Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas Observations and a Couple of Questions

Growing up on the farm and going to the local one-room country school meant the Annual Christmas Programme. Solos, short plays, and heart-felt carol-singing in a packed little room with parents in parkas and screaming babies made it a wonderful time of the year.

Christmas Eve always meant the farm water-system breaking down after the church Sunday-School programme and then the men (and boys) going out in the -20C temperatures to pull out the long 100 ft. hose to the aquifer, unplug the jet filter, reseal the hose with boiling water, lower the hose back into the ground, prime the pump and then repeat whole the process again and again until the water system finally worked well again.

The peanut bags with Crackerjacks, WagonWheels, hard candy, a mandarin orange and some other nuts were always a highlight. I used to get 3 or 4 each Christmas.

My first Christmas married to Elaine was in Vancouver where we had a late supper with friends, went to Midnight Mass, and came back to open presents. Thus began our family tradition!

Christmas makes winter bearable.

Call me sentimental but Christmas isn't Christmas if the immediate family is not together at least part of the time.

Christmas trees are over-rated unless they are decorated with home-made ornaments.

The best conversations are spontaneous, not planned or calculated.

Food is a big part of the celebration but not necessarily the most important part. The crucial aspect of the table experience is the joint preparation in the kitchen. Making the meal is almost better than eating it.

The best meals include the right wine (not the most expensive).

Christmas music does not include Boney M.

The "Nine Lessons and Carols" service together with special music along traditional lines set in candlelight is an indispensable part of the Christmas celebration.

How many versions of Handel's Messiah deserve to be recorded?

Presents are over-rated unless they reflect the giver, not just the wishes of the recipient. The best presents come with love.

Gifts of money are always second-best but sometimes only the second-best will do.

A white Christmas is not welcome if it includes blizzards, -30C windchill, or ice-storms.

Welcoming and holding a newly-born infant at Christmas is almost more than the heart can take. It is truly a breath-taking experience.

Christmas is a poignant reminder of the people you miss.

If Christmas is so important, why have I forgotten most of them?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

"Watch and Wait" - A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

One of the very important aspects of the Church Calendar is to teach us as followers of Jesus how to measure our time. There is the sense among many of us (I know because I am like that myself) that from the first moments of our self-consciousness to the later years of our lives, we are carried along the tides of time with significant events or occasions (like marriage, the birth of a child, the death of a close friend or family member) occurring every so often to bring us to an awareness that perhaps there is more to life than just the passage of time. The Church Calendar places us in a context of faith, of history, of purpose and meaning, from a Christian perspective. The Church Calendar reminds us not to forget or neglect certain important aspects of what we have affirmed or, when we think of it, what we still affirm about our understanding of who we are in the light of God’s revelation to us in Jesus Christ.

Advent marks the beginning of the Church year and anticipates the time of celebration of Christ’s Nativity, the birth of Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph and recognized as the The Coming One, God Incarnate. And while we look back and commemorate Christ’s birth more than 2000 years ago in very humble circumstances, we look forward to the return of Christ and the world is again set to rights. The word Advent means “coming” and so we remember and look forward at the same time. Our texts are meant to help us do that.

God’s intention for the world and the reality of the world are two different things. And yet God’s intention breaks through in surprising and extraordinary ways throughout our lives. C.S. Lewis called it “joy.” Christmas is a recognition of that “joy” which we recognize and celebrate once a year. Our texts this morning give us two different pictures in how to think of our Advent season and what it is intended to mean for us.

In the Old Testament text set for today, Isaiah 11:2-5, the prophet offers a vision of God’s intention where a nation so often the object of prey for the ravenous empire-building nations around it would live in peace and harmony.  The impulse for destruction would become the desire for construction. The determination to kill would give way to the instinct to nurture. The instruments of war would be melted down and made to be implements of peace. Pronouncements of judgments and justice would be given from one who made heaven and earth; teaching would go forth and people would learn what is right and what is true. From death to life itself.

