What Do You Worship and What Will Be Your Reward?

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Last week we talked about the law and how it is meant to be understood. The main point Jesus was making was that it’s less important what you do and more important who you are. He urged us to look inwardly and be concerned with our interior condition which is the cause of all our actions. It is not simply enough to restrain ourselves from committing acts of violence – we need to address the fact that we have anger in our hearts at all. The condition of the human heart is the theme of this next portion of his teaching as well. Today we are going to look at pride and how it can taint what looks like good deeds from the outside. If our hearts are proud then our religious devotion is meaningless and Jesus makes this very clear.

When we pray, if we only pray in church on Sundays but do not have a personal prayer life then we are really talking to each other and not to God. If we make a show of our religious devotion on Sunday mornings for everyone else to see but do not pray in the quiet moments when we are alone, then we are not truly believing in God but instead are making a pageantry of our worship, a show which makes us stars in front of others. In the first part of this chapter (Matthew 6) Jesus is telling us about social treasures. The treasures of status and image, the treasures of praise and respect. He warns us to shy away from these treasures and instead store up treasures in Heaven. Jesus wants us to be more concerned with what God thinks than what people think. If we make a big show of giving to the needy and sound trumpets and make a parade, if we call in the media to take our pictures and write articles in the paper, if we go on missions to poor countries and then take selfies with the starving children and post them on Facebook – then we are serving ourselves and not God.

Jesus also talks about money in this section of his sermon, another earthly treasure like reputation and prestige. He warns us that money is a treasure of this world which can be stolen and can rot away. But in contrast the treasures of Heaven are eternal, they cannot be stolen and they never expire. The issues of social status and prestige mentioned immediately before this fall into that category as well. Our social status is an earthly treasure, it can be taken from us and we can never bring it with us when we leave this world. Jesus then goes on to say something that takes a little while to process. After describing the necessity of not striving for power and wealth he gives us a little piece about light and about our eyes. He said:

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.

Now, he’s obviously speaking metaphorically here. The eye is what we set our sights on, it is what we look at, it is that which captures our attention. He is saying that if we set our eyes on earthly treasures our whole being will be filled with darkness but if we set our eyes on heavenly treasures then our whole being will be filled with light. And so, where our treasure is there our hearts are also. He goes on to say that we cannot serve two masters, we cannot serve both God and money. And that is a really important message today just as much as it was then. Too often in this life we serve money instead of making money serve us. But we cannot serve both God and money. Most modern translations use the word money here, but when Matthew wrote his gospel in Greek he used the word mammon, which is actually an Aramaic word, the language Jesus spoke. So why didn’t Matthew translate mammon? Why did he choose to leave it in another language?

There is much debate about this but there is a long history in Christianity, and in other ancient religions of the time, to personify mammon as a god of wealth. If this is so, Jesus is not only talking about money as a physical thing which can corrupt us, but a false god which many worship. This would have struck a chord in the hearts of the Jews who were hearing this because worshiping an idol is a grave sin everyone knew about and understood. I do believe Jesus is warning us not to worship the false god of material possessions as well as the false god of praise and honour. Jesus is asking a very difficult question, one that was hard to hear then and is hard to hear today. What do we worship?

Now, the word worship brings up all sorts of feelings and opinions in people of all religions and even atheists. It’s hard not to have an opinion about worship in some form or another. But how often do we take the time to define it? How many of us actually know what it means to worship? The word worship itself has the same root as the words worthy and worth. To worship something is to ascribe value to it, to declare it as being an object of worth, and so we worship it. Up until the last few decades it was common to use it in many non religious ways. You might still here some more formal or old fashioned people refer to a judge as “your worship”. This doesn’t mean the judge is a god it means the judge is a worthy person to make difficult decisions. So something we worship is something we value and something we trust. That’s why the ancient Israelites were so against idol worship, because they didn’t want to put their trust in a statue made of wood or gold. So here, Jesus is drawing a parallel between worshiping an idol and worshiping money.

He says you cannot put your trust in the money you make or the position you hold in society because these things can be stolen from you and are destined to fade into the dust of history. You should serve only one master, you should value one thing above all others – and that is God. And so this pressing question is equally important today. You need to stop and ask yourself what you worship, what you value, where you put your trust.

What do you treasure? What do you love? What master do you serve? Do you worship money? Do you worship social status and prestige? Do you worship your favourite hockey team? Or perhaps your country’s flag? Do you worship yourself or do you worship God?

One way to answer these questions is to take a good hard critical look at how you live your life. What do you have your eyes set on, what do you invest your time in? Jesus talks about worrying immediately after all this, he tells us not to worry about what we will eat or what we will wear but to trust in God who always provides. Where do you put your trust? What do you worry about? If you put your trust in your RRSPs or your savings account then your trust is misplaced because this life is fleeting and you can’t take those things with you. Jesus tells us instead to store up treasures in Heaven – but what does that mean, to store up treasures in Heaven? How do we even do that? Well, Jesus has given us some great examples so far in this sermon. A couple weeks ago we talked about how we need to be merciful peace makers who hunger and thirst for righteousness, how we need to be meek and poor in spirit, how we need to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Last week we talked about how we need to make sure we have healthy and fruitful interior lives, so that we do not lust after other people or carry anger in our hearts. We talked about how we have to interact with our own tradition and respect it while also being critical of it. This week we started off with some very practical advice about doing acts of charity and praying and this advice which Jesus gave us is both a test to see where our heart lie and also a practical method to build up treasures in Heaven. The next time you give to someone in need, don’t tell a single soul. Not your neighbour, not your children, not even your spouse. Give it a try. Go out and be generous to someone and don’t tell a single soul what you’ve done. And watch yourself as the days go by.

Are you tempted to tell someone? Why do you want to tell someone? Is it because you value the opinions of those around you more than the opinion of God? Is it because you really want the recognition and flattery that would come with it? Are you worshiping your own self image? Are you worshiping the way other people see you? Try the same thing when you pray. Try taking up a daily practice of prayer, if you don’t already do that, and don’t tell a soul what you’re doing. If you pray in church with everyone else but your are uncomfortable praying by yourself try to figure out why. Do you not actually believe God is listening? Do you not actually have faith in prayer? When times get rough do you put all your trust in your own efforts or do you put your trust in God? Are you worshiping yourself or your father in Heaven?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s bad to try and solve your problems or even to be seen giving and praying. After all Jesus started this sermon by saying you are the light of world, no one lights a lamp and hides it under a basket, he even made a point of saying that others need to see your good deeds so that they will praise God through what you do – but that’s the key, they need to be praising God, not you. Let your deeds be seen but go out of your way to avoid the credit. The light which we are meant to let shine is the light of our good deeds and not the light of our egos. It is essential that when people see the good works we do that they are led to praise God and not us. The weight of praise is too much for any soul to bear. Praise and adoration are heavy burdens you should not carry yourself but should give up to God. If you are not careful, the good deeds you do, the acts of charity you perform, the prayers you make, even the religious devotion you have, will become twisted into sources of pride and there is nothing more opposed to holiness than pride.

So hide, dear sisters and brothers, hide from the pride of recognition, do not even let your left hand know that your right hand is giving, lest you begin to praise yourself instead of God. For God searches our hearts and our minds and knows what is done in secret. Both Jesus and the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:5-10) tell us that God rewards those whose hearts are pure but that reward will not come in the form of riches or honour, it will come in the form of peace and love for all creation. The reward given for a pure heart is love – and a pure heart knows there is no greater reward. So if you are the least bit tempted to show your light to the world you should instead hide it in the closet and only when you have no desire to be praised by others should you let your light shine. Because where your treasure is your heart is also and if you treasure money and prestige then your heart is in darkness and you are not really shining at all.

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You Have Heard That It Was Said

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You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

-Matthew 5:38-42

Last week we started a little series on the sermon on the mount. We talked about the beatitudes and being salty and shiny. (You can find that article by clicking here) Today we are continuing our way through Jesus’ sermon as we look at the section where he reinterprets Jewish law. Jesus starts off this section with a plain and undeniable assertion that he has not come to supersede the law. Despite what many later Christians would say, Jesus wants to get it right out in the open that he did not come to abolish Jewish law. In fact, he gave a pretty stark warning to those who would dare turn away from any part of the law. He said:

Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven

The message is clear, no one has been following the law properly and we’ve all got to do a lot better if we want to enter the kingdom of Heaven. It was a very bold statement to say your righteousness has to surpass that of the Pharisees if you want to be right with God. In fact, he is boldly and plainly calling out the clergy of his day and saying that they are not following their own teachings and in their current state are not fit to be citizens of God’s kingdom. What an introduction!

After he had made very clear that he was about to teach the true meaning of the law of Moses and that the clergy of his day were anything but righteous, he went on to bring into question a number of commonly held traditions and beliefs. He spoke about murder, adultery, divorce, swearing oaths, retribution, and dealing with your enemies.

Each of these subjects had a commonly held belief that Jesus identified by saying “you have heard that it was said…but I tell you” one of the most familiar expressions like that is one we’ve all heard “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Ironically, most people use it as an example of what you shouldn’t do. I can hear a friend of mine saying “I’m not just going to turn the other cheek you know, I’m going to fight back” and everyone agreeing and supporting him.

