Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas 1

Luke 2
41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When his parents* saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ 49He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’* 50But they did not understand what he said to them. 51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

It’s goodbye MMIX and hello MMX.

Of course, Roman numerals are always cool, but since we’ve entered the third millennium, they just keep getting cooler. MMX sounds like either a new style of high-end bicycle or a new class of wrestlers. A new date we get to enjoy all year long.

Born as I was in MCMLXV, I can remember puzzling over the dates a the end of movies, or staring at the corner stones of old buildings, trying to unlock the code of all those letters. I suppose it’s a dying skill, like the kid who looks at the big hand and the little hand and shrugs, saying ‘why bother?’

It also makes me wonder about our Methodist forebears, handed the golden opportunity of inscribing the second longest date in Roman numerals to date. They went Arabic, writing 1887 for the dedication of this building, when they could leap at the chance to write MDCCCLXXXVII. Maybe it was a cost-cutting measure. Maybe they also had a budget deficit (with a limited time to make supplemental gifts) and chose to get cheap on the carving. Or maybe it was disappointment: that they missed the record setting MDCCCLXXXVIII by a full year.

So today I’m going to speak about XII, or a specific event that happened during XII. I should note that no one knew that the year 12 was the year 12, being that Jesus was only 12. It would take another 700 years for people to achieve any kind of consensus on the name of the year. So if I were going to follow local custom on the day in question, I might say “during the time of Consul Germanicus. If you were Roman, you would say ‘oh yeah, Germanicus, okay!’

The story is the boy Jesus in the Temple. His parents lose track of the lad, only twelve at the time, and return to the city to find him locked in deep conversation with the Temple elders. Mom says ‘we were scared to death,’ and Jesus says, ‘You should have guessed I would be here, in my Father’s house.’ Only later did it become clear what he meant.

Attentive Gospel readers will recall that this is the only scrap of information about Jesus between the age of zero and thirty. Mark and John begin in adulthood, and we leap from birth narrative to baptism in Matthew. Only Luke reveals this tiny bit of information, leaving the reader with a considerable gap in the story of Jesus.

That’s in the canonical tradition. If we go non-canonical, looking at the various Gospels that didn’t make the final cut, the story is a little different. There, amid some of the forgotten and nearly forgotten accounts, you will read stories like the boy Jesus makes a clay bird and summons it to life. In another Gospel that we don’t recognize as authoritative, Jesus strikes down some bad kids in the playground and then brings them back to life.

Considering the schoolyard example, I think we’ll stick to the canonical version of things, and the solitary story of Jesus in the Temple. It tells is a bit about Jesus, more about his parents, and hints at a future we can anticipate.

You might say he speaks like he owns the place, and you would be right. The extraordinary wisdom of this lad, the way he claims his place in the Temple, and the obedient way he resumes his childhood all provide context to this emerging life. Jesus’ has some self-understanding, and we assume, I think, that his self-understanding, his relationship to the one he names ‘Father,’ continues to unfold. His baptism by John, his time in the wilderness, his early teaching all point to a developing awareness of his uniqueness.

For Mary and Joseph, the head-shaking experience in the Temple reinforced things they were already suspecting: that this child was unique, that he was ‘born old’ as we sometimes say about certain children, and that his sense of ‘Father’ was unfolding. A desire to debate in the Temple (his ‘Father’s house’) was in tension with the carpenter’s shop back in Nazareth, but Jesus obediently returns to the latter, to wait for his time. He seems to find a way to honour both, as only Jesus could.

For the elders in the Temple, this was one more in a long tradition of extraordinary young people: The boy Samuel hearing God’s call when old Eli cannot, and the shepherd boy David, slingshot in hand stepping forward, are only two examples. Ancient wisdom speaks with a powerful voice, and the elders were sometimes adept enough to listen.


I forgot about my promise to be provocative this morning, until Dr. Jim reminded me on Thursday, so I feel somewhat obligated. I fear I may have failed so far, so here goes:

If the interlude we call the ‘Boy Jesus in the Temple’ were part of a development chart for Christians, too many people would also be 12 and no more. Let me explain.

