Sunday, December 30, 2012

First Sunday After Christmas

Luke 2
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 travelers, 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. 52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

For those who insist on knowing the full story, I give you a book called “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” Now, before you run out and write a Dan Brown-type conspiracy novel, I have to warn you that all that I’m about to share about the supposed childhood of Jesus is widely-known, never-hidden, and has no obvious role for Tom Hanks. Unless he played Joseph, and that French actress who’s name escapes me played Mary, and maybe that French guy who always plays a cop is in it too.

Carmen will tell you that “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas” is a pseudepigraphical gospel that is both late in the gospel-writing period and fully non-canonical. Then in English she will tell you that it wasn’t really written by Thomas (he has his own non-canonical gospel), it seems to come from the middle of the second century and that it was never seriously considered for inclusion in the biblical canon.

Isn’t scholarship fun? So, the next time you are at lunch and someone tells you that they’re writing a fake autobiography of the Duchess of Cambridge to cash in on the whole royal baby thing, you can dismiss them quickly by saying something like “a pseudepigrapha, really? That’s so overdone.” At this point, you should offer to get the check.

So there is a little-known infancy gospel that recalls several fanciful stories from Jesus’ childhood. You’re not going to like it. Some are playful: making twelve clay sparrows and willing them to come to life and fly away. Some are helpful: Heals a snake bite, heals an axe wound, resurrects a boy who fell from a great height. And some are downright disturbing: curses a couple of boys who unfortunately die, and blinds their parents for complaining about it.

I think you see the problem with “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” Not only is it late and falsely attributed, it seems to vacillate between silly and cruel. I understand that a hunger existed for more of Jesus’s childhood stories, but these stories seem better suited to Superman than the Saviour of the World. So scrap your plans for a novel, and the movie rights, and go with my Duchess of Cambridge idea instead.

Having discounted all of the childhood stories except one, we can still wonder with Mary at the remarkable events that happened around Passover, when Jesus was a lad of twelve: He gets separated from his parents. They double-back to find him, and eventually he is located within the temple, with the elders, listening and asking questions. Everyone is amazed by this wisdom. Nevertheless, he earns a rebuke from his folks, and he replies “didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” After this, we’re told, he is obedient: returning home while Mary treasured all these things in her heart.

Sure, this story isn’t as engaging as a flock of clay birds or as alarming as what might happen when you make the boy Jesus mad, but it seems plausible, almost expected, that this child with a growing sense of his divinity might head to the temple. There, of course, he would astound others. A prodigy has always been a source of amazement, and even more so when the prodigy has insight into the ways of God. History records that Joan of Arc had her first visions at age twelve, the same age that Joseph Smith took up religion, and the same age that Mother Teresa decided to give herself to God.

On one level, then, it is a coming-of-age story. It marks the transition from childhood to adulthood, even though we have no additional stories to back this up. Nevertheless, twelve is the age of religious instruction for Jewish boys and girls before Bat Mitzvah (girls, 12) and Bar Mitzvah for boys of 13. Among First Nations the vision quest happens around this age, with separation and fasting used to determine a sense of the young person’s future. Even J.K. Rowling worked in this important moment, 11 years-old for admission to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the very same age when real girls and boys in the UK wrote their Eleven Plus exams, the test that largely determined their future.

The story of Jesus in the temple is also an important ‘inside knowledge’ story, an important device employed by the Gospel writers to deepen our commitment to Jesus. In the story, the boy is lost, but we are not surprized that something unusual might happen to the same lad that entered the world in such a miraculous way. He is discovered in the temple, again, hardly a surprize when we (the reader) have known all along that this boy is destined to be called ‘the son of the Most High.” Even Mary’s treasuring is far from surprizing to the insider/reader, since we’ve known from the beginning of this story that Mary is ‘highly favoured,’ and the whom future generations will call Blessed.

Finally, this is a story about intimacy. It is about the trust extended to a group of travelers on the road, and the belief that the extended community and clan would have the same tender regard for the boy as his mother and father. It is about the wonder and amazement that comes when a child finds his place among the elders and is added to their number, encouraged to ponder the ways of God and speak his mind. It is about the gentle rebuke that prompts Jesus first confession of faith. And it is about the child of 12 who can claim kinship with God and the growing understanding that his relationship to God is utterly unique. And the treasuring, the heartfelt desire to hold these things close to the heart is the most intimate act of all, a mother’s understanding that this is not simply her child, but the very child of God.

