Monday, December 31, 2018

First Sunday after Christmas

Colossians 3
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
It’s an odd Sunday.

First up, I’m not sure why you’re here. Of course, I understand you’re here to worship the Most High, but aren’t you a little tired? Shouldn’t you be dozing somewhere in a turkey induced-slumber, and planning New Year’s resolutions related to that turkey-induced slumber?

Second, it’s an odd Sunday. Scraps of unsung carols get sung today, and the minister picks the obscure French carols that no one else really likes, because no one is supposed to be here. Controversial things may be said from the pulpit, based on the assumption that some things demand to be said, and are often better said when no one is supposed to be here.

Or perhaps all these things are precisely why you’re here: to worship the Most High, to avoid making New Year’s resolutions, to sing obscure French carols that you secretly love, and to hear something controversial because you know that’s how ministers roll. So thank you for coming, and let’s ignore the fact that we’re really here for the Christmas goodies that usually show up at coffee the Sunday after Christmas.

Before we head to Colossae (COLL-aw-see) and talk about virtue, I want to head to the coast, about 200 kilometres away, and meet one of the most famous sons of Ephesus, Heraclitus (Hera-CLE-tus) the Obscure. If you’re wondering why you don’t know Heraclitus, it seems the answer is in the name. But actually it’s not, because his epithet means “hard to understand” rather than unknown.

Heraclitus lived about 500 years before St. Paul, but his reputation among Greek philosophers is solid, owing to a handful of ideas and some really great quotes beginning with “no one steps in the same river twice.” He meant that the river, like everything else around us, is constantly changing, and therefore you never step in the same river twice. And like most philosophers, he had an rival, maybe a frenemy, by the name of Parmenides. And Parmenides, being a rival, took the opposite view, summing up his view with the profoundly concise “what-is, is.” So either everything changes or what is, is. You have to take sides, and you can do it over coffee, because either ontology matters, or you just like saying “what is, is.”

The other famous saying by our friend Heraclitus is another simple-yet-profound one, one that will take us back to the Colossians. Heraclitus said ​ethos anthropoi daimon​, usually translated as “man’s character is his fate” or simply “character is destiny.” It has elements of Paul’s later expression, “you reap what you sow,” (Gal 6.7) but it’s less behavioural and more about the essence of who we are and how that tends to determine what becomes of us.

So I won’t read the passage again, but I will turn it into a list of all the virtues that Paul commends to the church in Colossae: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, unity, peace, thankfulness, and gratitude. It’s a good list, and before we dig in, I wonder about the ordering. Paul does say “over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together,” so he does give priority to one over all. But what do you think? How would you order them? I’ll leave it with you, but we’ll give Paul is due and put love at the top.

It’s also important to understand that this list is aspirational in nature. Paul understood as well as anyone that congregations like the one at Colossae were filled with broken people, but he saw his task as setting out expectations—meaning this is what Christian community should look like. And he was also drawing a contrast with the way of the world, defining the nature of Christian community in opposition to the “nasty, brutish and short” life that most experienced.

While we’re doing quotes, the full quote is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and the seventeenth-century cleric that made the quote (I bet his sermons were fun) was trying to be candid about human nature, the very nature that Paul wanted his people to overcome. A recent scholar gave this summary of Hobbes’ view:

We are all basically selfish, driven by fear of death and the hope of personal gain, [Hobbes] believed. All of us seek power over others, whether we realize this or not. If you don’t accept Hobbes’ picture of humanity, why do you lock the door when you leave your house?*

So I’m going to do a little thought experiment, based on the ‘year in review,’ and see who pops into your mind as I make another list. Paul looked around and saw troubled people in a troubled time: lacking compassion, cruel, vain, rough, impatient, unforgiving, hateful, disunifying, warlike, unthankful, ungrateful, and intolerant— assuming that’s the opposite of showing forbearance.

