Thursday, December 27, 2012

After Christmas

On the night before Christmas Eve we went to see “The Hobbit”—the first of the three new movies set in Middle Earth. The movie was enjoyable, quite different from the book (even when following the book’s plot); but it the previews strike a different note.

I wrote in the last blog that God, the fundamental principle creating reality as we know it, is personal and loving. In the Christmas Eve Mass I saw again the true nature of our world—good, loving, greater than any weakness or failure within myself.

The previews to “The Hobbit” pictured another Reality than this. I don’t know movies well enough to remember what was previewed, but there was at least one common theme. In several of them, the world in some way or other was about to change or had changed—apocalyptically. The underlying nature of reality was revealed, and it was evil, chaotic, dangerous. The only hope for the protagonists lay deep within themselves, to somehow combat the chaos around them and forge a precarious existence.

It is an old theme—as old as the slaying of Tiamat by Marduk in the Ancient Near Eastern story from Babylon. Chaos is the fundamental reality, and life is always under threat.

We see the theme radically contradicted in Genesis, as the Spirit of God moves upon the face of the Deep. The Creator who is deeper than chaotic reality speaks into Chaos and brings order and peace and life.

So what? Do such things matter? I think so.

We have just endured unspeakable tragedy during the Christmas Season, senseless shootings in a school and at a burning house. Some might want to draw connections between the perceived moral decay of our country and the events of the past month. Such connections may or may not exist. Those who deny them “protest too much” (in Shakespeare’s well-known phrase). Those who espouse them seem to think they can see deeper into reality than anyone can see.

No such connection can be demonstrated; but the cultural milieu in which events occur is one source for those events. No, we do not find the significance of the themes of hope and despair in such perceived connections.

Rather I look at the way that I—or anyone else—might act based on my view of reality. If I believe that the fundamental nature of reality is chaotic and dangerous, and if I believe that the only real hope lies in my own ingenuity and effort, then I will not do many other things that are constructive in building society. I will not trust government, for example: I can trust only myself. I will assume that anyone who not representing me directly is working against me. Conspiracy theories and mistrust of others are natural responses. These responses are destructive of life in any healthy society.

If, on the other hand, I believe that the fundamental nature of reality is good and loving, then I will live in a quite different way. I will treat others as though they may be good, reserving suspicion and mistrust for those who earn it. I will act on the basis that good will always triumph in the long run. Evil never wins; Good always wins. Therefore I can dare to be good.

Further, if the fundamental nature of reality is good and loving, then I choose to be good and loving. Pessimistic and suspicious though I am by my own nature, I choose to live by the deeper reality that broke through with the trumpets and organ and timpani on Christmas Eve.

The difference between these two fundamental outlooks on reality matters a great deal. I invite others to join me in hope, whatever the surface of your reality looks like.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Midnight Christmas Eve, Christmas morning. The pipe organ resounds, with brass and timpani and choir and congregation: “O Come, All Ye Faithful, joyful and triumphant.” I cannot capture the moment in weak words, but remember the awe and relief of seeing and hearing Light and Truth incarnate.

One small piece of the moment: The priest sounds out the rhythm of history. “In the year … from the birth of Abraham, two thousand and fifteen;  from Moses and the coming of the Israelites out of Egypt, one thousand, five hundred and ten; from the anointing of King David, one thousand and thirty-two; in the sixty-fifth week, according to the prophecy of Daniel; in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; in the year seven hundred and fifty-two from the founding of the city of Rome; in the forty-second year of the empire of Octavian Augustus, when the whole earth was at peace, in the sixth age of the world, Jesus Christ, eternal God, and Son of the eternal Father, desirous to sanctify the world by His most merciful coming, having been conceived of the Holy Ghost, and nine months having elapsed since his conception, is born in Bethlehem of Juda, having become man of the Virgin Mary.”

The birth of Jesus. God, the One absolutely beyond, the absolutely Other, enters our existence.

We sit in the basilica surrounded by light and shadows. I know and feel my infirmities too well, physical and mental, the essential weakness of my being. Then the music and words ring out. The foundational organizing principle of reality shows itself. We see the universe, the very Creator of all that is, revealed in brief blinding flashes. Rather than overwhelming us, the revelation comforts.

Why a baby? The processional winds past us, children carrying a doll baby to place in the crèche. Why does Reality show itself as a baby? Someone who was born, lived, and died. Someone who cried and nursed, who grew into an adult, who lived and taught and died. Someone who rose from death itself.