The laws which Jesus gives are not easy to follow, they aren’t in place to make your life easier, they aren’t clever advice on how to avoid trouble and be successful. They are difficult and rigorous commandments which any person in any time or place would be hard pressed to follow. Jesus actually tells us that if anyone sues us we should give them double what they’re asking for.

Imagine that, someone takes you to court over something you disagree with (Because they wouldn’t be suing you if agreed) and you show up to the court house and give them twice what they ask for. Your friends and family would call you a sucker and if you kept up that kind of behaviour you would end up broke. So, why does Jesus tell us to live this way?

Why does he tell us that even being angry with someone is tantamount to murder or that being attracted to someone without acting on it is adultery? If we were all charged for murder every time we got angry the whole world would be serving a life sentence. If we were guilty of adultery for simply being attracted to someone then we could never turn on our TVs.

It’s because the worldly understanding of law is about fairness and keeping anarchy at bay. We have laws to keep society civil and to make a consistent framework for business to happen on so that we can play the game properly. That understanding of law gets us into the same trouble the Pharisees had gotten into, and dare I say it’s gotten the church into the mess it is in today as well. We’ve taken the gospel and turned it into a manual on how we should act and what we should do, when it was really meant to give us a glimpse into who we should be.

Murdering someone is what you do, and remember Jesus said the law still applies in that fashion, you still shouldn’t murder. But being angry is who you are – and Jesus is clear that it is equally important. The same goes with lusting after other people. If you are laying next to your spouse wishing you were laying next to George Clooney or Julia Roberts then there is probably something inside your soul you need to look at and work on. Jesus is insisting that what we do is only part of the equation, and we can’t neglect who we are inside either. We’ll talk more about that next week when we look at how to pray and how to give to charity.

Our laws today talk about actions and relationships but they also talk a great deal about property, and so does Jesus. His command to give to everyone who asks of you, to give twice what is asked if you are sued, to do twice as much as the government requires of you is meant to show that we should not value our possessions or even our labour above our eternal souls.

Nothing in this world can ever compare with the importance of the Kingdom of Heaven and being a good citizen therein. Jesus also talks about keeping promises, entering into mutual relationships, and swearing oaths. Jesus’ very brief discourse on divorce is this:

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

We have to remember that marriage was a very different thing in those days than it is today. Divorce was permissible in Jewish culture for men, women could not file for divorce. A man who had grown tired of his wife, or who was disappointed that she couldn’t bear children, could give her a certificate of divorce and leave her.

Gender roles were very strict back then and a woman without a husband had no means of supporting herself. This meant she would either have to remarry, become a servant in someone else’s house, or beg on the streets. Divorcing your wife in those days was a very harsh sentence. She could theoretically remarry but the culture at the time considered only virgin wives to be pure and desirable.

When Jesus said that divorcing a your wife makes her the victim of adultery he meant that she was going to be labelled as a harlot if she remarried and that any man who accepted her would be shamed as well. He isn’t saying that a divorced woman shouldn’t remarry but he is saying that you should consider the life you are condemning her to if you divorce her.

The common practice of divorcing a woman who no longer suited you, or had fallen ill, or who couldn’t bear children, was not permissible in Jesus’ eyes. He didn’t care that it was legal – he demanded that his followers be more compassionate than that and keep their social contracts. The integrity of your word is more important than following the exact letter of the law. In fact, Jesus valued the importance of a person’s word so much that he urged people not to swear oaths.

In my own Quaker tradition my ancestors were jailed and some were even killed because they refused to swear oaths on the Bible in court and it was based off this very passage. It was felt that to swear an oath is a double standard – as if you were going to lie until the law bound you tell the truth. I believe Jesus agreed with this principle, which is why he said “let your yes be yes and your no be no” It’s about who you are not what you can get away with. Are you a person who always lives in the truth or are you a person who will lie unless you think God is watching because you have your hand on a Bible?

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You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

-Matthew 5:43-48

It’s all about who you are and the ultimate test of that is what Jesus ended this section of his sermon with – a command to love your enemies. He says if you only love those who love you and you only have regard for your own people then your love is really selfish. It’s about what you can get from it or about keeping it in the family for your own sake.

Jesus gave us one last very difficult command to follow when he told us to pray for those who persecute us and to love those who we consider our enemies. He tells us not to consider our own feelings in who we show love to but to freely and openly care for all people – even those who we hate. The Christian life is not an easy one, we are supposed to be meek in a prideful world, we are supposed to pure of heart in a world where the law is used to hurt people, and we are supposed to love people who we know will never return it.

It’s not enough to just follow the rules – Jesus told us to be perfect, therefore, as our heavenly Father is perfect who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. So, my friends, when you follow Jesus, if you dare to do so, remember that the letter of the law kills but the spirit of the law gives life. Do not allow yourself to commit what you know is injustice simply because it is within the bounds of the legal framework you follow. The laws of man change from age to age but the laws of the Kingdom of Heaven are eternal and they are written directly on our hearts. You know if what you are doing is kind and humble, so do not let following the rules be an excuse to sin.

Therefore, sisters and brothers, as you live your life, I invite you to consider the values you’ve been taught by society and by the church. Take a long hard look at the law you follow and see if it lines up with what Jesus taught. Do our laws require us to turn the other cheek or to take an eye for an eye?

Ghandi once said that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. And if our laws are focused on what is fair instead of what is right our blind justice will not be anymore righteous than that of the Pharisees. When Jesus examined the laws of his people he was saying “everything you have known your entire life is about to change” He was saying “the way you grew up and what you were taught in church needs to be called into question”

Jesus respected the law and the tradition, he respected it so much that he dared to ask if it was being followed the way God intended. What he found was that people were, as Paul would say later, following the letter of the law and not the spirit. The letter kills but the spirit gives life. So follow the spirit in all that you do, for the law of Heaven is not written on paper but in the hearts and minds of the people.

Paul quotes the book of Jeremiah in his letter to the Hebrews when he says:

This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

Be God’s people dear sisters and brothers. Follow the law written in your heart and not the law of men. Be followers of Jesus even though it’s hard – because once we all live the way he has described in his sermon the Kingdom of Heaven will be realized and the world will know only peace.

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To Bless and Be Blessed

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Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

-Matthew 5:1-12

Over the next four weeks I would like for us to take a look at the sermon on the mount. It can be found in the book of Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 and is the longest discourse we have given by Jesus himself. After he fasted in the desert and was tempted by Satan Jesus came out a new man ready to preach to the world – and he did just that.

Today we are going to take a look at the beatitudes, which is a word not actually found in the Bible that we use to describe the opening of Jesus’ sermon. It essentially means “the blessings” and Jesus starts off by giving a list of people he considers to be blessed. He gives examples of what people who live the Holy Life are like and how they interact with the world.

Bless is one of those words that seems to have a hundred meanings. It means to be happy, it means to be made holy, it means to make a sacrifice, it means to praise and speak well of something, it even means to worship – that’s why we say “bless God’s holy name.” But in the passage above from the book of Matthew to be blessed is to be made holy and to be made happy. Seems simple enough – until you actually stop and listen to what Jesus is saying. He starts out the sermon with Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Poor here literally means poor, this could be translated as spiritually bankrupt just as easily. So what on earth does it mean when he says that spiritually bankrupt people are happy and holy? Jesus often talks about the kingdom of Heaven – and the sermon on the mount is about that very subject. We, as Christians, are all citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and the beatitudes describe what a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

In this new kingdom, this radical kingdom, this counter cultural kingdom, there will be a new way of understanding worth and value. In the kingdoms of his time – and indeed our time- the qualities we value in our citizens are very different from the qualities Jesus describes here. And, as Jesus tells us, when you live a life that is counter cultural it will get you in trouble.

The beatitudes teach us that there is no need for titles, prestige, or social standing. They teach us that political power, determination, and a go-getter attitude are not important. They teach us that the ones who are the blessed citizens of the Kingdom of God are the meek, merciful, and poor in spirit. Those are the exact opposite qualities of what idealize today. Now, kingdom is an old fashioned word based in the monarchies of the ancient world. Today Jesus would probably say the Nation of Heaven, because that’s the sort of language we know today – democracies and republics.

What sort of person is the ideal citizen in our nation today? What qualities make someone a good Canadian? What characteristics do we value in ourselves and expect from others? Are we in line with what Jesus describes in the beatitudes? Our ideal citizen is someone who is confident and self assured – not someone who is meek. Our ideal citizen is someone who is objective, can make the tough choices, and not let their feelings get in the way of necessary decisions – not someone who is merciful. Our ideal citizen is someone who is an upstanding moral person – not someone who is spiritually bankrupt.

The beatitudes are all things which people would have seen as ridiculous when Jesus said them and which I bet we would as well. If I were to write this myself and say to you that all the sad people are lucky and that those who are persecuted should rejoice – you would probably quit reading my blog altogether. If it wasn’t Jesus saying this you wouldn’t even give it the time of day. This sermon starts off with a pretty unusual premise. The beatitudes are a radical paradigm shift and so is the Kingdom of Heaven – one which we have still yet to embrace.