In many ways, to treasure in our hearts is the goal of the Christian life. Not just the wonder of a child, our own, or one dear to us, or one we have cause to teach; and not just treasuring this particular story of Jesus, but to treasure our Lord himself. Can we say, with sincerity, that we treasure Jesus? Is he central to who we are and who we seek to become? Can we imagine our life without his friendship, companionship, or guidance?

If you are wondering what happened to the usual pulpit guy, wonder no more. It is the same guy. Years ago I wrote a blog for the Emerging Spirit campaign that tried to capture some of this, and what I ended up with was the question: “Would your life be diminished in the absence of a relationship with Jesus.” The first person who responded to my blog wrote, “it depends what you mean by Jesus.” In some ways, my attempt to ask the question in a way that might be most palatable to a United Church audience was trumped by a typical United Church response.

Why, just last year the Observer asked good United Church folk if they believed in God. Simple question, one would assume, until you see the response: Among clergy, 76% said ‘yes’ and 24% said ‘it depends what you mean by God.’ And not to be outdone, lay people made a similar response: 73% said ‘yes,’ and 23% said ‘it depends what you mean by God.’ The other 4% of lay people seem missing and unaccounted for.

I’m actually less alarmed by the roughly 1 in 4 who are uncertain about this ill-defined God we serve. There is a very complex picture of God in scripture, and in fact, even within books of the Bible some very hard-to-comprehend details emerge about the God who may be loving, and forgiving, but judgmental, and filled with some justified wrath, and so on. God is a mystery to human understanding, something God summed up rather well when God said “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55.8). We can and should accept this, and we will be the better for it.

But what we mean by Jesus is another matter. Son of the Most High, healer, friend of the friendless, source of wisdom, source of hope, the one willing to defy convention for the sake of wholeness and joy, the one who was quick to forgive and reluctant to condemn, the one who came to give life in abundance and always knew which side of the boat had more fish. The one who said “love as I have loved you,” and the one who promised many rooms in God’s house. The Jesus who preached and lived the Kingdom of God but never made it easy, only available to those with the heart to embrace it. This is the Jesus we treasure, the one we treasure because he treasured us first, and always, Amen.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve, 7 pm

Luke 2
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

In the future, you will be able to travel back in time to help yourself get ready for Christmas.

I’m not sure how we will manage not to disrupt the space-time continuum, say giving yourself some stock tips or avoiding the door when unwelcome guests arrive. All these things will need to worked out before we go stuffing the turkey for ourselves while we vacuum under the tree, but if they can put a guy in the moon...

Speaking of the space-time continuum, I have to say my favourite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is one called “Yesterday’s Enterprize.” While not a Christmas episode—Christmas does appear a handful of times in Star Trek—”Yesterday’s Enterprize” illustrates what can happen went the past and the present collide.

If you recall the episode, suddenly the Enterprize is changed, a little darker, with more militaristic looking uniforms, the officers are carrying side-arms, even in ten-forward. And while the rest of the crew is blissfully unaware of the change in the Enterprize, Guinan, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is not. She understands that something is off, something has fundamentally changed, and she takes this concern to Captain Picard. Luckily for the sake of our collective fictional future he trusts her—always trust the future of humanity with Whoopi—and soon everything is saved.

Now I want you to imagine our own rift in the space-time continuum, here at Central. Imagine you’ve come this evening in your best Centurion’s outfit: some light armour, your best for tonight, polished sword and sharpened spear, and one of those helmets that looks like something the Fuller Brush Man might sell you. The kids have their costumes too, little swords, dull of course, and maybe a cape in an appropriate holiday colour.

One of our youngsters gets up to the microphone here at the front, beside the lightly armoured tree and the weapons that decorate the walls. She opens the Bible to a story of the Incarnation, perhaps the earliest and best, and reads in a clear voice:

13 Once when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?’ 14He replied, ‘Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshipped, and he said to him, ‘What do you command your servant, my lord?’ 15The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.’ And Joshua did so.

There, in Joshua 5, is God’s first appearance in human form, we call it incarnation, and it leads to his famous victory over Jericho. It’s a strange passage to our ears, God appearing with drawn sword in hand, but to our alternate timeline selves, it would make perfect sense. This becomes the essence of God’s coming to live among us: fighting along side the people, defeating our enemies, and declaring vanquished territory ‘holy ground.’