If we were going to construct a development chart for understanding Jesus, it might look like this:

Who he is
What he does
What we do to him

The first stage (who he is) is focused on the things we can say with some certainty about Jesus. I am not including here ideas such as ‘Messiah’ or ‘Savour.’ Rather, in this first stage, people in the mainline liberal church have determined that Jesus can be identified in several ways, beginning with ‘wise teacher.’ It begins in the Temple in Luke and extends to the Sermon on the Mount and most of the Parable of Jesus. With a little extra reading, you might see this refined further, with some describing him as a sage or a radical peasant, or an apocalyptic figure. Again, this stage could be called simply ‘who he is.’

Stage two I am calling ‘what he does.’ This stage finds its focus on the healing ministry of Jesus, the various miracles such as Cana and the raising of Lazarus, and any action sequence that does not involve direct teaching. The wilderness temptation narrative would fit here, as the story has more to do with resisting the adversary than teaching him anything he doesn’t already know. Still, the main focus of this stage is healing, and the way Jesus makes God manifest.

Stage three, the final developmental stage in this system, I have called ‘what we do to him.’ And what we do, primarily, is reject and destroy Jesus, and in doing so, reject and try to destroy God as well. This stage is the most difficult to accept, and the most difficult to comprehend, and clearly the place where most liberal Christians find discomfort.

The first stage requires only admiration, and an attentive ear to the unique message of this great teacher, both in the context of first century Palestine and in our own. If the church only represented a moral system as developed by Jesus, we would still be a dramatic source for good.

The second stage, the healing ministry requires a suspension of disbelief, something most moderns are willing to do in a movie theatre, but not in church. We have medical insight that would have shocked someone in the 19th century, let alone the first century, so it is little wonder that many have discounted these miracles or tried to explain them away. We seem unable to ascribe power to God in areas we have developed our own power.

The third stage, meaning or belief in the power of Jesus’ death, is the hardest of all to accept. We live in a society that thinks more about age-defying cream and ‘freedom 55’ than the redemptive power of Jesus’ death and the meaning of this death for our lives. We have abandoned any systematic attempt to apply the lessons of Good Friday to our every day, to the extent that when I use a phrase like “Jesus died for me” the most frequent response I get in the United Church is “you don’t honestly believe that, do you?”

Like the Roman numeral, we seem to have moved on from the more difficult and complex aspects of our religion in favour of the entry-level ‘good teacher’ approach that even non-Christians embrace. On a recent TVO programme, Shabir Ally, president of the Islamic Information Centre, spoke eloquently about the moral teaching of Jesus, about John the Baptist, and did it with great respect for our tradition. Contrast that with one of my colleagues who stood up at an event not long ago and said “I’m tired of the Bible: I think it’s time for new stories!” I suppose we could say that at least he still believes in God.


If all of this sounds a tad judgmental, then I suppose it is. Faith is always a work-in-progress, a journey if you like, and we find ourselves in different places at different times in our life. I am not saying that everyone needs to have a sophisticated understanding of faith, or that your understanding has to somehow resemble my understanding, because that you be awfully arrogant on my part (my wife would say awfully Dutch of you).

My intention is to highlight a trend in our church, blessed primarily by our preachers and leaders, away from a traditional understanding (meaning multi-faceted understanding) of Jesus, toward a singular, and foundational understanding that makes him nothing more that a moral teacher. Without all of Jesus: miracle-worker, martyr, mystical head-of-the-church, we are lost.

Following a skillful teacher will only sustain the church as long as the world values the teaching itself, and for the most part the verdict is mixed. The world will turn away when the teaching is too counter-cultural or somehow out of step with the prevailing winds. But wonder, and meaning in death, and the redemptive power of Jesus willingness to accept death: these are themes that live outside of time and speak to every age. All we need is the courage to wrestle with them and understand them for our time.

There is good reason that this church, like most, is shaped like a cross. Form should follow function, any architect will tell you, and the function of this place is to weekly approach the cross of Jesus and make sense of it in our lives. It may the ongoing crucifixion of injustice that we struggle with downstairs. It may be the end of life issues we ponder in our ministry with the bereaved, and it may be the busy people who rush by this place that live daily with meaninglessness and need God’s Word.

In the cross, in the cross,
be my glory ever,
till my raptured soul shall find
rest beyond the river.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve, 7.30 pm

Luke 2
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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 them in the inn.

What are you doing here?

