offers new beginnings.

Finish Lines and New Beginnings

My friends, this church is entering a season when we are called to re-evaluate and re-focus our mission and ministry.  What have we built on the foundation we inherited, a foundation once so overflowing that they poured a new one to expand, but which now, on the best of weeks, welcomes in 1.5% of our town… or, to put it another way, doesn’t reach 98.5% of our neighbours.

As those called to make disciples, as we look around this very room at our 3 services today, who have we raised up who will not just carry on, but grow and expand the spread of the Gospel in Fort Smith 10 years from now, or even 5 years from now? 

And there’s real grief in that: some of us, some who have done so much, won’t be here.  But as Paul says, don’t grieve as those without hope.

This is not about the past, and it’s not about the future, but who are we forming today to build on our foundation, to pick up the torch, and continue our God-given task as we as individuals come to the end of our race.

These are important conversations, and they challenge us because our instinct is to focus on endings.

Our instinct is to look back and cling on with all that we have to put off the ending that clouds our vision.

Our human instinct tells us that we need to balance the budget, so we should fundraise: but God never called us to fundraise for the Kingdom: he called us to grow the Kingdom.  Fundraising is looking back and worrying forwards, a distraction – or even an excuse – to avoid carrying out the work God has given us to do.

Our human instinct tells us to draw someone younger in so they can learn to do what we do and keep it going.  But again, that’s looking back and worrying forwards. 
God’s will is that old people would dream dreams of a future bigger and brighter than we could even imagine; not that the young carry on in our footsteps, but that they have a vision and follow in Christ’s footsteps, and we rejoice as each generation of faithful followers reach out to a confused and changing world and draw them in, not to rebuild what once was, but knowing that the God of new beginnings will always do something more glorious if we can stop worrying, get out of the way, stop looking back, and follow where he leads.

…But we have to be willing to put aside our focus and fear of endings, and instead trust that every day, every moment, is an opportunity for a new beginning.

An End of an Engagement or the Start of a Marriage?

In Matthew 25 there were 10 maidens going to a wedding.  Five of them were focused on endings – they filled up their lamp so they wouldn’t get lost in the dark, walked to the banquet hall, and focused on when the wait would be over and they could go in.

Five of them were focused on new beginnings.  They came with their lamp, but they knew it wasn’t about the wait.  Their focus wasn’t on the engagement being over; no, their focus was on the all night party that the master had planned.  They brought their lamp, but brought an extra flask of oil so they could party all night long in the light!

Those who focused on the ending got the ending they were hoping for, but weren’t prepared for the reward.  What should have been the victory at the finish line became a bitter end as the lamp went out and the guy at the door couldn’t even tell who they were anymore.  Those who knew that the Master always goes over the top and does more than they can imagine didn’t get an ending, but the start of something amazing, not just through the night, but spilling over into the bright new day that followed.

Friends, as we look around, as we come to the end of the budget year and prepare for an Annual General Meeting in January, we begin a season of conversations, not about budgets, buildings, traditions, the past, and the fear of endings, but about mission and ministry, about an inheritance that we received, and our task to raise up and grow the Church so that God makes it even more than we can imagine; as we do that, I call us, as your Rector, to remain focused.

Let’s not look back and worry forward.  Let’s not defend what we have and work to prevent endings.  No, let’s get to work, let’s enjoy every new opportunity.  And when something nears the finish line, as will happen to each of us, and every program, and every group, and every kingdom and nation under heaven, let’s celebrate what God has done, and grow from strength to strength as those who know, with full certainty, that God is the author of new beginnings, and it’s He who makes all things new.

To God be the Glory, now and forever more.   Amen.

[1] Revelation 21:5, Matthew 24:35, “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, Isaiah 55:11

Photo from

Saints: Called to do the Impossible*

On this day the Church throughout the world celebrates the saints of God.  While we know from scripture that all of us – every baptized believer – is called to be a saint, set apart and equipped for the service of God, on this day we take encouragement in those who have gone before, those who are now at rest and who have joined that great cloud of spectators, praising God and cheering us on as they eagerly await the time when God will make all things new.