I don’t know why. I do know that Reality shows itself as personal and relational. The creative principle that brings us into existence shows itself not to be “It”, but “He/She/They”—a Palestinian Jewish man who lived 20 centuries ago. Not to lift up maleness, but to establish in our hearts and minds that God is Person and personal, that God relates and desires relationship, that God is love and loves us beyond human understanding.

My essential weakness and problems with life feel big, then Reality himself breaks in and I see light and truth, I sense in some way God, “True God of True God, Light of Light Eternal.” What does my weakness matter? It doesn’t. My sense of failure melts in the awareness of God’s love and strength and glory.

One of the first readings, a sermon from Pope St. Leo the Great, stated: “For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity.”

At one level we rebel against these words. What of those who are lonely, hurting, in despair? Do these words dismiss them too easily? No. Rather these words set our pain and weakness and the despair that nips at our heels in their proper context. Reality himself enters, and Light and Truth break in. The truth that God is Love, and that God draws each one of us into relationship with the baby born this day, and thus into proper relationship with each other.

We may be weak and hurting; but we are not trapped. Life is here!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

Today is Christmas Eve. The rest of the family is taking the dogs for a walk over at the university campus. Good for the dogs, and good for the family. I am sitting here listening to Morning Edition on NPR and thinking about Christmas.

I read half of 1 Thessalonians this morning. Not a Christmas text, but the New Testament as a whole grows out of Christmas and Easter, so that’s enough justification. (Morning Edition just ended, and now I’m listening to the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge—definitely Christmas enough for whatever I’m thinking.)

What struck me in Paul’s writing was a fairly simple truth: He keeps referring to how what happens to the Thessalonians affects him, and how what happens to him affects them. They are bound together in a way that defies the individual orientation of contemporary North America and Europe.

This basic thought—that we are bound together and that none of us decides for himself or herself without reference to others—has been abused often in our history. Social pressures to enforce conformity are common in every society. Sometimes those pressures are used abusively; sometimes they are redemptive. In either case, we Americans and Canadians rebel against the idea that anyone’s right to full individual freedom should be restricted in any way.

We acknowledge that such freedom does not include the right to cry “Fire!” in a crowded movie theatre, but that’s about as far as we’ll go. Our contemporary conviction is that I, and only I, can decide what is right and wrong.

But we remain bound together, regardless of that conviction; the choices that we make and that which we experience affects not only the individual, but everyone of us. We are bound together. We are not autonomous individuals.

The desire for unfettered autonomy shows its weakness in the recent shooting of school children in Connecticut, and in the resulting discussion about restricting access to guns. The problem is not that two opposing sides have strong views and cannot find common ground. The problem rather is the way that we carry on the conversation.

Those who favour gun control in some form (a view that makes sense to me) think that those who oppose any regulations are Neanderthals, almost lunatic in their devotion to gun rights. Those who oppose gun control (a view that I don’t fully understand) think that those who favour regulation want to enslave them—that they are radical activists who care nothing for individual freedom or the Constitution of the United States of America. Such name-calling does no good on either side.

It seems to me that both sides are driven by the sense that “I am the only one who is able to say what is true”—radical individualism in the pursuit of truth. One has only to peruse the comments following any story on CBC or CNN or FoxNews or NPR to see how convinced each writer is that he/she has the truth and that those who disagree are perverse, even evil.

We need a different model. We are bound together in all that we think and do. If that is so, then it is unlikely that any individual is simply right, and those who disagree are simply wrong. Advocates of gun control have a point. Advocates of Second Amendment Rights have a point. Each person in the conversation can only benefit by understanding those with whom they disagree.

One can make the same point about our national conversations about abortion, and about same sex unions, and about the fiscal cliff, and about all the other elements of national issues. What we have now is a practical libertarian commitment on all sides, combined with a willingness to use the power of the federal government on all sides.

That last thought is tentative in my mind: I am trying to figure out how to express the commitment to individualism that I see in our country combined with a winner take all attitude in the political arena. That combination forces us into a situation in which “might makes right”, and in which the way we are bound together is ultimately mutually destructive. The gingham dog and the calico cat on a national stage.

In place of such mutual destruction, at least Christians can model the way that we are bound together in a positive life-affirming way. We can seek to hear those with whom disagree, based on a conviction that they also have truth we need to hear. We can continue to speak the truth we have respectfully, refusing to be simply cowed or over-awed, knowing that the other also needs our truth. Together we can invite all those around us to discover the reality of the baby who bore several names, including prominently, “Prince of Peace”.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Advent 3--Renewal

Steinbach Mennonite Church
Sunday, Dec 16, 2012—Advent 3: Renew

Renewal: Being and Doing

We are waiting for the coming Messiah. What do we do as we wait? How do we wait? I remember in seminary we were told periodically about being and doing. We were instructed: Mennonites like to do things; but it is more important to be! Be in Christ. Be present with God. Be fully present in this moment. Stop trying to do what needs to be done, and be. Those who spoke to us were right of course. Endless activity without a real identity rooted in Christ is wasted, a sure path to frustration and failure.