And there is more. In the journey from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English, which is roughly how we got much of our Bible, the original name for Jesus is Joshua. So when the story of Jericho concludes with the words “So the LORD was with Joshua, and his fame was in all the land,” it is easy to see how all this could get conflated: Joshua hosting the incarnated warrior-LORD, and with a name that literally means “God saves,” and eventually bearing the name Jesus.

If we had a Guinan in our midst, she might sense that something is not right. Trust Whoopi, I say, because the militaristic timeline for the church feels wrong, it must not be. And it seems others felt this way too, because the Joshua 5 appearance remains an obscure passage best left to Bible trivia games and not the leading reading to illustrate the incarnation.

It seems from earliest days, the strong preference was for a baby. And so baby it is. Born to a couple of peasants on the edge of the empire, no money, no bed, no armour, no tiny sword, only a star to lead the way. And we remain led, to this humble setting, to take in the only timeline that makes sense: a God who wanted to experience the whole of human living, from teething to falling off his bike to losing friends to living under Roman occupation to betrayal and finally to death on a cross. It had to be all or nothing for the God who wants to know us better than we know ourselves, and so only beginning at the beginning would do.

Speaking of the beginning, if time travel were possible I might travel back in time to 1965 and say to my parents, ‘hey, is your camera broken?’ Surely little Michael deserves even a tenth of the photos you took of Andrew.’

Instead, here is a sample dialogue of every time my mother and I dip into the old photos:

Me: Is that me?
Mother: Sure it is. No, wait, that's your brother.
Me: Is this one me?
Me: Surely this is me.
Mother: I'm not sure, honey. Does it really matter? I mean, you and your brother look so much alike.

Someday I will form the International Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Subsequent Born Children, pressing for our right to be photographed and recorded doing all the things that firstborns did: sleeping, eating, sitting, looking bored, naked in the tub, looking menacing near my crib—you get the picture.

So think of Christmas as a celebration of God’s firstborn. Come as a baby, fussed over, photographed, described at length, overwhelmed with gifts and attention: so much so that even we subsequent born can see that this is the best way to welcome our Saviour. Far better than the soldier-saviour, or the warrior-LORD, or any other way that we might imagine an alternative to vulnerability and the weakness that is really strength.

Instead, Christmas is a collection of God’s baby pictures, present in all the details of the season, recording that this indeed is the best means for God to be present to us, to understand us, and live for with each day. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name. 
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation. 
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy, 
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

It seems that if the world doesn’t end, you still have to preach a sermon.

But not to worry: the world-ending, age-changing, time-shifting theme continues in the season of Advent, and we’re still in it for one more day. Tomorrow, the new age arrives, and we’ll face all that shiny-newness when it comes, but for today, we’re still preparing.

But we’re getting close. So close, that nearby babies are leaping in their mothers’ wombs and the mother of our Lord is singing a new song, but an old song all at once. The leaping baby, of course, is John the Baptist, as Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth. Suddenly, it seems, everyone is making prophetic speeches and everyone is overwhelmed by the Spirit.

Before we listen in detail, however, an observation. To be human is to love stories, and some of the most popular stories are stories that describe hinge-moments, moments on the cusp of change or change that is happening and won’t turn back. Think of Mad Men or Downton Abbey or Gone With the Wind or The Sound of Music and you will see that we are drawn to a story where one world is ending and another world is on the way.

And reaching all the way back to Advent One, it seems obvious that we drawn to hinge-moment stories because hinge-moment stories cast a light on much of our experience. It’s why they are so compelling, because they demonstrate in narrative form the very thing we all know: Life, like a book, has chapters, and the most interesting part of any book is the time when one chapter is ending and another chapter is set to begin.

So, Mary and her cousin are spending time together, and try to describe in some way the hinge-moment that is unfolding around them. They are pregnant. But they are much more than simply pregnant, they are in the realm of dreams and prophecy and angel visitations. It might even be a little disturbing, something Luke mostly hints at, to find yourself ‘overshadowed’ by the Spirit, to learn that this child will be uniquely holy, and will be the Son of the Most High. But she accepts, perhaps knowing she has little choice, but she accepts.

And then she sings. She sings a song that is the echo of another song, from another hinge-moment, a song that also anticipates great change. It’s not a direct parallel, of course, but how could it be an exact match, since Mary can barely fathom the type of change that the birth of her baby will bring. So she echoes Hannah’s Song, found in 1 Samuel 2, in a bid to describe what all of this might mean.

