January 24, 2021.

Message for January 24, 2021

Jonah 3:1 – 4:1

Mark 10:13-16

          In the days following the mayhem at the American Capital Hill, an article appeared online written by a prominent American evangelical.  It was written for his fellow evangelicals and in it he noted that during the past four years the majority of those American Christians who identify themselves as being evangelical had wholeheartedly supported Donald Trump even though his policies, statements, and actions were the exact opposite of everything that Jesus had ever taught.  There were many reasons for this but the author, who was a former Trump supporter, argued that their unqualified support of Trump had and would continue to harm Christianity and especially those denominations and churches that identify themselves as evangelical.  One of the great goals of evangelical Christianity is to attract people to Christ and his church.  By their support of Trump however, the evangelicals had achieved the exact opposite.  So many people today look at Christianity and decide that if this is what it is all about, bigotry, greed, immorality and disrespect for others, then they don’t want any part of it.  The writer concluded that American evangelicals, without ever realizing it, have lost their way and need to take a long hard look at what they really believe in and stand for.  In so far as this is true though, there is nothing new in this.  Indeed, one might say that the religious authorities at the time of today’s first scripture lesson had, with the best of intentions, also lost their way.

The Babylonian exile had ended and God’s people had returned home to Israel.  While they had been gone other people had moved there and so when the Jews returned, they had to get along with these ‘newcomers’.  There were tensions to be sure but human nature being what it is, young men and women from the different ethnic and religious groups met, fell in love, got married and had families.  Now this horrified some of the Jewish religious and political leaders.  It did because they feared that if this continued then they, God’s people, would be assimilated and perhaps even disappear!  The authorities then came up with a simple enough solution – get rid of all the ‘foreigners’!  Every effort was made to encourage them to leave.  Intermarriage was forbidden and a law was even passed that tried to force all Jews to divorce their non-Jewish spouses.  The official view was that Israel was for the Jews and only the Jews!  From this it was just one short step to start despising the ‘foreigners’ and to start believing that God did so too.  At the same time though there was also another more tolerant tradition in Judaism that said that the ‘outsiders’ should be brought in rather than driven out.  This more tolerant view was expressed in the ancient story of the prophet Jonah.

According to this old story, God told Jonah to go to the great Assyrian city of Nineveh and warn the inhabitants that if they did not repent and mend their ways, then God would destroy the city.  Jonah however didn’t want to go and tried to get out of the mission.  Nineveh lay to the east of where he was and so Jonah promptly boarded the first ship heading west.  Unimpressed by Jonah’s disobedience, God caused a tremendous storm to spring up that threatened to sink the ship.  When the sailors realized that Jonah was the cause of the storm, they reluctantly threw him overboard.  Now this of course should have been the end of Jonah but it wasn’t.  According to the story he was swallowed by a great fish and, after spending three days in its gullet, was released.  He made his way to dry land and, overwhelmed by this experience set out to do what God had told him to do in the first place.

Jonah made his way to Nineveh and preached the shortest sermon possible telling the Ninevites that if they did not repent then God would destroy their city.  Their response to his few words however was overwhelmingly favourable; everyone from the king right on down to the very cows repented!  God then graciously decided to spare the city and so the mission was a resounding success!  Was Jonah happy however?  No, in fact he was absolutely furious!  The sad truth was that Jonah, the man of God, would have much  preferred to have been a failure and seen the city and all of its inhabitants destroyed than be a success and see it saved.  God however wasn’t yet finished with him.

Jonah became very hot while sitting out in the full glare of the sun, praying and hoping against hope that God would change his mind and destroy the city.  God caused a plant to spring up to give him shade and quite predictably, Jonah felt very grateful.  On the next day however, God sent a great worm to kill the plant and so once again Jonah was exposed to the full glare of the sun.  He mourned for the death of the plant but when he did so, God delivered his punchline pointing out the irony of it all.  There was Jonah, the religious man of God feeling so sad because of the death of a plant, all the while hoping and praying for the deaths of thousands of people simply because they did not belong to his own religious and ethnic group!  If Jonah could take pity on a plant then why couldn’t God take pity on an entire city, even if the people weren’t Jewish and so a part of his chosen people?  The truth is that God loved and cared about all his children no matter who they were.

So goes the ancient story of Jonah, the man whom I like to think of as being a successful failure; he was a success as a prophet and yet as a human being?  He was an absolute failure.  If it wasn’t so sad it would almost be funny.  The moral of the story though is simple enough; don’t be like Jonah.  God knows, cares about and loves all of his children and the challenge of the story is to broaden our own understanding of God’s love, mercy and compassion, and by implication our own as well.  We are to try and include others rather than exclude them, to try and bring people in rather than drive them out.  This in fact is also the theme of today’s second scripture passage.

We usually think of the episode of Jesus and the children as being so sweet and sentimental.  In the words of a hymn of years gone by:

“When mothers of Salem their children brought to Jesus,

The stern disciples drove them back and bade them to depart;

But Jesus saw them ere they fled, and sweetly smiled and kindly said,

‘Suffer little children to come unto me’.”

Contrary to the way we usually envision this episode though it was not all sweet and sentimental.  Indeed have you ever wondered why those stern disciples even sought to drive the children away in the first place?

It wasn’t because the disciples were mean or uncaring people.  Rather it was because they unthinkingly embraced the social values of their time.  Back then children simply did not count.  Unlike us where our lives often revolve around our children and grandchildren, in that society at that time children had little power or importance.  By welcoming them though and by taking them on his knee and blessing them, Jesus made it clear that they did matter.  In effect Jesus did what the story of Jonah challenges us to do, to expand the parameters.  He challenged his disciples and by implication us too, to think about the scope of God’s love, mercy, and compassion, to include rather than exclude.

The truth is that God’s love, mercy, and compassion exceeds all our human understanding and we should never forget this.  It is natural that when we disagree with others we think that we are right and that they are wrong.  We may even think that our beliefs, lifestyle or whatever else are closer to God and his ways than those of others.  And perhaps they are too but we go too far if we think that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about them, whomever they may be.  If we do not love, respect others, their feelings and dignity then we’ve missed the point of what the church, religion and even life itself are all about.  Perhaps St. Paul said it best:

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

In short, if we do not love then it doesn’t matter how right we are, how good we are or how religious we are.  If we do not love and try our best to include rather than exclude then we, like Jonah before us, are in danger of being nothing more than successful failures.



January 16, 2021.

Message for January 17, 2021

1 Samuel 3:1-10

John 1:35-42

          It was the spring of 1979 and I was on the verge of graduating from Erindale College or UTM as it is now called and unsure of what to do with my life.  I had applied to teacher’s college and been accepted but I really didn’t want to be a teacher.  I had also thought about staying on in university and getting my M.A.  With that in mind I had applied to a number of grad schools, been accepted by most and had even accepted a research position at York University.  But was this what I really wanted to do with my life?  I wasn’t sure.