Of course, the Church remembers hundreds of saints throughout the year. If you have one of the lovely church calendars, you see that, most days, there’s the name there of someone who, while certainly not perfect, served God faithfully, repented when they missed the mark, and left a legacy of faithful service for the Church to follow.  (In fact, if you haven’t done it before, I encourage you to Google those names; every one of them is an encouragement, as each of them shows us an example of what it means to follow Jesus in the midst of a messy, broken world.)

But this feast of All Saints makes the point that it’s not just the recognized heroes of the faith who are part of that great cloud of witnesses.  No, the vast majority of the saints of God are ordinary people like you and me who sought to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and flowing out from that, loved their neighbour as themselves.  The great news of this day is that it’s not just Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that are at rest, praising God and cheering us on; no, every faithful Christian: that caring, Christian Grade 2 teacher who patiently spent the time to set you on the right path; that faithful, cheerful old man who always made time to speak to you, to let you know that you mattered, and to give you a word of encouragement; that stranger, in your life for mere moments, whose actions showed you God’s love and mercy at the exact moment you needed it – though they had no idea the impact it made; even that faithful, prayerful great aunt, raised in the depression, who kept her tables covered in plastic,  lovingly covered every chair to protect the fabric, and insisted that you always use a coaster, who taught the whole family, by example, to really know that every single thing you have is a blessing from God: all of them are saints at rest. 

Today we celebrate, and focus in on the examples and encouragement they are to us who are still running our race, and we thank God for those who, in every age, show us what it means to live by grace and to follow in the footsteps of Christ.

How do we follow their example?

First, let me offer this brief statement.

Saints are called to do what is humanly impossible,
not to earn a reward,
but to imitate Christ
with their abundant, over-flowing life.

Saints are called to do what is humanly impossible. 
And we are all called to be saints.

I think it’s important, especially in extraordinary times like these, to be clear about this. 

As we know, this pandemic isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon that we started running without even knowing where the finish line might be.  Are we nearing the end?  Are we only half way?  What surprises lie around the next corner?  We just don’t know.

Some have the instinct, the gut reaction to feel the adrenaline pumping and jump into action, caring for those around them; some have the instinct to retreat and conserve emotional and physical energy, not knowing what the future holds.  But listen to this: as Christians, as those called to be saints, we are called to do what is humanly impossible.

Jesus said “give all that you have and follow me”, and the disciples, like the rich man, got depressed and said ‘Lord, are you sure?  That’s a hard saying.  What’s the point?  Who can even be saved?’  But Jesus looked at them, calling them away from focusing on their own weakness, and said “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”.[1]

The saints aren’t those who have mustered up all their own strength to serve God. 

The saints aren’t those who are ‘trying their best’ or ‘giving their all’ in a difficult situation.

No, the saints recognize, right off the bat, that the task in front of them is absolutely impossible. 
The saints are those who know, right from the outset, that there’s no way I can do this. 

The saints are those who see what needs to be done, who sees the road laid out before them, and instead of taking a deep breath and giving it their best, they know, they even embrace, deep down, that ‘with man, this job, this task is going to be impossible; so it can’t be me, it’ll have to be God working in me, for with God, all things are possible.’

So much of the Christian life is simply and absolutely impossible on our own.  It’s not natural for the poor to feel blessed, for the meek to inherit the earth, for those who seek righteousness to be satisfied in an unjust world, for those who are persecuted to rejoice and be glad.[2]  With man these are impossible.  You’d wear yourself out trying, and wind up bitter, anxious, and depressed.  It’s only with God’s help that we can follow in Christ’s footsteps.

And, you know what my friends?  Thanks be to God, we’re doing the impossible!

Let’s be honest: we’re a small church filled with grey heads and little kids.  This time last year, we had just started our Kids’ Club and Community Dinners, and a lot of those parents who were reaching out were asking “where’s the Anglican Church?”.  Young people, parents living in this small town had never even noticed that we were here.

And now – in a pandemic – we’re doing the impossible. Bellies are filled.  Walls of isolation and despair are broken down.  Mountains of crippling debt that keep people enslaved are cast down as they access the money they are due.  People are finding the support they need.  People are finding hope in a time when it’s easy to give up.

The Saints are called to do what is humanly impossible – because it’s not us. 