But our desire to do something is rooted in more than just a Mennonite background that emphasizes the value of hard work. Once we find ourselves in God, once we come to Christ and are cleansed and ready for his coming into our world, we live on the basis of that new identity in Christ. So, what do we do?

We heard the theme in Zephaniah: God has removed the punishment of Zion—which means that Israel and Judah have suffered in Exile long enough and will be set free. Cf Isaiah 40: Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and tell her that her punishment is ended, because she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins (that is, full payment, covering all that she owes because of her disobedience) [my free paraphrase].

We heard the theme in Philippians: Live God’s life with God’s peace alive in your hearts in all situations. The shooting in Connecticut reminds us that we live in a world filled with pain and distress. Paul reminds us that God lives within each one of us, even now.

And so to Luke’s gospel, where we hear John the Baptist preaching repentance and renewal.

Read Luke 3: 7 to 18.

In this third Sunday of Advent we lit the third candle, a candle of Renewal. The second candle last week was for Cleansing (the cleansing we receive when we prepare to stand in God’s presence). The first candle two weeks ago was for Reflection. You see the progression. Reflection leads to an awareness of ourselves standing in God’s presence, aware of our need for Cleansing; Cleansing leads to new lives filled with God’s Holy Spirit, which brings renewal. Next Sunday culminates with the candle of commitment. But today we ask what it means to be renewed. What does God do in our lives? What does renewal look like?

The Gospel
At the beginning of chapter 3, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness outside of Jerusalem, “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” That is the cleansing of last week’s theme—echoed profoundly in Malachi; “For he is like a refiner’s fire … and he shall purify the Levites that they may offer offerings of righteousness.”

The people kept coming out from the city centre to see and hear John. His response? “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Produce fruit—Randy may deal with that idea more next week in “Commit”; but it comes in here as essential to renewal. We may want to focus on “being” to the exclusion of “doing”, or vice versa; but they go together. We do what we are, so being renewed requires action: Produce the right fruit!

Then the people coming start asking questions: How do we do this? The crowd (ordinary people—Am ha’aretz—the people of the land) ask, “What should we do?” John answers: Share anything extra you have! Sounds a bit like Irene wondering what people might give to Community outreach at Christmas.

Tax collectors ask, “What should we do?” This may seem like a harder question. The people of the land are outside the community of righteous people in Judah—that space is reserved for Pharisees and Scribes and the religious elite. But tax collectors are really outside! John could say to ordinary people, be generous; but what can he say to tax collectors? Perhaps he should tell them to leave their profession and find something better to do with their lives than participating in the evil Empire of Rome and cheating hardworking people in their own homeland.

John’s answer is much simpler: Don’t cheat! You can keep on doing your work, but don’t cheat the people. Collect only what you are supposed to collect for taxes. Stop taking extra to augment your own income.

Then come the soldiers. I wonder if this means that even non-Jews were attracted to his teaching. It could mean Jews who have signed up with Rome for military service, or it could mean Roman soldiers serving in a foreign land. In either case they ask, “What should we do?” John replies: Don’t extort money from people, and don’t accuse them falsely. The two actions may be connected: A soldier stops someone with a false accusation, and then offers to make the charge go away for a small fee. John tells them to do their job properly and fairly.

Being and Doing again
Do you remember how this section begins? “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Wow! Can you imagine if someone would say that to the congregation from this pulpit? Why do you think John spoke that way? He knew why many of them came out to the Jordan River to hear him and seek his baptism. They believed that God would indeed punish his people—was actually punishing them at the time by allowing Roman Occupation to continue. So they thought they could avoid further trouble by taking a sort of magic bath, “the baptism of repentance”. John says, “Not so fast. If all you want is protection against trouble, you are worse than I thought. If you want this baptism, show it by changing the way you live.”

This idea echoes what we heard last week in Malachi. Malachi says: ‘The Lord whom you seek shall suddenly come to his temple, even the Messenger of the Covenant whom you delight in. But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appears?” Now this sounds like a rhetorical question to us. We may think that he means simply: Nobody can stand before God. But he means something else.

Compare Psalm 24: “Who may ascend into the Lord’s Mountain (that is, Zion), and who may stand in his holy place (that is, the Temple)? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, those who have not lifted up their souls to empty idols or sworn by those idols.” Malachi means the same thing. Who can endure or “abide” when God appears? Who can stand in God’s presence? Those who have clean hands and a pure heart. That is why Malachi says that God will purify them—so that they can offer righteous offerings to him and experience his presence with joy.

