Tag Archives: Advent

Is Jesus really the Messiah?

prison_responseMatthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

`See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Sermon

Each year, sometime in the week before the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Father Angelo would call Bill with the same question. “Are we on for this Sunday?” he would ask. Bill always said yes. Every 3rd Sunday of Advent, Bill and Father Angelo would go together after worship to visit the grave of Bill’s wife Harriet. Then the two would go and have a meal at her favourite Restaurant. Father Angelo had asked a few years ago if Bill wanted to meet on the actual date of Harriet’s death, but Bill insisted that Harriet would have rather marked time by the church calendar, and so the 3rd Sunday in Advent – Joy Sunday – the day Harriet died became their day to remember her.

(Pause)

Today, we are officially past the half way mark of Advent, we are soon done 3 Sundays, with only 1 to go. We call this Sunday Guadete Sunday, Latin for Joy, as reminder of the hastening coming of Jesus, both at Christmas and in the second coming. Joy Sunday can almost be seen as a mixture of Advent and Christmas. In some churches, the colour of vestments and paraments are changed to pink or rose. A colour halfway between blue or purple and white. You could almost say that our little taste of Christmas today was an appropriate glimpse ahead,  even in the middle of our Advent waiting and watching.

Yet, despite the “Joy” of the day, the story of John the Baptist is not exactly joyful. We are brought back down to Advent reality of watching and wating. John the Baptist is languishing in prison… the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to see the show last week as John preached in the wilderness, along with King Herod, have decided that John is too much of a threat to their power.

John sends word through his followers to Jesus. He wants to know if it was worth it. The mighty prophet is losing his faith. This really is an Advent bummer.

“Are you the one? Or are we to wait for another?” John asks Jesus.

We heard John’s bold and dramatic preaching last week. The fiery prophet was foretelling the coming of a mighty Messiah. A Messiah who was going to come and burn some chaff, to lay an ax to the roots of oppression. John’s Messiah was coming to upend the powerful and lift up the weak. John has high expectations for Messiah. John has a certain vision of what Messiah should look like and what Messiah should do.

Jesus is not what he expected.

A wandering preacher healing a few sick, helping a few poor people, preaching to the hungry crowds and generally staying away from Jerusalem where all the power is – this is not what John was hoping for.

(Pause)

Shortly after Father Angelo started at St. David’s, Harriet got sick. Father Angelo took over from a retired Father Gabe who had spent 35 years – his whole career – at St. David’s. Gabe informed Angelo, that while he was retiring, that he would continue to visit Harriet in the hospital. A few months later, Angelo was sitting in his office late Sunday afternoon, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, when the phone rang. It was a nurse from the hospital asking for Father Gabe… Angelo knew that Gabe was spending Christmas with family in another province. Angelo offered to come, and the nurse sounded grateful.

When Father Angelo came to Harriet’s room, Bill met him at the door. “Where is Father Gabe?” he demanded.

“He is away” said Angelo. “But I am here”.

“Well, we don’t want you” Bill said blocking the doorway. “Father Gabe said he would be here until the end” Bill declared. “He has been our priest for 35 years, and we don’t want a knew one.”

“Are you sure?” said Father Angelo. “The nurse called the church”

“Father Gabe knows what we want, and what we expect in this time. He is the one who should be coming. Thank you, but we don’t need you to stay” Bill was getting agitated.

So Father Angelo turned to leave.

(Pause)

Like John the Baptist, we can carry with us expectations of what Messiah is supposed to be. We want Jesus to be a sweet little baby in December. A conqueror at Easter. A non-intrusive presence a lot of the time. We want a God who will show up when we need help and stay out of the way the rest of the time. We want a Jesus who will fight our battles and be on our side and act when we want him to act.

We imagine things going a certain way, and we can begin to lose hope when they don’t. When we find ourselves in prisons of suffering, isolation, crisis, brokenness… we can begin to question the Messiah, just like John does. We thought Jesus was going to do and be what we expected… but Jesus rarely measures up.

