samuel

Eli and the boy Samuel

Feast Day: Second Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9)

All of our readings this morning speak of the inescapable calling of God. God seeks people out and calls them into relationship with himself, reorienting their lives and giving them a new vocation. And if you are here this morning, it is probably because God has called you in baptism and is calling you by his word even now to live out that new vocation, as a child and servant of God. This morning I want us to take a few moments to look at both Samuel and Nathanael to see how God calls those both near and far to be his followers.

First, notice how in our readings the word of God searches people out and calls them. The boy Samuel is sleeping in the temple of God when he hears his name, “Samuel! Samuel!” and off he runs to Eli. But it was not Eli that was calling Samuel. Three times this happens before Eli realizes that it is the Lord that is calling. God himself, searches out the boy Samuel and calls him into new life.

Likewise with Philip and Nathanael in our Gospel reading. There was Philip, minding his own business, and we are told that Jesus, “found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” This passage in John’s gospel always gives me a bit of a chuckle because it is clear that Jesus found Philip. However, when Philip runs off to find Nathanael what does he say? We have found him about whom the Scriptures are written. But the truth of the gospel is that God does the finding. He searches out, he finds, and he calls us into new life.

Who does God call? He calls those who are very near as well as those who are far off. That’s what we see here with Samuel and Nathanael. Let’s look at Samuel first. Samuel was the son of a woman named Hannah who was the second wife of a man named Elkanah. Now, Hannah was barren and unable to bear children but she cried out to the Lord in her distress. She made a vow to God. If God looked upon her misery and gave her a son then she would offer the son back to God to be his servant forever.

Now Hannah did bear a son and after the child was weened she brought him to the temple and prayed to the Lord: “For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” And then she went home and left her son Samuel there in the temple (1:27-28).

My reason for recalling this episode at the beginning of Samuel’s life is to tell you that Samuel literally grew up in the temple of the Lord. And yet, when the Lord called him Samuel did not recognize his voice for, “the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”

There is an important point for us just here. It is possible to be very near to God and yet have difficulty recognizing the voice of God. Don’t get me wrong, going to church is extremely good and you should go to church. But simply showing up does not mean that you are growing in your faith as God wants you to be. In order to grow in your faith, in order to grow in your knowledge of God and your love of him, you have to tune your ears to be able to distinguish his voice.

This is difficult because as the Roman Catholic Cardinal Robert Sarah says, “God does not speak, but his voice is quite clear.” His point is that it is only in silence that we can hear God’s voice. Do we not see this with Samuel as well? Where is Samuel when he hears God calling? “Lying down in the temple of the Lord.” Alone. Asleep. Silent.

I have been reading a provocative and challenging book by Cardinal Sarah, who I just mentioned called, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. In the first chapter he argues a few things that are relevant for us. First, he distinguishes between quiet and silence. Quiet is an absence but silence is not an absence. “On the contrary,” he writes, “it is the manifestation of a presence, the most intense of all presences.” Silence is the presence of God and we cannot know God apart from encountering him in silence. Every great Christian spiritual writer, from Bernard of Clairvaux to Thomas Merton, knows this truth.

And yet, writes Cardinal Sarah, we live in a time and place where silence is an increasingly rare commodity. Externally we are assaulted with noise and we take this in through our eyes and our ears until we are faced with an inescapable internal noise in our hearts and minds. This stifles our ability to hear God and to grow in our knowledge and love of him.

So, what to do? That great spiritual writer Thomas Merton encourages Christians to preserve or create times of silence in our homes and our lives in which God can be found. Throw out the television if necessary, he says! Bring up our children not to yell so much. Create actual places dedicated to silent contemplation: a corner of your bedroom, a retreat house, a church. “For many it would mean great renunciation and discipline to give up these sources of noise,” writes Merton. “But they know that is what they need.”[1]

Silence is difficult, but let me encourage you to resist the dictatorship of noise. Develop a taste for prayer. Read the Bible silently and diligently, daily if you can. And as you practice these spiritual disciplines, say along with Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” This Lent, as in Advent, we will be providing opportunities for you to be still and enter into the silence of God. More information will be made available in the coming weeks.

As we have seen with Samuel, God calls those who are near and he calls them in silence. The Latin word for “to call” is voceo from which we get the word vocation. That is to say, when God calls you he gives you a vocation. He gives your life a new orientation of love and service.

The Collect that we prayed together at the beginning of the liturgy sheds light on this for us: “May your people, illumined by your word and sacraments, shine with the radiance of his glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.” In other words, the new life into which God has called us is a life into which God is calling everyone, and he uses us to accomplish this.

Our gospel reading provides insight here. As we heard, Jesus found Philip and said to him, “follow me.” Then Philip went out and found Nathanael and invited him to “come and see” Jesus Christ. When Philip was called he was given a new vocation. Jesus enlisted him in his mission. Because here’s the thing: Jesus did not seek you out and find you just so that you can sit back content in being found. He found you so that you can go out and find someone else in his name. Indeed, I am sure that some of you are here this morning because one day someone invited you to, “come and see.”