But being cleansed—purified—is not a magic process. It is rather a process in which the central organizing principle of our lives changes. Someone (I have no idea who) posted on Facebook some time ago that cleaning with children around is like “brushing your teeth while eating Oreo cookies.” The comparison works here: Repenting without changing (being without doing) is like brushing your teeth while eating Oreo cookies. And John tells the people what changing, the fruit of repentance, looks like.

The Fruit of Repentance
So what do the fruit look like? What does renewal look like? Soldiers do their jobs properly. Tax collectors do their jobs properly. Ordinary people share what they have with those who don’t have. If we think of it in today’s terms, you and I have job descriptions. We go to work and are expected to do something there. John says, “Do it. Don’t cheat. Don’t take shortcuts. Do your job. Do it right. Do it well.”

I was talking recently with a friend about what God’s call in our lives means. I said that sometimes God calls us to go into full-time Christian service. He said that he understands God’s call to mean: Do your job—whatever it is—well.” I think that we are both right (and on another occasion I can talk about God’s call to different specific vocations—Christian and secular). But Luke 3 could be my friend’s text, because that is exactly what John says here: Do your job and do it right.

When you do that you may find over a period of time that you can’t stay in the job you have. Perhaps your boss will fire you if you won’t cut corners. Well, stay honest, don’t cut corners, do it right and do it for the Lord. If you have to change jobs, that’s not nice, but that’s part of renewed living.

You may find something else too. People get into the habit of accepting what is not right because no one protests, no one swims against the current. When you do right, you may find that others join you and the whole organization changes. John doesn’t promise anything like that—he just tells you to get on with it.

I thank God that I had a boss many years ago who treated me as if John the Baptist was watching. It was my first summer job in college, the summer of 1968.  I worked for a tree trimming and lawn care service in York, Pennsylvania. I remember my first chance to climb a tree and cut off a branch—handsaws in those days! I cut off the wrong branch, and the foreman spent the next five minutes explaining to the owner that the big hole in the top of her tree would disappear when we got the whole branch out. It did, but I wasn’t allowed into any more trees!

After about three weeks my foreman came to me and said that the boss was unhappy with my work generally and was ready to lay me off. Then he put me on the lawn mowing crew with his brother, a good friend of mine. We were out early, mowing lawns by 7 am and stopping only when it got dark. I worked 60 to 70 hour weeks pushing a lawn mower, and at the end of the summer the owner of the business gave me a good reference for my next employer. The fact is, he could have made my life much harder by losing his temper and blasting me; instead he had my foreman talk with me straight, but gently, and I had a good summer. There is more power than you know in simply doing what is right.

Some Closing Words
John the Baptist says one more thing that is vitally important. When the people ask if he is the Messiah, he replies: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

He knew well that he could not give the people what they needed to produce the fruit of repentance. He could call them to God, but he was not himself God. He could tell them how to live, but he could not give them the ability to live that way. He knew also that the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, was coming. I doubt that he understood all that meant. We talk about Jesus as Son of God, and One with God, indeed as God himself in human form. John the Baptist just knew that the Messiah was coming.

He may have already learned that this Messiah was his cousin—a hard concept to grasp! But he knew the most important thing: The Messiah would cleanse people and empower them; he would baptize them “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

So we close the circle of being and doing. You can’t talk about being (repentance and renewal) without doing (the fruit of repentance), and you can’t talk about doing (the fruit of repentance) without being (filled with God’s Holy Spirit). This Advent we wait for the Messiah, just as John was waiting for him. And when he comes? Well, that’s next week’s message. For now, we wait, and get ready for the birth of the baby.

Or as Paul puts it in Colossians 3: “Let the power of Christ rule in your hearts …. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly …. 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.”


Old Testament: Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20
14 Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! 15 The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. 16 On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. 17 The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”
18 “I will remove from you all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals, which is a burden and reproach for you. 19 At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame.
20 At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the Lord.

Epistle: Philippians 4: 4 – 7
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Gospel: Luke 3: 7 – 18
 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

On Friends Approaching Death

Last Summer Lois and I went to my 45th High School Class Reunion. We were sobered by the number of my classmates who had died since the 40th Reunion. Last Fall Lois flew back to Ohio for her 40th high School Reunion, which had been postponed by the unexpected death a year earlier of one of her classmates, one who had been central to the social life of the graduating class.