We want a powerful voice to silence our enemies, but Jesus makes the deaf hear.

We want a Jesus to see how good we are, but Jesus gives sight to the blind.

We want a Jesus who will carry our burdens and troubles, but Jesus makes the lame to walk.

We want to never experience suffering, or pain, or discomfort, to never be touched by disease or illness but Jesus cleanses the most diseased of all, the lepers.

We want to rich and blessed, but Jesus bring good news to the poor.

Jesus receives John’s doubt with mercy. Jesus doesn’t scold the prophet for his questions, nor rebukes him for his uncertainty. Jesus praises him instead. John is the prophet who has prepared the way, who has announced the coming of Messiah. Even if it isn’t the Messiah John imagined, it is still Messiah.

And just as Jesus does for John, Jesus receives our lofty expectations for God with grace too. Jesus doesn’t scold us for not getting it. Jesus gathers us into his Body, Jesus prepares a place for us at the table, even when we have imagined something completely different. We are still made to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, bringing about God’s kingdom.

(Pause)

Father Angelo took a few steps and then turned back to Bill.

“I am not who you want, I am not Father Gabe” he said to Bill. “But I have come to bring the one who you need and that is Christ. Father Gabe, nor I, can prevent the end from coming, but we both come in the name of the one who will meet us there.”

Bill didn’t answer, but he stepped aside and let Father Angelo enter the room. Having been at death beds before, Angelo could tell that Harriet was near the end of her life.

Before Angelo could say anything, Harriet looked up to him and said, “Father, you came.”

“Of course” Father Angelo replied.

“Read to me what they heard in church this morning” Harriet asked.

And so Father Angelo read to her the story of John the Baptist, asking if Jesus was the one. When he had finished, Harriet smiled.

“Read the last part again Father” she said. “The part about the messenger”.

Angelo nodded.

“`See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’”

After that the three sat together until the end.

And every year afterwards,  on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Bill and Father Angelo met to go to grave, and for lunch. And Father Angelo would read the story of John the Baptist, wondering if Jesus was the Messiah.

(Pause)

Like John the Baptist, we wonder if Jesus really is the one. We lose hope, when our expectations are not met. Yet thankfully, Jesus has not come to be what we want, to live up to our expectations for Messiah. Jesus doesn’t conquer our enemies, nor protect us from all harm, nor bless us with riches.

Jesus has come to give us what need. Sight for the blind, hearing for the deaf, the lame to walk, the lepers to be cleansed, good news for the poor.

Jesus is the Messiah who is meeting where we are, who is coming into lives that we live, not the lives we hope for. We want a Messiah who will take us away and give us a new world, but Jesus comes here and now, to show us mercy.

“Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” It is a question we all ask.

And Jesus, meets our doubts with grace. “I have sent my messenger to you. The Good News has been announced to you. Your way has been prepared. I am the One, who is coming to you, the Messiah.”

Amen.

Two Reluctant Prophets: John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela

Nelson and JohnMatthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume 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. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

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

Sermon

Messiah is coming.

This was the promise that our Advent waiting began with. Each year, as we begin a new church year, we begin with waiting. As the world explodes Christmas everywhere, with sales and music, concerts and tv specials, we wait. We wait and sing hymns about preparing and getting ready. We pray for God to stir us up, for God move us as the Body of Christ. To move us with compassion and love for a world desperately in need of a saviour, desperately crying out for healing. As green and red colours dominate the  colour scape of our world, we decorate here with a defiant blue. Blue that symbolizes patient waiting and hopeful anticipation.

Today is the second week of Advent. Advent can feel at times like finishing your vegetables before getting dessert. It can seem like a punishment pastors force on congregations for having too much Christmas cheer in December. Advent is not really a  favourite of seasons for most of us. The stories in Advent are jarring. Advent always starts with apocalypse. John the Baptist’s crazy rantings mark the middle. The uncomfortable news of an unexpected pregnancy for an unmarried couple finishes Advent off. Advent is not the sweet picture of a mother and newborn in a cozy stable. Advent is very much about discomfort. We wait, we watch. We repeat the promise:

Messiah is Coming.

