“What Are We Watching For?”
Advent begins today. Happy New (Church) Year! Literally, “Advent” means “coming” and it is a time when we wait and prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus into our world at Christmas. At the same time, we think about how we are also waiting and preparing for Jesus to come again as he promised, and to finally make things right in our world.
The readings provided for us in the Revised Common Lectionary for this First Sunday of Advent in Year A are not so much about getting ready for a birthday party for Jesus. They are much more focused on anticipating Christ’s second coming and the end of the world as we know it. The Gospel text, in particular, is pretty dramatic – warning us to “keep awake” and “be ready” because “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
It may be helpful to know what Jesus is talking about when he tells his disciples that “no one knows about the day or the hour, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
At the beginning of the chapter (chapter 24) Jesus foretells the destruction of the … Read more »
“Joining Mary’s Song”
You know, it’s not only Catholics who like to name their daughters Mary. It was a very popular name in first-century Palestine also, when a remarkable number of Jews were naming their daughters Mary – after the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, and in defiant memory of Mariamne, who was murdered by her husband, Herod the Great.
Mary’s name suggests that her family was among those in first-century Palestine who longed for God to free them from Rome. The name Mary is unambiguously political, brave, and resistive. Jesus was born into such a family.
We can imagine that Mary’s family and others in their community were remembering the words of the prophets like Micah, and praying that their hopes would be fulfilled again in their own time.
Seven hundred years earlier, Micah expressed hope for a better future for the people of Judah who had endured much devastation (likely the invasion of Sennacherib in Judah in 702-701 BCE). The source of the hope was the suggestion of new leadership for the people. Micah furiously criticizes the Jerusalem king and the elite, and he calls for a new ruler who will bring security and peace to the people.
His words could be … Read more »
“The Joy of Salvation”
The message of the prophets on this third Sunday in Advent is about the joy of salvation. Like Israel before us, we have a reason to rejoice, because God has decided not to hold us accountable for our sins and failings, but to demonstrate grace and offer us forgiveness.
As the prophet Zephaniah wrote to the people of Israel, “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you.” We are called to rejoice and exult with all our hearts. We are invited to draw spiritual water from the wells of salvation, and to do so with joy and thanksgiving.
This is, of course, a message that is not reserved for Advent or Christmas. We are reminded of God’s grace and forgiveness over and over in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and Sunday after Sunday, we hear the assurance of God’s abiding love and grace for us, God’s own wandering children.
But the message of grace in today’s scriptures comes hand in hand with a challenge. The prophet John is preaching about the One coming into the world from God. He is calling the people to prepare the way of the Lord, to get … Read more »
“Prepare the Way”
That’s such a great Gospel reading for Saskatchewan, don’t you think? “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low…” God is making a beautiful, wide-open prairie! That’s the vision of the Kingdom of God when Jesus is coming into the world!
These are the words of John the Baptist when he begins preaching out in the wilderness, calling the people to repent and to “prepare the way of the Lord” who is coming (in Jesus, as we will soon see) to save all people from our sin and sadness.
John is quoting from another prophet centuries before him, Isaiah, who proclaimed similar words to the people of Israel who were in exile in Babylon. It seemed to them like God had abandoned them there, but God was coming, he assured them. They should be ready to welcome God, who was going to come and bring them home.
The image of the people “preparing the way” probably came from practices associated with welcoming royalty. It was like rolling out the red carpet, making sure that the monarch would have a smooth ride in coming to visit the community.
When we talked about this in … Read more »
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
“Blooming in the Darkness”
Our Christmas cactus is blooming. We’ve had it for a few years, and it does bloom occasionally. But since I’ve been working at home, I’ve really noticed it blooming over the last week, with more and more flowers appearing each day, more than I ever remember seeing before.
I’m not a gardener at all and I don’t know much about plants. Nick is the one who remembers to water our plants occasionally, with my job being mostly just to notice and appreciate them once in a while. But we all know that Christmas cacti are famous for their unusual schedule of tending to bloom at Christmas.