This past week we learned of the death of two people in Steinbach. One was the editor of The Carillon, a 66-year old man with a wide and good influence in the community. The other was our neighbour across the street. Last winter Pat phoned Lois when I was shovelling the driveway. “Tell Daryl to be careful so he doesn’t have a heart attack!” This week she was curling with friends and died herself of a heart attack (if I have the report right), at age 73. So many people dying—no more than usual, but now I’m noticing it more.

Then today I saw the email from someone in my graduating class. Another friend from high school days, Jeff, has Lou Gehrig's disease (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS)—perhaps another six months to live. I’d like to see him before he dies if I can. The email also named two more of our classmates who have died since our reunion in June. I heard a news report that 60 is the new 40. Seems to me more like 60 is the new 80.

None of this is new: References to the shortness of life abound in literature. One of my favourite lines comes from Measure for Measure: “If I must die, I will encounter darkness as a bride and hug it in my arms.” I don’t know of course. We all come to the same moment. I want to approach it with courage, but may find myself like Claudio (who faces death with such words) seeking a way out, any way out.

It is the path we walk. Death and life woven together in seamless beauty. For friends in Pennsylvania, and friends here in Manitoba. For all of us.

Monday, December 10, 2012


Ready for the Return

Malachi 3:1-4
3 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.

Philippians 1:3-11
Thanksgiving and Prayer
3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Luke 3:1-6
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”


Malachi asks the question: Who can endure (abide) the day of his coming? Who shall stand when he appears?” This is our question this morning. We celebrate the coming of Jesus some 2,000 years ago. We anticipate Christ’s return “in power and great glory.” But who can stand upright and look Jesus in the face when that day comes? How can we be ready for his coming? How can we even prepare to remember his first coming?

The Texts in Context
Malachi is the last prophet in the OT—whether or not he was the last one to prophesy, he is the one who stands at the end of the record of the Old Covenant and serves as the bridge to the New Covenant. The passage we read from Malachi is fitting indeed. Writing (or speaking God’s word) following the exile of God’s People, roughly around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, Malachi observes that people want God’s Messiah to come (“the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple”). 

Think briefly of the history of this period. Under David and Solomon Israel rose to unprecedented importance in the ancient Near East. The Queen of Sheba herself made a trip to the court of Solomon to see its glory (1 Kings 10). So somewhere about 950 years before Christ, Israel was at its height. Following Solomon’s death the kingdom divided (930 BC). For just over 200 years the Northern Kingdom of Israel continued, then disintegrated under the exile of their rulers to Assyria (2 Kings 17). 

About 140 years later (586 BC) the last king of Judah was deported and Jerusalem fell completely (2 Kings 24). In spite of revivals under Hezekiah and Josiah, continued sin in the form of loyalty to other gods—shown as the prophets tell us by worship at altars of other gods, sexual sin, and economic oppression—and God brought the Kingdom of Judah also to an end. Babylon invaded and carried off their political and military leaders.

About 45 years after the fall of Jerusalem, Babylon itself fell to the Persians, and the Persian Empire took over its colonies. Perhaps only three years later the first exiles returned to Judah and work began under Zerubbabel to build a new altar, and rebuild the Temple of the Lord. The following years see the prophetic ministries of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (perhaps around 500 BC). About 50 years later the action described in Ezra and Nehemiah takes place. 

Back to our passage: Now that they were back in control of their own land, even if as a colony on the edge of the Empire, why would the people want God’s return? A common theme in Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as in Zechariah and Haggai, is the failure of the Return to fulfill the people’s hopes. The temple took longer to build than was expected; and even when it was finished the worship of the true God did not proceed as it should have. The people were aware that something was missing, that God himself needed to come down and take control.

The Question
So people want the Messiah to come. People want God to fix what is missing. They recognize that they cannot make life what it should be, and they anticipate God’s coming to do so. “‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.” 

A side note to the point I am pursuing here: Malachi may intend one person or two people with his description. A straightforward reading of the verse could take “my messenger”, “the Lord you are seeking”, and “the messenger of the covenant” as parallel constructions, used as synonyms. Or it could take “my messenger” to refer to Malachi himself (whose name means “my messenger”) and “the Lord” and “the messenger of the covenant” to be the coming Messiah. In Christian theology we have taken the messenger who prepares the way to refer to John the Baptist, and “the Lord, the messenger of the [new] covenant” to be Jesus. In either case, God is coming; and the question that Malachi asks applies. 

So the question: “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?” Now when we hear this question, it sounds like a rhetorical question, but I think that Malachi assumes there is an answer. Someone can stand in God’s presence. The question is: Who? Consider the Psalms. Psalm 24: 3f reads: “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, who do not put their trust in an idol or swear by a false God.” 