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“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

-Matthew 5:13-16

Jesus goes on to describe his followers as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In our modern world it is a little strange to think of describing someone as the salt of the earth, salt is something you put on your fries and it doesn’t seem to have much significance. But in the ancient world salt was extremely valuable. In fact, the word salary today comes from the Latin word for salt. Roman soldiers, and many other people, were paid their wages in salt – they received a salary or a salt allowance. When Jesus says we are the salt of the earth he is saying we are something very valuable and important.

But what does it mean when salt loses its saltiness or its flavour? It means that it has lost its value. We are valuable by nature, but we can lose our value if we are not careful. Jesus just described our value in the verses before this. He said blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the meek. The beatitudes describe the flavour he is warning us not to lose.

We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world – we are valuable and needed. Yet, if we lose our flavour, if we hide our light under a basket, we are not useful citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We need to be made of the right stuff and we need to be seen by the world. Because this is how the world will change, this is how the Kingdom of Heaven will be fully realized.

I’d like to delve a little deeper into the metaphor of salt. What are some of the qualities salt has? One quality of salt is that it preserves food. We still use it for that reason today but in the ancient world this was the primary use of salt. They didn’t have refrigerators or deep freezers so they salted their food to keep it from spoiling. In the same way citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, if they have not lost their saltiness, preserve the world and keep it from going bad. When enough people live like Jesus described in the beatitudes the world will be preserved. The kingdom will be sustainable, our nations will be righteous and holy.

Another quality of salt is that is gives flavour. Citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven are supposed to give flavour to the world. We are supposed to take what is bland and give it some pizazz. The flavour of a Kingdom citizen enhances the whole dish. Even just a pinch of what Jesus described in the beatitudes can make the world a much better place. Citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven are meant to give the flavour they possess to the world.

One last quality of salt I would like to look at is that salt makes us thirsty. One of the things Jesus mentioned in the beatitudes was that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed. As citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven we are meant to make the world thirst for righteousness. We are meant to inspire a hunger in those around us for justice and goodness. The flavour we carry in our faith is one which should spur the kingdoms of the world into a thirst for what is right, into a thirst for what Christ offers, into a thirst for righteousness.

As citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven we are meant to preserve the earth from wickedness, we are meant to bring flavour to the bland kingdoms of the world, and we are meant to make people thirst for righteousness. We are the salt of the earth but if we lose our saltiness what good are we?

The way of Christ will be thrown out and trampled underfoot if we do not maintain the flavour of the beatitudes. If we lose the saltiness Christ gave us we will have no impact on the world whatsoever – and we are meant to have an impact on the world! That is why Jesus says we are the light of the world meant to shine for all to see. Jesus says that the world should see our good deeds and through them come to glorify our father in Heaven.

It is not enough to call ourselves Christian, we must retain our flavour and be the salt of the earth. But it is not even enough to do that for we must share our light with the world. We must know the qualities of a citizen of the kingdom of Heaven, we must embody those qualities within ourselves, and we must share them with the world.

We must be poor in spirit – we should not imagine ourselves to be morally sound people, we must acknowledge the spiritual poverty within us. The first instruction in the whole sermon is to acknowledge that you are a sinner. The Kingdom of Heaven can not be yours if you think of yourself as inherently good and righteous.

The second instruction flows from the first. After we truly accept our spiritual poverty we must mourn for the state of our souls and the state of the world. Once we do this we will be comforted. We do not comfort ourselves, but we are comforted by God. In our mourning there is honesty and in that honesty God comforts us with truth.

The humility which comes from this honesty makes us meek. We no longer imagine ourselves to be righteous and so we become gentle and unassuming. We do not force ourselves onto the world because we have realized our own inner poverty.

Instead we live in solidarity with the brokenness around us, of which we are a part. We come to inherit the earth as it is and in our meek and mournful spiritual poverty God begins to work in and through us.

That solidarity with the brokenness of the world leads us to thirst for righteousness. It makes us realize how much work there is to be done. Hunger and thirst can only be satisfied by food and water. If we thirst for righteousness we cannot rest until we find it and there is no substitute. But, in that search God promises that we will be satisfied.

The water which quenches the thirst for righteousness is mercy. We begin to practice mercy and have our thirst satisfied. The brokenness of the world, and within ourselves, requires mercy – for retribution can never fix it.

To find mercy is to lay down our need to make everything fair or even and to embrace a love for our enemies. This is what God does for us every day. Every time God forgives he is saying that love is more important than rules.

Once we have purged ourselves of our false spiritual riches, once we have come to mourn the injustice of the world, once we have embraced mercy both inside and out, then we can say we are pure of heart and we come to see God. To see God is to see the truth, to see with eyes that are open.

Once our eyes are open we know what we must do. We must become peacemakers. Not peacekeepers who avoid conflict but peacemakers who go out into the conflicts of the world and bring peace to them. The true citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven makes peace wherever they go.

Christ is the Prince of Peace and he is Lord over our Kingdom. Peace is the culmination of all the beatitudes – it is the prime directive of our great nation, it is the essence of what makes us children of God.

All this is well and good, but the final blessing of the beatitudes is both a blessing and a warning. Because there are many kingdoms in this world and peace is liked by very few of them. When you proclaim the gospel of the Prince of Peace war mongers and capitalists will insult you. But not only the kings and princes of this world will be against you. Even common people will oppose you when you live a Holy Life. To be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven who shines the light of God into the world means that you will expose the shadows around you.

There will be people who do not want to see their own shadows. There will be people who fear the power of the light will take away their own petty power. There are people who will falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of your saltiness. Rejoice when this happens, for you are being the light of the world. Rejoice when this happens because you are being a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. Rejoice for your reward in heaven will be great. When you truly work for justice in the world those who profit from injustice will persecute you. That is the cross we must all bear with Jesus, and in bearing it our poverty of spirit is assured and we are named citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

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Burns and the Bible: From Whence Comes Your Worth?

 

Yesterday was Robert Burns day and today I would like to do something a little different. For those of you who don’t know, Robert Burns is Scotland’s most famous poet. He lived in the 1700s and wrote numerous poems, many of which have been turned into songs like Auld Lang Syne, the one we all sing at New Year’s as well as a whole bunch of other ones like Scots Wa Hae and one of my favourites A Man’s a Man for a’ that.

Burns had a flare for political reformation and a deep love for the common folk of Scotland. He had a vision that one day the world would unite in peace and the separations of class and rank would dissolve. His vision was very much in line with the teachings of Jesus. The song A Man’s a Man for a That is written in Scots. So while much of it will sound just like English a good portion of it might be hard to understand. But I’ll go through the bits I think are the most important and translate them so that it all starts to make a little more sense.

 

The first line that really pops out to me is when he says,

“The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, The Man’s the gold for a’ that.”

The Guinea was the first standard coin minted in Britain after the Romans left. Like other coins of its time its true value was in the measure of Gold it was made of and it had a stamp on the surface to signify it was made by the state and of genuine value. So what Burns is saying is that a person’s value comes from what they are made of and not the external stamp that they are marked with. We have value by virtue of the fact that we are made by God, the mere fact that we are human is what gives us worth. The Guinea stamp, what he is using as a metaphor for rank in society is of little consequence compared to that, as the gold will always be more valuable than the mark upon it.

In the second verse he says,

“Give fools their silks and knaves their wine…the honest man though ever so poor is king of men for all that”

Here he takes the idea a little further and says that despite riches and status what truly decides a person’s value is her honest nature, we might say that is the measure of how pure the gold in the coin is. It is the honest person who is the purest gold and worth the most regardless of the clothes they wear or the expensive food and drink they can afford.

In the third verse he says,

“You see that birkie (which means arrogant young man) who is called a lord, who struts and stares and all that though hundreds worship at his word he is but a coof (which means idiot) for all that…the man of independent mind, he looks and laughs at all that”

Not only has Burns declared that rank is of no value but he is saying that a person who walks around and shows pride in his rank is an idiot, supposedly because he is unaware of the true measure of a person which is an internal characteristic and not an external one. He says that a person who has an independent mind looks at this fool and laughs about how mistaken he is.

In the fourth verse he says,

“A prince can make a belted knight, a marquis duke and all that but an honest man is above his might…the pith of sense and pride of worth are higher rank than all that”

He is saying that even though a prince may distribute rank to those around him the honest man is still above his might, he is still beyond the reach of royalty because the true essence of intellect and reason and a sense of self worth are higher rank than anything the prince could bestow.

In the fifth verse he finishes with a prayer:

“Then let us pray that come it may, As come it will for all that, That Sense and Worth, over all the earth, Shall bear the gree and all that for a that and a that It’s coming yet for all that, That Man to Man, the world over, Shall brothers be for all that.”

Now, bear the gree is an expression which means to win the competition, or take home the trophy – so Burns is praying that one day the people who lead us, who will have won the trophy and earned our respect will be the people who have the most sense and the most worth. There is a prayer that I can get behind. And he is sure that it will come true. He is sure that one day rank will be decided on ability and integrity as opposed to birth and wealth. It is the ultimate democratic dream that those who lead our society will be chosen to do so based on genuine merit and honest dealings. And in that he believes that the inevitable outcome will be that the people of the world will recognise the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God and embrace one another in peace and cooperation.