What happens next in the gospel is wonderful. So, Nathanael says, “Alright, I’ll come and see what the fuss is about.” Then, as he and Philip approach Jesus, Jesus himself looks up and sees Nathanael coming and says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Taken aback, Nathanael asks him, “Where did you get to know me?” To which Jesus replies, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Jesus wants us to know something extremely important here. When he gives us a new vocation and uses us in his mission he is already out there ahead of us, tilling the soil, whispering to people in the stillness of their hearts and minds, though they know not who speaks. The work of evangelism begins with Jesus Christ seeking people out and “getting to know” them long before one of Jesus’ followers shows up and invites them to come and see. In the words of Saint Augustine: “My God, you had mercy on me even before I had confessed to you.”

This parish has been here as long as it has because ordinary people have met God in the silence of prayer and been enlisted in God’s mission to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to all people. If we’re going to be here in another 50 years it will not be apart from these practices. God knows you and he wants you to know him. Spend time with him in silence. Listen to him. And know that there are others out there that he is getting to know and that he may use you to reach. Amen.

Endnotes

[1] Sarah, The Power of Silence, 32.

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Feast Day: Christmas (at Midnight)
Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)

On Tuesday, May 8th, 1945 the headline on the front cover of The Daily Mail read: “VE-DAY—IT’S ALL OVER.” The subheading was, “All quiet till 9 p.m.—then the London crowds went mad in the West End.” It was Victory in Europe Day, marking the unconditional surrender of all German troops in Europe to the Allies. Winston Churchill made the announcement to the people of England that morning: “Our hostilities will end officially at one minute after mid-night tonight, Tuesday the 8th of May…We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing. Today is Victory in Europe Day…Long live the cause of freedom.” Celebrations promptly erupted throughout the world from Moscow to Los Angeles. In London more than one million people took to the streets for celebrations that lasted nearly two days.

Perhaps you’re wondering what I’m on about and what exactly this has to do with Christmas. Here is the point: Just as V-Day marks the announcement of an event that changed the course of world history and brought great joy to a great many people, so Christmas marks the announcement of a person and an event that changed the course of world history and brought great joy to a great many people. The person that is at the centre of Christmas is of course Jesus Christ and the event is God’s coming among us in the flesh of this newborn babe. This evening I want us, like the shepherds tending their flock, to make haste and gather around the Holy Family, to behold the child lying in the manger, to hear the announcement of his birth, and to contemplate and treasure these words in our hearts that a new life of faith, hope, and love might be born in us.

All of the readings from the Bible that we heard this evening help to illuminate the reality of Christmas. Saint Luke as we heard, situates the story in human history: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Odd details perhaps, except for the fact that they are not. Saint Luke is believed to have been a physician by trade and Biblical scholars note that his level of education is evident even in the eloquence and mastery of his writing. Luke begins his account of the gospel by telling the reader that, after carefully examining all of the facts for a long time, he is sitting down to write an “orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,” based upon information that was handed on to him and others by those who “from the beginning were eyewitnesses.” And what is the purpose of his writing? “So that you may know the truth concerning these things.”

Let me just pause at this moment and say that if you are here this evening and you are not really sure what you believe about all of this, Luke is writing to you. He is writing for those that are not entirely sure but are open to and hungry for the truth. If that’s you, I am so glad you’re here and I pray that the word of God would continue to illumine your heart and mind to the beauty and uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

So, after setting the context for us Luke then very quickly tells us the facts. A man named Joseph returned to his hometown of Bethlehem with the woman to whom he was engaged, Mary. Now Mary was expecting a child, a child that was not Joseph’s and Luke tells us that, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for him in the inn.”

All seemingly pretty ordinary. Except that it is not. For the next thing that Luke tells us is that there were some poor shepherds living in the fields nearby keeping watch over their flock. And in the middle of the night they get a message from God via an angel, the appearance of which terrifies them.

However, the message that the angel bears is anything but terrifying. The headline on the front cover reads, if you will: “Fear not! Good news of great joy for all people! To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And just what is the sign of this event, what is the sign of God’s coming to rescue all people? A child, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

The subheading read: “All quiet till 2 a.m.—then a crowd of angels went mad in the fields west of Bethlehem.” Or, as Luke tells it: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”

Glory to God and peace on earth. Peace. The message of Christmas is that God himself has come to us in the flesh of Jesus Christ to touch this broken world and to touch our broken lives and to heal them with his love and mercy. All of the misery and pain we feel when we look at a bent-out-of-shape world, will somehow turn to joy as this One straightens it out. The disorder we feel in our own lives, as we examine ourselves and realize our disappointments, our unfulfilled longings and desires, our own failures even, our sin—that this child will somehow bring all of that back into order. That all those who have been bound and terrorized by enemy forces will be liberated and set free. Long live the cause of freedom, indeed!

All of that and more is what Christmas announces. Saint Paul put it this way in one of the other readings we heard: “For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all,” (Titus 2:11). Christmas announces that the grace of God has appeared to all people. I love the image that the prophet Isaiah gave us that we heard as well: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined,” (9:2).

This is what Christmas announces, and it announces it as a matter of fact. None of this depends in any way on you or I. It does not matter if you believe it. It does not matter if you accept it. It does not matter if you are even aware of it. The proclamation is the same: God has been gracious to all. The sun has risen, light has shone, it is a new day.

