16 December 2018

"Preparing" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday December 16, 2018
Scripture:  Luke 3:7-18

In this month and season of traditions that are followed from year to year and from generation to generation, one tradition that many people still keep is that of sending Christmas cards.

Several years ago, one of my friends wondered through, since we usually send these cards in the month of December, we are actually sending them in the season of Advent, so wouldn’t it be better to send Advent cards instead.  And so I made an Advent card to send to her, based on today’s Advent gospel reading from Luke.  I found an ikon of John the Baptist, and captioned it, “You Brood of Vipers!  Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”  This is maybe why we don’t send Advent cards!

(The Advent Card I sent to my friend!)

It is a harsh message that John is proclaiming to the people who have followed him out into the wilderness.  We have the image of an axe lying at the base of a tree, ready to cut it down if it doesn’t bear good fruit, and throw it into the brush fire.  We hear a teaching that we must not have any more than is absolutely necessary for life.  We have the image of a winnowing fork separating the wheat from the chaff, and throwing the chaff into the fire.

And this is the reading that the lectionary gives us on the third Sunday of Advent when we light the candle for joy.  On first read, this seems like a reading chosen to inspire fear rather than joy.

When I tried to look at this reading through the lens of joy, at first I came up short.  But then I realized that the joy depends on what perspective that you are reading it from.  I am reading it from a middle-class perspective where I do have more than one coat, and if you were to look in my fridge or my pantry I have more than enough food for today.  So when I read this passage, I am being told that I have too much and I need to give it away.  But if I were to read this passage from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have a coat in these cold December days and nights, or from someone who doesn’t have food in the fridge or cupboard to eat today, then this is a very joyful passage indeed.  For those without clothing or food or money are to be given what they need by those of us who have them.

Both John and Jesus preach a message of repentance.  It’s a funny word, repentance, and one that often isn’t well understood.  Repentance is different than remorse.  It means more than feeling very, very sorry for something.  The Greek word that we translate at “repentance” is metanoia and it means something more like changing our hearts and changing our actions; turning back to God; aligning our ways to God’s ways.  It’s more than just being sorry – it’s about repairing any relationships that have been broken, and changing how we live so that whatever went wrong doesn’t happen again.  Repentance is an action rather than a feeling.

Last week, I talked about canoeing in northern Ontario.  Part of canoe trips are portages – carrying your canoe and gear around waterfalls or other hazards that can’t be navigated by water.  I remember one canoe trip that my friend and I did where we had to portage around a series of rapids that were too big for us to run.  So we pulled up to the shore at the place marked with trail tape and unloaded our canoe and set off into the woods.  We went a ways along, but then slowly came to the realization that we had left the path at some point, and we were no longer on the marked portage trail.

The decision at that point was pretty easy.  As soon as we realized that we were going the wrong way, we turned ourselves around to make our way to the main path.  If we’d stubbornly kept going forward the way we were going, we would have become more and more lost in the northern forest.  We turned ourselves around, and soon found the main path, and made our way safely back to the water on the other side of the rapids.

Repentance works the same way as this literal turning back.  When we realize that we are doing something wrong, rather than feeling sorry for it and carrying on in the same way, we are called to turn around, to change our ways, to make our way back to God’s ways.  When we have failed to love God with our whole hearts and have failed to love our neighbours as ourselves, God calls us to return to love and return to relationship.  When we have more than what we need while others go without, God calls us to share.  And the good news is that we can never go so far as to be beyond God’s call of love.  We are always able to return, no matter how far we have strayed.

Two weeks ago, we talked about the Advent practice of waiting.  Last week, our reading pointed us to the wilderness and the lessons that we can learn in the wilderness times of our lives.  This week, I see our reading pointing us towards the Advent theme of preparing.

In this season when we are preparing our houses for Christmas by decorating them, when we are preparing for the Christmas gift giving by buying and wrapping presents, when we are preparing our Christmas dinner by baking and cooking up a storm, John calls us to prepare our inner lives for Christmas by examining our hearts to see where they align with God and where we are out of alignment.  And once we have examined our hearts, John calls us to repent – to re-align our hearts with God.  And by doing so, we will be prepared for the Christmas joy.

