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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.

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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.