In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, he said they lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of others yet refuse to lift a single finger themselves, they make sure they get the nicest seats in the synagogues and wear fancy clothes so that people will respect them. They sound just like the Lords and Princes in Burns’ song who strutted around in fancy silk clothes bossing people around. The same issues troubled the people of Jesus’ time as did the people of Burns’ time, and unfortunately they still trouble us, in our time.

For as long as history can record humanity has had certain groups of people who believe themselves to be greater than others, because of what they own, the name they carry, the type of work they do, or whether they are a man or woman. But, as we read in Galatians, in Christ we are all one, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. No distinction of religion, class, or gender exists in the eyes of God. This sentiment can be found all throughout the Bible both New and Old Testaments. I would like to look at one more passage, found in Acts 17:24-28:

“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things…..that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.'”

In this scripture we see not only that we are God’s children but that God does not dwell in temples made with hands, instead he has made each heart his temple. He dwells within each of us and from his presence in our very beings we derive that every person is of equal value. For there is nothing of greater value than God and it is of God that we exist and are given life. And this is true of every person across the Earth, we are all united by God and are truly inseparable in that. And any distinctions which we make that separate the people of the world are not only arbitrary but in direct opposition to that most holy command of Jesus to love God, who we see in the face of every person without fail and in turn to love our neighbour as ourselves for both we and our neighbours are truly expressions of God himself, made in his image and loved completely by him.

So I say to you now go out and be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you go; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; and then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; and in this process you will be a blessing to all those you meet and by realizing that of God within them you too will be blessed. And so let us pray, that come it may, as come it will for all that. That sense and worth over all the earth shall bear the gree and all that. For all that and all that, it’s coming yet for all that. That man to man the world over shall brothers be for all that.

Amen

Evangelism and Fish Nets: Sharing the Good News With the World

Evangelism isn’t something we talk about much in liberal church circles. It’s a strange word with a variety of meanings. Evangelism actually means the same thing as Gospel. It comes from an old Latin word evangelium and translates as “good news”. So, to evangelise is to spread the gospel – to share the good news.What possible reason could there be not to share good news? To share good news is to give hope, peace, and fulfillment to people. So, I practice evangelism everyday – or at least I mean too.

The word Evangelical has come to take on many varying definitions and opinions. It has become a denomination of sorts and no longer means what it once meant – to share the good news of the salvation from sin.

In Mark 1:14-20, after John was arrested, Jesus found himself ready to switch from living with John’s teaching and John’s baptism to his own. He was, in a sense, like a disciple of John – He was baptised by Him after all and praised his place among mortals and prophets alike. But John was gone now and Jesus couldn’t do this alone. So he walked along the shore and met two men, Simon and Andrew. Simon would later be given the name Peter, from the Greek Petros which means “the rock”. Simon would become the rock upon whom Jesus built his church – making a line of succession from John through Jesus to Simon called Peter. This makes the lineage from Old Testament prophetic tradition to the Church flow through Jesus directly.

Jesus walked up to these two men, Simon and Andrew, and told them to drop everything they were doing and follow him – So these guys just dropped their nets and follow him! The Spirit must have come and changed their hearts because who would do that? Who would walk away from their life to follow a stranger? Furthermore, who would want to go fishing for people? What is that even supposed to mean? I can hear Andrew and Simon saying to each other “who is this guy shouting nonsense at us from the shore?” The Bible must leave that part out.

The important thing is that over and over Jesus calls us to leave things behind so that we may follow him. Immediately after he picked up Simon and Andrew he walked a little way down the shore and did it again! He yelled out to two more people who also left their nets, and even their family, behind to follow this stranger.

I usually like to think that when Jesus talks to the disciples it’s the same sort of thing He would say to me. The disciples are so perfectly human that they show us how to interact with the Christ – by success and by failure. So when Jesus told Simon and Andrew that he would make them fish for people, I hear Him speaking to me as I choose to follow Him. So I better figure out what that means!

Frances Ellen Watkins wrote a poem called Fishers Of Men. It is about a dream she had, what sounds to me like a prophetic dream. I’d like to take a look at what she has to say.

I had a dream, a varied dream:
Before my ravished sight
The city of my Lord arose,
With all its love and light.

The music of a myriad harps
Flowed out with sweet accord;
And saints were casting down their crowns
In homage to our Lord.

My heart leaped up with untold joy;
Life’s toil and pain were o’er;
My weary feet at last had found
The bright and restful shore.

Just as I reached the gates of light,
Ready to enter in,
From earth arose a fearful cry
Of sorrow and of sin.

I turned, and saw behind me surge
A wild and stormy sea;
And drowning men were reaching out
Imploring hands to me.

And ev’ry lip was blanched with dread
And moaning for relief;
The music of the golden harps
Grew fainter for their grief.

Let me return, I quickly said,
Close to the pearly gate;
My work is with these wretched ones,
So wrecked and desolate.

An angel smiled and gently said:
This is the gate of life,
Wilt thou return to earth’s sad scenes,
Its weariness and strife,

To comfort hearts that sigh and break,
To dry the falling tear,
Wilt thou forego the music sweet
Entrancing now thy ear?

I must return, I firmly said,
The strugglers in that sea
Shall not reach out beseeching hands
In vain for help to me.

I turned to go; but as I turned
The gloomy sea grew bright,
And from my heart there seemed to flow
Ten thousand cords of light.

And sin-wrecked men, with eager hands,
Did grasp each golden cord;
And with my heart I drew them on
To see my gracious Lord.

Again I stood beside the gate.
My heart was glad and free;
For with me stood a rescued throng
The Lord had given me.

The beauty of salvation, which opens our eyes, which saves us from ourselves, is so miraculous that it must be shared. We must all fish for people, we must all be evangelists. Evangelism does not have to mean creeds and denominations, it is not defined by any one belief. We can help rescue people from themselves and from the hardships of this world. We can turn away from our pearly gates, and reach instead back into the world which suffers. Evangelism can be mercy, compassion, and forgiveness in a world in such dire need of them all.

The way we live our lives is a huge part of how we share the gospel. One sure fire way to help transform the world is to be transformed ourselves. We must allow Christ to work through us for the benefit of all. And through that we will evangelise, we will share the good news. But evangelism doesn’t just mean living a good life it can also mean talking, preaching, and teaching. However we do it, We bring people closer to salvation – to being saved by God’s love from the dark sides of life. Because coming close to God, no matter which path you may take to get there, makes you a kinder and humbler person.

Evangelism does not have to be pushy, it proves itself. They will know we are Christians by our love. It is loving to want to share the hope of peace and a world of kindness with everyone you meet. To me this is just common sense. How could you do anything else?

There was a time in my life when I was in the pit of despair. I saw no goodness – there was no light in the darkness. I have found in God what this world never gave me. I once was lost and now I am found – and I would not dare keep that to myself when others are lost as well. So, though I may use the word very differently than most, I am happy to call myself an evangelist. Because I want to always and in everything I do encourage people to seek God and be saved. Saved from spiritual sickness. Saved from loneliness. Saved from a life of self harm. Saved from a life of harming others. Saved from a life lived in fear of judgement. Saved from the selfishness which inevitably arises out of all these things. Because salvation is real and it can heal the world and we must share it.

So, my friends, I encourage you to think about Simon and Andrew. Think about James and John. The call to leave behind the ways of this world and dedicate ourselves to another kind of world – the Kingdom of Heaven, is not just for those fishermen of old. In 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 Paul addressed the church in Corinth. He encouraged them to leave behind their families and their possessions to follow a greater cause

Think about The Christians in the church in Corinth Paul was speaking to in his letter. He was giving words of encouragement to his disciples there. He encouraged them to completely change their lives. He thought Jesus was coming back next week and so it was a no brainer for him to drop your proverbial nets and get on board. While Paul was wrong and 2000 years later Jesus has still not returned, truth remains in these words. Sometimes living a gospel life means changing the very way you live your life. I try not to imagine when Jesus will come back, because he told us himself that we can not know the hour of his return. But I do try to let go of those things life here on earth teaches you and pick up a new way. Learning to live as Christ lived. Learning to live as Christ taught. Learning to live as Christ guides even today.

So cast down your nets. Go fish for people. The Christian life happens in every moment. We must live as fishers of people if we want to help save the lost and oppressed from the burdens of sin – selfishness, despair, resentment. Believe me when I say you will come to know yourself and God better in the process. Do not hide your light under a basket, sisters and brothers. For our world is lost, our nations and our communities are full of sadness and dysfunction.

We often speak of eternal salvation, but Jesus does not have to wait for death to save us. Christ can save us now. Christ can save this world now. But Christ waits for us to get there on our own. The work of salvation is one we partake in. God gives us free will and wants us to use it. The more we encourage others the more we grow. The gospel is a message of hope and compassion. True compassion for the brokenness of the world means an active role in how the kingdom of heaven is realised. The good news is meant for the whole world, and you and I both must share it. Share it and see joy grow. Share your faith, not your list of beliefs, but your faith. Share your love, not just with your family but with your enemies too. Share the good news in every moment and be one piece of this world that shifts to God and makes things better for everybody.