Got a mental picture of anyone? I’m just going to leave that with you while I talk about another important part of the passage we’re looking at, and that’s admonishment. You might remember earlier in the year we looked at rebuking— back on “Get Behind Me, Satan” Sunday— also known as the Second Sunday of Lent. I was telling you about the various penalties we face for our ecclesiastical misdeeds, beginning with admonishing, then rebuking and eventually all the way to losing your spot on the roll. Serious stuff, and it all begins with the very advice Paul gives to the Colossians:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

And just to be clear, I’m going to share from the other “good book,” the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of admonish: “To advise or warn (a person), esp. by way of correction.” I think it’s safe to say that few of us like to be admonished, we don’t seek correction, and we would rather people ignored our faults or misdeeds than pointing them out as a matter of Christian duty.

But Paul wasn’t kidding. One of the marks of Christian community is mutual accountability, opening ourselves to the occasional admonishment as we move toward the goal of Christian perfection. And of course it never fully works, because only God is perfect, and because we remain, well, human. Nevertheless, Paul insists that we have a duty to “to advise or warn (one another), esp. by way of correction.” They will know we are Christians by our love and our willingness to admonish and be admonished. It’s who we are.

So I want to play the same game, called “who am I talking about, really,” as I read Psychology Today’s definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.**

The hallmarks of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are grandiosity, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration. People with this condition are frequently described as arrogant, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder have difficulty tolerating criticism or defeat, and may be left feeling humiliated or empty when they experience an "injury" in the form of criticism or rejection.

In other words, you’re desire to admonish this person will not work. They are not wired for admonishment, and it will leave them feeling injured or diminished or rejected. And they need our love and support, but they shouldn’t be put in charge of any large institutions, or even small ones for that matter. They can exist in the church, because our doors remain open to all of God’s broken people, but it’s going to be tough for them.

It’s going to be tough for them because with love comes mutual accountability, and a willingness to “speak the truth in love,” another gem from St. Paul. I think Heraclitus was right—character is destiny—and that’s why Paul just couldn’t stop talking about virtue. He set out every specific expectations about belief, behaviour, and the way in which we remain our ‘brothers and sisters’ keepers.

There are people in power who seek to destroy Christian community, not by condemning it, but by co-opting it and using it to further their twisted aims. They exploit Christian virtue—patience, forbearance, and forgiveness—and convince them that this Faustian deal is worth it, trading common decency for the belief that the end justifies the means. Obviously Christians who support corrupt politicians are not blameless, but they need to understand how this ends, and the extent to which their choices hurt all people of faith.

Most importantly, we need to remember who we are: God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. And willing to help each other remain these things, always, in a spirit of love. Amen.

* y-poor-nasty-brutish-and-short/ ** personality-disorder

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve (late)

Dr. Jim and I have this little ritual that unfolds each Christmas: I remember late in the week that I should ask him to read—and not simply assume that he’ll do it. And every year Jim agrees to read far too quickly, at least in comparison to everyone I ask to read, every other time we have a service. Sometimes I’ll add some kind of attachment to the request, maybe a flu shot or some random ache or pain, and he politely meets those needs too.

Our shared passion for John’s prologue, the first dozen-and-a-half verses of John’s Gospel, means that this service is a highlight of the year. John’s first section sets the tenor and tone of the whole book. It combines cosmology and context, some foreshadowing, and a direct appeal to the soul of the reader. It is a symphony of metaphor: Witness to the light, the true light, the Word made flesh, determined to live among us.

It’s also a manifesto, a passionate statement of intention, and it’s touched more lives than any other manifesto.

It’s the beginning of an epic, a story of signs and self-revelation, and it’s certainly touched more lives that the Iliad or the Odyssey or any other classical text.

It’s a worldview and a challenge to the reader, and it’s certainly touched more lives than an entire industry of gurus and guides.

And it’s a retreat from the comfort of shepherds and angels, clothing that swaddles and the puzzle of being sore afraid. John’s prologue doesn’t replace those stories, it completes them. It gives them meaning beyond a foundational story and shoots for the stars. It drags us back to the beginning when God-in-Christ and Christ-in-God birth the cosmos, reveal the light, and establish a realm of grace and truth.