We acknowledge that we aren’t there yet.

Last year, the middle of Advent was marked by a mass shooting in an elementary school in New Town, Connecticut. This year, our Advent waiting will be marked by global grieving, remembering and celebrating Nelson Mandela. How very inconvenient and how very appropriate. Advent is about discomfort, and what could make us white, North Americans more uncomfortable than dealing with the legacy of a figure who challenged our position of privilege, a man who was jailed for 27 years because of the colour of his skin, and someone who then became an icon of forgiveness and reconciliation.

It is hard to not to think of Nelson Mandela as we hear John the Baptist preach this morning. John is standing on the banks of the river Jordan, out in the wilderness of Judea. He is a figure who is outside of the political systems of his day. He is not a priest preaching in the temple of Jerusalem. He is not a rabbi teaching in the synagogues. He is a prophet, a truth teller, preaching in the wilderness. And John’s message does not uphold the traditions. He is not hoping to help people learn or grow in their faith. He is pointing to the problems and injustices of the world. His message is a warning – the world, and us along with it, is going to be transformed.

We might expect that John’s warnings would be dismissed as crazy, the announcement of the change to come sounds impossible. He should have been all by himself preaching to the sand and locusts. But everyone has gone out to hear him. Those who are oppressed and suffering, the ones looking for hope, and those who are in power, the ones looking to maintain control. And his message is the same for all. Bear fruit worthy of repentance, do not rely on your position in the world. Messiah is coming and Messiah is going to turn it all upside down.

John’s message would have sounded unbelievable to his hearers. The rich were rich, the blessed were blessed, the clean were clean, the righteous were righteous. The people thought God wanted things that way, that God had chosen the powerful to be powerful. And the poor were poor, the cursed were cursed, the unclean were unclean, the sinners were sinful. The people thought that God wanted things that way too, that God had chosen those on the bottom to be on the bottom.

Apartheid in South Africa was based on the same ideology. White Afrikaners believed that God had chosen them, chosen white, rich, privileged people to rule over the black, poor, marginalized people of the continent. And many believed that this system was immutable and unchangeable. It is not just in South Africa that people have believe in a system of privilege like this. In the United States many felt white people had the right to own black slaves. Here in Canada, many felt that white Christians had the right to civilize indigenous peoples in residential schools.

And even still, we too, get caught up in believing that our world is as it should be. That the poor deserve to be poor, that the rich deserve to be rich. It is easy for us to unthinkingly assume that privilege belongs to a certain few. That we are owed something because of our gender, our skin colour, our economic status, our religion. Just like the scribes and Pharisees, we protest, “But we have Abraham as our Father.” as if we have earned our place in the world, earned our place in the eyes of God. Just like the crowds, we long for justice, but don’t believe it possible.

But today John the Baptist declares a new reality. Who your parents are, how much money you make, the colour of your skin, your ability to keep religious laws, the number of times you attend church in a year… none of those things matter to God. God is sending Messiah who will turn the whole world upside down. God is sending a Messiah who will repent us, who will transform us, who will burn our chaff away, our selfishness, our sinfulness, our sense of privilege and position. God is sending a messiah who will gather our wheat, who will gather our transformed, forgiven, renewed selves into God. God is not interested in maintaining our systems of power and privilege.

John declared that the system of power and privilege for a few were coming to an end. John threatened those in power, and gave hope to the marginalized crowds.

In the same way Nelson Mandela stood outside the systems of privilege and power, of white against black, of rich against poor. He was released from prison and began to show his people, and the world, hope. Hope in something new and different. Hope by showing us a new vision for the world, a new vision where all are treated the same and all are equally loved. Nelson preached the transformation of forgiveness and reconciliation.