And Luke wants us to know that all of this has happened in Jesus Christ. In the flesh of Jesus Christ, God has come to be with us. In the flesh of Jesus Christ, God has taken everything about what it means to be human and joined it to himself, infused it with his light and love. In the flesh of Jesus Christ, God has taken all of your pain, all of your sorrow, all of your weakness, all of your sin, and not yours only but that of the whole world, and he has entered into it and suffered it so that he might heal it. In the flesh of Jesus Christ God has, if you will, gone deep into enemy territory and made peace for every one of us and for you.

At the end of our reading from Saint Luke, he gives us another important detail. The shepherds indeed found Joseph and Mary and told them everything that the angel had made known to them. Everyone was filled with wonder. “But Mary,” Luke tells us, “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

Christmas is the announcement of a person and an event, of Jesus Christ and his coming to us. And the witness of Holy Scripture is that in this person and event God himself is with us, setting us free from everything that ensnares us so that we might live anew with him and come to know him as our Father. That God has done just this and done it for you, is good news. Whoever you are, wherever you are, in Jesus Christ the light has dawned.

But it does not stop there. God does not just write a few headlines for us to read and then move on from the next day. What God has done for you he wants to do in you. Christmas beckons us to respond in faith. Christmas invites us to receive God’s love for us and to offer it back to him in loving obedience.

So my prayer for you as you leave this place shortly, is that you keep these words in your heart and think about them, as did Mary. And that just as God generated new life in Mary’s womb, he would begin to generate a new life of faith, hope, and love in you as you come to know the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the whole earth…Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad,” (Psalm 96:1, 11). Amen.

annunciation

Feast Day: Advent IV
Readings: Luke 1:26-28; Romans 16:25-27

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

Most Christians have always held the Blessed Virgin Mary in high regard, loving and reverencing her, because as we heard in the words of Saint Luke this morning, Holy Scripture witnesses to the fact that she is “highly favoured” and “blessed amongst women.”

From the earliest times Christians have loved Mary not only as the mother of our Lord but also as our own mother. For example, consider the words of Jesus himself from the cross in John’s gospel: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home,” (19:26-27).

Setting aside some of the dogmatic statements about Mary that came much later on, which Protestants, sometimes reasonably, are nervous about, I want to say that we ignore Mary to the detriment of our own faith and witness.

Protestants can and should love and reverence Mary because to do so is to grow in our love of Christ. And we should love Mary not only because Jesus himself certainly loved her, and not only because she is our mother too, and not only because it is clearly Biblical to do so, and not only because she had a pivotal role in the Incarnation, but because she is the model for what a human response to God looks like: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” If we want to know what a life of faith looks like, we might contemplate Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and her bold proclamation of faith.

Yet, significantly, our lesson from Saint Luke that ends with Mary’s great proclamation of faith begins with God: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.” This is an important thread that will run throughout this sermon: faith begins with God. It is a gift of God that the Holy Spirit generates within us until it becomes, truly, our own response.

Mary’s response of faith to God’s word is just that, a response of faith to the word of God. In other words, God always initiates, always takes the first step, always condescends to us first in order that we might be raised up to him by faith. Wherever you are, God does not leave you there, he does not leave you alone but sends forth his word that it might generate in you a new life of faith, hope, and love. We’ll revisit this point shortly.

So then, Gabriel came to Mary and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” The word translated here “greetings” is literally, “rejoice.” Rejoice! Because the coming of God’s word to Mary and to you and I is always ultimately cause for rejoicing. That God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible should address us, draw near and make himself known to us in an intimate and personal way is cause for rejoicing. This exclamation—rejoice!—marks the beginning of our new life in Christ.

Indeed, God’s word to Mary generates new life in her, literally: “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” And for the second time in this brief conversation Mary is perplexed. She wants to know just how this is going to happen since she has never had relations with a man. She does not doubt God’s word, but rather asks how God’s promise will be fulfilled.

The conception of this child, says Gabriel, will be a work of the Holy Spirit who will overshadow her womb and create something out of nothing. Evoking, of course, the imagery and language of the Creation account in Genesis where the Spirit of God hovers over the formless void and brings forth life. The new life that will be generated in Mary will have a divine, not a natural, cause.

I think that what Jesus wants us to know here is that God’s power can overcome human incapacity. Our nature as human creatures is stained by sin which means that whatever capacity you have in yourself to love and trust God is severely limited. And yet, for God all things are possible. He is able even to overcome the barrenness of your heart and mind; able to generate faith and love in you where previously there was none.

That’s our story. Once we were alienated from God but now in Christ Jesus he has made us sons and daughters. Once we could not love God but now God has liberated us from the sin that ensnares us and has planted the seed of his love within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. And that seed is watered and grows up by the word of God.

Who do you know that does not yet know the love and mercy of Christ? What friend or family member? Picture just one person in your mind now. What if you committed to praying for that one person every day in 2018? What if you simply prayed that God would send his word to them and that the Holy Spirit would birth faith and love in them? What if you prayed for the power of God to overcome their incapacity, their anger, their apathy?

Or, perhaps you yourself long to grow in faith this coming year. That is my own prayer for you, for us. If you feel that your faith and love for Christ has reached capacity then let us pray that the Holy Spirit would lead us ever deeper into the mystery of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus.

In Saint Luke’s telling, it is only then, after we hear the word of God that we arrive at Mary’s response of faith, her consent to God’s will: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The Church Fathers said that Mary conceived through her ear, via her hearing and obeying God’s word, because it was through such obedience that the word of God became fruitful in her.