Now the challenge: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” See the challenge? Can you recognize him? Can you let his light shine in the shadowed places in your life? In my life? Sometimes recognition is slow to come, but God is persistent. The Maker of Heaven and earth has returned tonight to ask for our lives once more. We should say yes. Amen.

Christmas Eve (early)

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.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Sometimes we just need a little good news. has published 99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear About in 2018, a wonderful counterpoint to the prevailing narrative that many of us have lodged in our head. We need a little good news, so here are just five of the 99 to share tonight:

Following China’s ban on ivory last year, 90% of the public indicate support for the ban, ivory demand has dropped by almost half, and poaching rates are falling in places like Kenya. (WWF)

Niger revealed that it has planted 200 million new trees in three decades, the largest positive transformation of the environment in African history. (Guardian)

The United Nations Development Programme released a new report showing that 271 million people in India have moved out of poverty since 2005, reducing the country’s poverty rate by nearly half in a single decade. (Times of India)

Adidas expects to sell 5 million pairs of shoes made from ocean plastic this year, and committed to using only recycled plastic in its products by 2024. (CNN)

A study of crime and related statistics in California has revealed that in the last generation, arrests of teenagers have fallen by 80%, murder arrests by 85%, imprisonments reduced by 88%, teen births down by 75%, school dropouts by half, and college enrolments are up by 45%. (Sacbee)

Sometimes we just need a little good news. Part of our human nature is the capacity to sour on people, ideas, and our world itself. Once soured, once convinced of a particular direction or narrative, it becomes increasingly difficult to reverse course. Distrust of institutions, failing relationships, even poor economic performance on a larger scale can often be traced back to a shift in perception.

So, 2018, how did that work out? I’m stealing from next Sunday’s sermon for a moment to acknowledge that the storyline of 2018, the ‘year in review’ that we hear this time of year is hardly something to write home about. I won’t trouble you with a reminder, since we’ve had these conversations already. It is enough to say that something has changed in the last couple of years, and there is a sense that 2018 was part of the narrative that ‘things may get worse, before they get better.’

Part of the problem of this push-pull of ideas is that it’s all very subjective. I can say a handful of things that most could find a way to agree with:

Things are getting better
Things were getting better, but now they’re getting worse
It was better in the past
The past was terrible: it’s much better now
Whatever I’m experiencing, someone has it worse and someone has it better.

So, for example, what about shepherds in their fields abiding? Better or worse? They received “good news of great joy” but did they need it? Were they being saved from something? Were their lives miserable?

Plenty of homiletical ink has been spilled about life in first-century Palestine, that near-eastern, Roman-occupied, more-or-less a backwater that God chose to enter our world. What was it like? Was it really so bad? And where do they fall within the question of better, worse, terrible, and so on?

So, what do we know? Looking at Jesus’ home in the Galilee, it wasn’t as rural or remote as we imagine. There were as many as 200 villages in a small region, and three Roman cities, one a regional capital and another a busy seaside resort. There was plenty of work for skilled people such as carpenters, and Lake Tiberius was rich with fish.

While the majority were poor, farmers, fishers, and day labourers, the archaeology reveals surprising things: Children’s toys such as “whistles, rattles, toy animals on wheels, hoops, and spinning tops have been found” by archaeologists. Graven images were forbidden, so there are no paintings to show the style of dress or colours, but the rule wasn’t strictly enforced, since dolls for children have been found.

Historians describe small family groupings—taking meals in common—with a favourite pastime being after-dinner conversation long into the night. Board games were popular too, perhaps for the young people or when conversation became too contentious. Early in the day people ate bread, olives and cheese, with the larger evening meal featuring lentil stew, more bread, and fish, of course, for the those near the water.

In other words, not so bad, and not unlike the experience of many of our families if we went back even a half-dozen generations. Our friends in their fields abiding enjoyed companionship, meaningful labour, and extended family networks. There was no fast food or big box stores, but even as I say this I feel like I’m making a case for the past. Medicine was a problem, along with conquest and war, but by in large, lives were lived in a way that we could recognize and perhaps even envy just a little.