Looking over the listings for 8 o’clock, you’re missing some pretty good television.

AMC is showing White Christmas (1954), where Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye sing and save a Vermont Hotel.

Fox is showing Home Alone (1990), a new entrant into the Christmas movie canon, proving that the holidays may be about clever children and bad parenting.

NBC is showing It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), that heartwarming Christmas classic with evil capitalists, fallen angels and the ultimate personality test: where would you rather live, Bedford Falls or Pottersville?

And finally, Showcase is showing Donny Brasco (1997), chosen, I suppose, for the scene where Lefty makes Donnie some braised chicken for Christmas dinner, proving that even the Mob celebrates this time if year.

So, what are you doing here?

There are presents to be wrapped, food to be prepared, lists to be checked, wine to be decanted, decorations to be tweaked, kids to be settled, relatives to be anticipated, cookies to be set out and time found to relax.

What are you doing here?

It’s not like you don’t know the story already. Decree, census, Bethlehem, swaddling cloths, no room, flocks by night, sore afraid, glory to God, and the all the rest. You know this story as well as your own, maybe better. I may not have anything to add, just so you know.

So, what are you doing here?

There’s a low-pressure front coming in from the mid-west. It’s cloudy: The wind will blow at 20 km/h late this evening with a chance of light snow: the temperature steady near zero.

So, what are you doing here?

Maybe you don’t know why you’re here. Maybe I should have hidden your coats before I mentioned weather, chores, and the allure of television. Maybe you’re here because you’re family made you come, and to them I say ‘fair enough,’ because it can’t kill you to come to church on Christmas Eve.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ve come to hear some music, and let me tell you, you’re in the right place. We have fine choral music, carols you seldom hear at the mall, and later on something called the “Shoes.” You’re just gonna have to come at eleven to find out about the Shoes.

Maybe, just maybe, you’re here to see your friends. Christmas is all about friends, and family, and the people that bring us joy. Maybe your table will only include two or one, or twenty-one, but for tonight, this is your table, and your family, and the people who treasure you and hold you dear.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ve come for the preaching. Really? The preaching? There are more foolish reasons, but I can’t think of them at the moment. Maybe you hope that the old, old story can be retold in such a way that it becomes new for a new time. All I can say is I’ll do my best.

Maybe you’ve heard that church fathers picked the date to supplant a pagan festival, that Jesus is actually the Egyptian God Horus, or that Dan Brown made the whole thing up. All I can say is be careful what you read. Christmas is a miracle, and miracles require belief.

Maybe it’s like the old spiritual: you find meaning or make meaning depending on your circumstances. “Go tell it on the mountain” is a song in the African-American tradition, but it’s also an anthem to freedom (in the Civil Rights era), a song that begins somewhere near the abolition of slavery, or maybe it’s just a well-loved carol. Maybe it’s all those things at once.

I shared two readings tonight, both from Luke, in different formats and in different voices. The second, the most familiar, is the Linus reading of shepherds and angels. But the first, the one we read together, is the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, that takes its title from Mary’s own words:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.

‘Generations will call me blessed, and holy is his name.’ We name her blessed indeed, mother of our Lord, and messenger to those in need of hope: the proud will be scattered in the thoughts of their hearts, the powerful will be pulled from their thrones, the lowly exalted, and the hungry filled with good things.

If you’re thinking this sounds more like revolution than Hallmark card, you would be right. Incarnation, God’s entrance into human living, is nothing short of a divine revolution. It is an event that redefines the relationship between God and God’s people, it reinterprets human history, and reveals the true nature of God: no longer aloof to our living, willing to enter and experience every moment of human life, even unto death, even death on a cross.

Tonight is a revolutionary night, and all of you are revolutionaries. You have come to see the child that was foretold, a baby and yet a king, a human child and God-most-high. You have come to see for yourselves God’s desire to be with us in a new way, in the past and for all time.

You are spiritual revolutionaries, willing to name yourselves among his followers, fellow seekers, alive to the message of star and manger and angel voices: that God is here, born to Mary, and born for us once more. Amen.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Advent II

Luke 3
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler* of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler* of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler* of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

A seemingly simple question is really quite complex. The question is “Where you from?” And the answer is as much geography as the heart of how we define ourselves.