The faith of Mary is an example of the sort of faith and obedience you and I are called to as well. Here is what a perfect human response to God looks like. Not rational certainty or the absence of any questions (“How can this be?”) but rather pure trust: “Let it be with me according to thy word.” When you hear the word of God ponder it, meditate upon it, digest it, and give yourself over to it that you yourself might be fashioned into the likeness of the word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

From early on Mary came to be seen as a figure for the Church. So, let me ask a related question. Are we not in a time of need in our parishes, in our diocese, and in our church? Have we not experienced a crisis of faith and are we not facing ongoing moral crises that together have eroded the very fabric of the Anglican Church of Canada resulting in the narrative of church decline that we are all too familiar with? Indeed we are in a time of particular need and I believe that the Virgin Mary points us in the right direction.

If we long to see our churches turn around then that work will begin right here with you. I am absolutely convinced that you can and will lead the way for us. The revolution is not going to happen down at 135 Adelaide Street. Rather, it will happen right here in churches like this one, on the edges of the diocese both actually and metaphorically.

Moreover, the revolution will not come about thanks to a high-gloss Strategic Plan or many millions of dollars pumped into programming, though that all has its place. Here’s how it will happen. It will happen as you yourselves hear and receive God’s word, meditate on it in your hearts and minds, so that it generates faith within you, enabling you, like Mary, to embrace your vocation to be a “servant of the Lord.” This year, more than last, may we grow in our love and obedience to the word of God.

Now may God who is able to strengthen you according to the gospel of Jesus Christ, bring about in you the obedience of faith—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

Feast Day: Second Sunday in Advent
Readings: Mark 1:1-8; Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”

An important word for us on the First Sunday of Advent last week was vigilance. Advent, as we were reminded, is about the coming of Jesus Christ. His coming in the flesh at Christmas, his coming into our hearts by faith, and his coming again in glory to judge the world. And so in light of this we heard the call of the Scriptures to be vigilant.

Well if last week was about being vigilant in light of Christ’s coming, this week is about proclaiming that coming. That is to say, the Church exists to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. And the archetype for this in the Scriptures is John the Baptist (though I am sure he was an Anglican) who confronts us in our reading from St. Mark.

It is well known that the great 20th Century theologian Karl Barth had above the desk in his study a copy of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. In it the grotesquely disfigured body of Jesus Christ hangs on the cross. There are a number of other figures in the painting including the Mother of Our Lord and to the right stands John the Baptizer. With his left hand he holds open the Scriptures and with his right hand he points at the figure hanging there on the cross.

Grunewald_Isenheim1

In Barth’s 14-volume Church Dogmatics he reflects on the figure of John in Grünewald’s painting. Specifically he notes the finger of John that points to Christ. It is abnormally large as if to draw our eyes to it only to have our gaze almost immediately redirected to the object to which it is pointing—Jesus Christ. This is the calling of John the Baptizer; to point away from himself to Jesus Christ. And that is what it means to proclaim the gospel.

Here is Mark the Evangelist, and he commences his writing with the words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In doing so Mark wants his readers, us, to know something really important. See, Mark is a lot less concerned with the teaching of Jesus than the other Evangelists. What Mark is concerned with is the meaning of the appearance of Jesus Christ in history. What does it mean that Jesus Christ has come?

And immediately Mark connects the gospel of Jesus Christ with the prophet Isaiah, because the coming of Jesus Christ into the world is an event that we truly understand only as we begin to understand it in light of God’s word spoken to his people Israel.

The word that God spoke to his people he spoke through the prophets and our reading from Isaiah this morning gives us a glimpse into the nature of that word. It is a word of comfort and of tenderness (40:1-2). It is a word of judgement by which God will take this world and smooth out it’s rough edges (40:3-4). It is a word of promise, that God will gather his scattered people and will be with them (40:5). It is a word of God’s constancy and dependency in the face of a changing world: “All people are grass,” says Isaiah, “their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades,” (40:6-7). The grass withers and the flower fades, yes, “but the word of our God will stand forever,” (40:8).

God speaks to his people and he says I will not leave you weary, I will come to you, I will forgive you, I will redeem you, I will restore you, and everything that gets in-between you and I I will put away. To sum it up in the words of the Psalmist that we prayed together, God “will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts,” (85:8).

Are you feeling wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world? Are you anxious or worried about everything that lies outside of your control? Hear the word of the Lord to you, his word of comfort and peace, his invitation to come and find rest in his eternal changelessness.

Maybe this raises the question for you, “How can I hear God’s word?” Read the Scriptures. It’s no accident that Grünewald depicted John holding the Scriptures open with his left hand. They are not just addressed to people a very long time ago but to you and I today. The Bible is living and active, God’s communication of himself to us. So hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.

Like Isaiah, the nature of John’s own proclamation is to turn to God. To repent and to confess one’s sin is to return. It is to acknowledge that we all too often chose to depart from God’s loving way for our own way. To repent is to return to God, to return to the one that Jesus teaches us to call Father.