John and Nelson preached a new reality, a transformed world. They preached the world of Messiah. John with stern warnings of axes and fire. Nelson with defiant humility and unwavering mercy. But neither John the Baptist, nor Nelson Mandela claimed to be the one who would bring about the transformations they imagined. They only pointed to the hope. They were prophets, prophets who pointed to the current reality and imagined a new one. They pointed to Messiah.

To the Messiah who is coming with the axes and fires of transformation. To the Messiah who is coming with forgiveness and reconciliation. To the Messiah who is coming to gather God’s poeple. Messiah who will name, claim and gather God’s people, rich or poor, black or white, powerful or powerless, clean or unclean, righteous or unrighteous. Messiah is who is coming into the world of the people standing on the banks of the river Jordan, Messiah who is coming to the people of South Africa and the world, Messiah who is coming here to us today. John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela pointed to the Messiah’s world.

For weeks now, we have been getting ready for Christmas, the songs, the decorations, the colours have been out for weeks. We have been looking forward to the big show at Christmas. But these preparations are only a small piece of Advent.

John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela get at the bigger task of Advent. The naming of reality. The prophetic word about the unjust systems that exist in our world. Systems like the temple of Jerusalem that withheld God’s love from the people. Systems like slavery, residential schools, Apartheid. Systems that perpetuate the economic, racial, gender and religious inequality of our present day. We name those things today, and then we declare, with John and Nelson, that Messiah is coming. Messiah is coming to throw out the old systems, to transform us into something new.

Today, as our Advent waiting continues. Today, as we hear anew the voice of John the Baptist. Today as we mourn the death and celebrate the legacy of Nelson Mandela, we are shown a vision of the Messiah. We made uncomfortable as our systems of power and privilege are threatened. We are given hope for a world that is changeable and that will not remain unjust and unfair. Today, we are declare the Advent promise anew.

Messiah is coming.

Amen.

I am at War with Christmas

war-on-christmasSomeone better tell Fox News and Jon Stewart that I really exist. I am the actual guy waging war on Christmas.

If you have been anywhere near the internet these past few days, you know that the annual “War on Christmas” meme is in full force, particularly on Fox News. Jon Stewart took advantage on Dec 3rd, to poke some hilarious fun at the idea that Christmas is under attack.

That being said, I think this year I am actually signing up. I think I  want to openly go to war with Christmas. Against Christmas. As Christmas’s enemy.

Every year as soon as Halloween is over, I see myself falling into the same patterns of avoiding Christmas. For nearly two months every year, I work hard not to have Christmas. So why not be open about it? Why not embrace the War on Christmas?

Throughout most of November and December, I do many things to keep Christmas from being celebrated. I try very hard to avoid saying “Merry Christmas”, and I prefer to be greeted with Happy Holidays. I even actually like the shorthand X-Mas. I make note of all the other holidays being celebrated in my calendar. Hanukkah, the Feast of St. Nicolas, Santa Lucia, Kwanzaa etc… I have even been able to cancel a few community/workplace Christmas pageants in the past few years and it felt great! I don’t think Christmas should be in schools, I don’t think it should be in the workplace, I don’t think it should be noted by public figures or politicians. If I could remove Christmas from most of the last 8 weeks of the year, I will have succeeded in my war.

Christmas music can be the worst! I generally don’t listen to Christmas music in my car or at home, and it irks me to have to listen to it when I can’t control the sound system. I complain when hear Christmas music in malls. The sound tracks playing in most commercial spaces make me want to thrown up. Christmas concerts annoy me, especially the ones on TV.  I get sick of Christmas music so quickly. It feels like the drummer boy is using my head as a drum. And when pop musicians make Christmas albums, I almost wish I was deaf.

When I see decorations in public spaces, a part of me wants to tear them all down. All the green boughs, the red bows, the holly, the wreaths, the ornaments, all of it could just disappear and I would be fine with it. I just don’t get why people want Christmas lights all over the place, even if it does get darker sooner in November. I often criticize stores that sell Christmas merchandise and I try not buy any. Christmas inventory is so kitschy most of the time. I scoff at people who put light displays up on their house after Halloween. And don’t get me started on those who put up Christmas trees in November… it drives me nuts. What is the point of having a giant tree up for month in anticipation of present opening day?