My parents were aware of my uncertainty and in a casual conversation one day my father said, “Well, have you thought about becoming a minister?”  My answer was a definitive ‘no’.  My dad then pointed out that as a kid, influenced by Bob MacMillan, the minister at Knox Oakville at the time, my ambition had been to become a minister just like him.  That was true enough but that had been years ago and besides, the idea that God might want me to be a minister was laughable.  So ended the conversation but the seed had been planted and it gradually took root.  I started broaching the idea to various people whom I respected including the ministers at Knox at that time.  Much to my surprise these people didn’t find the idea laughable at all; in fact the conviction of one of those ministers that God was calling me was quite overwhelming.  And so the process began that was to ultimately lead me to where I am today.  I wonder though, would it have ever happened if my father hadn’t casually mentioned my becoming a minister in the first place?  I didn’t realize it then and I am sure that my father didn’t realize it either but, in hindsight and faith, I now realize that God was at work shaping, guiding and influencing.  And as it was with me, so it is with all of us; that in fact is one of the messages and promises of today’s two scripture passages.

It was early in the morning just before dawn.  The priest who had custody of the sacred ark was an elderly man named Eli.  Because of his limited eyesight he had a helper, a boy named Samuel.  Since it was so early in the morning, both Samuel and Eli were still sound asleep when Samuel heard a voice calling him.   Samuel naturally assumed that his master needed something and rushed to his side.  Eli’s response was to tell the boy that he hadn’t called him at all.  Then a little while later the voice called him a second time.  Once again the boy rushed over to Eli and once again was told that he wasn’t needed.  No doubt by this time both the old man and the boy were wondering what the other one was up to!  Then it happened a third time and this time Eli caught on.  Accordingly he told the boy, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you again you shall say ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening’”.  And sure enough a little while later Samuel heard his name being called yet again.  This time though instead of rushing to Eli’s side, Samuel just lay there quietly and told God that he was listening.

This then is what happened when God called Samuel, the boy who was destined to grow up and become one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history.  Today’s passage is often taken to be the definitive example of how God calls people to serve him.  God takes the initiative and keeps on reaching out until the person so-to-speak finally sees the light and responds.  This is so true and yet, as I thought about today’s passage, I was even more impressed by the role that Eli played.  Yes, God took the initiative in reaching out to Samuel but it was Eli who told him how to respond.  Without Eli’s guidance it is quite possible that Samuel might have missed his call altogether.  Samuel needed someone to guide him and the same is found in today’s second scripture passage as well.

It tells us about the call of some of Jesus’ disciples and quite naturally the focus is on Jesus.  Consider though the vital role that others played.  It was John the Baptist for example who pointed at Jesus and said to two of his own disciples, “Behold, the lamb of God”, thus prompting them to follow Jesus.  Would they have ever even thought of following Jesus if John hadn’t said anything?  We may also consider what Andrew, one of those two disciples, did next.  He went to his brother Simon and told him they had found the Messiah.  Prompted by his brother, Simon then went to see Jesus.  Jesus of course renamed him Peter and he later went on to become the greatest of all the disciples.  Now would any of this have ever happened if Andrew hadn’t guided his brother to Jesus?

Maybe not.  When God calls people to serve him he takes the initiative but nevertheless, more often than not, God doesn’t do it all himself; he works through others.  And I wonder, who has guided us as we have made our way on our spiritual journeys?

This of course is a very personal question and each one of us has our own unique answer.  It may be safe to say however that first and foremost many, if not most of us, were guided by our parents.  It was our parents who sought to teach us the ways of Christ.  It was our parents who sought to provide us with a good example.  Perhaps it was them who insisted that we attend church or Sunday School, even when we really didn’t want to.  And what about the Sunday School teachers and ministers; what influence did they have in guiding us on life’s journey?  And then of course there were also such as our school teachers, friends, neighbours and others; what role have they played?

We probably don’t even realize it but all of us have been influenced, shaped and guided by other people.  We would not be who we are today if it were not for them and so we owe these people a tremendous debt of gratitude.  But while we have been guided by others, we ourselves have been doing the same thing too.  Whether we realize it or not, we have been guiding others on their spiritual journeys.

Once again, and this is a very personal question, what influence and impact have we played in the spiritual life of other people?  What Christian example have we provided to such as our children and grandchildren?  What influence, good or bad, have we had on the lives of our friends, neighbours and others?  Make no mistake about it, we have had an influence but have we guided people to God and his ways or away from him?  What all of this means of course is that the things we say and do each and every day are important.  How important?  Consider this.

As we all well know we live in an ever increasingly secular world.  Fewer people nowadays attend church on a regular basis, if at all.  Knowledge of the Bible is shrinking since it is rarely if ever alluded to in the public school system or in society at large.  Easter has little meaning to many people other than being a long weekend, and as for Christmas?  For many if not most people it lost its religious significance years ago.  This reminds me of a time when my children were young.  A friend of one of my daughters was over and somehow the topic of Easter came up.  The girl asked me if Easter was the time when Jesus was born or when he died.  I answered that it was neither since Easter is when Jesus was raised.  Afterwards my daughter insisted that her friend wasn’t serious and had just been kidding.  Maybe she was but I was not convinced.  We now live in the post-Christian era and what this means is that for many people, we are the only exposure that they ever have to Christianity and by implication, perhaps even to Jesus and God himself.  The things we say and do every day proves or disproves the reality of God, Christ and his teaching.  In short, we are, so-to-speak, God’s walking, talking Bibles and if that doesn’t make our lives important and give them purpose and meaning, then nothing ever will.

Both of today’s scripture passages focus on God’s call to some people to follow him.  We usually focus on the main characters such as Samuel and Jesus but we should also remember the role that others such as Eli, John the Baptist and Andrew played too.  They literally guided those being called to God or Christ.  As we have made our spiritual pilgrimage through life, we too have been guided by others but just as we have been guided so too do we guide.  But what sort of guides have we been?  What sort of guides are we now?  Perhaps most importantly of all, what sort of guides are we going to be?

January 10, 2021.

Message for January 10, 2021

Genesis 1-2:3

Susan and I were on summer holidays a few years ago and were spending a couple of days in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  As we often do, we picked up a light lunch and walked down to one of our favorite spots, the park at the mouth of the Niagara River directly across from Old Fort Niagara.  We were sitting at a picnic table eating when we were approached by three older people, a man and two women.  They said that they needed a rest and asked if they might share the table with us.  Of course we agreed and inevitably perhaps we started chatting.

It turned out that the man and his wife were from Iowa and were visiting the other woman who lived in Buffalo.  As the couple had never been in Canada before, the three had decided to cross the border to spend the day.  We chatted about this and that and it was all quite friendly.  Then the man asked me what I did for a living.  I told him but I was totally unprepared for his reaction.  Indeed, in a split second his mood changed completely.