Please pray with me:

God of our Advent waiting
            and God of our Christmas joy,
move through our hearts by your Holy Spirit
            so that we can repent
            and re-align our hearts with you.
Fill us with the joy that comes
            from knowing that you are with us
            and that we journey with you.
We pray this in the name of Jesus,
            the one for whom we wait.

9 December 2018

"Wilderness" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
December 9, 2018
Scripture:  Luke 3:1-6

I feel as though I need to begin by apologizing to our scripture readers this morning for the great long list of names of people and places in the reading from Luke’s gospel.  I considered cutting the first verse from the reading to save our readers from needing to read most of the names; but that list of names ended up being the first thing that really caught my attention when I looked at the reading earlier in the week.

We begin with a long list of names of who held the power and where.  If we were to translate this list into 2018, it might read something like, “In the second year of the reign of President Trump, when The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau was the Prime Minister of Canada and The Honourable Blaine Higgs was the Premier of New Brunswick, when Elizabeth II was the Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth…”  You see where this is going!

So our reading begins with a list of who held the power and where; but the Word of God doesn’t come to those who were in power.  The Word of God doesn’t come to the emperor or the governor or the rulers or the high priests.  Instead, the Word of God comes to John, an ordinary guy from Judea who didn’t live in a palace but instead made his home in the wilderness.

I don’t know about you, but I carry within me many memories of wilderness times.  Back in northwestern Ontario, one of my favourite things to do is a back-country canoe trip – the longer the better.  One of my friends and I like to go out for a week or two at a time.  We carry our food and our tent and our sleeping bags in our backpacks and we paddle from lake to lake and down rivers, sometimes carrying our canoe around rapids and waterfalls, or sometimes choosing to run the rapids.

It’s not an easy or a comfortable place to be.  Our canoe has capsized a couple of times.  It’s hard work, paddling and portaging all day; and then at night we sleep on the hard ground since there isn’t room for fancy air mattresses in our backpacks.  And depending on the time of year, the mosquitoes and blackflies can be something fierce!

And yet despite all of this, or maybe because of it, there’s something about being in the wilderness – away from telephones, away from the internet, away from Facebook, away from regular commitments.  There’s something about the repetitive action of paddle… paddle… repeat.  There’s something about portaging along a rough trail, canoe overhead and a heavy pack on your back, one foot in front of the other.  There’s something about being in tune with the cycle of the day from sunrise to sunset with no watch or phone to track the hours.  It seems as though each time we go out into the wilderness, either my friend or I is struggling to discern something; and by the time we get back to so-called civilization, an important decision has been reached.  There’s something special about the wilderness.

In the wilderness, we need to choose what is essential, and what we are going to leave behind.  We need to trust our companions, because it is only by working together that we will make it to the other side.  We need to be fully present in the moment, alert to both the beauty and the dangers.

All of us go through periods of time in our lives that feel like wilderness times.  Times when everything that has seemed to be safe and predictable drops away from us; times that feel uncomfortable or downright scary; times that feel like it is just such hard work to get from one day to the next.

I wonder if maybe the lessons from the literal wilderness might help us to get through these wilderness times in our lives?  We need to decide what is essential, and what burdens can be left behind.  We need to choose our companions, and then work together and trust them in order to arrive safely on the other side.  We need to be fully present in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

The word of God came to John in the wilderness; and God comes to us too in the wilderness times in our lives.  I wonder if maybe these wilderness times that we face in our lives open our hearts to God’s presence?  Maybe they draw us closer together, and to draw us closer to God?  The wilderness is not an easy place to be, or a comfortable place to be; but there is something about being in the wilderness.

The voice in the wilderness cries out:  “The path will be made easy since the valleys will be raised up and the hills will be lowered and the twists and turns will be straightened out!  The path of God will be prepared, and all of humanity will see and know God’s salvation!”

May it be so.