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Every Christian Should be a Pickle

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In Mark’s telling of Jesus being baptised (Mark 1:4-11), John told his disciples that he baptises with water but the messiah will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Baptism with water is an ancient tradition, it didn’t begin with John and it is certainly not reserved for Christianity. The practice of baptism in many pagan religions of the time of Jesus and John seems to have been based on a belief in the purifying properties of water. In ancient Babylon, according to the Tablets of Maklu, water was important as a spiritual cleansing agent in the cult of Enke, lord of Eridu. In Egypt, the Book of Going Forth by Day contains a treatise on the baptism of newborn children, which is performed to purify them of blemishes acquired in the womb.

Water, especially the Nile’s cold water, which was believed to have regenerative powers, was used to baptize the dead in a ritual based on the Osiris myth. Egyptian cults also developed the idea of regeneration through water. The bath preceding initiation into the cult of Isis seems to have been more than a simple ritual purification; it was probably intended to represent symbolically the initiate’s death to the life of this world by recalling Osiris’ drowning in the Nile.

Baptism survived from ancient times to modern times in many forms. Jews today, like in the ancient world, still practice Mikvah as a ceremonial washing when new converts join Judaism. Sikhs also inherited this tradition and practice Amrit which is another variation of baptismal initiation. Many other cultures, practice some form of ritual washing. Muslims today undergo a ritual washing before prayer and use it to represent a cleansing of their soul as well as their body before approaching God. John’s baptism was part of a long tradition which came before him and continued after him.

His baptism in water was a washing away of sins. It was a ritual act which represented the repentance his disciples were undergoing. They demonstrated their inward cleansing with a symbolic outward washing. John, as the second coming of the prophet Elijah (read my other post: Was John the Baptist Elijah?), continued in a long line of Israelite prophets who preached repentance. Who taught the importance of kindness to strangers and family alike. But the word repentance doesn’t necessarily capture the full essence of the Greek word John and Jesus both used in the New Testament. The word we so often translate as repent in the New Testament is usually the Greek word metanoia which means literally to change your mind. What John called for was not a change in behaviour so much as a change in thinking. A change in world view. A change in understanding.

Since John came to prepare the way for Jesus in the spirit of Elijah John’s baptism is the forerunner to Jesus’. It is the prerequisite if you will. Before being immersed in the Holy Spirit we must first be immersed in a change of thinking. The old way which we understand ourselves, the world, and our place in it must be washed away if we wish to be fully transformed by God’s Holy Spirit. The word baptism comes from the Greek baptizo. I would like to share with you a little excerpt I found from an article printed in Bible Study Magazine in 1989 describing The difference between the word baptizo which means to repeatedly immerse something and bapto which simply means to dip.

The clearest example that shows the meaning of baptizo is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 B.C. It is a recipe for making pickles and is helpful because it uses both words. Nicander says that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be ‘dipped’ or bapto into boiling water and then ‘baptised’ or baptizo in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of baptising the vegetable, produces a permanent change. When used in the New Testament, this word more often refers to our union and identification with Christ than to our water baptism. For instance later in Mark’s gospel Jesus says ‘He that believes and is baptised shall be saved’. He is saying that mere intellectual assent is not enough. There must be a union with him, a real change, like the vegetable to the pickle.

So, to repent is to make a full and complete change not in how we act but in who we are, not in what we do but in how we think. That sort of fundamental change is demanding of a soul. It is no small task. But it is essential to the Christian message. Every true Christian needs to be a pickle. Every Christian needs not only to have been washed in the water but fundamentally changed by the vinegar. John’s baptism washes us clean and makes us ready for Jesus’s baptism. Because baptism with the Holy Spirit changes who we are, and like the cucumber that has become the pickle, we can never go back to the way we were.

Jesus’s baptism with the Holy Spirit can come upon us in ways we never imagined. I would like to share with you a poem written by sister Carol Bieleck called Breathing Under Water. In it she describes God as the ocean, and tells us about her religious life, transitioning from the solid base of John’s baptism to the watery domain of Jesus’s. It goes like this

 

I built my house by the sea.

Not on the sands, mind you;

not on the shifting sand.

And I built it of rock.

 

A strong house

by a strong sea.

And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.

Good neighbors.

Not that we spoke much.

We met in silences.

Respectful, keeping our distance,

but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.

Always, the fence of sand our barrier,

always, the sand between.

 

And then one day,

-and I still don’t know how it happened –

the sea came.

Without warning.

 

Without welcome, even

Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,

less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.

Slow, but coming.

Slow, but flowing like an open wound.

And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.

And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.

And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.

That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,

Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,

And you give your house for a coral castle,

And you learn to breathe underwater.

 

I just love how much she has said here, I love the images she creates. Our comfortable home with the sure foundation can remind us of the sense of identity and assurance of salvation we imagine from John’s baptism, the baptism with water we so often call a sacrament. But the true sacrament is Jesus’ baptism which comes like wine across the sand, which actually takes us away from the security of our stone house. We start with johns baptism but we leave it behind when we follow Jesus.

In the book of Acts, when Paul encountered the Christians in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-6), the baptism with water John offered was all they had known and they did not even realise there was a baptism of the Holy Spirit or that they were missing it. How much has the church today become like the Ephesians in this story? We baptise with water but I don’t think most of us realise there is a more important baptism, the baptism of the Spirit. But what, then, was this new baptism that Jesus was to offer? What does it mean to be baptised in the spirit? Johns baptism was only a symbol. A symbol of an internal repentance. A symbol of a change of mind.

But Jesus’ baptism is not a symbol. It is a true washing. It is a cleansing of the soul. It is Christ’s real and powerful action within our hearts. John’s baptism is something we choose, something we decide, something we work for. Jesus’ baptism is something that just happens, once you’re ready. You might know you’re ready, you might not. You might think you’re ready and be wrong. You don’t get to decide. Christ decides. You only accept it and embrace it. Because fighting it is like fighting the tide, you’re bound to drown. Some people say we are all on the path to salvation and there are two roads, we can take the hard road of suffering or we can take the easy road of repentance.

It’s not a matter of if we will be saved but when. When you swim against the tide the tide still wins, it just takes a little longer and hurts a little more. So do not resist the ocean when it rolls across the fence of sand between you and God. Do not struggle against it but simply trade in your nice house with its firm foundation and live in the coral with the fish, and learn to breath under water. That is the change that can’t be undone. Once you learn to breath under water, you are fundamentally transformed. You are no longer a cucumber, but you become a pickle and there is no turning back.

So my friends, I encourage you, as you go about your day, to think about your baptism:

What did it mean?

How has it changed You?

Have you received John’s baptism but not Jesus’s?

Have you had the water placed on your head but not received the Spirit in your heart?

What does it mean to repent?

Have you ever really had to change your mind about something?

John’s call for repentance, his message of metanoia, was meant to change the minds of those who heard it. To repent means to let go of what you might know, of what you hold to be true. It is a change of world view, a shift in consciousness. What good is baptism without repentance? What good is the water without the Spirit? Don’t be satisfied with the outward symbol but seek after the inward motion. If you sit long enough by the shore, one day the tide might roll in and change your everything. When Paul laid his hands on the Christians in Ephesus they began to tell prophesies. Their religion shifted from a belonging system to a transformation system. The clear message in that passage from Acts is that the ritual washing is not enough, but that it is the Spirit who changes us.

John’s baptism with water was only the first step, repentance was only the beginning. After John’s repentance came Jesus’s baptism, the baptism of the Spirit which fundamentally changes who we are and opens us up to prophesies from Heaven. Once we have experienced this, we learn to breath under water, we give up our stone house with its sure foundation, and we live in the power of the Spirit. There is no turning back, just like a pickle can never be a cucumber, someone who has been baptised by the Spirit can no longer live as they used to. Their eyes are opened and they see the world in a whole new light. They do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God.

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Mystery in the Stars: The Story of Epiphany

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Today is the feast of Epiphany in the church calendar. The day when we celebrate those three wise men who came to visit Jesus and bring him gifts. The word epiphany itself comes from ancient Greek times. Before it was used to describe the moment of Christ’s being revealed to the world it was used to describe the celebration of any god who had appeared in a particular place and time. Such as the epiphany of Apollos at Delphi or the epiphany of Zeus at Panamara.

When Christians speak of Epiphany we speak specifically of the epiphany of Emmanuel at Bethlehem. The appearance of the heavenly Father in the form of a human child. The feast of Epiphany in Christianity marks the celebration of Emmanuel being revealed to the world. However, the word epiphany in common use today has come to mean something less specific. It no longer means a God made manifest in the world, now it means a spiritual realization, something which changes us and who we are.

If I were to say to you that I had an epiphany, you would assume I meant I had an a-ha moment, that I had screamed “Eureka!” and leaped out of the bath tub like Archimedes. This is because today epiphany means a profound realization, typically one which changes who we are in some fashion. An Epiphany is a life changing understanding which comes to us in a flash. This is likely because somewhere in the subconscious of our culture we still assume inspiration comes from God.

But either way, whether you use the word in the ancient Greek sense, the traditional Christian sense, or the modern secular sense, the word epiphany denotes a sense of interaction between the world of the mundane and the world of the divine. It implies a sort of revelation, whether it be physical, mental, or spiritual. Today, on the celebration of Epiphany, we recognize the beauty that is God’s presence in the world.