“Oh”, he sneered, “you are one of those people who believe that the world was created a couple of thousand years ago”.  Somewhat taken aback, I said no, that I didn’t believe this.  I had spent seven years in university and knew full well that the universe is billions of years old.  Then it was his turn to be taken aback as whatever answer he expected from me, that certainly wasn’t it.  He paused for a moment and then with a big smile on his face offered to shake my hand saying, “put it there!”

Our conversation quite happily went on from there, but I have often reflected on it since.  Why was it that he assumed that because I am a Christian, I must, in his eyes at least, be anti-science and a Biblical fundamentalist or literalist?  But then again isn’t that how many people view us Christians?  Isn’t this the way that we are often portrayed in such as many TV shows?  That things are this way though is unnecessary and its roots go back over two hundred years.  Indeed, the roots of this conflict are explained in a book entitled “God’s Funeral”.

“God’s Funeral” explores why so many leading writers, poets, and thinkers in nineteenth century England came to lose their faith in God.  Many did so because of the rise of what is known as Biblical criticism.  As the scholars studied the Bible, they realized that it has a number of contradictions.  In the New Testament for example, three of the gospels state that Jesus chased the money changers out of the temple at the end of his ministry; John however says that he did so at the beginning.  Why even Genesis has two different creation accounts.  In light of inconsistences such as these many thinkers of the 19th century dismissed the Bible altogether as being worthless.

At the same time while this was going on, there was also an explosion of scientific knowledge.  Those working in the new field of geology for example discovered that contrary to what people had thought before, the world is far more than a couple of thousand years old.  Or what about the dinosaurs?  They were around millions of years before we humans were.  And then came Charles Darwin’s famous book “The Origin of the Species” and its theory of evolution.  What to make of such as Genesis and its creation accounts if we humans and other creatures have evolved over time from other more primitive creatures?  How could any of this be reconciled with such as today’s scripture passage?

At the beginning of the 1800’s most writers and thinkers were practicing Christians but by the end of the century very few of them were; they had lost their faith and so proclaimed that God was dead.  While many Christians took the scientific discoveries of the 19th century and those since in stride, others saw them as a direct threat to their faith and even Christianity itself.  Their response was to “double down” arguing that since the Bible is the Word of God, it is infallible and correct in every detail even if some of those details are seemingly contradicted by science.  Turning to today’s scripture passage for example, the “fundamentalists” argued that since the Bible says that God created the world in six days then that is the way it happened, end of discussion.  And so the battle began and still goes on today.  One of the ironies of this though is that both sides in this debate, perhaps without even realizing it, share one assumption in common and that is that the Bible, whether one agrees or disagrees with it, must be understood literally.  To do that however is to do the Bible a great injustice.

While the Bible is the sacred Word of God, it is also a product of its time and one of the things that we must remember is how people back then wrote their history and proclaimed their truths.  We tend to think of history as being a narrative of facts but in the ancient world people told their ‘history’ by telling stories.  What this means is that to get hung up on all of the details is to miss the point altogether.  To use an example, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about the Roman attempt to conquer Scotland.  Tacitus says that right before the pivotal battle of Mons Graupius, the British leader gave a speech inciting his warriors to fight bravely.  In his history Tacitus includes the entire speech with its famous line that the Romans create a desert and call it peace.  Now did the British leader give a speech before the battle?  Quite likely.  Did he really say the famous line about creating a desert and calling it peace?  Possibly.  Is however Tacitus’ literary well thought out speech the one that was actually given?  Absolutely not.  Tacitus certainly includes historical details or facts in his history but he, like the people of his time, related history by telling a story and to worry about whether every detail is true is to miss the point altogether.  Indeed, Jesus himself did this.

Jesus of course was a wonderful teacher and he often proclaimed his message by telling stories such as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Now did that story ever really happen?  Was there a loving father with a prodigal son and a resentful older brother?  To worry about this is to miss the great truths that Jesus was proclaiming, that God is love and that we can always turn to him no matter what.  And so it is with today’s scripture passage as well.

To worry about whether or not God actually created the world in six days is to lose sight of the great truth being proclaimed; namely that over a period of time God created the universe and all therein.  How did God do this?  That is not the concern of Genesis at all. One person who certainly understood this was one of the greatest theologians of all time, St. Augustine who lived 1600 years ago.  He insisted that while the creation account in Genesis is theologically true, that does not mean that it must be scientifically true.  Theological truth and scientific truth are two different things but both are equally valid.   In fact St. Augustine even said that we Christians ought to study science:   “An ever- present danger for Christians” wrote Augustine, “is that they will make fools of themselves in the eyes of unbelieving scientists if they do not know their science but simply make wild claims on the basis of how they understand one portion of scripture”.  And to think that he wrote this 1600 years ago!  Augustine even thought that science, with its truths and discoveries was a friend to be embraced by us Christians rather than to be regarded as an enemy to be feared.  Indeed science, by teaching people more about the world and God’s good creation as it does, could lead people to God rather than away from him.  Truly St. Augustine was a man far ahead of his time.

“God’s Funeral” is the name of one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time recounting as it does why so many of the great thinkers, poets and philosophers of one hundred years ago decided that God was dead and that Christianity should be relegated to the waste bin of history.  They set off a debate that continues today but what those worthy Victorians failed to realize however is that science and religion are not mortal enemies; rather they deal with different truths in very different ways.  Back in the Middle Ages the study of God and the Bible was called the “Queen of all the Sciences”.   Living in the pre-scientific age as they did, they may have been closer to the truth than what they ever realized.

January 3, 2020.

Message for January 3, 2021


Matthew 2:1-12

          The Great Conjunction:  this was most certainly the major astronomical event of last year and it attracted all sorts of attention.  The Great Conjunction happens when the planets of Jupiter and Saturn appear to be so close together in the night sky that they seem to be one blazing light or star.  The conjunction of the two planets usually happens every forty years or so but rarely are the two so seemingly close together to form a Great Conjunction; in fact the last time this happened was 400 years ago and that occurred during the daylight so no one could see it.  The last time it happened in the night sky was 800 years ago, hence all of the interest and excitement last month.  Inevitably perhaps given the rarity of the event and the fact that it first appeared on December 21st, many people referred to it as “The Christmas Star” or “The Star of Bethlehem”.  Indeed many people took this one step further and speculated as to whether or not the Great Conjunction was the star referred to in today’s scripture passage.  Is it possible that it was the Great Conjunction that motivated the Wise Men, or more properly speaking the Magi, to begin their long journey to see the newborn King of the Jews?

There is nothing new in such speculation; indeed Johannes Kepler, who was one of the greatest astronomers of all time, suggested this as far back as 1614.  Another person who has investigated this is a well-respected British astrophysicist who works for the European Space Agency, Mark Kidger.  He has written a book entitled, “The Star of Bethlehem:  An Astronomer’s View” and in it he examines Matthew’s account of the Magi, the surviving astronomical records from 2000 years ago and what he sees in the heavens now.  Based on the evidence, Kidger concludes that contrary to what the skeptics like to think something special did happen in the skies over Bethlehem so long ago.