Seriously, we’re having trouble meeting our budget.  We can’t feed the poor, we can’t free people from debt.  For us, that’s impossible.  But with God – all things are possible.

You know, that’s something I wish I could tell more people, but those who aren’t Christians just don’t get it.  I can’t tell you how many times I hear “wow, I don’t know how you do it.  Where do you get the time?  Do you ever sleep?  I barely have energy to get out of bed”.  But learning to be a saint isn’t about being a hero, or pretending to be perfect.  It’s not about drumming up energy and drive and purpose within ourselves.  It’s the exact opposite.  God presents an opportunity and we say, “I don’t think we can do that”; but if it’s God’s will, he will make a way, and before you know it we are doing the impossible. 

The Saints are called to do what is humanly impossible…

…but not to earn a reward.

All of the saints throughout the history of the Church point to this one reality: they – and we – don’t love God and neighbour to earn God’s blessing or the hope of heaven.  No, we just don’t have it in us to earn God’s favour; the second we start doing good, our pride kicks in, and suddenly we’re not serving others, but ourselves.[3]

No, as we read this morning, the saints at rest aren’t singing and chanting “we did it, we did it”.  Not at all.  It’s the opposite.  The saints are singing and cheering “salvation belongs to God.”[4] It was impossible, but God did it!  To God be the glory, great things he has done, and thanks be to God, he even let someone like me be part of his plan.

We don’t do it to earn a reward…
…but to imitate Christ

Jesus said to all the saints: “take up your cross and follow me”, “if you try to save your life, you’ll lose it; if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll save it.” 

It’s only as we lay down our dependence on ourselves, as we lay down our worries and anxieties – and even our hope and dreams – about tomorrow, and commit to simply live faithfully here and now, we find that the cross – the burden that demands our everything – is so much lighter than the load we were carrying before. 

The saints don’t do the impossible because of their heroic strength or courage or self-lessness.  God does the impossible through them simply because they’re willing to follow in the footsteps of Christ. 

Even our tiny-but-growing church can produce great things if we’re willing to just follow where he leads, instead of trying to predict the future or direct the path ourselves.  We know, and can trust, that whatever we do for our neighbours in Jesus’ name – a meal, mitts for cold hands, an encouraging word, an invitation to come and see what God is doing – is done for Christ, serving him to his glory. 

And, as we serve God that way, as saints doing what is humanly impossible, not to earn a reward, but to imitate Christ, we find that our who life takes on a different shape.

God didn’t say “serve me, try really hard, and fall into bed, wiped out at the end of the day”.  No, that’s the world’s message.

Jesus came to bring abundant life; the message of the Gospel is that our cups can run over, as God’s love for us spills over into our love of God spill, and that spills over into love of our neighbours.  The “blessedness” of the beatitudes, the freedom from hunger and thirst and the weariness of the heat of the day isn’t just something that awaits us when we die.  No, the saints learn that, as we imitate Christ in worship and giving and serving, we find ourselves with more, not less. 

In my own life, on the busiest days, the days with the least time, the more I stop and pray, the less I have to be anxious about… and it all gets done, to God’s glory. 

When I’m tired and want a break, when I offered my tired self to God instead of dwelling on whatever real complaint I might have, I find rest, and might even find the energy to get away, get outside, and get some fresh air.

And, when I know there’s simply nothing more I can do, that it’s impossible for me to help those around me, and instead of trying my hardest, instead of cooking up a solution, I simply offer myself to God’s service, suddenly, God does the impossible.

With God, all things are possible.

In these absolutely tiring, anxiety-causing times, we praise God for the example of those who have gone before us.  None of us have walked this path before.  But, thanks be to God, countless saints have served God through plague and pestilence, and have given themselves, allowed themselves to be used to God’s glory in times far worse than these.

It’s my prayer that, through this, generations will learn anew what it means to trust in God, to simply give up trying our best, to give up trying to earn God’s love, and simply follow Christ and let God use us to do more than we could ask or imagine.

To God be the Glory, now and forever more.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 19:23-37

[2] Matthew 5:1-12

[3] Article XIII of the 39 Articles of Religion

[4] Revelation 7:10

Love the Lord first. Go all in. Love isn’t scarce; God provides.