We recognize God’s presence in the world as the baby Jesus in particular, but also generally, in our own lives, in our hearts and minds, and even in the stars and in our dreams. The story from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 2:1-12) of the three wise men fulfills the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 60:1-9)

Isaiah was prophesying about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. Specifically, wise men who came bearing gifts and following a star. These wise men must have had great faith to follow a mysterious star through the night to a little insignificant barn in a little insignificant town so that they could worship a baby born to two lowly peasants and resting with animals in the hay.

But how could they have known to follow that star? How could they have known it would lead them to a baby? And how could they have known that this baby was born king of the Jews? What sort of wisdom is this that allows them to know these things, as the wise men themselves put it, simply by “watching his star rise”? There is some sort of mystery which we do not have knowledge of here. Not only the mystery of what these wise men knew and did but the mystery of Isaiah’s prediction of it 700 years before it happened.

The word mystery comes from the Greek Mysterion, which means a secret rite or doctrine. The Bible speaks about the mysteries of God and of Christ in many instances. In his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2), Paul speaks plainly about secret mysteries only available to those who are, what he calls, “mature” or “spiritual”. So, these mysteries are not something which is unknowable, but something which is only understood by those who have matured in their faith.

The mysteries of God are something which can be known, at least in part, by those who are dedicated and earnest. God’s mystery is not unknowable but infinitely knowable. We can constantly know more and yet never know it all. Much like the wise men who were able to interpret the meaning of the stars and greet the infant Christ, or the prophet Isaiah who was able to see the entire scene 700 years before it happened, we are able to tap into the mystery of God. God’s wisdom is out there waiting for us to find it.

Paul says that these mysteries were revealed to him, and his companions, directly by the Spirit. Paul explains that the Spirit of God searches all things, even the depths of God, and that it alone knows God’s being in entirety. Paul emphasizes that these teachings are not of this world, nor communicated by the words of men, but that these things can only be taught by the Spirit. The true wisdom of God cannot be communicated through words, it is something which surpasses all language and all the wisdom of this world.

This means that even Paul himself cannot communicate these mysteries to us completely. Even his teaching can only show us God’s mysteries, as he put it later in his letter, as if we were looking at them through a dirty window. The only way to come to understand the mysteries which surpass language is direct revelation from the Spirit itself. This revelation can come in many forms. At the end of the passage we read from Matthew the three wise men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod with information about the location of the baby Jesus. Of course, Herod would have killed the boy if he had found him, so it is very fortunate that they had this dream, and that they acted upon it.

Dreams are one method by which we can encounter the mysteries of God, but it is not always easy to interpret them or understand them, sometimes they are weird and confusing, they don’t always make sense. They are often entwined with the incoherent ramblings of our subconscious minds. If one is looking for easy answers, dreams are not usually the place to look. But God does not necessarily want us to have easy answers, sometimes we are meant to sit in awe of the mystery which is God.

The mysteries of the Lord may be something which we can know in part but the knowledge of God never ends and we can never reach the depths of that sea. Kallistos Ware, a contemporary and English speaking bishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church, has this to say about the subject:

“We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder…In the Christian context, we do not mean by a “mystery” merely that which is baffling and mysterious, an enigma or insoluble problem. A mystery is, on the contrary, something that is revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God. The eyes are closed—but they are also opened.”

He says here that a mystery is something which has been revealed for our understanding. The word reveal has the same root as the word revelation which is the Latin revelare. Revelare means to unveil, uncover, or lay bare. In the religious sense revelation is an act of God upon the human mind which uncovers the truth hidden there. We often speak of scripture as divine revelation, something which was physically written by human hands but which was made known to the person writing it by a divine act of unveiling.

The Holy Spirit has the ability to remove the veil which covers our eyes. As Jesus often put it, we are given eyes which can see or ears which can hear – as if our eyes and ears are covered by veils which need to be removed. This act of removing the veil which covers our eyes reveals something which was there all along. The issue is not that the mysteries are far removed from us, the issue is that we have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear.

The magi in the reading from Matthew followed a star. Now, a star is not something which is hidden, it is a bright light in the sky for all to see. Yet Herod, who wished very much to find the baby Jesus as well, while being perfectly able to see the star, could not understand its true meaning. He had eyes but could not see. He did not understand the significance of the things around him. There was a veil which prevented him from understanding the mystery of the Heavens. The veil which covered Herod’s eyes was the meditation in his heart, his intentions were evil and he was full of pride. The wise men, on the contrary, were humble. They traveled a great distance to bring lavish gifts to and kneel before a baby in a barn.

It seems, from this story at least, that humility is the key which opens the door to God’s mysteries, those who praise the Lord, even when he comes in the form of a helpless child in an insignificant town in a faraway land, those humble and wise men will have the mysteries of the heavens revealed to them and the Lord will speak to them in their dreams. While the proud, people like the king Herod who wanted to maintain his position of power and who was willing to manipulate the wise men so that he could kill the Lord incarnate, a proud man like this had his eyes covered, he had ears but could not hear.

We must kneel before the power of God and be humble before the innocence of the Christ child if we wish to have the veil removed from our eyes. The mysteries of God can be found all around us. They can be found in the stars and in our dreams, they can be found in scripture and sacred music, they can be found in the words of our family and loved ones, in the rising and setting of the sun, they can be found in silence, they can be found anywhere and everywhere.

But, if we are to see them, we must mature in our faith. We must be the spiritual people which Paul spoke of. We must live in the glory and power of the Holy Spirit and be simple servants of what is good and just. We must be humble enough to kneel before an infant, have faith enough to follow a star to a distant land, and be wise enough to listen to our dreams.

So my friends, I encourage you to look deeply at the world around you, see what is on the surface but also see what lies beneath it. Do not be afraid to hear God’s call, do not be afraid to see God’s mysteries in the stars, or in your dreams, or in the way the sun rises or the way the wind blows. Our God is master of all of nature and he can speak to us in any way he chooses. But know that God is speaking to you, always and forever. In every moment there is a message from Heaven for those who have eyes that see and ears that hear.

We need never be in doubt or feel lost, for our savior leads us along the path of life. We never need to feel alone for God is present in the rolling thunder and the quiet stillness, God is present in everything, just barely hidden underneath the veil of this world. Lift that veil, peek behind the obvious and behold the mysteries which await you there. And in so doing, you will come to know the mysteries of God, you will come to understand where God is leading you and what God is telling you.

You will come to live in communion with the Holy Spirit and partake in its power and its peace. And once you have found this place, this place which is here hidden beneath the veil of pride, doubt, and distraction, you will become instruments of God’s peace and servants of the infant Christ. This is the most important task in the Christian life: to know the mystery. Not to understand it and dissect it, but to have touched it, to know how vast and loving it is.

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The Fulfillment of the Law

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So today I would like for us to talk about Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish law. It’s a core theological concept in Christianity and one that does not have a standard agreed upon definition. The word fulfillment itself means to complete something – to make it full and finished. Many people have many ideas as to what this means in relation to the Jewish law. The idea of fulfilling the law comes from the sermon on the mount, here is a section from Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Let’s start by pointing out a couple key aspects of what he said there, because it’s super dense and hard to wrap your head around, even for seasoned theologians. One thing to note is that he refers to the law and the prophets together. Some people like to think this passage refers to the 10 commandments but it really is much broader than that – Jesus gives six examples after this taken from Jewish law and the examples he gives come from all 5 books of the Torah.

Another detail to look at is that Jesus says not a single letter of the law will be abolished until heaven and earth disappear and everything is accomplished. That is a wonderfully vague phrase. What needs to be accomplished, he doesn’t actually say. Some people say that he is referring to his death and resurrection, but that doesn’t explain why he says when heaven and earth disappear. It sounds much more likely to me that he is talking about the apocalypse, which fits well into the theme of Matthew’s teaching but doesn’t match what most of the rest of the New Testament says.

Another detail that is important to consider is that Jesus says that anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Some scholars believe he is referring to the instructions he is about to give, others think he is referring to all 613 Jewish laws. Even though it makes things more complicated I do believe that he is referring to the entire law of Moses and the prophets, as he mentioned at the beginning. So what does all this mean? That’s a really good question. The meaning of this passage is disputed and you are free to try and figure the answers out for yourself, but, I’m going to present you with three different possible interpretations in this brief little blog post.

The first one is probably the most familiar. It is a very common interpretation, especially amongst more traditional or evangelical churches. It goes like this – Because of the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden humanity was lost and so God gave people the law of Moses to help them avoid sin and be good people. This didn’t work out as planned and people became legalistic and lost sight of God in the process. So, God sent his son to die on the cross as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity. When Jesus did that we no longer needed the law because our sins had been forgiven. In this world view Jesus fulfilled the law by completing it’s purpose. He destroyed sin and death and gave us faith and the Holy Spirit in place of the law. Jesus completed the law by accomplishing what it could not, the salvation of the fallen human race, and he did this by becoming a blood sacrifice in the same way lambs were sacrificed to atone for sin the temple. This would mean that the law of Moses, including the 10 commandments, would no longer apply because there is a new covenant sealed in Christ’s blood.