Kidger notes that the Magi, who lived in Persia, were the scientists of the ancient world.  Like most people back then they believed in astrology; that people’s lives and even the future were governed by the configuration of the planets.  The Magi then studied the night sky for signs and portents.  Generally there was nothing particularly special to see but then, three times in six months during the year 7 BC they noticed something different; the Great Conjunction.  Jupiter, which was considered to be a ‘royal planet,’ and Saturn seemingly came together and this took place in the constellation of Pisces which was associated with the Jewish people.  This according to Kidger was very significant to the Magi.  As he writes:

“Surely this meant that something important was about to happen in Judea.  The fact that a royal planet was involved suggests that a royal event was imminent.  A king would be born?  Or would die?  King Herod was an old man, hanging on to his life – perhaps the sign referred to him?”

But that was not all that happened.  In the following months other natural phenomena were noticed in the night sky such as the passage of a new moon close to Jupiter.  Then however the oddest but greatest phenomena of all took place.  According to the Chinese records there was a huge supernova that blazed in the sky for about 70 days starting in March of 5 BC.  This supernova, which is called DO Aquilae, still exists today although it can only be seen now with a very powerful telescope.  According to Kidger however, it was this supernova blazing in the western sky that was the actual Star of Bethlehem.  Following as it did the earlier phenomena that spoke about Judea, royalty and something special happening, the Magi were prompted to take action.

They made the long journey to Judea and naturally they headed straight to Jerusalem to see King Herod.  Since Herod was not an astronomer he didn’t know what they were talking about, but whatever it was he didn’t like it.  Herod then consulted with his own advisors who said that the Magi must be talking about the Messiah who, it was said, would be born in the city of David; Bethlehem.  That was where the Magi were told to go but as they set out they noticed something else.  Earlier the supernova had blazed in the western sky but now, to quote Kidger himself:  “At dawn it would have been exactly in the south, and Bethlehem is south of Jerusalem”.

This then is one of the most respected attempts using both ancient records and modern science to explain the Star of Bethlehem.  Is Kidger right?  Who knows?  In the end it is just a theory or, as one person has said, it is educated guesswork.   The important thing though isn’t what the star actually was or wasn’t.  Rather the important thing is what it meant or symbolized and what is the symbolism of the Christmas star? That quite simply is that the Christ, the Light of the World, had come.

Christ is the light that shone in the darkness of this world.  To a world  that felt alienated from God because of sin and wrongdoing, Christ offered the light of forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption.  To a world that had lost its way in the darkness not knowing what to believe or why, Christ offered the light of his teaching and example.  To a world that feared the darkness of death, Christ held out the light of eternal life.  And this is what we remember on this Epiphany Sunday, that Christ is the Light of the World.  Today however we also remember something else too.  Jesus didn’t just say “I am the light of the world”, he went on to say that “you are the light of the world.  Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  In short, we, individually and collectively are called to shine in the darkness.  Indeed while we may not have realized it, this is something that many of us pledged ourselves to do during the past month.

Christmas is now over for another year and the festive decorations are being put away.  One commonly seen decoration are wreaths hung in windows with a brightly glowing candle in the centre.  Often too we will see candles in people’s windows.  Now to most people these are just Christmas decorations and nothing more but in reality they mean far more.  When a candle is placed in a window the message is that anyone out in the darkness will be welcomed and be given food, shelter or whatever else they may need.   A candle in a window is a very Christian symbol proclaiming that those inside, like Christ himself, are willing to be lights shining in the darkness.

Inspired by the Light of the World, we are called to be lights in the world and not just at Christmastime either.  We are to let our light shine all year round because it is by letting our light shine in the darkness of the world that we offer warmth and security.  It is by letting our light shine that we speak about what is right and wrong in a world often clouded by darkness.  It is by letting our light shine that we even proclaim that the darkness of death is not the end, that there is indeed a life yet to come.  We let our light shine in many different ways too including by worshipping and praying, by caring and sharing.  Indeed letting our light shine does not necessarily mean doing anything spectacular at all.

The best way to shine is by doing our best to live the lives and be the people that God has called us to be, secure in his love and forgiveness when we are less than successful.  The crucial thing is that we try, especially during these difficult challenging times as the battle against the pandemic continues.  The words of a well-known and beloved gospel hymn from over one hundred years ago are just as relevant today as they were when it was first written:

Jesus bids us shine, then, for all around;

Many kinds of darkness in this world abound:

Sin and want and sorrow; so we must shine,

You in your small corner, and I in mine.

Jesus bids us shine, you in your small corner and I in mine.  The message of this old hymn is so simple and yet so very true.  It is through our shining that we proclaim the truth of the Bethlehem Star; that the true Light of the World not only came to shine two thousand years ago but still does so today in what is, in so many different ways, a dark and hurting world.


December 27, 2020

Message for December 27, 2020

Ecclesiastes 3:1-9

Luke 2:22-38

He didn’t mean to but one of my retired colleagues threw me a bit of a curve ball last year.  It was just before a presbytery meeting and some of us were standing around chatting.  He came and joined us and then, speaking directly to me asked:  “And how is the granddaddy of the presbytery this evening?”  Now I have known him for over thirty years and knew that he was gently teasing me but even so … I found it slightly jarring.  I am the granddaddy of the presbytery?  Since when?!

During the meeting that followed I looked around at those present and realized why he had called me that.  Of the twenty-some full-time ministers in our presbytery I am the oldest, have been in this presbytery the longest and have been a full-time minister the longest too.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked then to be called the granddaddy of the presbytery!  In the past I had looked at the older more experienced ministers of our presbytery and, with a sense of respect, nicknamed them “the old boys” but to discover that I am now perceived to be an old boy myself?  It made me wonder; where has the time gone?  Perhaps no one though was more aware of the passage of time than the author of this morning’s first scripture passage.

Today’s first passage is one of the better known ones of the Bible and has had an impact on popular culture inspiring several well-known songs.

“There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.”

Now most people think of this passage as being a comforting one, finding both meaning and reassurance in the idea that there is a time for everything.  While we generally like to interpret this passage in this way though, that was not the attitude of “The Preacher” as the author of this passage is often referred to as.  He didn’t find comfort in the idea that there is a time for everything; not at all.  Rather the key to understanding his outlook on life is summed up by the next line which is, more often than not, ignored altogether:  “What do workers gain from their toil?”

Truly “The Preacher” felt very ambivalent about the passage of time.  The good news is that there is a time for everything but the not so good news is:  “so what?”  One person has summed up this author’s outlook on life as:  “Get up, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch TV and go to bed.  Get up, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch TV and go to bed.”  And on and on it goes.  What is the point, value or purpose of it all anyway?  These are words of pain, disappointment and perhaps even despair, and sadly these words may also capture how many people feel at this time.