Speak to all the congregation of God’s chosen people and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Leviticus 19:1

You shall be holy.

One of the eye-opening moments we had while studying the scriptures last Tuesday evening was realizing that, as far as the Bible is concerned, we are saints.

That’s worth saying again: according to the Word of God, we – you and me, right here, right now, are the saints of God.

Time and time again the scriptures make the point that there are no rankings among those who follow Jesus; after all, what point would that be if the first will be last and the last will be first?  No, all of us – whether we’ve learned through a life of careful discipleship to live and speak and act in imitation of our Lord, or whether we’re more prone to miss the mark, stumble, and accept our Lord’s outstretched hand of forgiveness once again – all of us are called by the same name: saints.

And that’s an important, even crucial point.  No matter how successful you’ve been at following Jesus last week; no matter how many times you did or didn’t remember to give thanks for what God has given you; no matter how many times you did or didn’t take a few minutes out of your day to read and hear God’s Word; no matter how many times you did or didn’t put someone in need ahead of your own best interests; no matter how many times you did or didn’t offer forgiveness and release yourself and your brother or sister from the weight and bitterness of their sin; no matter how many times you did or didn’t open your mouth to speak the Good News of new life in Jesus, and go to make disciples of all nations – no matter how we did with that, there’s no escaping this one point: all of us have the same job description in God’s eyes. 
We are saints.

To the Saints of God:

The word “saints” simply means “holy ones”, and the Word of God is clear: that’s the only option, the only position available for those who have been baptized.  While we’ve made all sorts of excuses through the years, and have come up with all sorts of reasons why only some followers of Jesus are called to be holy – the Mother Theresa’s of the world – the truly remarkable, and downright frightening reality is that, in the eyes of God, none of those human excuses hold any water.  As a baptized member of the Church, God looks at me and sees Alex, his child, called to be a saint.

God looks at you.  God looks at _____ and sees his child, whom he has called to be a saint.  He looks at _____ and sees his child, called to be a saint.  God looks at each of us, just as one day we will stand before God, and he sees one whom he has called to be a saint.

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel” – not just the leaders, not just the most devoted, not just the elders, all the congregation, “and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

God, in his awesome mercy, makes no distinctions when he makes us part of his family; and this is where the scriptures say the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: the Lord looks at us as those who are called to be his holy ones… and how have we done with that? 

This is why, once all our excuses are stripped away, we can proclaim without reservation that all – even the most ‘saintly’ among us – have fallen short of the glory of God; that all of us – even the most ‘saintly’ – need the mercy of God; that none of us, no matter how hard we try, can ever earn a place in the Kingdom of God apart from complete and total dependence on Jesus: the only way is to follow where he leads.

You shall be holy.

The Lord sees us, and has called us to be, his saints, his holy ones
But what does it mean to be holy?

Holiness means, simply, “set apart”.  The call to be holy is the call to be, simply, set apart.  This building is holy – it is set apart for the worship of God, for fellowship, and the equipping of the saints for our mission in the world.  This holy table is holy because it is set apart – that means it isn’t used like other tables, to fill our bellies, or as a place to hold our coffee while we chat; it’s set apart for the glory of God; it’s holy

The Bibles in our pews and in our homes are holy – at least I hope they are – because they are set apart from the other books on our shelves.  No, it’s not about their location, that they should be kept somewhere special; not at all.  But the Bible is holy, or at least it should be, because of how we read it.  Other books we read once and then put down, but the Bible is set apart – we’re called to read it daily.  Other books we read to hear the thoughts of human authors, but the Bible is set apart, we read it as God’s word to us, with the prayer that it will shape our thoughts, words, and actions.

So what does it mean that God expects you to be holy? 
What does it mean for us to be set apart?

If we are set apart as those who give glory to God it means that we no longer live for ourselves, but for God.  Now that’s a tall order; so tall an order that people through the ages have done well in dreaming up excuses for why only some are called to live that way, as we imagine all the ways we can try to get ourselves off the hook by separating the ‘professional’ Christians from the lay people, or putting the elite followers of Jesus on a pedestal to try and excuse ourselves for just being ‘average’ disciples.