Mark wants us to know that this message, that God’s very own word to us, is tied intimately to Jesus Christ. That God’s word to us is Jesus Christ. That the word of God spoken through the prophets took on flesh in Christ. So the content of John’s proclamation, according to Mark is, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”

When John says, “I am not worthy” he is not being self-deprecating or wallowing in self-pity. He has been granted a glimpse of the incomprehensible mercy of God in Christ and is overwhelmed with the beauty of the gospel. That is why during Holy Communion we pray the Prayer of Humble Access only after we have recalled the forgiveness and love of God in Christ. We do not confess our own unworthiness when we are looking at ourselves but when we are looking at the beauty of Christ, his glory and grace. In the radiance of his light we can confess that nothing we could ever do could make us worthy of the grace of God, whose very nature simply is to have mercy upon us.

So John the Baptizer is out there in the wilderness with nothing to proclaim but Jesus Christ. And Mark tells us a little bit about John. Let’s just say he’s not exactly hip with the latest fashion and his personal hygiene could use some work. Why does Mark make a point of telling us this? Because Mark wants to emphasize the fact that the crowds that went out into the desert were not drawn out there because of John himself. It was not the beauty of John that drew them. No, rather, they were attracted to the beauty of John’s message. They were drawn to the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Alright, let me bring this home for us. Recall with me the painting of the crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald that I mentioned at the beginning. The one that hung above the desk in Karl Barth’s study. The one with John the Baptist and his disproportionately long finger. Well, in a reflection on that painting Barth argued that the Church is like the finger of John. In other words, we exist to point to Jesus Christ and him alone and any attention that we draw to ourselves ought to be re-directed to the beauty of Christ.

That is to say, the task of the Church, like John, is to proclaim the gospel. To prepare the world for the coming of Jesus Christ. To tell of his saving love for us and for all people and to exhort others to return to Christ, to embrace his love even as they are embraced by it.

Mark wants us to know that John is important but not for his own sake. And I want us to know that the Church is important but not for her own sake, but only insofar as she proclaims the gospel of Christ. This means that for us as a church everything we do needs to be seen and understood through the lens of the gospel. Because that’s our mission. That’s why we exist. To proclaim to the world the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God. To tell of his goodness and love. To say to one another and to the world: here is your God, here is the one that your heart desires and longs for.

In other words—and I’m not meaning to be insensitive but brace yourself—it’s not about you. When it comes to the church’s worship and work, it’s not about you. It’s so much more liberating when we realize this. We’re so used to judging the merits of something based on our own personal preferences. “Well I don’t really like that hymn.” “Well I just don’t like the way he preaches sometimes.” “I can’t stand that old Prayer Book.” “If we’re going to run that new outreach it had better meet my own needs somehow.”

The church exists to worship Christ and to make him know. So the question is not, “Do I like the liturgy?” but rather “Does the liturgy give me the vocabulary I need to faithfully worship God?” The question is not, “Does this outreach effort meet my own needs?” but rather “Does this help us to proclaim the gospel to our neighbours?” The gospel of Jesus Christ is standard by which we need to measure everything we do.

So, repeat after me: It. Is. Not. About. Me. Who is it about? Jesus Christ. His love. His mercy. His goodness. His beauty. His friendship. His worship. And here’s the thing. I know that might sound a little bit harsh but if we commit ourselves to being all about Jesus Christ, if we commit ourselves to growing in our love of him, if we commit ourselves to being a church that points away from herself to Jesus Christ, then that gives people a reason to leave the comfort that they know behind and to head out into the wilderness.

This Advent may we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. May we ourselves be transformed by God’s word and may we be always pointing each other and others to Jesus Christ. Amen.

Feast Day: Advent I
Readings: Mark 13:24-37; Isaiah 64:1-9

“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37)

Well today is the first Sunday of Advent. You can walk into just about any store and find that they are in Christmas mode. It’s the one month when Mariah Carey and Michael Bublé get more airtime than they do in the eleven other months combined. And if you’re like our family, regrettably, you may even have your Christmas decorations up at home already.

But this is Advent. You’re not going to get Advent in the shops but hopefully we can have Advent in our homes and churches. Because Advent is really important. Christmas is all about fulfillment, the promise of God to be with his people fulfilled in the flesh of that newborn babe. The wrapping paper on the presents under the tree finally torn open so that we can possess what we have been given.

That’s Christmas. But this is Advent. Advent is about promise not fulfillment. It’s not about ripping the paper off the gift but about the promise that one day a gift will be given. And so Advent, fittingly, is a season of expectation and anticipation for what is coming. Indeed, the word “Advent” means coming.

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”

Jesus Christ is coming again in glory to judge the world. Now, granted, that may sound strange. Certainly it is difficult to get our heads around just what that might look like. But we needn’t worry about the particularities we simply need concern ourselves with the fact of the matter that he is indeed coming.

It’s a central claim of the gospel. We prayed it together moments ago in the Collect of the Day: “…that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead…” We confess it weekly in the Creed: “And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.” And it forms our Eucharistic sensibilities as well, as we pray in the Great Thanksgiving: “…we thy humble servants, with all thy holy Church, remembering the precious death of thy beloved Son, his mighty resurrection, and glorious ascension, and looking for his coming again in glory…” And, as should always be the case, this faith is based on the words of Holy Scripture. Remember at the beginning of The Acts of The Apostles when Jesus Christ ascends into heaven leaving the disciples with strained necks, to which the angelic messengers responded, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven,” (1:11).

Jesus Christ is coming again in glory to judge the world, and the Church believes this. As such we are an Advent people. He will come and decisively appear and decisively act and decisively gather His people unto Himself. Holy Scripture has different names for this day: the Day of the Lord, the Last Day, the eschaton. So, when you find yourself crying out along with the prophet Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” (64:1) know that He will do so.