It goes without saying but this year has been a difficult and painful one for so many.  At the beginning life was generally pretty good and in Boston there was a rising sense of anticipation as many looked forward to celebrating the congregation’s 200th anniversary.  A full slate of activities was planned and then in mid-March, the wheels so to speak fell off the wagon.  The pandemic struck and almost overnight life was turned upside down.  Gradually during the summer things seemed to get better but then the second wave struck and once again we have now been placed in lockdown.

Of course all of this has had an impact on our Christmas celebrations too since so many events and activities had to be curtailed or cancelled altogether.  To be sure there is the wonderful news about the approval and rollout of the vaccines but the sobering reality is that it will take months for enough of us to be vaccinated so that the restrictions can be lifted.  In these circumstances it may be easy enough to adopt the same attitude as “The Preacher” but if or when we feel this way we should remember the principle character in today’s second scripture passage.

This passage recounts an event that took place a month or so after Jesus’ birth.  Like many other religious parents, Joseph and Mary went to the Temple in Jerusalem to make a special offering for the safe birth of their son.  There was an old man who virtually lived at the temple named Simeon.   He was a very religious man who had had a mystical experience years before in which he had been told that he would not die until he had seen the long-awaited messiah.  Well, he waited and waited; the days became weeks, the weeks became months, and the months became years.  The years then became decades and still he waited and hoped.  Then the day finally arrived.  Simeon saw a young couple enter the Temple grounds carrying a baby.  There was nothing particularly noteworthy about them at all but Simeon knew without being told that they were the ones he had been waiting for.  Simeon asked and was given permission to hold the child.  He then praised God and went on to talk about both Jesus’ and Mary’s futures.

Now imagine for a moment what it had been like for Simeon, spending decades waiting to catch a glimpse of the messiah.  There must have been times when he had felt discouraged and asked “how long?”  There must have been times when he felt like giving up yet he didn’t.  He held on to his hope and his faith, neither of which were misplaced.  And so, he may well be a good example for us at the present time.

2020 has been a very difficult and challenging year and yet, despite it all we can and should still have faith and hope.  We can and should simply because of the great promise and truth of what we have been celebrating this month:  Emmanuel, God is with us.  And it is this, the loving, comforting, guiding, strengthening presence of God that frees us to journey into the future without fear or dread.  I have long liked the way a great Presbyterian theologian of days gone by put it.

John MacKay said that life is like rowing a rowboat.  As we row trying to propel ourselves forwards, we are of course facing backwards and so we cannot see where we are going.  We can see where we have been and, glancing over our shoulders, we may catch a glimpse of where we are going but we don’t really know.  And so it is, said MacKay, with us on life’s journey.  We can look back and see where we’ve been and what we’ve done.  We may even catch glimpses of the future but that is about it.  Even so, we need not fear.  We need not fear and we can always have hope because, as MacKay said, we do not travel alone.  We have a pilot or guide on board sitting opposite us.  That pilot or guide is of course God.  Even if we can’t see the future we are rowing into God can, and since he is with us we have nothing to fear and that includes times such as these.  With this in mind I would like to close my last message for this year with this passage taken from the poem “The Gate of the Year”.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the




December 20, 2020.

Message for December 20, 2020

The Fourth Sunday in Advent

Luke 2:1-20

It will never be a classic but a well-known children’s book about Christmas that also appeals to many adults is Barbara Robinson’s “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”.  The story centres around the six Herdman children who belonged to a desperately poor family.  The children were little terrors who cursed, smoked cigars, bullied their classmates and terrorized their teachers.  In short they were bad news and no one liked them.  One day though they decided to go to Sunday School, all because they thought that they would be given free cake if they did.  Then, when the Christmas pageant was announced, they decided that they would participate and wanted all of the main parts.  There was however one small problem; they knew absolutely nothing about the Christmas story.  The result was an anticipated disaster; why it was going to be the worse Christmas pageant ever!  And so it seemed at first.

The child playing the angel Gabriel portrayed him as a comic book hero and the three wise men were portrayed as being welfare workers who, instead of offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, offered a ham that came from a charity food basket.  The girl who played Mary looked and acted like anything but the typical Virgin Mary; why she even burped the baby Jesus!  The pageant was a full scale disaster in the making but the Herdman kids managed to pull it off.  To be sure their interpretation of the first Christmas was unique and, some would even say eccentric, yet they succeeded simply because the Christmas story was all new to them.  Since they weren’t bound by tradition or expectations, they portrayed Mary, Joseph and all the rest as more regular people.  It was certainly different but it truly was the best Christmas pageant ever.

As I have already mentioned, this book will never be a classic but it is both amusing and thought-provoking if only because it challenges us to remember that the first Christmas may not have been quite as sweet or as ‘perfect’ as it is often portrayed.  We can begin with Mary.

We think that it is so wonderful that Mary was chosen to be the mother of the messiah but did she think so?  Being pregnant and unmarried in that society at that time was positively scandalous.  Also, how could she ever explain her pregnancy to her parents or fiancé?  “Guess what Joseph, I’m having a baby!  Now I know and you know that you’re not the father but that’s okay, God is!”  And it is a big enough responsibility to raise any child, never mind the son of God.  Do we really believe that Mary thought that all of this was just wonderful?  Or what about how Joseph felt when he heard the news?  Yes, he came to believe but did he ever think to himself, “Perfect, just what I always wanted to be, the step-father to the Son of God!”

I’m sure that the word ‘perfect’ didn’t come to mind either when Joseph heard about the census; that they had to make the long tiring journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  “Perfect, just what I always wanted to do; to pay a visit to the town of my ancestors with my fiancé about eight months along!”  And how did Mary feel about it?  Then, when they arrived in Bethlehem only to be repeatedly told, “Sorry, no room here!”?   Just perfect!  And what about when they found out that they could spend the night in a stable?  I’m sure that once again the word ‘perfect’ didn’t come to mind.

If we want to we can even think of the actual birth itself.  We like to picture it as being so cute and sentimental with such as the lowing cattle, the baaing sheep and the cooing doves but was it really?  Even allowing for the primitive conditions of the first century compared to our own, I’m fairly certain that Mary in the midst of her labour didn’t tell Joseph how wonderful it all was.  And once again we may be tempted to think that it was all so nice when the shepherds went to see the baby but did Mary and Joseph think so?  “Look Mary, we have company!”  And what must Joseph have thought when he was warned in a dream to pack up immediately and move to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath.  “Wonderful, I’ve always wanted to see the pyramids!”

The truth is that despite the way we sometimes like to imagine it, that first Christmas was probably anything but perfect from the participants’ perspective.  Mary and Joseph may well have thought that everything that could have gone wrong had gone wrong.  Indeed that may also be how many of us feel as we celebrate Christmas this year pandemic style.