The second interpretation I would like to give you is more of a Jewish one, which remember is what the audience hearing this sermon would be familiar with. One could easily read this passage and think Jesus is instructing his followers to keep the full Jewish law including food restrictions and circumcision. There are 613 Jewish laws which would be included in this with a wide range of content. Everything from not eating shellfish to not wearing clothes made of mixed fiber to rules about ritual washing after being in the presence of a dead body. We obviously don’t follow all of these laws today and neither do most Jews, but at the time of Jesus the option of keeping the law of Moses would not have seemed as radical as it does to us today – most, if not all, of his followers would have grown up keeping the full Jewish law.

In fact not following the law would have been the strange radical idea. This interpretation does not seem to jive with all the things Paul has to say in the New Testament about the subject, but there are, of course, different ways of interpreting what Paul says as well. There is a movement that started in the last century called Messianic Judaism which follows the food and circumcision laws while still believing Jesus is the messiah. They are Jewish Christians and likely have a great deal in common with many of Jesus’s early followers. They may observe the law of Moses but they teach that the law itself does not bring salvation, it is faith in Jesus as the messiah which saves. In this Messianic Jewish way of looking at it, Christ dying on the cross makes the law complete but does not abolish it. We are still meant to follow the law but we also need the saving power of Christ, the law on its own is not enough.

The third interpretation I would like to present to you is a broader one. It takes what Jesus says about the law and applies it to laws in general instead of only to the Jewish religious laws. The Mosaic laws are social and religious codes designed to help individuals and all of society live in peace and justice with one another and to please God and earn his favour. The core intention is fine, we should live justly with one another and we should try to please God. That’s why Jesus says that the whole law can be summed up as “love God and love your neighbour”. Jesus is speaking broadly about respecting tradition while trying to find the meaning behind it. This interpretation doesn’t really concern itself with whether you follow the 613 laws of Torah or not but is about engaging with your own tradition.

Jesus is saying that we should not throw out the baby with the bath water but that we should re-evaluate our tradition and work within it to keep it from going off track. Jesus being the fulfillment of the law could mean that religious practices and traditions are only complete when they remain focused on God and not on themselves. This third interpretation is mine. I believe that Jesus is trying to avoid extremes in how we relate to our tradition. I hear him saying that we should neither blindly follow our religious tradition nor rashly throw the whole thing out. He is clearly calling tradition into question but also makes it very clear that he does not want to abolish it altogether.

The Jewish laws seemed rigorous but they had really grown stagnant. What once had served to bring people closer to God had been slowly eroded by sinful human nature and had instead become a way of proving superiority, controlling people, and patting the egos of those who followed them. Jesus tried to show us how the intention behind these religious practices had been lost. He tried to bring a rigorous internal component back to it, but people only wanted external change they didn’t want to have to look within. They were happy simply not to murder without delving into the depths of their souls to address the anger they carried inside. The laws had been meant to change people for the better but they had regressed into something which merely controlled social interaction.

This pattern was not unique to the Jews, anyone with a critical eye can see it playing out all throughout Christian history as well. It is a human tendency and one that requires constant vigilance and occasional reformation to mitigate. I would like to give you an example of this from secular law and western history. The history of wealth distribution in western society over the last 500 years can show us some of this tendency as well. We operated out of a feudal system for quite some time – an economic system based in the monarchies of the day. It was a complex and intricate system and I won’t do it justice in this extremely brief explanation, but the general gist was this: the king owned the country and all the people in it. Everything which people produced was used by the king as the king saw fit.

There were Lords and other royals who owned the land under the king’s authority and managed the common people and their labour. The common people were allowed to actually own very little and had no say in the shaping of national politics. With the colonization of the new world things began to change and a new system was put into place. Instead of monarchy there was democracy and instead of feudalism there was capitalism. This was an attempt to make laws which would prevent oligarchies from forming. The basic principle of capitalism is that what you produce you own and can do what you like with. Democracy was put in place to protect capitalism from the greedy hands of royals.

It was a revolution by the people for the people. But, as time went by, the greedy and powerful began to influence politics and economics and slowly took the framework which was meant to create a fair and just society and managed to turn it back into an oligarchy. Today capitalism has corrupted democracy and large corporations are accumulating mass wealth at the expense of the common people. The framework has changed but the end result is the same in capitalism as it was in feudalism. A select group of people are very rich at the expense of everyone else. Now, I don’t want to get into too much politics but I hope this illustrates my point. The same thing had happened to the Jewish religious institution of Jesus’ time and its law no longer served its original purpose.

Without internal change things will never be any different. Every political system, from monarchy to democracy, from communism to dictatorship, will fall victim to the sin of corruption and greed until we start transforming the hearts of the people involved. And the same is true of religious systems. Until we start looking at who we are and what is going on inside our hearts and minds no amount of religious law or tradition will ever change anything. The outward expression will change but the condition of the people will not. Laws about murder are all well and good but until we eradicate anger the laws will be changed and manipulated to express that anger.

So what Jesus was talking about in his sermon on the mount still applies today. Jesus wasn’t talking only about his time and place but all of human experience. I believe it is essential that we be firmly rooted in our tradition while still bring critical of it. We need to refresh our laws periodically in order to weed out the inevitable human corruption which seeps into it. And we need to make internal change the primary focus of our religious systems. Otherwise we get where we are today, the church has become the same as the Pharisees just with different doctrines and excuses for what it does. The church has become a legalistic framework for people to pat their own egos and justify oppression. History is there to prove this and we never really heard what Jesus was saying. Outward acts of devotion and strict adherence to the law are meaningless if we do not change within.

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When Love is born

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Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. Dear friends,since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

-1 John 4:7-12

 

Love is a very strange word. It means so many different things. I love my son, I love reggae music, I love my dog, I love God, I love the smell of rain in the spring, I love reading ancient Celtic history, and I love hot pizza with lots of meat and pineapple. But all of these feelings are different, all of these relationships require very different things from me and I receive very different things from each of them in return. I think it is amazing that we have taken such a wide array of emotions, relationships, and responsibilities and summed them up with one overly simplified word which doesn’t really do justice to any of them.

I feel like we would need a whole dictionary just to define this one word. I feel like maybe it is too vague a word to really mean anything at all. Yet it is an essential word, it is a word that stirs up all sorts of reactions when it is used. We can change the course of someone’s life just by saying “I love you” and yet we may not ever really know what we mean when we say it, at least I don’t. I know when I love someone, don’t get me wrong, and I know that it is very different from how I love pizza, and I can honestly say it is the most real thing I have ever felt, despite the fact that it also seems the most surreal.

The love I have for my son has completely shaped my entire life and the way I go about making decisions, the things which I prioritize, and the way that I spend my time. My whole life revolves around this one little dude and there is nothing more real to me than my love for him. But if you asked me to explain it to you or even to describe it I couldn’t even come close. Despite the fact that love is the single most important force in my life it may also be the most elusive and mysterious. What a strange situation that something so powerful and personal and life shaping is also something that we may have little to no ability to comprehend, something that even when I am in the midst of I still don’t understand.

And it is extra strange because it isn’t something that is happening outside of us. I don’t understand the stock market, but it isn’t part of me so I don’t really care. But love is not just inside me, it is me. It is part of who I am in a major way and it completely escapes any understanding. There is this huge piece of me that is pivotal in shaping who I am and I just can’t wrap my head around it. When I look back in life there are times when I was sure about love and in retrospect I can’t really say for sure what happened, I’m not really sure I even know what love is. How can we discern what is love when we don’t even have a proper definition for it?

There are countless references to God’s love in the Bible. God’s love is the basis for a whole bunch of psalms, it is an integral message in the Gospels, it is the foundation for forgiveness, and Jesus cites it as the one true law: to love God above all else and to love your neighbour without hesitation. Many people would say that God is pure love, that his love is what sustains us, his love is ever present, it never fails, it always forgives, and it is selfless – and I agree. But is that what love looks like when we see it in the human heart?

It seems our love is such a very human thing – riddled with all sorts of human emotions and subject to our human follies. Love makes us jealous, it makes us foolish, it makes us act selfishly, it causes quarrels and arguments, it makes us lose sleep at night. It brings out the worst in us, but it also brings out the best. It makes us willing to sacrifice, it makes us forgiving, it helps us find meaning in a confusing world, it gives us purpose, and it gives us hope. With such a mixture of things associated with it, could it possibly be true that what we think of as love in our lives is really the same love that flows from God?

Is our love a divine truth coloured by our own human experience? From our love springs joy and sorrow alike. If I think about my happiest moments they come from either loving another or being loved myself and if I think about my saddest moments they are all from love lost, or broken, or accompanied by dysfunctional relationships. It seems that we are trying to have these divine moments underneath our very human skins. We want to be like God but when we try it gets all muddled up and we do it all wrong. We are constantly striving for it but never really seem to accomplish it, at least not in the way God does.

While God’s love is a complete and perfect peace ours is more like an inexplicable passion. Love is the primary driving force in the human heart. We take the biggest chances for love, we put ourselves out on the line and we make ourselves vulnerable for it. We sacrifice for love, we work our hardest for it, we throw everything out the window just so we can chase after it. Someone once told me that the tingly feeling you get when you fall in love is common sense leaving your body. We abandon reason for the sake of love and that might be the most beautiful thing about it. That might be the very thing that makes it divine. Perhaps we have love so that we can be released from the burden of common sense and come just a little bit closer to God.