There is the answer to Malachi’s question: “Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, who do not put their trust in an idol or swear by a false God.” Of course, that is also the problem that Malachi sees, as do Zechariah and Haggai, and that Ezra and Nehemiah later address. The people have mixed loyalties, and the Levites—the keepers of the Law—have themselves become impure and unclean. That is the point of the last verse of chapter 2: You have offended God with your sin. 

That is why Malachi goes on to say that the Lord who comes will cleanse his people and refine the Levites, so that they may indeed stand in the Lord’s presence and endure, even rejoice in, his coming. 

Think About Us

We live in Winnipeg (and Steinbach). We are, as it were, on the edge of the Empire—the centres of political and economic power are East and South of us: Toronto; New York; Ottawa; Washington. Quite possibly we feel helpless in the face of the events that go on around us in our world. We watched the recent election of the new American President with interest and anxiety, knowing that the results would affect us deeply, but powerless to do anything about it. We also are on the edge of Empire. We may wonder what point there is to the work that we do, whether in the church or in the community. 

When Lois and I moved here, people often asked us: “Why did you come here?” Although we know that southern Manitoba is a good place to live, we know also that the world does not revolve around us! 

“Small Things”

Just before Malachi, Zechariah describes the temple to which the Lord will come in a fascinating passage (4: 9f): “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you. Who dares despise the day of small things, since the seven eyes of the Lord that range throughout the earth will rejoice when they see the chosen capstone in the hand of Zerubbabel?” Zechariah’s point is that the people see what Zerubbabel is doing (and what they are doing) as “small things”, worth little in the grand scheme of events. But God, who sees all, lets them know that this is actually his work, not theirs, and that they dare not despise the work that he is doing. 

So also with us: Consider what we do in this church, and in my church in Steinbach, and where I work, and where you work. Friday night we had our Christmas Banquet. One of the evening events was a silent auction (really a combination auction-raffle) in which people paid 25 cents for each for tickets, which were then drawn for the items being auctioned. They raised $85—that’s about 340 tickets—for MCC. Small things! But who knows where that small thing will go? God knows. As Zechariah reminds us, “Don’t dare to despise small things that the Lord is doing.” 

Irene Kroeker has worked with young people in the high school who need support to make it through life. When they graduate, they keep coming to her. The result is that we (SMC) have given her an office and freezer space and closets, as she provides support to the homeless youth of Steinbach. It began as a small thing indeed, and has grown into one of Steinbach’s more notable efforts to work with a vulnerable population here. 

You could tell me more stories—from your experience as business people, teachers, workers, and more. The truth is that God works in what you do and in what I do to build his temple in our lives and in our world—a temple not built with human hands, but growing as the body of Christ. 

Connecting Back to our Passage
What does this have to do with getting ready for the Messiah? Well, the people wanted God to do some great work and make everything the way it used to be in the days of Solomon’s Temple. Malachi says, “He’s coming! Do you want to be ready? Let him cleanse you! Let him purify you! Let him use you to do his work in the world today. Then you will be ready for the return of Christ. 

Paul’s words to the Philippians echoes this idea: He can thank God for them because God is at work in their lives. And so Paul prays that they will continue to work and serve the Lord, all the more until he appears! The coming of John the Baptist (Luke 3) inaugurated Jesus’ first came to earth the first time. John did not come to the centre either. Judah was still a colony, now of Rome; but such as its centre of power was, it was in Jerusalem. Luke carefully outlines the powers that were, and where they were, and then tells how John came to the countryside around the Jordan River. People came to him from the centre of power for baptism, attracted to his message of repentance and God’s power as he held forth in the countryside. 

You see, this is how God works. God comes in the small places and to the weak people. Paul reminds the Corinthians (1 Cor 1):
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 

How can we be ready for Christ’s Return? How can we be among those who abide when he comes and stand in his presence? 

1. Purity: Who can stand in his presence? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts. If you are looking forward to Christmas and anticipating Christ’s Return, but are not living for God now, turn to him. Turn to him now and seek his cleansing and justifying Spirit. 

2. Practical Living: Don’t despise small things. What you and I do is small. We live far away from the centre of power, apparently unimportant to the Empire. But when we do God’s work, what we do can change the world. I think that I have told you stories before about such movements. For example, I believe I have told the story of John and Edith Hayward, a Winnipeg couple whose hospitality to an Indian stranger led to the conversion of Bakht Singh, whose ministry in turn led to the conversion of Prem Pradhan, under whose missionary endeavours hundreds of thousands of Nepalese have come to faith in Jesus Christ. (See Jon Bonk’s essays on “Thinking Small in Missions.” 

