Sunday, December 28, 2014

First Sunday after Christmas

Luke 2
25 And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, 28 he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said:
29 “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation
31 Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
32 A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”
33 And Joseph and His mother[h] marveled at those things which were spoken of Him.

You wait all month long, and the special day passes in a heartbeat.
You spend days wrapping those presents, and the sound of tearing paper lasts about a minute.
You spend the whole day preparing the meal, and fifteen minutes later it’s gone.
The needles are falling off the tree, the chocolate is disappearing from the coffee table and somehow reappearing on the bathroom scale.
Family and friends have packed and left, kids are off pondering what to do with gift cards and the novelty of this years gadgets is already wearing off.

But take heart: we’ll do it all again next year. The trick is to write down the things you vow to do differently, because a year is a long time to remember to put out two gravy boats instead of one. And if you are really keen to keep the magic going, buy Christmas items on sale this week and store them until next year. Except chocolate, because serving year-old chocolate is just not cool.

So the emotional path looks something like this: waiting, waiting, excitement, some relief, maybe a hint of disappointment, fatigue, and hopefully some contentment. It’s always a mixed bag, this season, since anticipation is rarely met with complete fulfillment.

That is, unless you are Simeon and Anna. St. Luke’s coda to the nativity of Jesus takes us to the Temple where where we meet two people famous for waiting. They spend their days in the Temple in prayer, waiting for the ‘consolation of Israel’ and the ‘redemption of Jerusalem.’

And they are not disappointed. Simeon meets the child and shares his canticle: a witness to the salvation of the Lord, the one who shall be a light to the nations and glory to the people of Israel. And Anna speaks of a redeemer, returning Jerusalem to God, the answer to her prayers.

And through it all, Mary and Joseph marvel and ponder, returning home to await the next chapter in this unfolding story of promise that was announced to them and now they begin to see. Really, it’s the confirmation these parents need: angel visitations and the dreams have given way to prophetic voices that verify everything they have learned so far.

Still, there is more to the message of Anna and Simeon than simply the confirmation of previous promises. They have a program, and a set of goals, that they set before us with the words ‘consolation of Israel’ and the ‘redemption of Jerusalem.’ They are waiting for something very specific, and the implications will take us all the way to end of this story.

If Anna and Simeon were quizzed on signs and inspiration, they would very likely point to Isaiah 52. There, we find the same promise and more-or-less the same words:

Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has consoled his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. (v.9)

The context is the return from exile, the belief that judgment has passed and restoration has begun. God is leading the people back to Zion, where they will be comforted and redeemed in the sight of the nations. But amid all this talk of consolation and redemption, another note is sounded, another prophecy, From the end of Isaiah 52:

“Look, my servant will succeed!
He will be elevated, lifted high, and greatly exalted—
14 (just as many were horrified by the sight of you)
he was so disfigured he no longer looked like a man;
15 his form was so marred he no longer looked human—
so now he will startle many nations.
Kings will be shocked by his exaltation,
for they will witness something unannounced to them,
and they will understand something they had not heard about.

This, of course, leads us into Isaiah 53 and the suffering servant:

He was despised and rejected[a] by all;
a man of sorrows,[b] and acquainted with grief;[c]
and as one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Already the ‘consolation of Israel’ and the ‘redemption of Jerusalem’ is more than simply a joyous return from exile—it is something more—something that will require sacrifice and a willingness to endure hardship at the hands of the very people this servant has come to redeem.

And already the joy is mixing with sorrow, something Simeon also notes when we says to Mary and Joseph, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Ironically, this feeling is not limited to parents of the Messiah, or even parents. Everyone who takes joy in the arrival of a child is confronted by the bittersweet nature of life on earth. Even as we look forward with joy to all that a child will see and do, experience and enjoy, we also know that every child will feel pain, know loss, and be confronted by the vicissitudes of human living.

And we know this because this is our own experience, our own struggle with promise and pain, expectation and loss. We become, in effect, exiles from ourselves, and through it all God promises return, saying ‘sing together, through the ruin that is your lives, for the LORD has consoled us, and redeemed us.’

In the very same way, we mark the end of the year. It is always a mixture of thankfulness and regret, the passing of the year: the milestones, the gifts, the many ways we were blessed, mixed—of course—with the challenges and setbacks we faced, and the losses we endured. Yet through it all we hear: ‘sing together, through the ruin that is your lives, for the LORD has consoled us, and redeemed us.’

We will pass an entire year of faith and fulfillment in the next four months. Jesus will call his disciples, feed the five thousand, preach the kingdom, heal the sick, love sinners, and upset the ancient status quo. We will try him and find him guilty for all that we regret about the human way, and he will translate this from cross to consolation, from redemption in Jerusalem to the salvation of all.