So what was missing? At this point I need to be careful as I describe spiritual lives, since Judaism remains one of the world’s great religions. And Jesus—as a good Jew—would remind us that his program was reform rather than creating something new. Nevertheless, his own words provide the framework we need describe what was missing, and why tonight is so important.

For our shepherds, God was to be feared, and obeyed, but not really loved. Sore afraid was not uncommon, with a healthy fear of failure relating to God’s commands and the laws that governed this relationship. Insiders and outsiders were carefully delineated, with such makers driving people apart rather than drawing the community together as intended. Much later, Jesus would find an obscure verse in Leviticus to define the problem and define his project: love your neighbour as yourself.

But tonight, the message is a simple one, “I bring you good news of great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.” If you’ll forgive me a little Greek, they announced a σωτήρ (so-tir), a saviour, a deliverer, a preserver. The message of this wee lad would take years to develop, but the meaning was immediate: God entered our world in a new way—to deliver us from estrangement, to preserve us for a life with God, and to save us from ourselves.

In other words, whatever nations rise and fall, however the Dow might rise or fall, even the vicissitudes of our own lives—these mean little in the arc of God’s desire to enter our lives. Emmanuel, God-with-us, is a source of comfort and joy, awe but not fear, forgiveness and reconciliation, all in the glory of God. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Advent IV

Luke 1
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!’

Well, it’s the fourth Sunday of Advent, and I expect you’re a little curious about what you missed while you were busy enjoying yourself.

Between the White Gift service (including some very impressive kings), and the choir cantata, there were a number of readings that could have been addressed from this space, but were sadly missed. I’m not suggesting you went home thinking ‘the choir was great this morning, but what about that reading from Zephaniah? When’s the the next time Zephaniah will come up at all? And who’s Zephaniah anyway?’

And that’s just the beginning. We missed readings from Baruch and Malachi too—it was going to be a minor prophet festival of Bible books that most of us would struggle to find. Trade tip if you’re ever asked to teach Sunday School: ask the kids to find Baruch, Malachi, and Zephaniah, then kick back until it’s time for cookies.

There is, however, more to Zephaniah than a name that’s fun to say. It’s the counterpoint to Advent three’s trip to the River Jordan. Zephaniah promises that the Lord will take away judgments from you, “renew you in his love,” and exult over you will loud singing. Meanwhile, down by the river, John the Baptist said this:

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

Preachers love John the Baptist. We’re yelling, but we’re not really yelling. And if the preacher is indeed faced with a brood of vipers (not here, of course) then the preacher gets to say ‘John said it, not me!’ He’s an essential ingredient to the Advent story, that remarkable mix of recrimination and hope that helps us prepare for tomorrow night. But John’s just getting started:

"I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

And just in case you missed it, we’re the chaff. But I want you to be chaff in context. Everyday since Halloween you have been confronted with society’s version of preparation: perfect homes, perfect children, perfect gifts—music to make you spend faster and feel good doing it—and the abiding sense that you deserve the best. That’s Advent out there. In here, we’re on a different path. We recognize that it’s not a season of joy for everyone. We understand that to make room for Jesus in our hearts we need to put a few things away or throw them out altogether. We only deserve what God promises to give us— and for that we have the minor prophets. And that brings us to Baruch:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven. For God will give you evermore the name, "Righteous Peace, Godly Glory."

Saint Augustine said “By loving me, God, you made me lovable.” God will take away the wardrobe of woe, and give us the robe of righteousness instead. We will be crowned with glory, and God will give us a new name, "Righteous Peace, Godly Glory." It’s the most Advent of names, and it would be the perfect bridge to angels and shepherds, but we’re not there yet. Advent has a couple more things to show us, so it’s back to the readings.

If you were here on Advent One, you will recall that I suggested that all of Advent can be summed up in a single verse, 1 Thessalonians 3.13:

May [the Lord] strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

The journey through Advent is meant to strengthen us, to allow us to become upright and holy in God’s presence, and to be ready when Jesus comes with all the saints. And it’s this last part that deserves a second look. Who are these saints that will return with Christ? The answer, of course, is somewhere else in Paul.