Maybe even when it’s mucky and difficult and hurts us deep down inside the act of loving is, in and of its self, the path to God. And maybe there is a deep and divine lesson in the fact that love does hurt. What if this is God’s way of helping us set our priorities straight? What if he is saying that loving is more important than anything else, that it’s only when we are able to take the good with the bad and love despite the risks that we can really be disciples of Jesus? I think St.Francis hit the nail on the head when he said:

 

Oh master grant that I may never seek 

So much to be consoled as to console

To be understood as to understand

To be loved as to love with all my soul

Maybe submission to God is only possible when we have embraced the absurdity that is love. Maybe it is required of us that we put down reason and follow something that is mysterious if we are ever to really follow God. I see a mirror of our commitment to God in our living out love – both set aside the cares of this world for something that is more important, but also something that can’t be properly explained. And that may be what love is all about, letting go of what we know, of what is secure and straight forward and pursuing something that is wholly inexplicable and unpredictable and still managing to have faith that it is the right thing to do.

Because that is what submitting to God is like, we don’t get a nice little package that explains what will happen if we follow God. We just have to move moment to moment and are never actually freed from hardships but instead realize that there is something more important than our own hardship. Love, like God, is something we cannot understand but also that we do not need to understand in order to recognize it as being a blessing for everyone. Even though our love falls short of God’s it is still a force for good in the world and in our own personal lives. Without that inexplicable and often uncontrollable passion we would never leave our own little logical bubbles.

We would never be able to see the world how God intended us to. Love sets us free from ourselves, it makes us willing to sacrifice ourselves for others, it makes us more like God, even when we are doing it all wrong. While I was doing some reading for this sermon I stumbled across a man named Robert Fulghum who writes books about love and he had this wonderful little quote which I would like to share with you:

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”

It is a wholly absurd thing to say dreams are more powerful than facts, but I am not sure it being absurd makes it any less true. I think that in God imagination is more powerful than knowledge and that love is stronger than death. And we can see this in the birth of Jesus. The Christmas story is about the moment when pure love took human form and the entire story is filled with accounts of how people walked away from the logical world and followed a star into a barn, or left behind their flocks to go see a baby born to a virgin.

If we cannot see a beautiful acceptance of the absurdity of love in the Christmas story then I believe we are missing the point. Love leads us to follow God in illogical ways and that is something that we celebrate every year. Love is beyond reason, it is infinitely more beautiful than the logical world. And the Lord calls us to look up into the sky, just the like those wise men of old, and follow the stars. I think that God teaches us through the experience of love and I think that as we come closer to God we lay aside all the extremities in life and find what we are truly meant to be. We find that our own reckless, silly, messed up, and sometimes even selfish human love is actually the same as God’s and that we’ve just piled a bunch of junk on top of it.

We let go of our intellectual ideas about what love should look like, we stop imagining a Hollywood ending, a Disney love affair, a perfectly choreographed ritual and we embrace the fact that love is something beyond our control, and that it being beyond our control is what makes it like God. I believe that love may be the closest thing we can ever experience to being like Christ and that in it we can overcome death and find eternal life in Heaven just as our father wants us to. So keep on loving, even when it hurts, even when it doesn’t make any sense, even when you have no idea why.

But just let it happen, let love happen, don’t worry about whether or not it is real, or if you are just pretending things are the way you wish they were and let go of your ideas of what love is because no one will ever understand it and no one ever should. It wouldn’t be so magnificent if we could label it and stick it in a little box. It wouldn’t be love if it wasn’t messy and that is a beautiful thing.

Let’s all make sure this Christmas to embrace love in our lives. Let’s do the things our hearts lead us to and let’s remember that in Jesus love has conquered death and that we have only to see it all around us and in our own hearts. Let’s look up into the sky and follow a star until we find God. Let’s listen to the angel calling and leave behind our flocks. Let’s gather round a baby in barn in a small town somewhere and name him King of the Universe. Let’s accept our messy and imperfect love and share it with one another just the way it is. Let’s let the absurdity of love wash us clean and really just follow it until we find the source it comes from.

Lord, we thank you for coming here to this earth so long ago and for showing us how to love one another. There are no words that could ever do justice to the love that you have for us so we offer you our love in return, as mixed up and confused as it may be at times. And Lord, whatever the situation, whatever we may be doing, however it may seem in the moment underneath it all we love you with all our hearts and we are grateful for everything you have given to us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

What is a Traditional Christmas?

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We have a lot of ideas about what constitutes a traditional Christmas, but we often fail to realize that Christmas traditions have changed a lot since the first one in Bethlehem 2018 years ago. The first recorded Christmas celebrations took place in the 4th  century and we don’t know a whole lot about them other than the fact that they existed. Dec 25th  was actually considered the winter solstice by the Roman calendar and many ancient theologians calculated the feast of Jesus’ birth based on a 9 month period after the feast of the annunciation, which was considered to be the day Mary conceived by the holy spirit. So in ancient times Jesus was considered to have been conceived on the spring equinox and born on the winter solstice.

It was common in the contemporary pagan cultures of the time to have celebrations which happened on solstices and equinoxes too. Yule was a long standing and wide spread holiday celebrated by Germanic peoples. It involved burning a large log and decorating the hearth with evergreens like holly. It also involved taking an evergreen tree and decorating it. The large burning fire and the use of evergreens gave hope of the coming light and the green which would return. Much of Yule was integrated into Christmas in later years as the Germanic peoples slowly became Christian. We still call it Yule even, and deck the halls with boughs of holly, we still burn a Yule log and decorate a Yule tree.

Another contemporary solstice tradition in ancient times was the Roman Saturnalia, which celebrated the God Saturn, who ruled during the golden age when food was abundant without labour and there were no social ranks or private possessions. It was a celebration which reversed the social roles of those involved, slaves would sit at the table and be served by their masters. It was also a drunk fest with gambling and dancing, and the exchange of gifts.

While our modern Christmas doesn’t sound like it has a whole lot in common with Saturnalia other than music, booze, and presents, the Christmas which was celebrated in Europe and especially Britain through the middle ages and right up until the reformation, over a thousand years later, was very similar. Peasants would bang on the doors of the wealthy and demand food with threats of violence. The streets were filled with music and drunken revelry. And a homeless person would be given a crown and named “the Lord of misrule”

These celebrations were so rowdy that the protestant reformation, with the exception of Lutherans and Anglicans, rallied against Christmas. In the 17th century the Puritan movement in England was especially against Christmas, pointing out it’s pagan roots and it’s drunken festivities. The Catholics and Anglicans responded by trying to bring a more religious focus to the holiday while the Puritans and Presbyterians abandoned it all together. Christmas was actually illegal in England from 1647-1660 But mass riots from the common folk required that it be allowed once again. The Presbyterians in Scotland banned Christmas in 1640 claiming the church had been “purged of all superstitious observation of days” Christmas wasn’t made a public holiday in Scotland until 1958.

The pilgrims of New England were famous for working on Christmas as a protest of the pagan holiday. In Boston celebrating Christmas was made illegal in 1659 and that lasted until 1681, over 30 years. Even after the ban was lifted Christmas didn’t become popular in Boston until the 19th century. In the new world it depended where the settlers were from what their views were. Germans loved Christmas but the British has a tenuous relationship with it. As more immigrants came to the new world they brought with them some of the older traditions.

There was a major shift in the 19th  century in how Christmas was celebrated. Popular literature like Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and Clement Moore’s A Night Before Christmas began to present Christmas as a quiet time for families with a focus on children. This was actually brand new in the history of Christmas and it caught on like wild fire. The protestant reformation had ushered in the age of reason and a disdain for anything resembling superstition but the romantic era of Western thought emerged in the 1800s as a counterbalance to that and people began to crave sentimental rituals and heart warming stories.

Christmas was caught up in this cultural shift and became a romanticized version of older traditions. Family, warm fires, sweet treats, reconciling of broken relationships, and sentimental music became the new norm and is still felt in the Christmas we have today. It can be seen in our movies, our songs, and our traditions. The ancient practice of gift giving inherited from the Roman Saturnalia became an expression of familial bonds and sentimental feelings.

The importance of gift giving and the widespread acceptance of Christmas in the public eye opened up a commercial market that has become the main focus of Christmas today. We still have the symbols of the Germanic Yule, we have the drinking and gift giving of the Roman Saturnalia, and we have the romantic family values of the 19th century, but what our main focus has become in Christmas today reflects the main focus of our culture in general, consumerism.

The birth of Jesus was arguably never the heart and center of Christmas, it has been mostly an excuse to practice the values and desires of the time and place each generation has found themselves in. It has been a time for peasants to demand food from the rich, it has been a time for rejoicing in the lengthening of daylight in the months to come, it has been a time to scorn and rebel against superstition, it has been a time to celebrate children and eat sweets, it has been a time for blow out sales and last minute shopping, and somewhere in there, lost in the ever changing cultural values is a consistent, if somewhat muddled thread of Christian belief and adoration of the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

So, where do you think Christmas is going next? Where do we want it to go and how can we help it get there?