What they really do is that they start to grow flowers when they experience slightly cooler temperatures and longer nights: at least 13 hours of darkness will do it, and we’re well past that measure here in Regina at this time of year. So our Christmas cactus is blooming.
And I appreciate that it is a glimpse of beauty when I need it most – when it’s getting colder and darker every day, and I’m feeling discouraged because another long Saskatchewan winter is setting in.
It’s not only the darkness and … Read more »
Please enjoy our Online Christmas Pageant – “A Pandemic Christmas.”
… Read more »
“A Letter of Love”
This morning is the final sermon in my little series on “Letters of Encouragement” during the Season of Advent. I’ve been focussing on the Epistle readings that are included each Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary, looking for messages of encouragement, as well as assurances of hope, peace, joy, and love from God in Jesus Christ.
On this last Advent Sunday, the theme is LOVE, and the Epistle text comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome. Similar to last week, the reading comes from the very end of the letter – final words from the Christian leader to the Christian community. And in this case, Paul closes with a liturgically-rich doxology (Those are words of praise to God). And the doxology names God as powerful, wise, and therefore worthy of praise.
The passage is a bit tricky to understand at first because it’s an incomplete sentence – a problem that is often corrected in contemporary paraphrases. But even if the grammar doesn’t make sense in English, the meaning is clear enough:
God’s wisdom and power are on display, and we are called to praise. God has revealed God’s love in Jesus Christ. This … Read more »
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
“A Letter of Joy”
During this Season of Advent, I’m focussing my preaching on the Epistle readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. I’m looking for messages of encouragement to us in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic. And on this third Sunday of Advent, I’m looking for the gift of joy that comes to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Epistle for today comes from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian congregation around the year 50 CE. The passage is from the last chapter, as Paul draws his letter to a close with some final instructions.
At first, the section may seem like a rather random bunch of aphorisms that Paul didn’t want to forget to include before he finished the letter: “Rejoice always… Do not quench the Spirit… Abstain from every form of evil.” And it may make us wonder why it’s one of the readings during this special season of the year.
Matt Gaventa, commenting on the passage puts it this way: “Few, if any, among the listeners who wander in on the Third Sunday of Advent will find in this disjointed list something that feels ‘Christmas-y’.”
Scholars who read the text in the original Greek … Read more »
2 Peter 3:8-15a
“A Letter of Peace”
During this Season of Advent, I decided to focus my preaching on the Epistle readings that are set in the Revised Common Lectionary for each Sunday. We’re looking at these snippets of letters to the early Christian communities, with our ears open for words of encouragement that may strengthen us in this challenging time of the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic.
Today’s Epistle reading comes from the third chapter of the 2nd letter of the Apostle Peter. Since I didn’t know the letter well, I went back to the 1st chapter to find out who Peter was writing to, and I found this salutation:
“Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have received a faith as precious as ours through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ: 2May grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.”
So, unlike some of the letters in the New Testament that are addressed to a particular congregation and dealing with their unique issues and concerns, this one is written to all people of faith who have come to believe in Jesus the Lord. It’s what is called … Read more »
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
“A Letter of Hope”
In the Season of Advent, I typically preach on the Gospel texts in the Revised Common Lectionary, and sometimes on the prophets. You’ve heard sermons about John the Baptist and Mary. You’ve heard sermons about waiting, and watching, and preparing for the Messiah to come and to come again to make the world right.
But this year, I’m going to preach on the Epistles instead – the snippets of letters written to the early Christian communities that brought them hope and encouragement in the context of their struggle, persecution, and desire to be faithful until the coming of the Lord.
Like the early Christian congregations that first received the letters, we know about Jesus and his love. Like them, we live in the in-between time after Christ’s incarnation and before his coming again to complete the Reign of God.
This year, perhaps more than many others, we are struggling. While we may not face the same danger and persecution that Christians did in the first century, we are suffering more than we are used to, and we are not as distracted by the usual frivolity of the season – by parties and social gatherings and concerts and family … Read more »
“Saying “YES” to God”
The Gospel story that is set for this Sunday comes from Matthew’s Gospel. It’s a good story for the Sunday before Christmas… a good story about how Jesus was born.