Hannah is the mother of Samuel, and like the matriarch Sarah, she defies the odds and becomes pregnant. But unlike the laughing Sarah, Hannah prays and shares a prophecy, one that will give hope to Mary and will inform the life of little Samuel, but won’t alter the course of the history of Israel, something we’ll look at after we hear a little of Hannah’s Song:

“My heart rejoices in the Lord;
in the Lord my horn[a] is lifted high.

7 The Lord sends poverty and wealth;
he humbles and he exalts.
8 He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.

“It is not by strength that one prevails;
10 those who oppose the Lord will be broken.
The Most High will thunder from heaven;
the Lord will judge the ends of the earth.

That last bit is a warning, ‘it is not by strength that one prevails, and those who oppose the Lord will be broken.‘ The setting is a hinge-moment, the end of the period of Judges and the beginning of the period of kings, but we shouldn’t get excited, since it mostly ends badly, in spite of all the warnings.

Samuel is the last judge to rule Israel, and does so with great integrity, having been dedicated to God since birth. But his sons are set to follow, and they are not Samuel, and the people of Israel have been looking at neighbouring nations, and the idea of kingship, and they are filled with envy. ‘We want to be like other nations,’ they say. ‘Before you go, Samuel, give us a king to lead us.’

Samuel tries not to take it personally, and God helps, because God says ‘listen, Samuel, it is not you they reject, but me; they rejected me after I brought them out from Egypt and they reject me now. If it is a king they want, give one to them—but make sure they understand what they ask for.’

What follows is perhaps the most profoundly accurate words of prophecy every uttered, because they describe kings and governments of every age, and it is not a compelling picture:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

And like idiots the people said “No! We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

Now, this is not a Tea Party sermon, and we like our government, and if not this government, we like Her Majesty’s government that lives above all the foolishness that happens in Ottawa. We are United Church, we celebrate paying taxes and knowing that our taxes pay for all the good stuff we support, like UI and health care and equalization. We’re not opposed to government, we see it as a force for good. But we shouldn’t get too excited, says Samuel, because kings and governments are always about the status quo, and rarely about a world make new.

All governments are concerned with getting and keeping power, that is what they do, and even the most enlightened government will make the compromises necessary to ensure that they keep power. They will pander to the most reliable block of voters or supporters and find a way to square their concerns with the concerns of the government and seldom do what is right simply for the sake of what is right.

An enlightened government doesn’t set the welfare rate at $606 a month and call it adequate to the needs of the most vulnerable. Instead, our government allows wealthier Canadians to hire a nanny and claim a child care deduction to the tune of $600 a month, per child. The same wealthy Canadian can deduct nearly $2,000 a month in RRSP contributions, sheltered from tax, or claim the children’s fitness deduction, or my personal favourite, carrying charges: If you rent a safety deposit box to keep your gold bullion, you can deduct the cost of the box. So who does government serve?

Now, I’m no revolutionary, but Mary was. Listen to her words, while you ponder safety deposit boxes filled with gold:

51 God has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.

This is not a ‘personal saviour’ who will save your soul from eternal torment, though he might do that too: This is God’s own program of social reconstruction and subverting the existing order. Israel wanted a king—begged for a king—and with it they got judgment and defeat and a small wealthy elite who didn’t mind Babylon after all. In fact, many stayed when the exile ended, because there was no Holt Renfrew in Jerusalem and in Babylon you could deduct the cost of your nanny.

In many ways, Christmas may be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ God is going to enter our world in a new way, everything may change, and we may decide that the old order wasn’t so bad after all. Welcome the child, but don’t forget that he comes with a program and a purpose: to change everything to reflect God’s desire for the world. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

First Sunday of Advent

Luke 21
25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

Well, earthlings, we had a good run.

5,125 years and the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar comes to an end. Two weeks from Friday, if you want to be precise, and then we’re on our own. Forget the ‘fiscal cliff,’ global warning, or the cancellation of the rest of the NHL season: we’re talking about flipping the wall calendar and finding the next page blank.

Mayans not your style? Some have piggy-backed on all the excitement to point to Sagittarius A, believed to be the location of a supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way that may or may not have the gravitational pull required to make life of earth shorter and more memorable.

And then there is a rather persistent radio commercial I keep hearing for something called “Critical Warning Number 6.” The voiceover begins “Something very big will happen in America within the next 180 days” and concludes (of course) with a website that will take your Visa card. Forget that they have been running the spot for a year and a half now.