And through it all we will pray for others and ourselves that we might experience the LORD’s consolation and redemption, and end to exile and the birth of hope, now and always, amen.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve, 7 pm

Luke 2
6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,
7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

It is the greatest piece of Christmas music never written.

Our composer began writing Italian opera. But the London crowd is notoriously fickle, and by the 1730’s he switched to English oratorio. In the summer of 1741, encouraged by his wealthy patron (everyone needs a wealthy patron!), Handel composed his most famous work.

Much to his wealthy patron’s dismay, Handel decided to debut The Messiah in Dublin, just before Easter, 1742. Note the occasion, and the association that did not take. Meant to be Easter music, it become forever associated with Christmas.

The reasons are obscure. It wasn’t the verses selected, since only two of sixteen “scenes” have to do with Jesus’ birth. Perhaps it’s based on the connection between The Messiah and charitable giving, something we emphasize this time of year. Handel insisted that the proceeds of the concerts go to charity, in a city with its share of poverty.

More likely, the Christmas association is based on the majesty of those two early sections. From traditional Advent readings (“Ev’ry valley shall be exalted”) to Isaiah’s prophetic words (“Unto us a child is born”), the stage is set for the centrepiece of this narrative: the annunciation to the shepherds. It culminates with the chorus “Glory to God in the highest.” He could have stopped there, but thank God he didn’t.

Now, maybe oratorio is not your thing. For you, I have another work of art, and another wealthy patron—this time The Coca-Cola Company. It was the mid-60’s, a time when companies would directly sponsor television programs, and hire producers to bring their vision to life.

The topic was ‘the true meaning of Christmas,’ and the producers did everything in an unconventional way: They were attempting to bring a comic strip to television, with parts voiced by actual children, without a laugh track, and with a jazz soundtrack. It had disaster written all over it. Both the producers and the network decided they had a flop on their hands, and were no doubt comforted by the fact that the bills were being paid by Coca-Cola.

The rest, of course, is history. A Charlie Brown Christmas won an Emmy and a Peabody, the soundtrack went triple-platinum, and both critics and children have debated since then whether it is the best Christmas special of them all. If I suggest you debate this question after the service, you’ll still be here at eleven, and you will be no further in deciding between Charlie Brown, The Grinch or Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer.

And if you are visiting this planet for the first time this evening, let me give you a thumbnail sketch: Charlie Brown is depressed about the over-commercialization of Christmas, and pays his nickel to Lucy for advice. She suggests he stage a Christmas play, which leads to a series of events (including acquiring a ‘Charlie Brown tree’) and the inevitable tantrum when we are asked ‘is there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?’ Linus does, and once again, it’s the annunciation to the shepherds:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Stories can change lives. Countless millions have never been to church, but they know the true meaning of Christmas according to Linus and St. Luke. In fact, Peter Abelard said that just hearing the story of Christ’s death on the cross was enough to turn a heart of stone to a heart dedicated to God alone. And the same is true for the annunciation. Hearing that ancient message, meant for the poor ones and humble ones, we hear the essence of God greatest gift to us: A baby and a Saviour, God with us in a new way, once and for all.

Stories can change lives. On that first evening, April 13, 1742, the concert was sold out. Men were asked to leave their formal swords at home, and women encouraged to remove the hoops from their skirts to allow for more room in the hall on the wonderfully named Fishamble Street. Three charities were selected: prisoners' debt relief, the Mercer's Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary.

Nearly £400 was raised that first evening—a remarkable sum for 1742—and divided three ways between the charities selected. Following the delivery of £127 to the charity dedicated to prisoner’ debt relief, 142 prisoners were released from prison, the majority being held for debts less than a pound.

To quote our friend Linus, “that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”


Sunday, December 07, 2014

Advent II

Mark 1
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,[a] the Son of God,[b] 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”[c]—
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[d]
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with[e] water, but he will baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.”

This year I’m suggesting Christmas according to Mark’s Gospel.

Sorry kids, we were going to head for the local woodlot, but now we need to head to a different wilderness: no trees, just a lot of sand, a muddy river and shouting.

Cancel the turkey and all the fixings: this year it’s locusts and wild honey, served with a side of nothing.

Did you just find the most fabulous ugly Christmas sweater? I know the ugly Christmas sweater is all the rage, but this year everything is camel hair (yes, even the underwear) topped off with a plain leather belt.

There will be no heartfelt greetings, no messages of hope, not even politically-correct seasonal messages: just confessing. And not the garden-variety stuff or the strengths you try to sell as shortcomings (“I care too much” or “I work too hard”)

And there is no creche: only sodden reprobates milling about the riverside look for towels. There will be no towels.

There will, however, be preaching. And not the clever, leave-happy kind of preaching. This preaching comes with shouting and wild gestures, predictions that sound like threats, and talk of footwear—serious footwear.

By now you’re remembered that Mark skips the whole Christmas thing and goes straight for the good stuff—a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It’s Advent preparation with a twist, since the very thing we seem to prepare for is missing in Mark.