No, there’s a lot more to that first and greatest commandment than meets the eye. 
If we’re to be holy as God is holy, it starts by loving the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  It demands my all.

We can’t be half-holy.  Think about it: something can’t be sort-of set apart.  It’s either set apart, or it isn’t. 

That’s the fundamental teaching of Jesus, summarizing all the Law and the Prophets.  We have to learn to love God first, and to do it whole-heartedly and single-mindedly. 

If we love God first, if we love the one who Created all that is, who desires our redemption, who reaches out to us in mercy, and who is himself the source of love, then a good and holy love of our family, friends, neighbours, and even our enemies will flow out of that.  But if we love God with anything less than our all, then we aren’t set apart.  Remember, there’s no such thing as half-holy; if I love God, but love myself more, or I love my freedom, or my own desires, or my ability to provide for my family and bring happiness to others around me, if I love anything more than God, then my heart, soul, and mind aren’t holy

I think, often, we’re afraid to go all the way.  It could be trusting God, it could be finally forgiving someone who has hurt us, it could be letting go of a habit or attitude that has become comfortable like an old friend.  We’re afraid that if we actually go for it, we’ll lose control and won’t be able to get it back.  But, God has already called you to be one who has gone all the way – one who is set apart, one who is holy. 

God says ‘love me first’, not that we become no fun, or we become so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good; not that we become like some of those crotchety caricatures of self-righteousness that have sometimes been seen as ‘saintly’ as an excuse for why the rest of us don’t live that way. 

Sometimes I think we’re afraid that if we go all-in, we’ll no longer have enough love or enough time or enough energy for the things that already matter to us.  We say, I barely have time or energy for what I have to do now, how can I possibly add another relationship, another concern, another daily task of reading and praying to that list?

But, God says love me first, and love me completely, all in. 

And, contrary to all our fears, we find we then share in that overflowing, never-ending source of love itself.  All our concerns that keep us from loving God fully assume that love is scarce, that we only have so much to go around.  And that’s true, if we’re trying to drum it up within ourselves; but God’s plan for you to be holy is the opposite; if we finally go for it, we find ourselves tapped in to the source itself.

…and it’s only then that the second part of that commandment is truly possible.  It’s only then, when we’ve put all our anxiety and reservations aside and have put God first, and have set ourselves apart for his glory, that we can ever truly love our neighbours as ourselves.

As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of love, we can’t imagine wasting it on our enemies.  As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of mercy, we could never imagine wasting it on those who have hurt us.  As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of wealth, we could never imagine giving joyfully to anyone in need, even those who would take advantage of us.  As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of energy, we can barely imagine getting through the day and making time to say a few prayers, let alone giving up our lives to his service.

But if we allow ourselves to be set apart, if we allow ourselves to be as God calls us to be, we suddenly find that He supplies what we need; He makes the way; He makes us holy as we learn to love him with all our heart, soul, and mind.

You see, that’s the other misconception with holiness. 

Holiness isn’t something we earn; holiness isn’t something we do, or try with all our might to produce within ourselves.

“Be holy” simply means “be set apart”. 

Let yourself be set apart for God’s purposes.  Learn, by grace, to go all-in and love God first, with all the love we think we can drum up.  And, as we do that, as we allow ourselves to be set apart, it produces holiness, and God provides.

Suddenly the love of neighbour isn’t a chore; as we grow into the likeness of Christ, we learn that holding that grudge only binds us to that past sin, and we learn to forgive; before we know it, we can’t imagine why we ever thought love, or time, or energy was a scarce thing to be hoarded, because we’re tapped into the source of it all, just as God desired.

My friends: God says that you and I are saints.  That’s your job description.  This week, let that sink in. Have we let ourselves be set apart, or are we trying to be half-holy, holding something back, lest we run out?

This week, or perhaps even this morning, in this holy place, at this holy table, as we eat this holy food for a holy people, lets be holy; let’s go all in, finally hold nothing back, and love God with all that we have.  I guarantee, because God promises, that we’ll taste and see that the Lord is good, and be happy and blessed as all those are who trust in him.

 Saints of God: be holy, for the Lord your God is holy.  Amen.