Do you want to be ready for Christ’s return? Get to work! Do what God gives you to do. I can’t tell you what to do; that’s up to you to figure out for yourselves. But you will do it in your jobs and in your families. In the small things of our lives, far from the centres of power, God is at work, preparing the world for his return.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Advent 1: Hope

2 December 2012: ADVENT I—HOPE

Jeremiah 33:14-16
14 “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah.
15 “‘In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Saviour.’”

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


Every year we come to this moment, just after American Thanksgiving (which somehow seems to define the Christmas season, even for Canadians). The stores have big sales that push them into the “black”—a meaning for Black Friday, for any Friday, with which Christians should struggle. Cyber Monday follows, as so many of us make the push to get our Christmas shopping done.

Then we get to church and we are reminded: It is not yet Christmas. First we remember Advent. First we prepare. We get ready for the coming, the advent, of the baby in the manger. First we look again at our world and ourselves and begin the difficult process of making sure that we are ready, that we can be ready, when the angels sing their tidings of great joy.

Thoughts on the Texts

1. Remembering the first coming always draws our attention also to the Second Coming, when Jesus returns in power and great glory and draws all things to himself. The texts we read refer to both comings. Jeremiah heralds the birth of the heir of David’s line; Jesus refers to his return.

Yet the two comings do not divide so neatly. Jeremiah heralds also Christ’s return. “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety”: These words do not describe what happened when Jesus was alive, or what happened in the century following his death and resurrection. Still less do we see Jerusalem at peace and in safety today. God’s people (whether we think of the Jews or of the Church) still live scattered and persecuted. Something remains to be done.

And when Jesus describes the end, he says: 25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Clearly Jesus is referring to the end of all things; but then he continues: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

We have used these words to guess at his return, and that may be what he meant. But it seems at least as likely to me that these words refer both to his coming death and resurrection as well as to the consummation in the future. One commentator observes that Jesus may have meant his own impending death and resurrection, but that Mark and Luke (who recorded these words) apply them to his return. In any case, we take Jesus’ first and second coming together: The one reminds us of and prepares us for the other.

A brief aside: “This generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.” The difficulty these words cause disappears if Jesus was referring to his own death and resurrection. But even if Jesus meant his final return, the difficulty is only in the way we take “this generation”. Another commentator notes that it means something like “the generation of humans on earth”. In other words, “People will not die out before I bring everything to its proper end.”

2. A second thought: These words are words of hope. Jesus came into this world to bring us hope. Jesus’ return is the guarantee that our hope is rooted in reality.

Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet. If anyone lived without seeing their hope realized, it was Jeremiah. He prophesied constantly that Babylon would destroy Judah—and so they did. He warned the remnant in the land not to flee to Egypt, not to fight against their Babylonian rulers. They ignored him and carried him off with them into Egypt, where he died, never seeing the hope that he proclaimed. Jeremiah complained bitterly to God, but he did not give up hope in God; and when God told him to buy a field at Anathoth (Jer 32), he did so.

So when Jeremiah speaks the hope of future peace and security for Jerusalem and for God’s Chosen People, he held to that hope in spite of his own great distress.

This past Sunday was Christ the King Sunday—the last Sunday before Advent. Lissa Wray Beal, our OT professor at Providence spoke in chapel on the theme of Christ the King, using Zechariah 9 as her text. Hear the prophet:

9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
11 As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. 12 Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you. 13 I will bend Judah as I bend my bow and fill it with Ephraim. I will rouse your sons, Zion, against your sons, Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword.

Verse 13 locates the historical context of Zechariah’s words: slaves under Babylon, who have become slaves under Persia, and now live as slaves under Alexander the Great’s successors, the “Sons of Greece”. They knew what it meant to live as slaves and prisoners in a foreign land.

But Zechariah calls God’s People something else in verse 12: “Return…you prisoners of hope”! Prisoners of hope! What can it mean to live as a prisoner of hope?

Jesus tells us: 25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Look Around Us Today
We live in a world divided between those who have more than they need and those who have almost nothing. Increasingly people are imprisoned by poverty and wealth.

You know the parable of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25. Often we use the parable to remind us that we should take care of “the least of these, my brothers.”  That is a good application of this passage, but there is something deeper, more powerful. Everywhere else in the gospels, the term “my brothers” refers to the disciples. One reading of this text is that Jesus is telling us how the Gentiles are judged: by how they respond to his followers, whom they find in those who are marginalized and oppressed. This remains true for us today. We find not only God’s people, but God’s Messiah himself, the King, when we meet the marginalized of the world.

Malcolm Guite is a “priest, chaplain, and teacher at the University of Cambridge.”  He has written a sonnet on the parable of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25.