Our celebrations this year have been and will be anything but normal; indeed the words of a poem come to mind that reads in part:

And Christmas is a holy time,

we’ll treasure through the years,

as together we remember,

the laughter and the tears.

Laughter and tears may well describe how many of us feel about Christmas this year.  On the one hand there is still laughter and joy; after all it still is Christmas.  It seems for example that more people than usual have put up outside decorations and there are still some of the usual activities taking place such as shopping, baking and listening to the music of the season.  There is also the usual run of Christmas shows and movies on TV as well.  In some ways it all seems so normal and so it is a time of laughter and yet …   As we all well know, for so many different reasons things are anything but normal this year.  Indeed Christmas pandemic style may well seem to be more like a time for tears rather than laughter.  In fact this year we might well feel like Mary and Joseph on that first Christmas; that far from being perfect, what can go wrong has gone wrong.

If or when we feel this way what we need to remember is that there is another perspective on that first Christmas and that is God’s.  Mary for example had faith and was willing to be a participant in the great drama of salvation.  Joseph too came to have faith and was willing to do his part and raise God’s son as if he were his own.  From God’s perspective it was perfect too that the Roman Emperor issued his decree that all the world should be enrolled for tax purposes, thus ensuring that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem just as it was predicted that he would be.  Why even the circumstances of the birth were perfect.  A stable may not have been ideal from Mary and Joseph’s perspective but it certainly was from God’s because of the symbolism.  Jesus, God in the flesh, joined his people at the very bottom of the social ladder; why there wasn’t even a crib to lay the baby in, just a feeding trough.  And who were the first to be told and to respond to the birth?  It wasn’t the rich or the powerful; rather it was the shepherds who, because of their occupation, couldn’t keep all of the religious rituals and traditions and so were regarded as sinners by most people.  Truly from a human perspective the circumstances of that first Christmas were anything but perfect or ideal but from God’s perspective?  It must have exceeded all expectations.

This is something that we ought to remember as we celebrate our own less than perfect Christmas this year.  What we have to remember is what this special time of year is really all about. That of course is love; our love for one another to be sure but even more so, God’s love for each and every one of us.  That is why the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; Emmanuel, God is with us. Perhaps this message posted on the Church of Scotland’s website says it best as we celebrate Christmas 2020:

Even if we can’t gather in person,

Emmanuel.  God with us.

Even if some Christmas traditions have had to go,

Emmanuel.  God with us.

Even if we might not get to hug family and friends,

Emmanuel.  God with us.

Even if we can’t sing carols beside each other,

Emmanuel.  God with us.

Even if Christmas Cheer is hard this year,

Emmanuel.  God with us.

That is the message and promise of not only this Christmas but every Christmas.  Emmanuel.  God is with us.


December 13, 2020.

Message for December 13, 2020

The Third Sunday in Advent

John 1:1-14

I imagine that most people just drive by it without even giving it a glance never mind stopping and going in, and what I am referring to is the Willoughby Historical Museum.  It is to be found on the Niagara Parkway south of the famed falls and is operated by the Niagara Falls Museum.  It is located in what was formerly a one room school house and so it is quite small.  Even so, its collection is a good one and is dedicated to preserving the history of the township of Willoughby, which has been swallowed up by the city of Niagara Falls.  The museum has all sorts of artifacts going back to the community’s earliest days and these include a number of items from the War of 1812 battle of Chippawa which was fought about a kilometre away.  I must admit that it was the 1812 artifacts that inspired me to visit the museum in the first place but they are not what had the greatest impact on me.

There was a plaque in the museum that really caught my attention, so much so that when we got home I emailed the museum and asked if they would send me a copy of the words on it which they graciously did.  The plaque reads in part:

“We are the chosen.  My feeling is that in each family there is one who seems called to find the ancestors, to put flesh on their bones and make them live again, to tell the family story.  To me doing genealogy is not a cold gathering of the facts but instead, breathing life into those who have gone before.

We are the story tellers of the tribe.  All tribes have one.  We have been called as if it were, by our genes.  Those who have gone before cry out to us ‘tell our story’.  So we do.  In finding them, we somehow find ourselves.

It goes beyond just documenting facts.  It goes to who I am and why I do the things I do.

So as a scribe called I tell the story of my family.”

These words spoke to me simply because I am one of the story tellers of my tribe.  As long as I can remember I have had a keen interest in my family’s story and I would probably be shocked if I were to count all of the hours I’ve spent working on the family tree down through the years.  Some people dismiss genealogy as a waste of time; who cares about those who went before us?  What does it matter who our ancestors were?  But it does matter if only because knowing something about those who have gone before us helps us to better understand ourselves.  Indeed whether we like it or not, their lives, for better or worse have an impact on ours. Their influence ranges from the physical characteristics that we inherit to perhaps what country we live in.  Truly their story is a part of our story but this isn’t just true of us, this is also, as strange as it may sound at first, even true of God himself.

They are very rarely ever read on a Sunday morning but both Matthew and Luke include Jesus’ family tree in their gospels.  Matthew included it at the very beginning of his gospel and in it he traced Jesus’ ancestry through Joseph all the way back to Abraham who was the ancestor of God’s chosen people.  Matthew did this because even though Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, he was his legal father and Matthew wanted to make it clear that Jesus was a Jew born of the House of David just as the prophets said the messiah would be.  For his part Luke, who put Jesus’ genealogy after his baptism, traced Jesus’ family tree through Mary all the way back to Adam.  Luke did this in order to show that Jesus is ultimately related to everyone in the world and is the saviour of the entire world.  Perhaps though you may be wondering; this is all fine and good but what has all of this to do with us or even Christmas itself?  The answer quite simply is more than what we may first realize.

I often joke that when people research their family tree they are secretly hoping to discover that they are related to someone famous and perhaps even a king or queen!  Sometimes there is someone famous but the reality is that most of our ancestors were people like us; a little bit good, a little bit not so good and usually rather ordinary.  And then again some of our ancestors were, how shall I say it, real characters!  And so it is with Jesus’ family tree.

We know little about most of Jesus’ ancestors other than the fathers’ names but what we do know about some of them may shock us.  Consider Tamar for example.  She seduced her former father-in-law, became pregnant and gave birth to one of Jesus’ ancestors.  We can also think of Rahab who was a Canaanite.  She operated what we would call a house of ill-repute in Jericho.  When the exodus was coming to an end and the Hebrews were planning to conquer the city, she discovered two of their spies hiding on her premises.  Instead of turning them over to the authorities which is what we might expect her to do, she sheltered them and then proposed a deal.  In exchange for her protecting them, she suggested that they protect her and her business when they attacked the city.  The Hebrews honoured the bargain and she later married a Hebrew named Salmon.  Rahab had a child who would become another one of Jesus’ ancestors.  Moving on we can think of the most famous name in Jesus’ family tree, King David.  The good news is that David at his best was, as the Bible puts it, “the man after God’s own heart”.  The not-so-good news is that at his worst David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then arranged for the death of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah.  To make things even worse Uriah was one of David’s closest friends and most loyal supporters.

