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.


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.

Feast Day: Reformation Sunday
Readings: Isaiah 35; Psalm 85

“Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us,” (85:4).

Today we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On October 31st, 1517 a Roman Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther wrote a list of ninety-five theses and nailed it to the Cathedral door in Wittenberg where he was professor of moral theology. He had hoped to provoke debate about corruption in the Church which he did and it spread throughout Europe like wildfire. Archbishop Justin Welby called it “the viral content of its day.”[1] Within two decades the Reformation rent Europe in two between Protestants and Catholics.

Anglicans are those who are indebted to the Reformation and yet committed to a Catholic vision of the Church. As heirs of the Reformation we give thanks for the emphatic proclamation that it is Christ alone who heals our sinful hearts. Christ alone who brings us home to God. Christ alone. Yet in our commitment to the Church Catholic we ought to lament the fragmentation of the church and commit ourselves to pursing unity wherever possible.

The words of the prophet Isaiah which we heard proclaimed this morning help us, I believe, to honestly assess our present reality and see our way through to the promise of God into which live by hope.

First of all it is important to provide a bit of context. The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th Century BC during what is considered to be one of the most tumultuous times in Israelite history.[2] Israel herself was a nation cut to the heart by division with a number of tribes combining to form the northern kingdom of Israel and the remaining tribes left to form the southern kingdom of Judah. One people, divided.

In the mid-8th century BC the northern tribes were besieged and carried off by the Assyrians. By the turn of the century the southern tribes had met much the same fate at the hands of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, leaving the kingdom of Judah—home to Jerusalem/Zion—ravaged.

It is into this context—one of a people divided and torn asunder by strife and foreign powers—that Isaiah speaks the word of the Lord. The passage that we heard read signals a note of hope. Despite the fact that Israel is at present cut to the heart by division and under God’s judgement it remains true that God is using all of this, their stubbornness and all of the calamity that has befallen them, to refine them and bring them into a future that he has not only promised but is preparing.

The whole passage speaks of Israels return from captivity to Zion, to that great city where they will be at home with their God. Yet it is held up as a promise, as a reality that they are not currently experiencing but towards which they are being brought: “They shall see the glory of the Lord.” “He will come and save you.” “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened.” “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.” “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return.” All of this shall be but is not now. For now it is a promise. A promise that Israel is to cling to and not forget.

Israel’s present is like a parched desert in which nothing much can grow. But when the Lord their God comes to bring them home then that arid and dull land will burst forth with life and beauty: “Like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly.”

Another figure of God’s promise to Israel is that of a disordered body being made whole again. Weak hands and feeble knees will be strengthened and made firm. Fearful hearts are made courageous and at peace. Blind eyes and deaf ears will be opened. The speechless tongue will sing for joy. The lame shall leap like a deer (35:3-6a).

It is no accident that one of the primary figures the Apostle Paul uses for the Church is that of a body and indeed we are Christ’s Body. And yet at present this body, like Israel in Isaiah’s time, is disordered, out of whack, disfigured, bearing the scars of our division.

Archbishop Justin Welby wrote a piece for a British newspaper last week in which he recalled being at a service of Holy Communion in the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral. Knowing that Anglicans and Roman Catholics are unable to receive communion together when Archbishop Welby went forward at the time of communion he knelt down to be prayed for by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster. Recalling what happened next the Welby wrote: “He took my hand and lifted me to my feet. Both of us had tears in our eyes. We are the closest of friends, and being reminded of the divisions in the global Church pains us both very deeply.”[3]

Here is the point: the wounds of our division obscure our witness to the world. Recently a faithful Roman Catholic woman visited St. John’s on a week when we used the liturgy for Holy Communion from the Book of Common Prayer. After the liturgy had ended she made a comment about how familiar it all felt. “Why are we divided?” she wondered. If this is what people of faith wonder we can only imagine the ways in which our division trips up those who are not yet believers. In this way our division is literally a scandal to the gospel.

Yet the wounds of our division cut deeper still. If you know your Church history you know that ecclesial division has very often led to brutal violence and murder. A Professor and mentor of mine from seminary wrote a book a few years ago about Church division which was initially titled Division is Murder. Murder in the sense that we kill one another but even more-so in the sense that division tears apart the one Body of Christ. The title of his book was later changed by the editors to A Brutal Unity, indicating that the way to unity, the overcoming and healing of our division is a costly enterprise. It comes at the cost of Christ’s own life.