The Church lives and exists in the time between Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension and his coming again. We live in that space. We are a people who know Jesus primarily as the One who is coming to us. Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Jesus Christ is coming again in glory to judge the world. This is certain. But there is more, we have no idea when.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Nothing you or I or anyone can do can hasten that day or delay that day. That day will spring up suddenly and unexpectedly like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:2). That day is conditioned by nothing other than the sovereign decision of the Father in heaven. He alone knows. He alone will act and send His Son.

Jesus Christ is coming again in glory to judge the world, and we do not know when. This is the witness of Holy Scripture and of the Church. So, while that day will come about suddenly and unexpectedly it will not come as a surprise. Because we know the Scriptures and we know that God’s word to us in Jesus Christ is faithful and true.

So then, because we know this, because Jesus Christ has said he is coming again suddenly and unexpectedly our life as Christians ought to be characterized by what? Vigilance. Look at how many times in those few verses in Mark Jesus councils his followers to be vigilant: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” (13:32-33). “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly,” (13:34-36). “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake,” (13:37).

Jesus Christ is coming again. We do not know when. Therefore, keep awake. Watch. Be vigilant. Be alert. Be sober-minded. Be ready. Be expectant. I want you to really catch this. Here we are on the first day of the Christian year, the First Sunday in Advent, and what is the command? Keep awake! Some of you may have been drifting for a while now. Perhaps you’re getting a little bit drowsy and slowly drifting off to sleep. I want you to hear the words of Jesus Christ to you this morning: Keep awake.

Now there are lots of different examples I could give about what this vigilance looks like on the ground in realtime but I’m going to pick just one: confessing your sin. This is a good example because maybe at some point in your life, like me, you have thought that you have the time to play around with sin. Maybe that’s you now. But if the sort of vigilance that Jesus calls us to is going to characterize your own life then you need to be done with that. You cannot mess around with sin thinking that you have the time and can turn it around later on.

So then, when we confess our sin—when we acknowledge that we have sinned against God and feel sorrow for our sins—we are practicing the sort of vigilance, the sort of awakeness, that Jesus wants us to practice as we await his coming. Now, it is true that the General Confession is a part of our liturgy and we say it together every time we gather. However, you and I are not general sinners. You and I are particular sinners and so, from time to time, it is desirable that we might confess our particular sins particularly.

Every single Thursday/Wednesday for the next three weeks this church will be open from 2:00pm-4:00pm for Confession. If that time does not work for you please speak to me and we can make an appointment for some other time. Now the general wisdom in Anglicanism when it comes to the Sacrament of Reconciliation—where you confess your particular sins to a priest and receive absolution—is that all may, none must, but some should. This Advent I am inviting you to practice vigilance by naming your particular sins particularly and to know the joy of forgiveness. All may avail themselves of this sacrament of great joy and indeed some should.

If this sounds difficult or overwhelming to you know that you need not rely on your own strength to practice this sort of vigilance. As St. Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth: “[God] will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Cor. 1:8). Christ Jesus himself equips us to practice the sort of vigilance that he has called us to.

In your bulletin you will find a pamphlet that I put together with more information about this. Please read it. In it I walk you through the very brief liturgy so that you know what to expect. And if you feel the Lord calling you to confess your sins in this way then pay special attention to the section entitled “Preparing for Confession.”

This Advent, let us prepare our hearts and minds for Jesus Christ who is coming again as judge. “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Amen.

Feast Day: The Reign of Christ (A)
Readings: Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

I’m going to begin this morning’s sermon with an exercise that may make the introverts among us very uncomfortable—I want you to turn and talk with one of your neighbours, beside, in front, or behind you. I’m going to give you about 30 seconds and in that time I want you both—you have about 15 seconds each—to attempt to explain the gospel to one another in as concise a way as possible. This is the elevator pitch, if you will. And at the end, depending on how you have done, we will separate the sheep from the goats and well you know what happens from there. Alright, ready? Go.

Now, how was that? Raise your hand if you had some difficulty with that exercise. I suppose there are a few ways you could have gone about it and if you had something to say about the cross and the forgiveness of sin well then you’re off to a very good start. Yet, as central as the cross and forgiveness of sin is to the gospel I want to suggest this morning that the gospel is even bigger than that. I want to suggest that the gospel is ultimately about the authority of Jesus Christ over all things, seen and unseen.

The early Christians had a way of summing up the gospel in just three words: Jesus is Lord. Jesus. Is. Lord. That is a good shorthand for the gospel but what does it mean? The Apostle Paul, in our reading from Ephesians (and one of my own favourite passages in the Epistles), puts it in a remarkable way. Close your eyes for a moment and really listen to these words.

“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all,” (1:20-23).

The gospel, the good news, is that Jesus is Lord. To say this is to say that Jesus Christ is risen and living and at this very moment has authority over every square inch of the universe, you and I as well.

We live on one planet that is part of one solar system that rotates around one star in one galaxy in the known universe. In our galaxy alone it is estimated that in addition to our own sun there are 100-400 billion other stars. Moreover, it is estimated that the observable universe contains 200 billion to 2 trillion galaxies. We think that the observable universe is approximately 90.68 billion light-years across. Now if the speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s then in order to travel across the known universe it would take you approximately…and that is where I say a number that just makes your brain melt and your central nervous system shut-down. And that’s just the part of the universe that we think we know.

