December 6, 2015

Malachi 3:1-4
Philippians 1:3-11

“Changing Direction”

Last Sunday, following worship and fellowship here at St. Andrew’s, I went over to the park across the street and joined a crowd of maybe 300 residents of Saskatoon for a march to raise awareness about climate change. Besides the usual signs and placards of a protest or demonstration, the organizers had constructed a huge model of the planet Earth, which was held high as we marched up the Broadway Bridge to Oskayak High School where the speeches took place.

I enjoyed the walk on a sunny, Sunday afternoon, and connected with a number of friends and colleagues along the way. But it was the moving and insightful speakers that made it especially worth attending. They all came from different perspectives, and framed their messages in different language, but the main point was the same. It was a dire warning – that we and the world need to change our practices before we ruin the good Earth that God gave us.

“If we don’t change direction, we’re likely to end up where we’re heading,” is one line I’ll remember. Another striking comment came from a young woman who spoke passionately about the need for us to protect the environment for the sake of our children and grandchildren. She pointed out, “We are living like we are the very last ones who will enjoy the planet,” and she called us to become instead a “transition generation” who will begin to live in a new and gentler way on the Earth.

Of course, the march wasn’t planned only for the sake of those who attended… to inspire and encourage us to live greener lifestyles. But it was to declare to the world that we also want things to change, and that we need things to change in Canada and throughout the world before it is too late.

The 2015 Paris Climate Conference is meeting right now until December 11, with 195 parties working to build a legally binding and universal agreement on climate that seeks to keep increases in global average surface temperature below 2 degrees Celsius. The Conference, known as COP21, will establish new emission reduction targets for implementation in 2020, when the second reporting period of the Kyoto Protocol expires. It will also coordinate the mobilization of $100 billion annually by developed countries towards enabling developing countries to combat climate change.

Like me, you’ve probably heard people joke about climate change: “What’s the big deal?” they ask, “Saskatchewan winters might be a bit more manageable with a little bit of global warming.” But we know that climate change is a significant problem. It is already negatively impacting physical, biological, and human systems around the world. The two main consequences of climate change are ocean acidification and increased average global surface temperatures.

Ocean acidification, caused by the increased uptake of CO2 by oceans, is negatively affecting marine ecosystems and fisheries. Increased temperatures are changing precipitation and snowmelt patterns, impacting the quantity and quality of water resources for human consumption and ecological life-support. Higher temperatures are increasing, glaciers and sea-ice sheets are shrinking, global sea levels are rising, the frequency of heat waves is increasing.

With further warming, the experts project increased risk to coastal systems and low-lying areas, marine systems, food security and production systems, urban and rural inhabitants (particularly the poor), economic sectors and services, and human security.

And although the whole world needs to change, Canada in particular, needs to make radical changes quickly. In 2013, Canadians emitted 20.7 tonnes of greenhouse gases per capita. It has been suggested that we need to reduce our emissions by around 90% to help keep increases in global mean surface temperature below 2 degrees Celsius.

You may be thinking that this doesn’t sound like a typical Sunday sermon. I’m about half way through already, and I haven’t even mentioned the scripture texts yet. What does all this stuff about climate change have to do with Advent?

Well, the first thing I noticed was that the climate change activists reminded me of John the Baptist. Although they weren’t out in the wilderness, they were out in the streets, in the public sphere… calling people to hear, to understand, to repent, and to change their lives.

John announced that the Kingdom of God was coming near, so it was urgent that everyone get ready and prepare themselves. Today we are hearing that the climate changes and their negative impacts are increasing so rapidly that we need to change our ways now – before it’s too late.

The prophet Malachi also called for change. He made it clear that when the day of judgement came, everyone was going to need purification. Even the most religious – the priests and Levites – would need to be refined like gold and silver.

And isn’t that true today also? When it comes to making changes in our lifestyles and our practices as a society, people of faith are no further ahead than anyone else. We enjoy our gas-guzzling vehicles, and fly to and fro in planes, and benefit from the proceeds of the oil and gas industry on which our country relies.

Another minister commented last week that we need to remember that Advent is a penitential season – a time for reflecting on the scriptures, and examining our lives, and turning and returning to God and God’s ways. He cautioned us not to allow the lead-up to Christmas to become too busy with Christmas preparations and just “getting into the joyful spirit of the season.”

The image that Malachi uses is striking. We are to be refined and purified like silver is refined by fire. It doesn’t sound like a gentle nudge in a new and better direction, but it is a painful process of clearing out the wrong things, the bad habits, and the patterns of living we have acquired that are bringing harm to the environment, to animal and plant life, and to our poorer neighbours in so many parts of the world.

It seems hopeful to me that the Paris Conference is happening right now, the world is paying attention, and our leaders are talking together about what can be done to change things. Yesterday it was reported that they have a draft of an agreement. There is still a lot of work to do to get everyone on board, and after that a lot more work to do to actually implement it. But it seems like a start.

And that’s enough to give me some encouragement. Maybe we are going to change directions. Literally, that’s the definition of repentance – to turn around and go in the right direction. It doesn’t mean that we’re perfect, or that we’re getting everything right, but we are at least moving in the right way.

And I hope that’s how you are thinking about your Christian walk in a broader sense also. In this season of reflecting, and examining, and turning again towards God’s ways, you may be very aware of your need to be refined by God’s purifying fire. But don’t give up because you’re not there yet. Just keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, and keep moving in the direction that he is calling you.

Remember Paul’s assurance to the Philippian Christians which are words of encouragement for all who seek to follow Jesus with our lives: “I am confident of this,” the Apostle wrote, “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

When Paul began his letter to the Philippians, writing from a jail cell in Rome, he said that he thanked God every time he remembered them, constantly praying with joy in every one of his prayers for all of them, because of their sharing in the gospel from the first day until then.

Of course, they were not perfect. They still needed a lot of refining and purifying. They still needed a lot of guidance and encouragement. They still needed a lot of help from God and the Holy Spirit to live as Jesus taught them. But Paul thanked God because God had begun a good work in them, through them, and among them. And Paul trusted that God would complete it before the end.

I am similarly thankful for the good work that God has begun in each one of you, in my own life, in our church, and in the wider community of faith. Although we do not preach from on high, as if we have all the answers or as if we are perfect examples, we can join with other prophetic voices in calling each other, our country, and the world to turn in a new direction.

The most recent General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada discussed the problem of climate change and encouraged Presbyterians across the country to pray, work, and advocate for a new sustainable way of living in the world God made.

In response to that recommendation from the General Assembly, our Session here at St. Andrew’s has written a letter of encouragement to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change who is representing Canada at the COP21 meetings in Paris. It is an urgent call to do what is right and necessary and difficult – Canada’s part in limiting global warming.

That letter is available for you to look at on the table in the entranceway. And there is another sheet of church letterhead beside it. The Session would like to encourage us all to put our signatures on that sheet today so that we can scan it and send it to the Minister right away.

As we continue to seek God’s will, and to walk in the way of Christ, especially when it seems difficult, let us remember God’s promise of hope and peace: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Amen.