And I think this is pretty consistent for our old friend Mark. He’s a Gospel writer in a hurry, giving three or four words when the others might give ten. Or, as I’ve mentioned before from this spot, he’s the Gospel equivalent of Oxo cube—the others add water.

So he forgoes the ordinary narrative we love to hear, and gives us an eccentric guy in the Judean wilderness. But he doesn’t leave off the idea of incarnation, the abiding sense that God is coming in a new way. And to share this Good News, he uses baptism:

“After me comes the one more powerful than me, the straps of whose sandals I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he’ll baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.” (7-8)

In other words, John is setting the table and Jesus will bring the meal. John is peeling the apples and Jesus will make the Jelly-Jam™. Here, and you thought the history of Jelly-Jam began in 1675.

In this season of preparation there is no greater figure than John the Baptist. He stands in a long line of prophets to help believers get ready, and he picks an equally longstanding tradition when he decides to choose baptism as his primary method of preparation.

So why baptism? And why at that moment in the story of our faith? To begin, it’s important to note that John doesn’t invent baptism. Baptism is a ancient tradition within Israel, one that appears at critical moments in the story of this people, and not always in an obvious way.

A quick survey of the Jewish Encyclopedia, and the story of baptism before John begins to emerge:* In keeping with a key theme of the Jewish religion, baptism was rite of purification, a means to maintain a close connection to God. And it was ongoing, not a once-and-for-all ritual as in Christianity, but an ongoing means to make things right with God.

Along with circumcision and sacrifice, baptism was a rite of initiation, a way for converts to express their commitment to God in a deeply symbolic way. In the Talmud it is suggested that even Pharaoh's daughter undergoes this style of purification, wading into the water to retrieve the baby Moses.

And perhaps the most noteworthy example of ritual purification—Jesus himself talks about the cleansing of Naaman the Leper—gives us a strong sense of the renewing power of God through water.

The story begins with a slave-girl, an Israelite, giving advice to her mistress. Understanding his distress, she says ‘If only my master Naaman would see the prophet in my homeland, he would be cured of his leprosy.’ Grasping at straws, Naaman takes this suggestion to his king who says ‘go, and let me send gifts and a letter ahead of you.’

The king of Israel receives the letter seeking a cure for poor Naaman, and thinks it’s a trick. Tearing his robe, he says ‘how can I cure a leper? Will they retaliate when we fail?’ But Elisha, hearing the story, says ‘why have you torn your robes? Send him to me and I will show them the power of God’s prophet in Israel.’

So Naaman arrives at Elisha’s front door, but Elisha won’t see him. Instead he sends word to Naaman saying ‘go and wash seven times in the River Jordan, and you will be healed.’ But Naaman is just mad. “I came all this way and won’t stand before me, and say just a few words? And why the Jordan? We have far better rivers back home!’

He walked off in a huff, but his servants begged him: ‘the prophet asks so little, so why not give it a go?’ The result is recorded in 2 Kings 5: “So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.” (14)

And so John the Baptist picks up where Elisha has left off: he is immersing the people in the Jordan to make them clean, to purify them in preparation for the one who will come. This ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ is the ritual washing they will need before the Spirit’s baptism, the one that will forever mark them as God’s own.

In other words, first comes the restoration that follows John’s baptism, (“and his flesh was restored and become clean like that of a young boy”) and then and only then can they ‘put on Christ’ through the baptism to follow. And so Advent marks the prophetic baptism, the baptism of preparation, that will allow us to make room in our hearts.

The other lesson of Mark is simplicity. By distilling the story to its most essential elements, Mark is suggesting we do likewise. By drawing our attention to a story of preparation, a story with so few details, Mark is pointing the way to another pre-Christmas truth: in a season so overwhelming, and so seemingly complex, what simple things will we do to prepare? What will we set aside or leave behind? What will the waters of the Jordan wash way, as we step in and are made new?

Repentance is a profoundly counter-cultural act. Back in my day (I’m almost 50 so I can say that now) the government minister who got in trouble would volunteer to resign or the celebrity who got caught would make a heartfelt apology. Now the politician is protected and defended until the media digs up more dirt and the celebrity hires a PR firm and sues for $55,000,000.

When did it become so hard to say “I screwed up”? When did we move from responsible government to misdirection and throwing Pierre Poutine under the bus? Part of it begins with the assumption that our self-esteem is seemingly so fragile we must shield children from their own mistakes. So we started there, and we never allowed them to grow up into responsible adults. Everything is someone else’s fault, you’re only in trouble when you get caught, and then one day your kid says “don’t say that: you’ll make me feel bad about myself.”

And so we pray: “Help us God, not to safeguard our fragile sense-of-self, but to grow our sense-of-self through heartfelt repentance, and a honest look at our short-comings, both as individuals and as a society. Amen.