If you have the good fortune of calling Mount Albert home, you have ‘pride of place’ knowing you are not from Brown Hill, Holt, Sharon, Sandford, Zephyr, Egypt, Udora, Leaskdale, Sutton, Newmarket or Uxbridge. Now, don’t get wrong, there is nothing wrong with being a Udoran, Egyptian, Zephyrite, Holtite, or any other Biblical tribe that got lost in the wilds of East Gwillimbury or Uxbridge Townships. You’re just not a Mount Albertite.

For you who call yourselves Westonians, the issue is slightly more complex. You know you are neither Mount Dennisians or Thistletonians (Thistleites?), and never Etobicokans, but someone imposed layers of governance on you in an effort to sow confusion and perhaps deny who you truly are. City of York, gone. Metropolitan Toronto, gone. Mike Harris tried to force a certain sameness on us, negating all the little Yorks and relegating us to a gallimaufry of neighbourhoods and nothing more. You remain proudly from Weston.

Some, of course, claim duel citizenship. Maybe you live here, but you heart is at the cottage, beside a frozen lake. Maybe you are from one place and choose live in another. Near my home is a pub with the marquee “3200 km to Newfoundland, 5 steps from the Danforth.” Now, I appreciate that not everyone has a place in their heart for cod tongue, but the folks who maintain and refuse to renovate the Eton Tavern have a certain sense of home. Those in exile are rarely confused about where they are from.

My lesson in local geography was inspired by a reading that makes the most courageous scripture reader tremble. It comes from Luke 3:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler* of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler* of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler* of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Somewhere in my office I keep a Bible atlas, another resource made unnecessary in the Internet age, and once the only book to look beyond the familiar Judea and Galilee, and locate places like Ituraea, Trachonitis, and Abilene. Once we find them, however, we quickly discover that it is not so such location that matters on the pages of Luke’s Gospel, but locality, the associations that come when power meets place. All of these places spoke to the geography of power, the places that represent the old order: the order that exists at the moment John steps on the stage.

And John has locality too, but his locality is based on human need, and the associations that come with wilderness. Wilderness is a place of wandering, and soon a place of testing, and sometimes a place in our own consciousness that describes moments of dislocation and anxiety. John leaves the world of order, of streets and neighbourhoods, and makes his way into a wilderness.

The people seek him out, this harbinger of things to come, and listen to his message: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Here, the prophet speaks to the reality of internal exile, the reality that some live at a distance from the Most High and from the best part of themselves. They are truly wilderness people, missing from the locality of God’s desire and needing to hear that they are forgiven.

Sensing the majesty of the moment, Luke decides to depart from his own telling and repeat the words of Isaiah instead:

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

Notice that the wilderness is still a wilderness in this prophecy. At no moment does the dry land of wilderness become an oasis. There are no trees planted by water, no wells of living water—not yet. There are only straightened paths and level terrain, crooked to straight and rough to plain. There is no radical departure here from the conditions people found when they entered the desert, only the easing of a path to the one long promised, the one for whom we wait.

The easing of the path, in this case, is found in baptism. And the baptism of John is unique to this time a waiting and preparation, his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It seems the wilderness of our lives is the only place this can happen. John takes the need to prepare and the needs of the people and creates a ritual for the desert. He speaks to the meaninglessness that defines the lives of so many, and the reality of continually falling short of God’s design, and marks a place. He finds a place in the wilderness near Jordan where one mode of living can end and another can begin.

What I hope we discover, in this brief time of wilderness wandering, is a longing for home. I hope it has locality, a place associated with the very best of who we are. I hope it is filled with friends and neighbours, and a renewed desire to love and serve them. And I hope we can find a home beyond wilderness wandering, knowing that God is calling to find and name the places where lives are changed and people are made new.

We wish for this because it has always been so. We can search the past and know that the God of locality is always directing our path and naming a place:

A baby plucked from the Nile.
A people crossing the Red Sea.
The Law given at Sinai.
A loyal woman from Moab.
An ark resting at Shiloh.
A shepherd-king in Bethlehem.
A temple in Zion.
A final shepherd-king in Bethlehem.
An upper room.
A hill called Calvary
And an empty cave in Jerusalem.

Today we continue to prepare the way of the Lord. May it always be so. Amen.