“A highway shall be there,” proclaimed Isaiah, “and it shall be called the Holy Way.” “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing.” This is true for the Church as well. At present we are divided and this division is a scandal. Yet Christ is bringing us home, calling us into a future in which the wounds of our division are healed and we are made one. And that highway, the Holy Way, upon which we the broken and divided Body of Christ travel is the broken body of Christ himself, once offered upon the cross and now in this Eucharist. As Isaiah writes elsewhere: “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed,” (53:5).

We cannot heal the wounds of our division, that alone Christ can do and he begins to do so as he heals our sinful hearts. This is the great emphasis of the Reformation. That our salvation is bound up in Christ alone and our trust in him. Yet in the Gospel According to St. John Christ himself prays prays for his followers saying: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one,” (John 17:11). We like Jesus to answer our prayers but I want to end with a petition that we be a church that strives to answer his prayer, that we be one.

I believe that one of the gifts of Anglicanism is to help us to see how we can be heirs of the Reformation in a way that conforms to a Catholic vision of the Church. So let me end with a few modest proposals.

First, and chiefly, submit yourself to the Word of God in every area of your life. Let the Bible stand at the centre of your life and feast upon it daily. Plumb the depths of Scripture which can never be exhausted and approach it with the faith that the living and risen Jesus is waiting there to meet and address you.

Second, submit yourself to the Sacraments. Approach the Eucharist with the faith that Christ gives himself to you in the form of bread and wine. Trust that God really gives you a share in his life and love in these seemingly ordinary things.

Third, as you do this, submit yourself to Christ’s judgement. For the Christian, every day is judgement day. Let the light of his word and his presence shine into the recesses of your heart and mind and let him purify any dark way that is in you. Let his love heal your sinful heart.

Forth, study the faith. Be not content simply to have faith but seek understanding as well. Read broadly. Pick up something by Irenaeus, Chrysostom, Augustine or any of the Church Fathers. Read something by the contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologian John Behr or by Pope Benedict XVI. Heck read some Calvin while you’re at it and some Richard Hooker too.

Fifth, bear with one another in love. Recognize that the baptismal bond we share makes us brothers and sisters and this should make us slow to sow dissension. Also, be quick to reconcile with one another. Do not withhold from others the mercy Christ has given you.

Finally, pray for unity. Really pray. Pray for other churches. Pray for persecuted Christians. Pray that Christ would give us the will and ability to do all we can to work for the unity of the Church.

May the words of the Psalmist be ever on our lips: “Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us,” (85:4). Amen.

[1] Justin Welby,
[2] Old Testament Survey, 279.
[3] Welby.

Feast Day: Pentecost 20
Readings: Matthew 22:15-22

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)

Perhaps the most important part of our gospel reading this morning is not what Jesus says but rather what he does not say. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We know what belongs to Caesar but what belongs to God? What are we to render unto God?

Our reading this morning asks to be understood in light of what has just come before in Matthew’s account of the gospel: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.” Then. Their attempt to ensnare Jesus, to back him into a corner and force him to indict himself, comes on the heels of that reading we heard last week. The parable about the wedding banquet. The story Jesus tells to highlight the incomprehensible mystery of God’s grace and his desire to have the company of each and every human creature. The Pharisees—the religious leaders—had just heard this and what is their response? They conspire against him. That is, they embody those who were invited to the feast but who shrug it off as if it were of no interest to them. Not only that but they even plan to do-in the Son himself.

And so that Pharisees send their own disciples to him, along with the Herodians. The Herodians and the Pharisees were unlike in many ways except they were united in their opposition to Jesus. Here it is the Pharisees and Herodians plotting against Jesus but in a few chapters on the morning after his arrest just before he is taken to stand before Pontius Pilate Matthew writes that, “all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death,” (27:1).

In the gospels, opposition to Christ begins as a small seed planted in the hearts of some religious leaders but by the end it has grown into a full-fledged resistance. It is the crowd, that mass of humanity aligned in opposition to Christ, that cry out, “crucify him!” (27:23). And during the tumult of Holy Week we find that even we ourselves are caught up with the crowd.

So they go to try and catch Jesus up in his own words and after buttering him up a little bit they hit him with it: “Tell us, then, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” They’ve got him now. The matter of Jews paying taxes to Caesar was one of the hot topics of the day. How Jesus responds matters greatly.

If Jesus says “yes” then it appears as if he is colluding and collaborating with the enemy which would anger those Jews who sought liberation from Rome’s oppression. On the other hand, if Jesus says “no” then it looks like he himself is signing up to be the next in a line of renegades that would take up the case of Israel’s liberation with the sword and lead a violent rebellion against Rome.