Your body is composed of roughly 37.2 trillion cells. Give or take a few trillion. Each cell contains molecules that are made up of even smaller components called atoms. There are approximately 100 trillion atoms in a human cell. So, to re-cap, that’s 37.2 trillion cells each of which is composed of roughly 100 trillion atoms. Again, give or take. I’m a theologian not a micro-biologist. But you’ll remember from high school that atoms are made up of even smaller particles, electrons, protons, and neutrons. And protons and neutrons are made up of particles called hadrons which themselves are made up of quarks.

Here’s the point. There is no square-inch of the universe, no star burning somewhere at the edge of a galaxy that we do not even know exists yet, no square-inch of you, no single cell, no subatomic particle known or unknown to man, over which Jesus Christ does not rule as Lord. To sum it up using Paul’s words from Ephesians: “And he has put all things under his feet.” All things.

Paul wants his hearers to come to know the truth of this gospel more fully. “I pray,” he says, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”

Let me just summarize by saying that Paul wants this young Christian community to know more deeply the hope that is theirs in Christ, the hope that comes from being called into relationship with the God who made them. And, moreover, he wants them to know the “immeasurable greatness” of the power of God that is available to those who believe.

That’s a really important point and I want you to know it as well. The very same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead and seated him above all other powers is available to you. It is the power of the Holy Spirit at work in you even now. And that divine power is not like human power except greater. It is of an entirely different category altogether. Human power cannot raise the dead. But God’s power, God’s power raised Jesus Christ from the dead and raised you up with him in baptism, dwells in you presently and will give you all that you need, all that we need, to grow in Christian maturity.

This is my prayer for us here at St. Paul’s/John’s as well. I want us to be a church that is growing, always growing, in our knowledge and love of Christ. I doesn’t matter how long you’ve been going to church, you are never finished growing. If you think you have arrived, if you think you have exhausted all that there is to know about God, if you think that you’ve grown as much as you can in your faith let me tell you that you are only just beginning. The Holy Spirit wants to continually enlighten your heart and mind with the light that you received in baptism and lead you even deeper into the love of Christ Jesus that can never be exhausted. He is not finished with you yet.

So, the Apostle Paul might say something like, growing in Christian maturity begins with the knowledge that Jesus Christ has been exalted as Lord over all but that Christian growth continues as we willingly and joyfully submit ourselves to Christ and appropriate this power for ourselves.

I recently heard one preacher say that Jesus makes a really bad accessory. He’s not good at being an addition to whatever else it is you’ve got going on. Like, here’s the career part of my life, and here’s my relationship part, and here’s my retirement part, and here’s my God part. God is not good with that. He doesn’t play nice being relegated to Sunday morning. See, the problem is that he wants it all.

“But Father Jonathan I just don’t know that I like the sound of that. It sounds a little extreme.” Well, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, you gotta serve somebody. There is no un-ruled life. Everybody submits to something, some idea, some guiding philosophy or worldview. In our time and place we generally submit to the tyranny of self. To relinquish control of our life to Christ is the duty of Christians, yes, but it is a joy to know that the one who has all things under his control and authority holds your life in those same loving hands. Behold Christ, his love and goodness and beauty. Why wouldn’t you trust him over everything else?

And this isn’t just for our benefit. It is for the sake of Christ’s mission to reconcile all things to God. A little later in the same letter Paul will say that the grace and power of God has been given to Christians, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” (3:10).

In other words, God gives us the Holy Spirit so that the Church can be a visible sign in the world of the joy and freedom of a life that lovingly obeys Jesus Christ. To be a visible sign of a community in which everyone matters and is named, including the weakest. You are not an insignificant gathering of people. You have been brought into relationship with the exalted Christ and he has given you a share in his power to live by a new set of rules, governed by the grace and mercy of God, so that our neighbours might know his great love.

So, this Advent I am inviting you to go deeper, to grow in your knowledge and love of Christ. In addition to Sunday we will gather right here at St. Paul’s/John’s on Thursdays/Wednesdays for a noon mass. I encourage you to make this simple and short (30 minute) service a part of your lunch break. Then from 2:00pm-4:00pm the church will be open for Confession. I will have information about this available next week and if you have any questions please ask. Finally, at 7:30pm we will say Evening Prayer together after which the church will remain open for an hour for prayer and stillness.

And may the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him more fully. Amen.

Feast Day: All Saints’ Day (A)
Readings: Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

“Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints’ Day. This is an important feast especially for us modern Western Christians. Our temptation is to be good materialists. That is, to live as if the material world is all that there is. But on a feast day like today, even if just for a moment, the veil is pulled back and we are granted a view into the throne room of God in heaven. And we are reminded that the Church on earth and the saints who are in heaven have been “knit together…in one communion and fellowship.” Moreover, we are reminded that this vision of the happiness of the saints with God is the goal for us as well and that in order to get there we must follow in their footsteps of godly living and virtue.

In our reading from Revelation this morning we with St. John are granted spiritual insight, a view into heaven. And what do we see? “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” Just as in the gospels crowds of common people gathered excitedly around Jesus so too in heaven the innumerable sea of saints find their centre in Christ, the Lamb of God.