Truly Jesus’ family tree, like everyone else’s, has its share of good and not so good characters but my point is this:  Tamar, Rahab, David and Bathsheba were Jesus’ biological ancestors.  Their genes were his and their blood flowed in his veins.  Yes, Jesus most certainly is the Word made Flesh and the divine Son of God but Jesus is also fully human too.  Born of the Holy Spirit and Mary, Jesus is both fully divine and human.  Now this of course is a mystery that we can never truly begin to understand or explain but think about what this means. How easy was it for God, being so holy, righteous and perfect to become a human being with an all so human family tree?  It couldn’t have been easy at all and this points to the holy wonder of Christmas, that God became one of us and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

While the parallel is far from exact, it would be something like one of us giving up all of our abilities and becoming an ant or some other bug in order to save them.  Could we or would we give up all that we have to be born a bug, to live like a bug and die like a bug in order that we might save them?  Could we or would we make such a sacrifice?  It’s not very likely is it unless of course we really, truly loved them.  And so it is with God.

It must have been far harder than we can ever imagine for God to become human and be born of Mary with her less-than-perfect family tree but nevertheless this is what God did.  He did so simply because he loves us so much.  And this is the holy, mysterious wonder that is Christmas.  The holy mysterious wonder of Christmas isn’t that a virgin conceived and bore a child.  Nor is the holy wonder of Christmas that Joseph had faith and believed that the child was fathered by the Spirit.  The holy wonder of Christmas isn’t the shepherds, the star or the wise men either.  Rather the holy mysterious wonder of Christmas is the simple fact that almighty God loves us so much that he willingly became one of us even if that meant becoming a descendant of people such as Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba and David.  God is love and that is why the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

December 6, 2020.

Message for December 6, 2020

The Second Sunday in Advent

Mark 1:1-8

“The Man Who Invented Christmas” is the title of a movie that was released three years ago.  For those of you who are not familiar with it, this fictional movie tells the story of how Charles Dickens was inspired to write his classic novel, “A Christmas Carol”.  I thoroughly enjoyed the movie though I have to question its title; Charles Dickens most certainly did not ‘invent’ Christmas.  Nevertheless his book has had a tremendous impact on how we celebrate Christmas.  Indeed all we have to do is think of all the movies and shows that it has inspired including such as the classic movie which stared Alastair Sim, Mickey Mouse’s Christmas Carol and the latest incarnation of the tale, “A Nashville Christmas Carol”.  These are all different takes on Dickens’ story but they all follow the basic storyline.

It was Christmas Eve and Ebenezer Scrooge, who was a miser and a thoroughly unpleasant man, was visited by three spirits; the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas yet-to-come.  After these encounters Scrooge realized how he had misspent the years gone by, was still messing up, and what would happen if he did not mend his ways.  In response he repented and changed his ways altogether.  He sent the largest turkey that money could buy to his long-suffering employee, Bob Cratchit, and then made him a partner in his accounting firm.  Scrooge also donated a large sum of money to a charity dedicated to helping the poor, something that he had always refused to do before.  Last but not least, Scrooge also went to spend Christmas with his only living relative, a nephew from whom he had been estranged for years because he disapproved of his choice of wife.  Scrooge in fact went from one extreme to another; he went from being a very miserable and unhappy person to being a very contented man and a pleasure to be with.  In short he repented and because he did, he was set free to enjoy Christmas and be the man that he was always meant to be.  Scrooge was set free to be at peace with both his self and with others.  This in fact, being set free and being at peace with both oneself and with others explains the story’s enduring popularity down through the years.  Indeed, being at peace with both ourselves and with others is one of the things that is supposed to characterize this special time of year.  After all we are celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace!  Sadly though, such isn’t always the case.

I have never forgotten a conversation that I had with a police officer years ago.  He spoke about how much he hated working on Christmas Day and I naturally assumed that he didn’t like working that day because he preferred to be at home with his family.  Well yes, he said, he’d much rather be at home than working but that wasn’t the main reason why he disliked it so much.  It is the domestic calls he said.  Family members don’t always get along and so they do their best to avoid each other all year long.  But then, just because it is Christmas, they feel that they have to get together.  And they think that just because it is Christmas they will get along too.  Well he said, they don’t always get along and it is us poor cops who have to deal with it.

The truth is that we cannot truly celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace if there isn’t any peace within us or between us.  Certainly John the Baptist knew this.

John the Baptist was the last and greatest prophet of them all and he was the one whose ministry proclaimed the imminent revealing of the Messiah.  But how did John tell the people to prepare for the coming of the Christ?  Not by throwing a party or by feasting and eating too much.  Nor did he tell the people to prepare by giving presents either.  Instead he told them that they were to prepare for the Prince of Peace by being at peace with themselves, with oneanother, and with God himself.  And John insisted too that the only way that this could happen was by confessing and repenting; by letting go of the painful past, saying ‘I’m sorry’ when warranted and by trying to make things right.

Now what went for those people so long ago as they awaited the revealing of the Messiah still goes for us today as we prepare to celebrate his birth.  Repentance however is far easier said than done.  It is hard on the ego to admit that we were wrong.  It can be embarrassing and perhaps even humiliating for us to try and make things right; in fact it is oftentimes easier just to leave things the way they are.  To return to “A Christmas Carol”, how easy was it for Scrooge to accept his nephew’s long-standing invitation to go to his house for Christmas dinner, knock on the front door, go in and then apologize to his nephew’s wife; “Can you forgive a stubborn old fool?”  Repentance wouldn’t have been easy for Scrooge and it isn’t always easy for us either.  Nevertheless we cannot truly celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace unless we are at peace with ourselves, others and God as well.  The well-known Christian author, Rick Warren makes this point in one of his many books.

In his book, “The Purpose of Christmas”, Warren claims that far too many of us really don’t enjoy Christmas simply because we have lost sight of what it is truly all about or, as he says, its purpose.  The purpose of Christmas however is really quite simple.  Christ was born to be our saviour; to die for our sins and so bring about peace and reconciliation between us and God.  If the life, death and resurrection of Christ have any real meaning for us, then we must seek peace and reconciliation with oneanother.  As I have already noted though, this is far easier said than done.  Warren however quite rightly points out that all too often we lose sight of what forgiveness really means.  To quote Warren himself:

“Many people are reluctant to reconcile strained relationships because they don’t understand the difference between forgiveness and trust or the difference between reconciliation and resolution.

First of all, reconciliation is not the same as resolution.  Reconciliation ends hostility.  It doesn’t mean you’ve resolved all the problems in the relationship.  You continue to talk about the issues and work on them, but now you do it with respect and love instead of sarcasm and anger.  You can disagree agreeably.