And your pew Bible doesn’t want you to struggle, so the very title given to the passage we’re looking for spells out the answer, found at Colossians 3: “Living as Those Made Alive in Christ.” It’s a headline that more-or-less sums up the entirety of the Christian hope, and then Paul explains:

For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

In other words, we are the ‘holy ones’ that will return with Christ in glory, even as we struggle to wait for his return. At baptism, you put on Christ, your life became hidden in Christ, and when he returns we shall return with him. Now some of you may not be ready for all this biblical paradox before lunch, but it defines who we are: redeemed sinners, saints in light, dead to sin and alive in Christ. As we wait for Christ we wait for ourselves, our true selves, or as St. Paul says, “you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (Col 3.10)

The final act of Advent leaves behind Baruch, Malachi, and Zephaniah, John’s eccentricity and Paul’s brilliance, my sin and your sin and the world’s sin and focuses instead on a relationship between two remarkable women: Mary and Elizabeth. And since I’ve clouded your heads with all these other readings, let me remind you of the reading Joyce shared:

In a loud voice Elizabeth exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you, Mary, among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!’

Luke has shared that remarkable moment when Jesus in utero and John in utero greet each other, a portent of their bond, and another sign of the age to come. But that would be literally leaping ahead, because this encounter is about two cousins, one the new Sarah, given a child in her old age, and her young relative, overcome by the Holy Spirit and destined to be the mother our Lord.

It was my friend Jeff who reminded me that underneath the veneer of the miraculous—leaping babies and words of blessing—is the story of what we used to call “a young girl in trouble.” This older cousin would have a far greater sense of how young people generally find themselves in these situations, and how society will judge, and how her own reaction to Mary will define how the wider family is perceived.

But that’s not what happens. Luke creates two more minor prophets for our edification and comfort. This is not a story about scandal or family shame, but about two prophets willing to listen to God and echo God’s word for us. It is about Elizabeth’s willingness to open her door to Mary and open her heart to the Spirit, knowing that God makes all things new.

And once again, we find the heart of Advent, just as we are set to say goodbye to this season of preparation and hope. We are the saints in light, called to open our doors and hearts to those who speak for God. To see Christ in others, to see Christ in those who may be carrying Christ within them. And to give thanks: that we have room on our hearts for Jesus, the Word made flesh, who has come and will come again. Amen.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Advent I

1 Thessalonians 3
9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. 12 May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 13 May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Hands up if you have handwritten a letter.
Hands up if you have handwritten a letter in the last six months.
Hands up if your last handwritten letter was sent by text message instead.
Hands up if you long for the era of the handwritten letter but can’t bring yourself to actually write one.

While you are lost in longing, I want to remind you of some of the perils associated with the handwritten letter, relieving you—perhaps—of some of the anxiety you feel. There was a lot of steps involved: pen, paper, envelope, stamp, brisk walk, postbox, double checking the post box (admit it, we all do it) and all the uncertainty that comes with giving over your labour of love to Canada Post.

Or the hidden peril. Are you sending a card, or a postcard, or are you writing on paper? White or ivory? Paper or cotton? Fountain or ballpoint (I think you know the answer), and don’t even get me started on the envelope. In other words, if you’re writing on lined paper and using that old return envelope you saved, you might want to rethink the whole thing. Do you know their email?

Or the other hidden peril, in the actual act of writing. Pen and paper do not come with auto-correct. So you have to know how to spell. You have to consider how it looks on the page—no one likes untidy margins. And you need to know what you’re going to say, because there is no backspace key. Once you’re deep into a sentence there is no turning back—you can’t derail a train of thought without making a mess.

Yet even as I describe the somewhat facetious perils, I admire this who persist in writing notes. Yesterday, as numerous people described their relationship to the late president George H.W. Bush, they also mentioned some kind note he sent, and the fact that the note was now framed and displayed with pride and gratitude. So write that letter, even if all you have is some yellow newsprint paper with the gummy bits at the top.

I share all this because if there is a patron saint of letter writers, I sure hope it’s St. Paul. His letters make up a quarter of the New Testament, and taken together provide much of the framework for the Christian church. He was prolific, and attentive, and set a high bar for anyone who sits down to write something to promote the faith. But sometimes, we see peril. I want to reread the first line of our lesson today, and remind you what happens when you write in pen.