And what are they doing, this crowd that cannot be counted? They are crying out in a loud voice, all their distinct voices now joined into one chorus of insatiable praise: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

There is more. Joining in with the saints are all the angels and heavenly creatures who fall on their faces and lend their voices also: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” This is undoubtedly a scene of festive joy. These are those who have entered into the unspeakable joy of the Lord.

Here’s the thing, St. John wants us to know that this is happening right now. If somehow the Lord could pull back the veil that separates heaven and earth, this is what you would see. And if you could be granted a momentary glimpse into the never ending adoration of Christ that is happening in the throne-room of heaven at this very moment, I guarantee that you would be changed forever. Everything would suddenly fall into place and things that matter very much to you now would fade in the light of this incomparable joy.

Actually, we do get a glimpse of this every time we come to church. When we participate in the liturgy we are participating in this very heavenly chorus. Take for example, the Sanctus which we sing each week: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.” The Bible tells us that this is precisely the unbroken song of praise that the saints and heavenly creatures sing (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8). And our own liturgy instructs us: “Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name.”

When we pray, and read Scripture, and sing, and break bread, we are not just a small group of believers gathered together in a church north of Barrie. When we do this we ourselves are caught up into the throne-room of God Almighty. When we do this our voices are taken up into the unbroken chorus of praise that is offered to the Lamb by that uncountable number of saints, surrounded by every single angel that ever was. With angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven! Whenever we gather for worship there is God’s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Who are these saints in John’s vision anyways?And where did they come from? “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal/tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” (7:14).

The saints in heaven, who forever sing God’s praise, are those who have endured the great tribulation. Whatever else that might mean it means at least this: the blessedness of the Christian life does not preclude suffering. In fact, to be a Christian is to suffer with Christ. We cannot enter into his joy apart from entering into his suffering. And yet Christ’s suffering transforms our own suffering. His suffering was the beginning of a new creation. He died that we might live. So to suffer with Christ is to live with Christ, to rejoice with Christ over the power of sin and death.

That our life is hidden in Christ’s death is one of the great paradoxes of the faith but it is a truth that the lives of the saints attest to. Take St. Ignatius of Antioch for example. Ignatius was a first century bishop of Antioch. En route to Rome as a prisoner, where he would meet his martyrdom by being fed to lions, he wrote a series of letters to the Christian Church in Rome. In one of those letters he begs the Christians in Rome not to interfere and try to save him from his impending death. “My birth pangs are at hand,” he writes. “Bear with me, my brothers. Do not hinder me from living: do not wish for my death…Allow me to receive the pure light; when I arrive there I shall be a real man.”

What paradox! For St. Ignatius, to suffer and die for Christ is to live. To suffer with Christ in this way is to be made “a real man.” Even in the face of death he senses birth pangs, new life. Now I have no interest in holding martyrdom up as an ideal nor do I think that the only way to be a saint is to literally lose your life for Christ.

However, there is a way in which each and every Christian suffers and dies with Christ in order to be made “a real man.” I’m talking about the sacrament of holy baptism wherein we are washed and made clean by the blood of the Lamb. That is to say, in baptism human creatures are made clean by the Cross and brought from death into life, sin into righteousness in and with and through Christ.

In baptism you are made a saint. Now, if you truly know yourself you might think otherwise. Can I really be called a saint? Even I? Well, listen to the words of St. John in the epistle that was read this morning: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are,” (1 John 3:1). If you are baptized then you have objectively been made a child of God. And as such you have been invited to enter into the fullness of joy that is yours in Christ. And as such you are one with the saints, you are a saint indeed.

The task for us now is to persevere. To endure. To walk in the way of blessedness that we might enter into the eternal blessedness of our Lord. To receive that crown of glory that fadeth not away. Because here’s the thing, everything else in your life is fading away, even now. In the end nothing will last except for the love that you have for Christ and for one another. That alone will last. Not your career, not your reputation, not your net-worth, not your family name. Your love of Christ and of one another, that will last. That will never fade away.

And therein lies the catch of Christian endurance. The secret to persevering with the saints and entering into the joy of the Lord fully and finally. The only way to follow the saints in godly living is to fall deeper in love with Christ Jesus. Only those who have tasted the joy of the Lord can withstand the trials and tribulations that will come their way.

If you are here because you really love the music, or the preaching (hopefully you don’t mind the preaching), or because you really love the community, let me say that you are most welcome here and I sincerely hope you continue to come but let me say that that is not enough. Because when push comes to shove, when the rubber meets the road, when your faith is really put to the test and adversity and trouble come your way on account of Christ, no love of music, or preaching, or community will sustain you. You will stand or fall on the basis of your love for Christ Jesus, the Lamb upon the Throne. If you adore Christ, if his beauty and goodness and love is what feeds and sustains you then there is nothing that you cannot endure for his sake.

So let me finish by asking: have you yourself tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord? Do you know the joy of being one of Christ’s beloved? Has your faith become stale? Cold perhaps? Today, may the witness of the saints in heaven reignite your own love of Christ. May you look up with St. John and be granted a glimpse of that heavenly chorus to which we join our voices even now. And may the joy of that scene, the joy of the Lamb, flood your heart and mind and enable you to follow in the footsteps of the saints and come to those unspeakable joys that God has prepared for those who love him. Amen.