(An aerial shot of one of the rapids that tipped our canoe over in the wilderness)

"Waiting..." (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
December 2, 2018
Scripture:  Jeremiah 33:14-16

So who here has ever had to wait for anything?  Waiting to get an appointment with a specialist.  Waiting for the results of medical tests.  Waiting for a much-anticipated baby or grandbaby to be born.  Waiting for a flight to land bringing a loved one home.  Waiting with someone as they pass from this life into the next.  Waiting in line at Sobey’s.

I think that all of us have waited on more than one occasion!

Next question:  who here enjoys waiting?  It’s not always a comfortable place to be.  Often we’d rather skip over the waiting and go straight to the ending!

I have two sisters, and when we were growing up, the rule was that on Christmas morning we weren’t allowed into the living room where the stockings had been hung by the chimney with care until 7am.  Being kids though, we were usually awake at 6am (or earlier).  We would go downstairs to wait.  Usually our auntie would wait with us – making us hot chocolate and trying to entertain us until the magic hour.

That hour between waking up and being allowed at our stockings felt like the longest hour of the year.  It felt like it took at least 6 hours for the clock to move from 6 to 7.  Waiting was not fun – if given the choice, we would have much rather gone straight to the ending and opened up our presents as soon as we were awake!

Advent is a season of waiting.  We too are waiting for Christmas.  When the world around us is in full-blown Christmas by now, here in the church we are in a season of not-yet-Christmas.  We are in a season of waiting and preparing and longing for Christmas.

The people that Jeremiah was addressing were also in a season of waiting.  The ancient Israelite people lived in a small country surrounded by superpowers, and as usually happens to small countries surrounded by superpowers, they were invaded by their more powerful neighbours.  First of all, the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian army and the people fled south for safety; and then just over a hundred years later, the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonian army, Jerusalem and the first temple were destroyed, and most of the key leaders were sent into exile to Babylon.

And this is the moment that Jeremiah is prophesying in.  He is speaking to a people on the brink of exile.  It’s pretty much a given that things aren’t going to go well for the people.  With the perspective of history, we know that they are going to be exiled to Babylon for 70 years – the people who went into exile were not the same generation that would return.  It is going to be a 70-year waiting period before their descendants would be allowed to return.  Maybe next time you are waiting in line at the grocery story and it feels as though the line is moving at a snail’s pace, you can re-assure yourself by thinking, “at least it isn’t going to be a 70-year wait!”

And Jeremiah promises the people that God is with them, and God has not forgotten about them, no matter how long the wait may be.  God promises that they will return from exile, and that Jerusalem will be re-built.  “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise.”  God doesn’t say how long it will take, but the time is coming!

And so Advent is a season of waiting; but if God is with us, then waiting can be a holy time.  We are on the threshold of something new – there is something new unfolding in front of us, and God is with us as we wait and as we watch the unfolding and as we long for that which is new to be revealed.

Our Advent theme this week is hope; and our hope grows in the waiting.  Theological hope is so much more than wishful thinking – our hope is our confidence that God is with us, our confidence that God loves us, our confidence that God’s promises for all of creation will come true.

And so while our waiting feels long, our times of waiting are times that we can set aside to look for God’s presence in our lives.  Our times of waiting are times that we can set aside to see how God is working in the world.  Our times of waiting are times that we can examine our own hearts to see how they are lined up with God’s plan for the world, but also how they might be out of alignment.  This can be uncomfortable, but waiting is uncomfortable.  But it is in our discomfort that God can work on our hearts.

So rather than rushing to the ending, rather than skipping ahead to Christmas Day, I would invite you to embrace this time of holy waiting.  And whatever it is that you are waiting for in your life, whether it’s the result of medical tests, the birth of a new baby, the opportunity to see a loved one, or opening your stocking on Christmas morning, I invite you to embrace the waiting.  Sit with the discomfort.  Avoid the temptation to distract yourself from the waiting, whether the distraction be in the form of a cell phone or a whirlwind of social engagements.  Embrace the waiting, be still, and simply BE with God.  Embrace the waiting and see how God is wanting to use you and change you and prepare you for the new thing that is coming.

May we all have a holy Advent.


(Waiting for the Sunrise)