Sonnet: Christ the King—Matthew 25: 31-46
Malcolm Guite
Our king is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: “I am thirsty”.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.
And With Us?
Where is Freedom? Note that those who hope are those who have nothing. Those who have something do not have hope—they don’t need it, so they can’t have it. Those who have nothing, have hope. Those who have something, have no hope.

Perhaps this is the basic lesson for us as we begin the season of Advent. Thanksgiving and Christmas teach us to think of how much we have. Advent reminds us that our wealth can become our prison. If we want to be ready for the coming of Jesus, we have to discover our poverty, our need, and so become a prisoner of hope.

The truth is, of course, that it is not only the materially poor who live in great need. I think of one a friend who has what most would call "a good life". Recently she did a chapel presentation on her own struggle with depression, in which one realizes that she came face to face with herself as helpless in the grip of her depression. It was in that helpless state that she found hope.

I believe that it is always when we discover our essential poverty in this life that we become “prisoners of hope”, able to receive the King of the Universe. Mental and emotional health is one of the most common ways that we experience helplessness in our affluent society; but the discovery comes through every way in which we realize that without God we are adrift in a hostile universe, destined to disappear into the cold vastness of space. Think of the feeling of facing Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast last month, helpless in the face of the storm.

This discovery sets us free to become fully at human in the wonderful vitality of God’s presence. G. K. Chesterton expresses what I have been saying in a profound hymn.

O God of earth and altar, bow down and hear our cry,

Our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die;

The walls of gold entomb us, the swords of scorn divide,

Take not thy thunder from us, but take away our pride.


From all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen,

From all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men,

From sale and profanation of honour, and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation, deliver us, good Lord!


Tie in a living tether the prince and priest and thrall,

Bind all our lives together, smite us and save us all;

In ire and exultation aflame with faith, and free,

Lift up a living nation, a single sword to thee.

Back to the Text
All of this is a general truth, found throughout Scripture. Our text locates the heart of this truth in the coming of Jesus into our world. It is not an idea that lives in some abstract space, unrelated to the historical specifics of our lives. Rather, we encounter God in the very concrete entrance of God into human history in the first coming of Jesus. And the promised return of Jesus at the end of history is as real as his first coming.

I have been reading J.B. Phillips, Ring of Truth: A Translator’s Testimony. He observes about this strand in the NT: “But the prophetic vision goes far beyond this. It envisages the end of life on this planet, when so to speak, eternity irrupts into time. There is no time-scale: there rarely is in such an earthbound factor in prophetic vision. …
This is the preparation, the training-ground, the place where God begins his work of making us into what he wants us to be. But it is not our home. We are warned again and again not to value this world as permanency. Neither our security nor our true wealth is rooted in this passing life. We are strangers and pilgrims and while we are under the pressure of love to do all that we can to help our fellows, we should not expect a world which is largely God-resisting to become some earthly paradise.” (Phillips, 1967, 77f.)

I like that: “This is the preparation, the training-ground, the place where God begins his work of making us into what he wants us to be.” We anticipate Jesus’ return, because our hope lies in the truth that this world is preparation, what C.S. Lewis called “the shadow-lands”, less real than the reality that awaits us in eternity with God.

A Closing Illustration
Let me close with an anecdote from his life that Phillips tells in this little book: pp89f.
“Let me say at once that I am incredulous by nature, and as unsuperstitious as they come. … But from time to time in life strange things occur which convince me that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth,’ John Robinson and friends, ‘than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ ….
                Many of us who believe in what is technically known as the Communion of Saints must have experienced the sense of nearness, for a fairly short time, of those whom we love soon after they have died. This has certainly happened to me several times. But the late C.S. Lewis, whom I did not know very well, and had only seen in the flesh once, but with whom I had corresponded a fair amount, gave me an unusual experience. A few days after his death, while I was sitting watching television, he ‘appeared’ sitting in a chair within a few feet of me, and spoke a few words which were particularly relevant to the difficult circumstances through which I was passing. He was ruddier in complexion than ever, grinning all over his face and, as the old-fashioned saying has it, positively glowing with health. The interesting thing to me was that I had not been thinking about him at all. I was neither alarmed nor surprised … . He was just there – ‘large as life and twice as natural’! A week later, this time when I was in bed reading before going to sleep, he appeared again, even more rosily radiant than before, and repeated the same message, which was very important to me at the time. I was a little puzzled by this, and I mentioned it to a certain saintly Bishop who was then living in retirement here in Dorset. His reply was, ‘My dear [John], this sort of thing is happening all the time’.”

We wait for Christ, anticipating our entry into the reality God gives us, and living now according to that final reality.