Often, we jump ahead in the story. We remember the journey to Bethlehem, the shepherds in the fields and the angels in the sky announcing the birth of the Christ child. Those are the parts of the story that never get left out of the Christmas pageants. But Joseph can easily become a minor character without a speaking part.
One commentator points out that “Joseph is a peripheral figure in the grand sweep of the Christian tradition. Relative to Mary and the apostles, we do not sing much about him. We rarely see him in art (and when Joseph does appear in a painting, he is rarely alone; he is typically accompanied by Mary and/or Jesus).”
Today’s Gospel reminds us that Joseph was a pretty regular guy… a nice guy, a reasonable guy. When his fiancé got pregnant before the wedding, he dealt with it. He wasn’t going to turn it into a big to-do, but he was just going to dismiss her quietly. No one … Read more »
“Here is Your God!”
There are a lot of debates that take place at this time of year around worship-planning tables, between clergy and music leaders about which hymns and carols we will sing. Many ministers make a point of avoiding Christmas carols before Christmas Eve, arguing that Advent hymns are more appropriate, since Jesus has “not yet” been born. At the same time, musicians and choirs and congregations are often longing to sing the songs of Christmas joy, even if it’s only mid-December.
You may have noticed that our Advent Season here at First Church includes a bit of a mix of Advent carols and Christmas songs, and as we move through the month, we’re including more and more of the Christmas ones. And the reason is not that the Music Team here is very persuasive and convinced the minister to do Christmas early.
But rather, it’s because we understand that Advent isn’t only a “not yet” season; it’s also an “already” season. The SALT Lectionary Commentary describes Advent as “a season made for vividly experiencing the eschatological “already/not yet” tension at the heart of Christian life.”
It’s the idea that the Messiah has already come to us in … Read more »
“A New Normal”
I didn’t want to preach about John the Baptist this morning. As you may have noticed, John the Baptist shows up every year during Advent. And he can be a little scary, as he scolds and chides and warns the people to repent and to flee from the wrath to come.
Instead of preaching about repentance, I wanted to focus on the beautiful, peaceful images from the earlier prophet, Isaiah. I didn’t want to get stuck with the image of the axe lying at the root of the trees. I wanted to talk about the new shoot growing out of the tree stump instead.
But as I explored the text in Isaiah, it kept leading me right back to John the Baptist and the one coming after him. And so, you will have a sermon today that is inspired by two prophets… Isaiah and John.
The prophet Isaiah wrote about a vision of peace. He predicted that peace would be achieved through the leadership of a righteous ruler in the line of King David. Poetically, Isaiah wrote: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
And Isaiah … Read more »
“What’s a Christian To Do? (In Advent)”
Today is the first Sunday in the Season of Advent. As you know, Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Whether we know it as Advent, or whether we just think of it as the lead-up to Christmas, this is one of the busiest times of the year… not just in our churches, but in almost every aspect of our lives.
While most people are rushing around buying holiday presents, decorating, baking, sending cards, hosting and attending parties, watching holiday plays and presentations, and then doing some more shopping… Christians are called during Advent and Christmas do something different from the rest of the world.
We are invited to stop, and to wait. We are invited to be quiet and reflective. We are invited to pause and to think about the wonder of the celebration that we are about to share at Christmas… about the amazing thing that happened so many years ago… how God came into the world to be WITH us in Jesus Christ.
Well, the reality is that many Christians are running around like crazy in December too, just like everyone else. In many ways, our Christmas preparations don’t … Read more »
“What Should We Do?”
I like how specific John the Baptist gets in his instructions for the crowds of people who came out to the wilderness to be baptized by him and change their lives around. He gets specific about what these people should do, about how they should live, about how their lives should bear fruit worthy of the repentance that they have just professed.
I can imagine that John has been preaching for a while. “Fire and brimstone” kind of preaching in which he’s been warning the people that they better repent now or it’s going to be too late.