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?

This is when the kids say ‘awkward.’ I’m sure it sounds better in the original Greek. What we learn in a single awkward sentence is that unpolished Paul is authentic Paul, and that writing to the Thessalonians—widely considered his first letter—is an act of love.

There is a whole other sermon about writing a love letter, but for today we can rest in the knowledge that Paul loves the church in Thessalonica. And why wouldn’t he? He founded the church, along with his companions, but their stay was short-lived. He had quick success in the synagogue, among some gentiles, and as noted in Acts 17, among some prominent women of the town. But others were angry, seeing Paul and the others as a threat to the peace, so them stirred up a mob and claimed that Jesus—long dead— was trying to steal the throne of Caesar.

They were run out of town, not for the first time and certainly not the last, but there was something about his time there that prompted Paul to write. The clue, of course, is in our passage: “Night and day” Paul says, “we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.” How do we read this? On one hand we might think he has heard something or learned something about the Thessalonians and how they are conducting themselves, but I think we’re reading regret. Paul and his companions were run out of town, and whatever lesson plan they had, whatever expression of the Gospel they had mapped out was interrupted and remained incomplete, lacking in their faith.

So, filled with regret, and recognizing that time and paper are in short supply, he tries to distill his message into something that they can take in and share, something that will make up for the hasty departure and the unfinished business of making disciples. But before he can continue, he prays that God in Jesus clears the way for them to return. And then he tells them two things, first:

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.

The church is founded on love. Yes, there was conflict at the beginning of the story of the First Church of Thessalonica, but now the church must make sure that everyone in town knows ‘they are Christians by their love,’ both within the congregation and outside the walls, whatever walls they had. Amazing that 2,000 years on, this is still the mark of a faithful church: loving one another within the walls and finding ways to make this love known beyond them.

And don’t want my words to go to your head, but Friday night was an excellent example of welcoming friends and neighbours in and showing them the power of love. One of our guests came to me gushing about the spirit in this place, and I could only smile and agree.

So Paul expresses some regret, and some love, and then he completes the circle:

May [the Lord] strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Basically this is every Advent sermon in a single verse. We have four Sundays to prepare, one short season to strengthen ourselves, to become blameless and holy in the presence of the Living God and trust in the promise that Christ will come again. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

But there is more to this season than resisting well-loved carols with every ounce of strength we have (and fail every time, of course). There is more to this season of becoming, this season of the Not-Yet, this season when we ‘make a straight path for him,’ and prepare the way of the Lord.

The More of the season takes us back to Thessalonica and the near-riot that began in the marketplace and threatened to spread throughout the city. It happened like this: The mob was searching for Paul and his companions, going house to house, then gave up and made for the town square:

“These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here,” they shouted, “and some have welcomed them into their homes. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil.

This might be the moment to draw a fine line between factual and truthful. So let’s look at the facts of the case. Paul and his companions don’t have the means, motive or opportunity to replace Caesar and install King Jesus on his throne. It’s just not factual. Jesus was and is with the Most High, busy interceding for us, not preparing to take over some shiny palace on the Palatine Hill or any other hill for that matter.

But here is where we cross into truthful. In truth, Jesus was plotting to overthrow Caesar, both in the age when the most powerful man in the world was wandering around in purple, and in the age to come. This was a revolution, lead by revolutionaries from that day down to today. And while it wasn’t factual, King Jesus encamped outside the walls of Rome, it was certainly truthful, plotting to enter our hearts, becoming Lord of All, and eventually returning to show all the world the glory of his name.

And that brings us to today. This double celebration, preparing for God to enter our world in a new way, and preparing for Christ to return, begins in the season of purple, a wink at where this is headed. Kings and rulers can try to feel comfortable on their thrones and in their palaces, riding on Rome One or Marine One, but our hearts belong to another ruler, ever coming and already here, seeming far off but always near. Soon he will don the purple, and take his place as Lord of All. Amen.