Second, there is a big difference between forgiveness and trust.  We forgive so we can get on with our lives instead of getting stuck in the past due to resentment and bitterness.  Forgiveness takes care of the past.  Trust is all about the future, and it must be earned over time.  Trust can be lost in a second, but it takes a long time to rebuild it.

Christmas, the season of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’, is the perfect time to offer the gift of grace to others, while celebrating the grace God has shown you.”

As God has forgiven us so too we must seek to forgive others.  Indeed this is what we even ask God to do every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” or, to put it more simply, forgive us our sins to the degree or extent that we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.  If we take forgiveness seriously, then we will realize that it can be very hard to do and perhaps even seemingly impossible.  What we must remember though is that there is a very real difference between reconciliation and resolution, forgiveness and trust.  As distasteful and as challenging as it may sometimes be, we as the disciples of Jesus are called to be a reconciling and forgiving people and not just at Christmas either.  Indeed only if we are prepared to at least try and do this, and I mean really try, can we experience the peace and goodwill of the Christmas season or, as some people call it, the Christmas Spirit.

November 29, 2020.

Message for November 29, 2020

Advent 1

Isaiah 64:1-4

A number of years ago the well-respected Lutheran pastor and thinker Martin Marty wrote a very thought-provoking book entitled “A Cry of Absence”.  In that book he claimed that all of us are on a spiritual journey that goes in cycles which, in many ways, parallel the four seasons of the year.  First of all there is spring which is of course the time of beginnings and new life.  At that time the seeds of faith are planted and everything seems to be so fresh and alive; God and his presence, love and forgiveness are so very real to us.  And just as spring is followed by summer, so it is in our spiritual journey.  Summer is the time when the seeds of faith sprout and grow and life is generally good.  To be sure there may be a few storms but overall the journey is a positive one.  And of course we all know what comes after the summer.  Autumn is the time of harvest and taking stock and it is then that we can look back and take satisfaction in what we have done and accomplished.  After that however comes winter and that, the winter of the soul, is the prime focus of Marty’s book.

Marty says that just as the winter season comes every year bringing ice, snow and cold, so too does it come on our spiritual journey.  The winter of the soul can be caused by many things.  It may be triggered by such as illness or failing health whether it be our own or someone else’s.  The winter of the soul may also be triggered by the death of someone near and dear to us or perhaps by what is happening in the world around us, and the present pandemic with all of its upsets comes to mind.  Whatever the cause may be though, in the winter of the soul we feel lost and everything seems to be so bleak, hopeless and maybe even pointless.  In the winter of the soul even God himself seems to be absent and this is a terrible feeling, especially for us, the people of faith.  “Where are you God?  Don’t you care about us?” we cry.  “Why don’t you do something to help us?”  In our heartache and pain we utter what Marty calls “a cry of absence”.  The cry of absence; that may well describe today’s scripture passage too.

Today’s passage was written at the time of the Babylonian Exile and it is hard for many of us to appreciate just what an unmitigated disaster it was for God’s people.  Perhaps some of the numbers may give us a better understanding.  It has been estimated that there were approximately 250,000 Jews living in the Holy Land before the conquest and exile but afterwards there were only 20,000 left and virtually all of them were living in Babylon.  To put that in perspective, it would be like a disaster befalling our own nation and everyone in Canada outside of the GTA perishing.  Indeed the scale of the disaster was the ancient equivalent of the Holocaust and the words of the 137th psalm reflect how many of the people felt:

“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,

when we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars we hung our harps,

for our captors demanded songs of joy.

They said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How can we sing the songs of the Lord

while in a foreign land?”

This was the situation when Isaiah wrote his “cry of absence” which makes up today’s scripture passage.  But even as he gave voice to his pain, Isaiah still clung to the hope that God could and would do something for his people.

“O that you would rend the heavens and come down,

that the mountains would tremble before you!”

Even in the winter of his soul, Isaiah clung to the hope that all was not lost and that spring would return for both him and his people.  One day, some day, God would rend the heavens and the Messiah would come!  Not surprisingly, many people took Isaiah’s words of hope literally and believed that the Messiah would come from heaven like a great warlord and rescue them from of all their trials and tribulations.

Well, as we all know Isaiah’s cry of absence was answered but not in the way that most people expected it to be.  When the Messiah finally came, God did not rend the heavens and neither did the mountains quake.  In fact at first no one even knew that the cry had been answered except for a peasant couple, some humble shepherds and a few traveling magi.  In the words of that great Christmas hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!”.

This is how the cry of absence was answered; it was answered with a baby lying in a manger rather than with a warlord rending the heavens.  In that child God became a part of us rather than apart from us.  In Christ, God joined us so that he could know, share and experience life as we do.  In Christ, God also became one of us so that one day we will know, share and experience life in all of its glorious abundant fullness just as he does.  And God has also promised that he, in the person of Christ will return again.

This is the theme of today, this being the First Sunday in Advent.  Our cry of absence will be answered by the eventual return of Christ in the Second Coming.  Of course in virtually every generation there have been those who expected the cry to be answered right then and there.  The early Christians for example expected Jesus to return sooner rather than later and for that reason were reluctant to marry and have children.  With the fall of the Roman Empire and the resultant chaos, many expected the return of Jesus.  Some were sure that the Second Coming would happen in the year 1000 AD and then, more recently, in the year 2000 AD.  Even now during the present pandemic there has been no shortage of self-styled prophets who have loudly proclaimed that Christ is returning at any time.

The truth of course is that no one really knows when Christ will return and even Jesus himself said that he didn’t know when.  But where does this leave us if we feel trapped in the winter of the soul and God seems to be as far away as the stars in the night sky?  It is fine to say that Christ was with us 2000 years ago and that he will return again some time in the future but how does that help us here and now?

The truth of course is that God is never truly absent.  To use an analogy, God is like the sun.

There are days when there isn’t a cloud in the sky and we bask in the sun’s warmth and light.  On other days though, the sun is obscured by the clouds and everything seems rather dull, grey and gloomy.  And there are days when it is raining or even storming and there is no sign of the sun whatsoever.  And yet, as we all well know, the sun is still there, it’s simply a case that we aren’t aware of it.  And so it is with us and God.  Even when God seems to be absent, he really isn’t.  He is still there; he is still here, even when everything seems to be so bleak and hopeless.  In the words of the 139th psalm:

“Where can I go to escape your spirit?

Where could I flee from your presence?

If I climb the heavens, you are there!

There too if I lie in Sheol.”


And of course there are also the words and promise of Christ himself:  “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of time”.

It doesn’t matter what season we are in as we make our way on our spiritual journey, whether it be spring, summer, autumn or winter; God is always with us.  And we should remember too that no matter how long or harsh the winter may be, even when it seems as if it will last forever, it won’t.  Spring always returns and as it is in nature, so it is with us and our spiritual journey.  As cold, bleak and seemingly endless as the winter of the soul may seem to be, it will not last.  Spring will come and the cry of absence will be answered.