In some ways it’s just too easy to make fun of the end of the world: it just keeps refusing to happen. Y2K? That was a yawn. Remember Harold Camping at his end-of-the-world billboard campaign? Or Hal Lindsey and his famous book “The Late Great Planet Earth?” Or his follow-up “The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon?” It should have read ‘The 1980’s: Countdown to Fashion Armageddon.’

Still, we had a good run. And if you were at all listening to the reading we just heard from Joan “End-of-theWorld” Fulford, you will now know that Luke and the others were not above a little apocalyptic musing themselves.

“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”

And then Luke adds the coda that ruins the whole thing:

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

So immediately we have a problem. The world-ending, terror-producing, heaven-shaking event that Luke predicts didn’t come to pass, so the temptation is to dismiss. Unfortunately for us, these letters are in red, and so we have to at least consider them, even though we are sophisticated enough to know that ever since the first human became aware of an era, that same human became aware that eras come to an end.

Now, since the world is ending two weeks from Friday, I might was well surrender some of my bible interpretation tricks, since I may not need them anymore. In this case, the best interpretive methodology we can employ would be to look at the context, the location of the text in the overall gospel narrative. And sure enough, it falls immediately before Jesus’ betrayal and arrest.

In other words, the world-ending, terror-producing, heaven-shaking event that Jesus was preparing his disciples to face would actually happen, in a garden, in the darkness, by a companion and friend. Considered that way, it almost sounds worse than the ‘anguish and perplexity and tossing of the sea.’

Now, perhaps you are thinking that’s just too simple, and there must be more, so instead I’ll distract you with a childhood story (another preacher’s trick).

Imagine little Michael huddled in the back seat of his mother’s ’67 Mustang, barreling down the Mount Albert Sideroad to an uncertain future in something that was given the deceptively gentle sounding name ‘Kindergarten.”

Bear in mind that everything leading up to this moment was pretty sweet. Mid-week, the bread truck would come, and we would whine until we got some of those little sugar covered donuts. We had a massive sand pile. And twice a day we got to enjoy break-time with the men in my father’s machine shop, with coffee, and smoking, and giant metalworking machines that could consume small children.

So one day it’s all coffee and danger with sugar-covered donuts and the next day I’m being transported to an uncertain future with a seemingly pleasant German-sounding name. How nice, a garden full of children: don’t believe a word of it.

There were tears. Not mine, of course, but the tears of the other children. And as my mother tells me, with more than a little pride, as soon as I arrived I set about comforting the other children as they faced this end-of-the-world experience. I wonder, at times, if my mother’s telling of this story is apocryphal, which has nothing to do with the end of the world, but rather indicates that she is making it all up.

I’ll let you decide if you accept Marilyn’s natural-born pastor theory, or if it’s just another Mount Albert folktale like the one about washers and dryers from the Mainprize store sliding down Centre Street in the middle of the night.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but the book “Necessary Losses” by Judith Viorst is most helpful here. You might know her by her most famous book, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” A great book, but for today it’s “Necessary Losses” with the sub-title: “The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow.” That’s pretty much the whole book in the title, but she also speaks directly to that trip down the Mount Albert Sideroad in Marilyn’s ’67 Mustang: it was the end of the world.

You left your mother’s womb, that was a loss. You gave up nappies: loss. You went to Kindergarten: loss. You made a friend and lost a friend: loss. You graduated and they forced you to go to High School: loss. First love, first car, first choice of schools: loss. Do you get the picture? Everything new, everything next, everything now will eventually transform into something else or nothing at all. All that we have and all that we hope to have will be with us for a time and then be with us no longer. Remember 2012? Olympics, Jubilee, shiny new NHL season? All came and went (or failed to come) and we experienced loss.

Viorst argues that everyday is a little loss, but if we accept it, and maybe even embrace it, we can live more fully and happily. And then Jesus said: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

What he means is completion. The true “sign of the times,” the passing of the seasons, will eventually lead to the completion of all things, and this Jesus can only describe as the Kingdom of God. Remembering from last week, it remains a mystery, this Kingdom of the not-yet and yet within-you. But the last word on the last day on the last page of the last calendar will not be a blank page or a supermassive black hole but the Kingdom of God. It will be the end of all losses, the loss of losses, and the completion of all that is.

So Advent begins, and we know where it will end: With the birth of the one-for-whom-we-wait. The child of the New Age, the real new age, that will promise and deliver an end to loss, and an end to death, and an end to the present age, and give us instead the Kingdom of God. Amen.