From this picture in Isaiah, we are then confronted with the Gospel text found in Matthew 24: 36-44 that offers a much different picture. Jesus speaks to his disciples about events which are yet to happen and warns them accordingly. In Chapter 26 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus speaks in what has been described as apocalyptic language. “Apocalyptic” has been notoriously difficult for our modern minds to comprehend and to interpret accurately. “Apocalypse” means revelation and this text has been variously interpreted by Christian scholars over the ages. Sometimes it helps to contextualize the words in order to understand them.

We have often understood these words of Jesus to refer to events which Jesus never had in mind although some Christians think that Matthew was already looking further ahead. Some Christians see in our text a warning to be ready for the second coming of Jesus, reading the first part of the chapter as a picture of Jesus, not as his vindication and exaltation into heaven but as his return to earth. We have been promised in Acts 1 and in many other texts that one day, when God remakes the entire world, Jesus will reappear and, because no one knows when that is, we are to be ready at all times.

Other Christians read this passage as a warning to readers to be prepared for their own death. Whatever we think happens immediately after death, (and many Christians have disagreed over these details, we should be, in principle, prepared for that great step into the unknown. That is why we are encouraged to keep short accounts with God through regular worship, prayer, reading of Scripture and other of the spiritual disciplines.

But Matthew seems to have a different purpose. Jesus here tells his disciples that a great crisis was going to sweep over Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside at a date unknown to them but which we now know to be 70AD at the climax of the war between Rome and Judaea. Something was going to happen which was going to devastate the lives, families, communities and yet at the same time be seen as the coming of the Son of Man, the royal appearing of Jesus himself and which would end in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

There are three stages to the point this passage makes: No one knows exactly when this will be; only that it will occur within this generation; normal life will go on right up to the last minute; and, like Noah’s time, people will carry on with normal living before calamity carries everything away.This event will divide families and colleagues right down the middle. “One will be left and the other taken.” The picture here is not that it is good to be taken away but rather that the one remaining behind will be the one spared. Others will be killed or kidnapped or perhaps worse. Whatever the case, the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was a time of emergency and fraught with danger.

These words ring loudly in our time as well. We live in turbulent and dangerous times. Who knows what will happen next week, or next year? But we as the church are urged to remain vigilant, to remain alert, to wait in expectation. Advent is a time when we are taught to remember, to stay awake. Not to worry but to wait expectantly for the coming of God. How will you wait expectantly this Advent? Some of us are already attuned to do that in ways we might otherwise not recognize. Failing health, illness, fragility of parents, broken relationships, loneliness, and other difficult aspects of our current situation can help us to remain alert, to wait expectantly for God to come to us in our need. But they can also create barriers. Pain and suffering can drown out our best intentions. We seem always on the verge of belief and unbelief. In the Book of Common Prayer, the “Prayer for the Use of a Sick Person” seems perfectly to the point:

This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. If I am to do nothing, help me to do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

In the words of Stanley Hauerwas, we need to learn to live eschatologically, in the light of eternity, in the "time between the times.” Our time is changing. The time of Christendom may be coming to an end.  While the institutions may still be present, they no longer carry as much weight as they once did in the community. When you look into the future, are you filled with hope or do you have a sense of foreboding? One thing is certain; circumstances will become more difficult. For example, last night I heard some powerful words and voices speaking to the need for a change in the relationships between the indigenous peoples and the so-called “settlers”. The anger of the indigenous peoples at the treatment they have received at the hand of the colonial authorities is palpable. The fact that many of us immigrant peoples have been knowingly or unknowingly complicit in this injustice requires us to listen and hear the pain and anger. What this will mean I do not know but I know it is time we listen to one another with open ears and hearts. Living eschatologically means living transparently in the knowledge that at any time we will be called to account for who we are and what we have done. 

Let us listen again to St Paul writing to the church in Rome:

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.