The Messiah is coming soon. The judgement day is drawing near. He says it’s like there’s an ax lying at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. What a way to motivate your listeners to change their lives! Essentially, it’s change or die!
But when he finishes his sermon – or perhaps they even interrupt him in the middle – they call out “How?” How do we change? We understand this urgent call to change our lives and get right with God. We understand that the … Read more »
“My Prayer for the Church”
Advent is not just a season of preparing for Christmas – baking, decorating, shopping, and planning. But it is a season of preparing our hearts and our lives for Christ’s coming again. On the second Sunday of Advent each year, we are introduced to John the Baptist, the prophet crying out in the wilderness, calling the people to repent and turn back to God and God’s ways of love and peace.
This year, John’s call to conversion is paired with a similar text from the Old Testament prophet Malachi. He also is calling for change, renewal, and reform in the lives of God’s people, using the image of silver being refined by fire.
When I read the text from Malachi, the praise & worship song “Refiner’s Fire” immediately comes to mind. We’ll sing it this morning – a reasonably contemporary song, but one that I’ve been singing since I was a teenager.
The song is framed as a personal prayer to God who is addressed as the “Refiner’s Fire” who through the imposition of heat is able to purify the silver or gold (to purify our hearts and lives) so that we become the good and … Read more »
Have you noticed that during the Season of Advent each year, there’s always a lot of talk about the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ? The word “Advent” means “coming,” and while we spend these four weeks before Christmas waiting expectantly to celebrate the birth of Jesus – the coming of Christ into our world – we also talk about the promised Second Coming.
In the midst of a world that is troubled by conflict, war, pain, hunger, homelessness, and environmental degradation, we wait and hope for Christ to come again to make everything new. We sing “Soon and Very Soon,” and we are not just encouraging our young children that these four weeks will speed by and the joy and excitement of Christmas Day will arrive before they know it. But we are singing about the hope that we have that our world will not languish in its misery for much longer, but that Jesus will return and set things right. God’s Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, as we pray in Jesus’ words every Sunday.
But in a commentary on our Gospel text today, it was noted that “Preaching on … Read more »
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
“At Home in a Tent”
As we lit the Candle of Love this morning, we read: “For God so loved the world… that the Son of God took flesh and dwelt among us.” Literally, that phrase from John’s Gospel, chapter 1, could be translated as “God tented among us.” The implications of that decision on God’s part, to come and be with us in the world are absolutely astounding! And it is because of that decision – because of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ – that we worship and celebrate at Christmas each year.
Our reading this morning from the Hebrew Scriptures may seem unusual for a Christmas service. Indeed, we are much more used to hearing readings from the prophets about a child who is expected to be born, about a king or messiah who will come and bring hope, freedom, and joy to God’s People Israel.
But today’s reading is not from one of the prophets, but it’s back in the historical books, in 2nd Samuel – a reading about King David. Yes, there is a prophet involved in the story. The prophet Nathan, who advised and guided King David, teaching him and correcting … Read more »
John 1:6-8, 19-28
“Testify to the Light”
Have you heard about the war on Christmas? It’s the idea that Western secular society is out to stop any religious celebration of Christmas by banning the use of the word itself in the public sphere, by calling “Christmas trees” “Holiday trees,” and making sure that the carols sung in public places are appropriately secular. Some particularly right-wing Christians are calling it a “war” on Christmas, and they’re actively engaged in the fight to keep Christ in Christmas.
All this controversy about Christmas is an interesting development in the last few years because religious celebrations of Christ’s birth have always been held side-by-side with secular or pagan customs. Even the choice of December 25th for Christmas was not because Christians knew the exact date of Jesus’ birth, but because it seemed appropriate to hold a Christian celebration while others were marking the Winter Solstice. Things like Christmas trees, Christmas wreaths, and Yule logs were incorporated into Christian celebrations from the Winter Solstice holiday called, “Yule.”
Back in the 17th century, there was another controversy about Christmas. Puritan Christians in England wanted to purify Christianity by removing elements that they viewed as pagan because they were not biblical … Read more »