The books of I and II Maccabees tell the story of Judas Maccabeus whose revolt against the civil authorities when Jesus himself would have been a boy was mercilessly crushed and left bodies hung up on crosses along the roadside. For the Pharisees it did not matter whether Jesus answered “yes” or “no” for either answer would have accomplished the goal of alienating Jesus from the people.

In every age the Church faces similar temptations to the hot topics of the day. Lean too far in one direction and we are in danger of capitulating to the culture altogether. Lean too far in the other direction and we are in danger of forming a holy huddle, forgetting that we are called to love the world that Christ has made and to work for it’s flourishing. Yet Christ calls us each in our own time to walk that narrow path between both of these ditches. The narrow path of being a distinctive people that have been set apart, with our own strange practices and languages that nourish our faith in Christ, while at the same time working for the good of the world that Christ loves and gave himself for and inviting others to find their life in following him.

A contemporary example might be the matter of human sexuality which if you pay attention to Anglican insider-baseball you know is a live debate in the global Anglican Communion as well as here at home in the Canadian church. This week a new website was making the rounds in my social media circles. It’s a website that literally scores churches on whether or not they are LGBTQ affirming and how clearly their website communicates this. “We believe,” states the website, “that ambiguity is harmful.”

I imagine that there are those of us who would like to get Jesus on record with that question. “Tell us, Jesus, what do you think? Should the church be affirming of the LGBTQ community or not? Yes or no?” And I imagine that Jesus would have a way of turning the question back on us to both challenge our unspoken motives while calling us deeper into our commitment to him and him alone. Because the way of Jesus does not line up all that well with any particular party or worldview. You cannot hijack Jesus to serve your own ends, try as we might. And when we do Jesus simply calls us deeper, calls us to set aside our political maneuvering and rest in him alone.

As we heard Jesus settles the debate by pointing out the fact that the Roman currency used to pay the tax had the likeness of Caesar imprinted upon it. In essence what he says is, “This is the property of Caesar so go on and give it back.”

Christians have commented here on the relationship between the Church and the State and on the Christian duty to the State, within reason. In Jesus’ words here he both dignifies and limits the State. Limits, because sometimes the State is hungry for more. Sometimes the State wants everything and the 20th century provides a litany of one murderous dictator after another that over-stepped the boundaries of the State.

Even now we hear concerning rhetoric coming from down south. Talk of, “respecting the flag,” and so on. Suddenly the most powerful man on earth is very concerned with how football players conduct themselves on the sideline and demands total and unflinching allegiance to country. Yet as one New Testament scholar has said, “the State becomes demonic in the measure that it asks for itself, “the things of God,” such as total commitment, unconditional obedience, or uncriticizing allegiance.”[1]

Here we are now back at the question with which we began: What are “the things of God” which we are to render unto him? As noted Jesus leaves that question hanging out there for the Pharisees and more importantly for you and I.

However, by the end of the chapter Jesus will say two things that point us in the right direction: “He is God not of the dead, but of the living,” (22:32) and, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” (22:37). That is to say, God gives life and sustains it only to invite us to offer it back to him in love.

That this scene takes place during Holy Week as Christ is on his way to the cross where he will offer his life unto the Father for the sake of the world only underscores this. And in calling us to follow him you and I are invited to take the same leap into the merciful arms of God, casting aside all else.

Why? Because we belong to God. The Roman denarius may bear the image of Caesar but each and every human creature bears the image of God and those who are in Christ are being transformed into his likeness. It is therefore God and God alone who can claim you as his own. Only God can claim your total allegiance and obligation and he does indeed do so. You are his and he fashioned you that you might learn to render unto him the love that he has given unto you.

In our Tuesday small group study we have been reading Rowan Williams’ book Being Disciples. Along the way we have come face to face with the challenge of following Jesus. If you’re going to be with Jesus the bar is very high. There is no area of your life that he does not claim as his own. He is not interested just in your Sunday morning worship but in you yourself. He wants to invade every square inch of your life with his love and invites you to relinquish control of yourself to him. There is no middle ground. You’re either in or your out.

Needless to say not many of us who gather on Tuesdays feel particularly qualified. And yet those who struggle to give themselves to God will find that he is rich in mercy. As the Lord says to Moses: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” (33:14). They will also find that if they give their life to God he will return it 100-fold in his Son Jesus Christ. Render unto God the things that are God’s. Render unto God your very self. Amen.


[1] Frederick Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, 400