Often, Christmas movies make me cranky. Christmas TV episodes, specials, and Christmas themed TV are almost always awful. It is like they are trying to capture some mushy, gooey feeling  that I want no part of.  But Christmas commercials and advertising needs to be banned from existence. Another “Ho ho ho” from Santa and I think I will lose it. You will find me in some corner sobbing as I whisper “No more Santa, No more.”

In my work life, I spend a lot of time encouraging the people around me to keep from celebrating Christmas too. I try to keep Christmas from invading my workplace and I always schedule work for myself on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and then after those big days, I have time with my family and friends. I am becoming more sure that the people I work with think I am the grinch who has stolen their Christmas joy, because I force them to put a lid on the Christmas celebrating.

Now with Facebook and Twitter becoming ‘War on Christmas’ battle grounds, I have become a Christmas grinch on social media. I have called out my friends for loving Christmas too much. I have advocated pairing down the celebration and toning down the cheer a notch.

In November and December most years, I just wish Christmas would go away. So when Fox News folks start complaining about the War on Christmas, I feel like saying, “Yeah, finally we are winning.” Christmas is getting what it deserves. It is getting pushed aside,  moved out of the way. I want something else to take its place, I want a new holiday for November and December.

Or rather, I want an old holiday.

For you see, I am a Lutheran Pastor.

And I love Advent. I think our world needs Advent. I think we all need Advent. When Christmas begins in November, it stops being what it is supposed to be, which is “The Feast of the Nativity.” When Christmas becomes a two-month long celebration of shopping and a chance to gorge ourselves in sentimentalism and nostalgia, it is not the “Mass for Christ’s Birth.”

Sarah Palin, one of the Popes of American Right-Wing Christianity recently said, “I love the commercialization of Christmas, it spreads the Christmas cheer.” She has missed the point. Obviously. But she has named an important reality. We just don’t want to deal with the things that Advent deals with. We want to avoid the harsh realities of life, and have a big party instead. A party that has now become the symbol of global inequality and broken social systems.

Christmas has no meaning on its own. Christmas is empty and vapid when it is a two month opportunity to increase debt and avoid real issues.

Christmas only makes sense at the end of Advent.

It only makes sense when we have waited and watched for Messiah. It only makes sense when we have longed with Israel to be released from captivity, exodus, exile, and oppression. It only makes sense when we have admitted our failings and imperfections, when we have admitted the suffering of the poor and lowly around us, the injustice of the marginalized and victimized, when we have admitted that we are complicit in perpetuating systems of violence, abuse, and death.

There is a reason, I wage war on Christmas each year. Because it isn’t Christmas yet. We haven’t got there, we have missed what needs to come before. As we long for Messiah through Advent, and discover again all the ways in which our world needs a Saviour, the Feast of the Nativity, the Feast of the Incarnation can finally take real shape. The coming of Messiah into our dark and broken world can finally be the light and hope we truly need.

Our world is still very much in need of a Saviour, our world is full of captivity, exile, exodus, oppression, conflict, suffering, poverty, systems of violence, abuse… and death.

We don’t like Advent because it means we aren’t there yet, and that feeling opens up a whole world of emotions, ideas and experiences that we don’t want. We want to be at the party, not sitting outside hoping to get in. But that is where most of the world is, sitting outside waiting to get in… and realizing they almost certainly never will.

So tone the Christmas down this year. Put out 4 candles, and wait with all those who still need a Saviour more than Christmas present.

And maybe after waiting with me, with Israel, with all those who still need saving, you will see why we don’t sing “Joy to the world” until we have  sung “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” first.

What do you think? Should we be at war with Christmas? Or is it okay to celebrate Christmas for two months each year? Share in the comments or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Interested in some more snark:

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